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Taliban killing laughter and music in Pakistan

* Displaced Pashtun comedian feels lucky to be alive, as others falling foul of Taliban morality squad have been killed instantly

PESHAWAR: Pashtun comedian Alamzeb Mujahid had bad news for his fans after being freed by suspected Taliban who kidnapped him in Peshawar last month.

“I’m retiring from showbiz,” Mujahid, whose stage name is Janaan, told a news conference without going into details about either the kidnapping or his reasons for quitting the stage.

His friends and colleagues were less circumspect. They say Mujahid was kidnapped by vigilantes hell-bent on imposing Taliban-style values in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), a region bordering Afghanistan.

A veteran of hundreds of theatre and television plays, the slim, clean-shaven 38-year-old actor has begun growing a beard for his life after comedy.

Reluctant to speak about his life-changing experience, Mujahid told Reuters he was joining a tablighi jamaat, a missionary group, to preach religion. “God has fed me before and will continue to feed me now,” he said solemnly.

Lucky one: Mujahid was lucky. Others who have fallen foul of the Taliban morality squads did not get a second chance.

In January, a woman dancer, Shabana, was dragged onto the street and shot in the centre of Mingora, a town in Swat, a valley about 130 kilometres north of Islamabad where the Taliban are virtually in complete control.

Gunmen tried to kill Pashtun singer Sardar Yousafzai in Dir district as he returned home after performing at a wedding party in December. He escaped but his harmonium player, Anwar Gul, was killed and four other people were wounded in the attack.

The climate for anyone associated with the entertainment industry in the region turned hostile after extremist parties rode to power in the NWFP on a wave of anti-American sentiment following the Unite States-led invasion of neighbouring Afghanistan in late 2001.

The disapproving parties banned music on public transport and had movie posters featuring women torn down. The Taliban went a lot further.

At first, music shops in the Tribal Areas such as Waziristan were blown up and then attacks spread across the northwest as the Taliban tide radiated outwards, towards cities and towns.

Last June, gun-totting Taliban fighters roamed Peshawar in pick-up trucks, warning music shop owners to close their businesses or face the consequences.

The sight of them sent a shock wave through Pakistan three months after a civilian government had come to power, and security forces were ordered to launch an operation.

Since then, more tribal regions and districts of the NWFP have become the stomping grounds of the Taliban.

The army has conducted offensives in the tribal regions such as Bajaur and Mohmand. While advances are made in some areas, insecurity worsens in others. Peshawar is no exception.

The defeat of extremist parties in the NWFP following an election a year ago raised hopes that the northwest would again become a safe place to sing, dance and make people laugh. But the secular Pashtun party now heading the provincial government has been unable to deliver despite good intentions.

NWFP Minister for Sports and Culture Syed Aqil Shah said everyone needed to stand up against the Taliban. “It’s wrong to assume that only the government can handle it,” said Shah. “The entire population and the civil society have to confront these threats.”

People don’t want to wind up dead, though. Several singers and musicians have already fled abroad, and others plan to follow. “I’m scared of leaving my home. Even if I go out, my wife keeps calling to check on me,” said one singer, who asked for his name to be withheld for fear of reprisal by the Taliban. “We are very scared. That’s why I am planning to go abroad.”

Others have simply found safer ways to earn money for their families. “Ninety percent of the music is dead,” said a musician, reduced to selling fruit and vegetables for a living. Beside him lay his harmonium gathering dust. reuters (Daily Times)