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The Swat Valley in Northwest Pakistan is renowned for its beauty, but it's been in the news for the wrong reasons the past couple of years. The Taliban took over the valley for a while before Pakistan's army reclaimed control. Then massive floods destroyed much of it this past summer.

Now a princess is restoring one of its finer traditions, as NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Mussarat Ahmed Zeb is on a mission to revive the heritage of Swat Valley.

Ms. MUSSARAT AHMED ZEB (Princess): Basically I'm working on the revival of Swat stitch. Now, this is not a Swati stitch. This is a running stitch and this is a cross stitch. So I'm not just working on one stitch, I'm working on so many stitches.

MCCARTHY: Mussarat is a princess of Swat's former royal family. When the Taliban started terrorizing the valley, she started training hundreds of women in the dying art of Swati embroidery. The electrifying colors and distinct designs are a legacy of this once princely state.

Ms. ZEB: Now, this is called a punjara.

MCCARTHY: Punjara meaning cage.

Ms. ZEB: Cage.

MCCARTHY: Now, this is a beautiful large black cloth and it's embroidered with shocking pink and royal blue. And in the center of this is the quote-unquote "cage." And in the cage there is a woman.

Ms. ZEB: There will always be one woman reflecting as a flower, is the center of it. And this is her life. There's no outlet to it. She's a prisoner.

MCCARTHY: As Mussarat unspools the meaning of the motifs, she recounts her own story of becoming a princess by marriage at the tender age of 14 when a car belonging to Prince Miangul Ahmed Zeb broke down near her home.

Ms. ZEB: I came from school to my grandma's house, who was his aunt. He saw me, and that's the end of the story.

MCCARTHY: A photograph in her memory-filled house reveals what captivated the prince. Staring down from a frame above a mantel is a voluptuous redhead -Mussarat on her honeymoon in 1976. She married the son of the Wali of Swat, a prince 16 years her senior. She never finished 10th grade.

Ms. ZEB: Before that I was in a boarding school in a convent.

MCCARTHY: Did you have any sense at that age in that very cloistered life what marriage really meant?

Ms. ZEB: Nothing. I didn't know what it was, but I had a good husband. Men like him are very rare, very rare.

MCCARTHY: The prince was shot dead in 1986 in circumstances still shrouded in mystery. At age 25, Mussarat was a widow with three children and one on the way, a trauma painful to recall even decades later.

Ms. ZEB: I can understand a widow's pain, her suffering, being alone, bringing up her children. It's very difficult. I've been through a lot.

MCCARTHY: It was another widow, a poor widow, who inspired the princess to open a training center where destitute women of Swat could learn the art of stitching and make money. The young woman's husband had belonged to the local Taliban that wreaked havoc on the area.

Ms. ZEB: And her husband got blown up or whatever. I never went into detail. For me, she was a widow.

MCCARTHY: Mussarat gave the woman a choice: a monthly stipend or a job.

Ms. ZEB: Her eyes lit up.

MCCARTHY: The woman wanted nothing more than to earn a living.

Ms. ZEB: It was then I said: start something. She's not the only one. There'll be lots of women like her.

MCCARTHY: Women flocked to the princess as much for her conviviality as for her courage. In 2007, she returned alone to the Swat Valley as it fell under Taliban control. The militants left her alone, despite her distinctly un-Taliban activity of teaching women a trade.

Ms. ZEB: Maybe I was lucky. Maybe I kept a low profile, but yet everybody knew.

(Soundbite of birds chirping)

MCCARTHY: Her institution sits in a wing of the 100-year-old house she inherited, its original fixtures and walled gardens a throwback to an era before Swat was merged into Pakistan in 1969.

On the sun-dappled lawn, Mussarat displays the embroidered heirlooms passed down to her from her grandmother, the sister of the second Wali of Swat.

Ms. ZEB: Just to hang them on the wall, one wouldn't tire of looking at it. It's like a beautiful painting.

MCCARTHY: It's a Renaissance of turquoises, pinks and greens as the women of the workshop replicate the pieces and much more.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Mussarat insists this is not a charity. It is a business, and the women here are the shareholders, she says. They can earn up to $150 a month, a decent salary, as merchants and tourists buy the beautiful fabric.

Thirty-two-year-old Ayesha Faisal Hadi is fully committed to her work, but her family resisted at first.

You feel very much a part of this. How does your husband feel about this?

Ms. AYESHA FAISAL HADI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Ayesha had to persuade her husband that the embroidery work she is doing from home is not an affront to Swat's conservative Pashtu culture. Her goal now: freeing her two young daughters from the cage that she says has entrapped her.

Ms. HADI: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: You're saying that you basically were deprived of a full-blown education that your brothers had.

Ms. HADI: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. ZEB: She doesn't want the life for her daughters which she has led. She feels caged herself.

MCCARTHY: The women of this center tell Mussarat she has changed their lives.

Ms. ZEB: And I'm encouraging my girls to stand up. Avoid charity. Avoid begging. I'm there to teach you the art and the craft and earn with dignity.

MCCARTHY: In transforming the lives of others, Mussarat has transformed her own.

Ms. ZEB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: A rickshaw weaves her through the wholesale market of Lahore's Old City, stocking up on raw materials to take back to her women in Swat. This once stay-at-home royal mom has become an intrepid entrepreneur.

Ms. ZEB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: And bargain hunter.

Ms. ZEB: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Negotiating a better price.

(Soundbite of cross-talk)

MCCARTHY: But the merchant who supplies her colorful threads requires no haggling.

Ms. ZEB: It is Najaf Traders. They are the best, the best.

MCCARTHY: It's all affection when the princess with the throaty laugh takes up her usual perch. From the well-worn landing she inspects the riot of colors that adorn the walls.

Ms. ZEB: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of cross-talk)

MCCARTHY: The owner, meanwhile, bellows for an ashtray for the chain-smoking princess.

Unidentified Man: Ashtray.

Ms. ZEB: (Foreign language spoken)

This is my hospitality they give me. They don't allow anyone smoke here.

Unidentified Man: No one can smoke in my shop except mama.

MCCARTHY: Mama - the title bestowed on a princess who is reviving the culture of her battered Swat Valley one stitch at a time.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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