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Devotees Aim To Restore Pakistani Province's Cultural Identity

Swat's Local Culture On Display At Festival
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WATCH: Horse dancing, polo, judo and many games with a distinctly local flavor were on display at a recent festival celebrating the rich culture of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province's Swat district.

For many, hope for Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province died with Shabana.

It was 2009 when the young dancer made headlines around the world after she was brutally slain by the Taliban in Mingora, the capital of Swat district.

Months later, the province's once-idyllic Swat Valley was the target of a massive military operation launched by the Pakistani military with the aim of rooting out insurgents. Then came the devastating floods of 2010, which wiped out entire villages and deprived already impoverished farmers of their livelihoods.

The confluence of events left many locals with no option but to flee, and an estimated 2 million people did just that.

It's impossible today to ignore the lasting legacy of destruction and violence. Swat Valley is still rebuilding from the floods and military operation. Green Square, where Shabana met her end, is now known among locals as "bloody square." And many of the singers, dancing girls, and other artisans for which the region was known have never returned.

But even if they have to do it from afar, many devotees are intent on restoring the province's reputation as a cultural center.

Traditional Fashion Thrives

Fashion designer Parkha Khan, 22, is one of them. Through her fashion house, Dew Drops Couture, she has made it a point to nurture domestic talents that otherwise might be doomed to extinction.

She says her experiences growing up amid daily violence in Karachi, the southern Pakistani port city where her boutique is located, fueled her desire to use the catwalk to showcase the softer side of Pakistan.

Her line includes some of Pakistan's most famous designers, but it also promotes the work of traditional artisans, including embroiderers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

She says people in Peshawar, in particular, have very good fashion sense and that a number of women from the city send her embroideries.

"I'm not reluctant to invest in Peshawar at all, because I do get my embroideries done there; women send me their cultural clothing; Pashtun clothing that I have showcased in my fashion show," she says.

Describing it as an "honor" to work with such artisans, Parkha says she merely provides them "a platform where they can come forward and exhibit their talent." The response from clients, she adds, is "overwhelming."

Fashion designer Parkha Khan, 22, (center) runs the Karachi-based fashion house Dew Drops Couture.
Fashion designer Parkha Khan, 22, (center) runs the Karachi-based fashion house Dew Drops Couture.

Naseem Akhtar, from Swat's Faiz Abad, makes traditional embroideries for shawls and other garments.

Akhtar tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal that the activities of militants in the region badly affected her work. She describes life under the control of the Taliban, which banned many activities and prevented women from going out in public without the accompaniment of male family members, as the worst thing.

Nevertheless, she remained, and is now receiving training from Lasoona ("Hands"), a nongovernmental organization established in 1997 that is working to find markets for local embroidery in keeping with its efforts to promote eco-friendly development in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

Akhtar, who quit school after the sixth grade to care for her sick father, has mastered not only Swati embroidery, but Multani and Kashmiri as well. She can earn from $11 to $50 for every shawl she embroiders.

"Now I want to build a work center of my own and I want to prove to be like a son for my father," Naseem says. "That's my aim."

'Asia's Switzerland' In Song

Efforts to stitch back the pieces of life in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province go far beyond embroidery. Famous for its musicians, dancers, and natural beauty that earned it the moniker of "Switzerland of Asia," there are many who are singing the region's praises.

Hamayun Khan, a singer from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who is popular among young people, was recently invited on the Pakistani music-television series "Coke Studio."

He took the opportunity to perform "Lar Sha Pekhwar Ta," whose lyrics draw on the more beautiful aspects of life in his home region.

"Go to Peshawar and bring a black shirt for me;
bring three or four fresh flowers for me

"Where my beloved (Laila) steps in;
there at water bank;
the yellow flowers turn more fresh

"You will hurt someone;
so don't wear a red shawl

"My beloved Laila is beautiful among all girls;
the yellow flowers on her black shirt;
seem like stars."

Khan tells RFE/RL he is trying to build a softer image of his home and country through his songs. He singled out those who attack symbols of peace among Pashtuns -- such as beloved Sufi poet Rehman Baba, whose shrine was destroyed by the Taliban in 2009, and poet and politician Ajmal Khattak, whose shrine was blown up in May 2012 -- for criticism.

"Such attacks have a negative effect on society But it should not discourage us from moving ahead," Khan says.

Fond of music from childhood, Humayun has big plans -- to have a production house and to found a hospital. In his view, only through good works can the message of peace be sent from his homeland to the world.

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