Bridging the Gap
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.