Taliban Threats, Attacks Silence Pakistani Singer

In Pakistan, Muslim religious extremists have long sought to ban secular music — and in some parts of the country, militants are enforcing their views with violence.

In areas controlled by the Taliban, CD stores have been destroyed or forced to shut down. Musicians have fled or been silenced, and fear is spreading even in areas where the Taliban is not in full control. One popular singer from the city of Peshawar no longer dares perform.

For Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan's rugged northwest, the voice of Gulzar Alam could bring tears. Drawing on their favorite poets, he sang of love, pride and nationalist aspirations. He packed local halls and was the musician of choice for weddings. He was handsome, well dressed, with a bit of the matinee idol about him.

Now, he sits on the floor of a slum, wrapped in a traditional shawl. His shaggy hair and scraggly beard are shot with gray.

He laughs ruefully at what he has become: an old man before his time who cannot afford to shave.

Alam's problems started seven years ago when a coalition of religious parties won elections in Pakistan's northwest. The authorities harassed him, and a crowd attacked his house with rocks. He and his family fled south to Baluchistan.

Last year, after the religious coalition in the northwest was defeated, the new secular Pashtun government urged him to return — promising he would now be safe. It was a promise the government could not fulfill.

"Four months ago, performers were attacked as they returned from a function. Four musicians were injured, one was killed. No one is safe from the Taliban here. People have retreated into self-imposed censorship," Alam says.

Once again, Alam began receiving threatening phone calls. He was shot at on the street.

He returned to Baluchistan, but found that the Taliban is now threatening musicians there, too. He tried to find gigs in the port city of Karachi, but there, he faced a different problem: ethnic violence against Pashtuns.

Back in Peshawar, he is afraid to perform. He has no source of income. After his elder brother turned him away, fearing the singer would put him in danger, Alam, his wife and five children sought refuge with other relatives. Now, three large families are crammed into three dank, dark rooms with no running water.

"It's like falling from the sky to earth," says Rukhsana Muqaddas, Alam's wife. "Before this we had a very modern, wonderful life. We used to send our kids to good schools. Now, we can't afford to educate them at all."

Alam's favorite song, a Pashtun ballad about loss of identity, has taken on a new meaning. Once the voice of the Pashtun downtrodden, Alam is now a member, his dreams of a peaceful Pashtun renaissance hijacked by the Taliban.

In downtown Peshawar, some music stores are still open. Arshat Khan has come from an outlying area, where all of the stores have been closed, to buy CDs of his favorite singers; Alam is among them. Although his old recordings are still on sale, there is no system of royalties. So while it may warm Alam's heart to know he is loved, this doesn't fill his children's stomachs.

Khan says cultural life has come to a standstill.

"Life is colorless. ... It's like living in [a] world that is black and white. You have just to eat and excrete and live under perpetual fear," Khan says.

And like Gulzar Alam, he expects the situation to get worse.

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