Will My Books in Swat Survive?
By Akbar Ahmed
American University
Washington, DC

Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw, P.G. Woodhouse, Fredrick Barth, Ibn Khaldun, and Rumi. These were some of my constant companions through the ups and downs of my life in the civil service of Pakistan. From lonely postings in Waziristan to challenging ones in Baluchistan, I enjoyed the wisdom and humanity of these books.

I took literally the Prophet of Islam's admonishment that the "ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr." Knowledge or ilm, after all, is the second most used word in the Qur’an.

So when Zeenat, my wife, and I were deciding where to leave our possessions as we prepared to go to Cambridge in the UK, without hesitation we said Saidu, the capital of Swat. Zeenat's grandfather, the legendary Wali of Swat, had ruled the state from here. So we left behind all of our belongings, including some 2-3,000 books, in the Wali's old palace. The books were my pride and joy and today all I possess in Pakistan.

I heard recently that the chaos created by the Taliban had allowed people to break in and steal our other possessions.

No one as far as I know has taken the books.

But these are just material things. Lives have been lost. The people of Swat have been killed by the Taliban and now many are dying as a result of the massive army assault; bombs and missiles don't distinguish between Taliban and ordinary citizens.

Zeenat's first cousin, a government minister, was blown up because he was determined to fight religious extremism. He was a dynamic young man and had studied at my old school so his death was a blow to both of us. Then the Taliban came for another cousin who they shot. They also killed two of his four sons in front of him. The other two managed to escape to a neighboring farm, but those who had given them shelter were also killed.

Dozens more of her relatives have lost houses and property and barely escaped with their lives.

They join over half a million people displaced in refugee camps in Pakistan. Half a million is a large number anywhere but when it is almost half of the total population of an entire area, then the loss is devastating. Swat has a dense population living along the Swat River in the valley and rich irrigated lands. With battle raging, it is now unrecognizable.

Swat was world famous as a tourist location situated in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Wali of Swat took pride in administering justice and promoting education. He had created hundreds of girls' schools, the first in the region, and sent his grandchildren to the Jesus and Mary girls' boarding school. He had even invited the nuns to open a school in Swat. These girls' schools were the first target of the Taliban.

Under the Wali there was sense of pride as Swatis felt they had a special status even in Pakistan.

Today they are between a rock and a hard place; the Taliban are attacking them from one side and the Pakistan army from the other. The scourge of modern terrorism has converted their paradise into a twenty-first century nightmare.

As for my books, neither the Taliban nor the Pakistan army soldier is known for cultivating a love of books. I don't think many in either camp would have much time for the humor of Wilde, Shaw, or Woodhouse; they would probably think that Rumi was too subversive.

So I fear for my collection whoever gets to it. The thought of my books with their pages fluttering in the wind and rain in rubbish heaps breaks my heart. In the face of the scale of the tragedy my mourning for my books seems selfish and petty. But my loss is not a personal one. I mourn the fact that knowledge itself is lost and it is that loss that has caused the present anarchy.



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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