Chitral is a great little town at the foot of Tirich Mir, which is the highest peak of the Hindu Kush, in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province. Okay, actually, Chitral is the only “city” in the district, but at 20,000 people to Karachi’s nearly 16 million, it still felt like a little town to me!
People have a distinct language (Khowar aka Chitrali), costume and culture. They are conservative but friendly, and there’s a shopping street (they call it the bazaar) open till dusk everyday, where you can buy chadors and heavy wool handwoven socks, Chitrali hats (which are traditionally for men, but are super-cute on ladies!!), instruments, and all sorts of necessities and extras. There are also polo grounds in town–we saw part of a polo game–an ancient fort (Noghore, 400 years old, written about in Sir George S. Robertson’s Chitral: The Story of a Minor Siege), and gorgeous mosque built in 1915. We weren’t there long enough, but there’s also supposed to be fabulous trekking in the area, and while it’s incredibly dusty (the river resembles chocolate milk), there are also parts that are shockingly (again, after Karachi’s crux of desert-meets-beach) green and fertile.
I’ve read that most people are subsistence farmers, although some people are obviously shopkeepers. I also think a lot of Chitralis land in Karachi, working as household staff in Defense and Clifton, and then they go back for a few months each year.
The people of Chitrali are physically beautiful–they have these warm, light brown eyes and delicate features. But there are very few women in the public sphere, and those that are there are completely covered. Even so, I didn’t cover my head, and I didn’t feel hostility–or at least not the way I did later, in Gilgit, where I ultimately DID cover my head.
One night our friend and psuedo-guide, Esan, who’s from Gilgit and leads tours all over the north (message me if you’re planning a trip btw, he’s amazing), arranged for Chitrali music for us. This was actually our return to Chitral after our trip to Kalash, and Esan wanted to cheer us up after a run-in with some bored (Chitrali in Kalash?) cops, who arbitrarily decided we couldn’t go trekking or leave our guesthouse after dark, and that it might be fun to beat up our friend K. (ultimately they didn’t, but they threatened), just to toss weight around.
I think he went around town and gathered some musicians. They met in a room of our hotel, starting late–around 11pm or so–and went into the wee morning hours, occasionally broken by sketch comedy routines that were so melodramatic, we could understand without translation.
The music was amazing–lots of jangly sitar and universal folky strummings, an old guy banging a metal gas container for percussion–and the dancers! Men would get up and take turns, crouching low, hopping into the beat, arms raised, sometimes playing off each other. You put money in their hand, which they’d then chuck at the musicians. The songs/dancing would start slowly and then pick up speed, so that at the end it became this wild, Dionysiac whirl–not much different in spirit from what we’d witnessed at the Joshi fest. The dancers would be sweating and panting after their go. Early on, the lights went, and a gas tank with an open flame was brought out–dangerous, but much more atmospheric than the fluorescent overheads. As the night wore on, the group got more intimate. At one point, shisha came out, etc…Soon we were sitting in a tight circle on the floor rather than in chairs, and many people were dancing at once. At the end, everybody (including our group, despite the fact that Tazeen and I were the only women present) danced together. Reminded me a bit of my raving days, but less fabricated. This was actually the truth the raves sought to reclaim, the seat of everyculture, the ecstatic roots that are archetypal and geographically nondiscriminatory, if you dig deeply enough.