Bridg­ing the Gap

Southasia - - CONTENTS -

More of­ten than not, the bound­aries be­tween two cul­tures are fu­elled by mis­trust rather than any tan­gi­ble dif­fer­ences be­tween peo­ple. Jur­gen Wasim Frem­b­gen’s The Closed Val­ley: With Fierce Friends in the Pak­istani Hi­malayas proves that this ob­ser­va­tion isn’t just a static stereo­type but a re­al­ity which can­not be es­caped.

A renowned an­thro­pol­o­gist, Frem­b­gen por­trays the sub­tle nu­ances of or­di­nary peo­ple from the val­ley of Har­ban in Gil­git-Baltistan through fas­ci­nat­ing anec­dotes.

There is a gen­eral per­cep­tion in the west that all tribes in the moun­tain­ous re­gions of Pak­istan are pris­on­ers of an old-fash­ioned mind­set. Driven by blood feuds, gen­der seg­re­ga­tion and in­flex­i­ble re­li­gious con­vic­tions, they are viewed as a mix­ture of cu­rios­ity and doubt. On the other hand, tribal lead­ers are equally skep­ti­cal about the west and keep ‘out­siders’ at an arm’s length. As a work of lit­er­ary an­thro­pol­ogy, The Closed Val­ley seeks to rec­tify this un­spo­ken con­flict and bridge the gap be­tween two cul­tures. The book at­tempts to open the por­tals to a world that has re­mained largely over­looked and mis­un­der­stood.

The book is based on a study con­ducted by the au­thor dur­ing his vis­its to the re­gion be­tween 1989 and 1997. Nar­rated from the per­spec­tive of an ‘out­sider’, The Closed Val­ley is pro­pelled by the de­sire for ob­jec­tiv­ity. How­ever, at count­less points in the book, the au­thor fails to up­hold this stan­dard and al­lows his mis­giv­ings about Har­ban’s peo­ple to take prece­dence over the need to chron­i­cle their way of life.

At first glance, the ti­tle of the book sends a mixed sig­nal: Frem­b­gen’s de­ci­sion to re­fer to the peo­ple of Har­ban as ‘fierce’ might eas­ily draw the ire of an in­dige­nous reader. Sim­i­larly, the ti­tle only pro­vides a vague ref­er­ence to the res­i­dents of the val­ley as those who hail from ‘the Pak­istani Hi­malayas’. While such sweep­ing gen­er­al­iza­tions re­flect the mis­per­cep­tions held about the re­gion in the west­ern world, they stand the risk of com­pro­mis­ing on the aims of the book.

Frem­b­gen man­ages to com­pen­sate for th­ese mi­nor lapses by start­ing his book with ge­o­graph­i­cal de­tails about the val­ley. How­ever, this does not change the fact that his ini­tial pur­pose for pur­su­ing the study ap­pears to be mo­ti­vated by cul­tural bi­ases.

The au­thor tends to rely on global myths rather than the raw and sear­ing re­al­ity. For in­stance, he chooses Ab­bot­tabad – the city where Osama Bin Laden was killed – as a ref­er­ence point to ori­ent the reader with the val­ley of Har­ban.

Frem­b­gen also makes no bones about out­lin­ing per­son­al­ity traits of the Har­bani peo­ple. Ac­cord­ing to the au­thor, the val­ley’s res­i­dents are falsely la­beled as back­ward be­cause they live in for­ti­fied vil­lages and rely on cul­tural val­ues which are some­what out­dated. For in­stance, one of Frem­b­gen’s pro­fes­sors at Hei­del­berg claims the val­ley is in­hab­ited by ‘wild men’ who re­main undis­cov­ered by Euro­peans.

Dur­ing the ini­tial stages of his study, when Frem­b­gen was try­ing to keep an open mind about his visit, he writes about their way of life with a mix­ture of false judg­ment and cu­rios­ity.

It is only when he meets peo­ple from the val­ley that the hu­man story of their strug­gle as­sumes cen­tre-stage. At this crit­i­cal junc­ture, the nar­ra­tive be­gins to of­fer a pow­er­ful and per­cep­tive cri­tique of an un­known cul­ture.

Frem­b­gen’s in­for­mants are nei­ther gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials nor biased in­ter­me­di­aries. To the con­trary, the au­thor tells the story of the Har­bani peo­ple in their own voices. From his en­coun­ters with lo­cal crafts­men to a brief ac­quain­tance with a Har­bani in Ger­many, the in­sights are rich and com­pelling.

As a book which be­gins on a fairly prob­lem­atic note, The Closed Val­ley grad­u­ally de­vel­ops an emo­tional res­o­nance. It spins gold out of the straw of or­di­nary lives and re­veals the hard and inspiring strug­gle of the val­ley’s res­i­dents.

How­ever, the au­thor con­tin­ues to adopt a rather my­opic view through­out the nar­ra­tive. This is largely in­flu­enced by his reser­va­tions about vis­it­ing an un­safe and hos­tile re­gion.

In his af­ter­word, Frem­b­gen ad­mits that his ini­tial doubts may have un­wit­tingly clouded his judg­ments about the ‘re­mote val­ley’.

Although such flaws in method­ol­ogy do un­der­mine the va­lid­ity of the in­sights pro­vided by the au­thor, The Closed Val­ley man­ages to re­deem it­self as an easy, grip­ping read. In lit­tle over a hun­dred pages, Frem­b­gen of­fers a bird’s eye view of a peo­ple and their her­itage. The book could there­fore serve as a use­ful start­ing point for fur­ther aca­demic re­search on the sub­ject.

For in­stance, Frem­b­gen’s work does not ex­plore the im­pact of the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty faced by the peo­ple of Gil­gitBaltistan. Even though the re­gion falls within Pak­istan’s turf, it is con­sid­ered a self-gov­ern­ing unit. This ar­range­ment has trig­gered an end­less strug­gle for con­sti­tu­tional supremacy which has left a large por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion with a feel­ing of be­ing short-changed. A de­tailed scru­tiny of the ef­fects of this his­tory on the res­i­dents of Har­ban would re­veal how the state’s ig­no­rance can in­flu­ence peo­ple’s choices.

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