Over the years, a mountainous region in Pakistan has become my second home. I’ve seen firsthand how global events have hurt locals’ livelihoods and how technology has challenged the meaning of tradition.
Above the village of Passu, a teenager checks his Facebook. Many residents here are Ismaili, followers of a moderate branch of Islam. A sign on the mountain slope commemorates the time in 1987, when the Ismaili imam, the Aga Khan, visited the remote region.
Sajid Alvi is excited. He just got a grant to study in Sweden. “My Ph.D. is about friction in turbo jet engines,” Alvi says. “I will work on developing new aerospace materials—real geeky stuff!” Alvi’s relatives have come to bid him farewell as he prepares to leave his mountain village and study in a new country, some 3,000 miles away.
“We will see you again,” one of them says as they hang out in the potato field in front of Alvi’s house. “You know you won’t get far with a long beard like that. You look like Taliban!”
Alvi, dressed in low-hanging shorts and a Yankees cap, is far from a fundamentalist: He’s Wakhi, part of an ethnic group with Persian origins. And like everyone else here, he is Ismaili—a follower of a moderate branch of Islam whose imam is the Aga Khan, currently residing in France. There are 15 million Ismailis around the world, and 20,000 live here in the Gojal region of northern Pakistan.
I’ve been visiting Gojal for 17 years, and I’ve watched as lives like Alvi’s have become more common here. Surrounded by the mighty Karakoram Range, the Ismailis here have long been relatively isolated, seeing tourists but little else of global events. But now, an improved highway and the arrival of mobile phones have let the outside world in, bringing new lifestyles and opportunities: Children grow up and head off to university, fashions change, and technology reshapes tradition. Gojal has adjusted to all of this, surprising me every time I return by showing me just how adaptable traditions can be.
With these photos, I hope to add nuance to our understanding of Pakistan, a country many Westerners associate with terrorism or violence. People have suffered from this reputation, and many feel helpless in trying to change it. The Pakistan I’ve seen is different from that popular perception. I returned there this summer with my family and focused my attention on a young and forward-thinking community in Gojal, a place I know well.
I first came here in the summer of 1999. I was 25 and my girlfriend and I bought one-way tickets to Pakistan. We were looking for inspiring treks (the Karakoram Range has the highest concentration of peaks taller than 8,000 meters). Back then, we were among the roughly 100,000 foreign tourists to visit northern Pakistan each year.
We stayed for months, opening new passes, learning the language, and exploring the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamir. I kept returning, but over the years, I saw the number of fellow hikers plunge. The tourism department now records only a few thousand foreign visitors each year.
“Following the terrible September 11th attacks, anyone involved in tourism had to sell their jeeps or hotels; no tourists dared to come here anymore,” says Karim Jan, a local tour guide.
With each return visit, I noticed other changes. While outsiders were rare, the improved Karakoram Highway, now able to host vehicles other than Jeeps and 4x4s, brought in local tourists from south Pakistan, and southern cities became more accessible to the Wakhi.
Young men and women began leaving to study in these cities, and they came back for summer holiday dressed in new, hip fashions. Shops multiplied along the road, selling new spices, sugary snacks, and sodas. Biryani rice, a favorite dish from Punjab, now often replaces the traditional turnip soup or buckwheat pancakes during celebrations.
But despite what I’ve seen change on the surface, the spirit of Gojal is very much the same.
“In these remote parts, our relationship to our honored guests has never changed,” Jan says. “You know, our kids go away to the cities, but deep down we are just mountain farmers living off the land. Sometimes we feel sadness for the way the Western world thinks of us, but we would rather joke about it than be bothered by it.”
The day after Alvi’s going-away party, we climb a nearby hill where young people are gathering. In the distance, we see the peak of Tupopdan—which means "sun-drenched mountain" in Wakhi—as it towers above a green oasis and the Passu village. A road winds through a barren valley—a branch of the old Silk Road. Beyond these peaks are the deserts and plains of Central Asia, China, and Afghanistan.
Some of the young men on the hill sport designer t-shirts, jeans, styled beards, and ponytails (hipsters know no boundary). Others wear the traditional white pants and long shirt. Four young men bring up a huge speaker and blast a mix of dancehall and traditional music.
As we dance, a group of girls watches us, laughing. Others ignore us, focusing instead on a game of volleyball. Alvi points to them.
“They are all going to school and most of them speak at least four languages,” he says, as our conversation switches between English, Wakhi, and Urdu. “We have a famous saying: If you have two children, a boy and a girl, but you can afford to educate only one, you must give the education to the girl.”
A few days later, Esar Ali, dressed in a suit and ready for a family wedding, climbs a boulder, away from the crowd. “The recent changes,” he says, discussing village life, “they come a lot from our education. Nowadays we go to universities outside of our villages, in the cities or abroad.”
“But they also come from this,” he adds, pointing to his phone. Smartphones and mobile data networks have changed how the people here relate to the outside world, and to their neighbors.
“I first saw Shayna in a town near my village,” Ali says. “There is a decent 2G reception there."
“We started messaging, agreeing on a time to talk when no one is at home," he says. "In our tradition, to be with someone is something sacred. So while we slowly establish our relationship, we never want to offend our elders. Phone or no phone, we have to keep our customs alive.”
Ali is now married to Shayna. This courtship would’ve been much different 10 years ago, but not because he wouldn’t have had a mobile phone. Back then, “our parents would pick the bride or groom,” he says. “But now it’s practically all love marriages, or rather arranged love marriages. We simply suggest to our parents the boy or girl we want to marry.”
There are two long lines in front of the wedding house; men on one side, women on the other. An elderly lady, her white veil flowing on top of an embroidered skullcap, welcomes me. She takes my right hand and kisses the top of it. I kiss hers in return; it’s the Wakhi way of greeting each other. I walk down the line, asking the traditional “How is your health, my sweet mother?” to each of the ladies.
It’s a typical mud house, and inside, young men are standing next to a gigantic pot of food; Ali steps up and says he hopes I’m hungry. “They are making bat for over 200 people,” he says, referring to the porridge-like food in the pot. “We will eat that with boiled sheep meat and lots of chai.”
My wife and two young sons are outside somewhere playing cricket. When I look for them, I see my wife being pulled into a group selfie with the young bride and her friends. They ask me to join in.
Here, there is no such a thing as an uninvited guest. We’re joined by our friends Emmanuelle and Julien from Paris, and they’ve brought their two daughters. “With the current world situation, people thought we were joking when we were telling them that we were going on holiday to Pakistan,” Emmanuelle says. “We got worried too and almost called off the trip.”
But Emmanuelle says she’s glad she didn’t cancel. The scene is nothing like what she assumed.
“I mean, if you ask someone back home to imagine life in a remote mountain region in Pakistan, do you think they will picture this? This place is really doing something to me; it’s making my soul grow.”
Coming here again and again, this tight community always humbles me. Now, as external changes increasingly permeate daily life and relationships, Gojal has planted a foot in the modern world while retaining its traditions and ability to inspire. Traveling in places that we only know little about—or hold wrong ideas about—puts life into perspective. I hope the grace of this place will touch many more people.