Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Books or bombs?

In the midst of dust and destruction unleashed by the politicians, The Express Tribune of today, August 28, has the following story to exalt our spirits:

Matta: Change in the offing can be observed in many ways – in changing attitudes, changing congregations, changing social dynamics. The recent book fair in Matta – held from August 14 to August 15 – saw all that, and more.

[The Express Tribune, August 28, 2013]

With discounted books on subjects ranging from general knowledge to literature, the fair became much more than just a gathering. It came to symbolize a beacon of hope for the residents of this militancy-scarred area.

[The Express Tribune, August 28, 2013]

In this vein, the hundreds of visitors that attended came not just for the pages – they also came to reclaim their town, to reassert their choice: Books over bombs.

A heavy recent past

Tehsil Matta, which shares a border with district Dir and is approximately 21 kilometres from Mingora, was a stronghold for the Swat Taliban from 2007 to 2009. During these years, according to the district education department records, the Taliban blasted and torched 401 schools, most of them in Matta.

Jarringly, it was also the first place the militant group set up a Sharia court – the police station there was converted into the first Taliban station, where they used their own version of the Sharia law.

“It was a full-fledged Sharia court after they captured it from the Matta police,” recalls Abdullah, an educationist in the area. “In this building, they burnt the government records and doled out punishments for civil, familial and criminal cases.”

Hope in a tattered land

Locals believe that the effects of these years were deep rooted, and linger to this day.

“They tried to deprive the young generation of an education and push society into the Stone Age once again,” says Izahar Ayoud, a university student. “They would say that the courses taught in schools were not Islamic, and were leading the youngsters away from their religion. Because of this, they targeted the education sector directly.”

According to other local educationists, militants mostly used force on the illiterate youth of the area.

“The rate of unemployment amongst young men was very high and the militants greatly exploited this,” explains social activist Iqbal Ali.

For these reasons, and more, the book fair has meant so much to the residents of Matta.

“The students of this area have suffered a lot. Books were snatched from them and tools of extremism were handed over to them,” says Shahzada Burhanuddin Hassrat, the chief organiser.

Paper over gun powder

Even more encouraging is the fact that many female visitors also thronged the fair. They took a keen interest, and purchased a good number of books.

“A book fair like this is a pleasant breath of fresh air in this militancy-hit area,” emphasised Shazia, a teacher in a private school and also a master’s level student. “Authorities should carry it out on a regular basis.”

[The Express Tribune, August 28, 2013]

Among the visitors was also Dr Amjad, a social activist. “If such activities start in our society, gun culture will automatically fade away.

The love for books and education will move us towards moderation and development,” he said firmly.

Today, after the success of the fair, residents of Matta vow to earn positive name for the area, so that more and more people will choose books over guns.

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