“Muslim?” he asked, looking in the rearview mirror.
I nodded. His sneer expressed disapproval of my demeanour, but he remained reticent with the knowledge that although he was in control of the vehicle, I would be paying him. Economics held back belief.
He started playing a CD, the voice seemed to resonate from a demagogue’s pulpit. We were driving from Al Ain to Dubai at the speed of wind. The driver did not utter a word. I took a swig from my bottle of fizz even as the voice admonished against western consumerism. The sound that emanated from what is considered sinful — electronic devices, among other things — was mesmerising. It ranted against America, the Pakistani army, democracy, liberals, dance-songs, kafirs. It did not criticise Hindus or Christians who were mazloom, the poor and bereft.
I represented another world. Yet, I could understand the hold of an airwave mullah. It was frightening and enticing, a dangerous combination. Dropping me off, the driver said, “Sorry agar aap ko disturb hua, lekin kabhi yeh bhi karna padta hai.” This man really believed that by initiating me into the droning he was serving a higher cause. I was angry and amused at the audacity. I paid him. He returned half the tip amount saying it was too much. The note fell from his hand. I told him, “Rakh lo, Allah ki marzi hai!” and walked away clicking my vice-laden wedges.
Next day I met a sub-inspector from Swat, one among the two million who had left following the strife. Wasn’t the army in charge?
“The ground level work comes to the police. We have no powers but have to look after the situation.”
His family prevailed upon him to leave. “It wasn’t easy to do so but the choices are the army, the Taliban or us.” CDs of Mullah Fazlullah are available. The underground FM station sermons are not an unusual phenomenon. Ham radio broadcasts have been used during freedom struggles and insurgency movements. It is a smart strategy because it reaches people without the need for physical contact.
A recent video shows him addressing suicide bombers and firing a shot with a Kalashnikov. He referred to the cultural festival in Swat as a vulgar and obscene show.
The sub-inspector said Swat was beautiful and did not need such embellishments, anyway.
It is clear that this place was the army’s experiment to send out a message, not to the Taliban but to the western forces, that it has succeeded in controlling terrorism. In that, Fazlullah is right. The idea is to concentrate ostensibly on one zone as a showpiece. The problem is the hardliners are not greenhorns; they begin their strikes elsewhere. Today, the main cities are blaming the Taliban quite forgetting that Karachi has been a sectarian hotbed for years. It is now convenient to pit urban against tribal.
A man with a microphone does not pose a threat to the hallowed havelis but affects the constituency that has never had respite. Isn’t that Mullah Radio’s audience as I discovered in those two hours?
“Yes,” said the sub-inspector. “It is easy to sway those who are neglected. Unfortunately, there is no revolution. After a while people want to know where they will get food if they stop listening to music.”
He is not fundamentally against the Taliban but wonders about the lack of proactive change. Did he expect it? Having seen the violence up close, wasn’t he aware that virtue does not ride on the barrel of a gun? In the distance I heard the azaan as it rose to meet a brilliant sunset. It was a pristine moment.
© Farzana Versey