Hanif Afridi, 30, looks at first glance like an ordinary Peshawar taxi driver – in fact there is more to him than meets the eye. While sitting with him in his yellow cab, he played one of his songs, Meena Rakawa ow ma la meena rakawa (give me love), on the cassette player. His melodious voice, with lively instrumental backing, filled the car and spilled out onto the streets of Peshawar.
Hanif is in fact from Bara tehsil in Khyber Agency and was once one of the most famous singers in his area.
His is not a happy story.
“I was so fond of music,” he began, “that is why I was determined to sing despite social barriers, militant threats and objections from my family. I have to try to continue for my love of music and also to support my family – it’s my livelihood.”
Hanif has two children. In Khyber he was kidnapped by militants and thrown in jail for one month. When he was released he was given three options: pay PKR 50,000 (around $600), go on Tableegh (preaching Islam) for four months, or leave the area.
“I could not afford the fine and I couldn’t go on Tableegh four months, so I was forced to leave the area. That was in 2006.
“Most musicians and singers from Khyber Agency have either fled the area or bid farewell to their profession,” he added.
Despite his troubles, Hanif’s expressed amusement at his new profession. “I am a taxi drive now, not a singer. The car does not belong to me. I have to pay the owner out of my earnings – usually I take home about PKR 300 ($3) per day. I’m a good driver now,” he added with a smile, overtaking another vehicle at high speed.
“It’s my dream to return to Bara and my family and be free to do what I want.” At the moment Hanif is living alone in a small, rented flat.
The rising wave of militancy in Pakistan has affected every section of society, but musicians have, perhaps, suffered more than most.
“Pashtun cultural has been damaged terribly,” says Tamash Khan Ustad, a popular rabab player from Khyber. “Previously Bara was a hub for music of all kinds, now it’s a cultural desert.”
Khyber-based militants banned music in 2004 and Tamash fled the fighting to take shelter in Peshawar.
“In the past, we arranged open-air concerts, but now people have only small gatherings in private spaces. There are bomb blasts everywhere and people feel frightened.
“Many singers, artists and musicians have quit their jobs but, Allah is my witness, I never got rid of my rabab because I earned my bread with that instrument.”
Tamash now lives in Kabari Bazaar, which is located to the rear of the historic Qissa Khwani Bazaar (storytellers’ market) in Peshawar. The Kabari Bazaar has long been a home for local musicians, and many artists forced to flee the tribal areas have found shelter there.
“Pashtu music nose-dived when militants started kidnapping popular artists,” says Mohabat Khan, a singer from Khyber Agency who fled his home six years ago. “Many music shops and instruments have been destroyed.
“I think music has an important role to play in helping communities recover from years of fear and violence. I praise all singers and musicians who have withstood the militant threats and are keeping the art alive.”