Grand Dame of Kalash April 26, 2017

 .. Nasser YousafNasser Yousaf remembers a great friend of the people of Pakistan’s northern valleys, Maureen Lines (23 October 1937 – 17 April 2017)

Grand Dame of Kalash

It has been related by historians, based on some ancient accounts, that Alexander, the famed Macedonian ruler and adventurer, during the early period of his conquests in the Indian Subcontinent, was wounded by an arrow in the leg as he marched into this region. The place at which this incident occurred has been traced, and it would appear to be in the ancient town of Bazira (Barikot) in the lower Swat Valley. When the pain from the wound became unbearably aggravated, Alexander is reported to have remarked that though he was called the Son of Zeus, this wound proved him to be a mortal and not a god!

While Alexander thus disclaimed himself from being a mythological figure, perhaps one could justifiably attribute mythical heroic qualities to Maureen Lines, the London-born charity worker who quietly passed away in Peshawar at midnight, on the 17th of March, 2017.

Left to Right – Adil Zareef, Dr. Murad Ali, Zahoor Durrani, Maureen Lines, Raza Kuli Khan Khattak (at the back), ‘Chimma’ Rauf Khan

Maureen Patricia Lines was born two years before the beginning of the Second World War in the north of London. Less than three years before she succumbed to several complications that she was loath (and too proud) to discuss with her friends and admirers, Maureen underwent a surgery on her spinal cord in Rawalpindi’s military hospital. For someone her age, that would have meant an end to straining oneself beyond a limit. But it was not so for Maureen, who, less than a year after the surgery, was found on road to Chitral through the famous Lowari Pass!

For those who have not been to Chitral by road in fair weather, as it remains cut off from lower regions during the snowy winters, it is not possible to imagine the travails and tribulations of the magnificent and treacherous Lowari Pass. But Maureen’s journey would not end at that, as her destination lay far onwards in the Kalash valleys, which could be reached only through travelling on a route that could barely support the four wheels of the jeep!

At 52, when physical decline in the body sets in for most, Maureen decided to cross over into Nuristan in Afghanistan through the 16,000-feet-high Shawal Pass in the Hindu Kush mountains. She scaled the vertiginous heights in the company of a young shepherd and a mule.

Before it got its new name and before the wholesale conversion of its indigenous ‘pagan’ community, Nuristan was part of the greater Kalash region.

Perhaps, Maureen had undertaken the journey in search of Habib, her young Afghan comrade with whom she had got into a relationship – one that remained a matter of speculation for quite a long time. Habib had since disappeared.

Writing about Habib, and how and where she found him in Nuristan in her riveting travelogue Journey to Jalalabad, she appeared to be asking for a lid to be put on the nature of whatever her relationship with the young boy had been. Meanwhile, Habib was elated when he saw Maureen in the midst of his humble family home in one of the remotest corners of the world. He made frantic efforts to arrange for her comfort – which included a bath in the cowshed where Maureen washed her weary body in the presence of two thoroughly amused heifers!

Maureen first set foot on Pakistan’s soil in 1982, and the same year she ventured into the Kalash valleys in Chitral. Like Doris Lessing, who upon arrival in Chitral is famously said to have remarked, “Oh my God, I did not know that this place exists on earth!’ Maureen was similarly thrilled – except that unlike Doris she had decided that there was no turning back. Henceforth, Kalash was home for Maureen and wherever she travelled to, during the time between her first arrival in Kalash and her passing away, she always returned to her home in Birir in the mountainous regions of Pakistan.

She had received her training as a nurse in the U.S. In the beginning, therefore, she started her work going from door-to-door as a ‘bare-foot doctor’, as she fancied calling herself. Thus, in the three main valleys of Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur, she began her work. She would take her lodging and meals with the local Kalash in their traditional wood-and-stone huts. She would watch all night as her hosts would cook themselves the goat’s entrails, sparing no part of the slaughtered animal, and hear them coughing non-stop. And that only strengthened her resolve to stay put, and do her utmost for those in immediate need of her help.

While in Pakistan, Maureen cultivated the goodwill of many influential and not-so-influential people, though she also had her share of detractors, especially in the valleys. She was exceptionally good at friendships. She quite openly admired efficient civil services officers, with some of whom she had developed personal friendships. She had little patience for people who she associated with timber smuggling, and berated those officers whose administrative work in the valleys did not meet the criteria that she had set – according to the standards in Britain.

Maureen Lines, as a young woman

In the 1990s, she took the plunge by devoting herself entirely to charity and conservation work in the Kalash valleys. She set up her Hindu Kush Conservation Association (HKCA) with its head office at her residence in Peshawar. She used her old friendships in Britain quite effectively to help fund the charity work and efforts aimed at the conservation of indigenous heritage. She never compromised on the quality of work, and would cringe and visibly suffer whenever she found out that some public works carried out by the government departments had been swept away by flash floods. She firmly believed that concrete and mortar could not be sustainable in the flood-prone valleys.

Maureen was a remarkable writer. Her emails were a treat to read, especially those that she wrote to her friends after her prolonged absences from Peshawar in the mountains. Each such email would merit publication by itself. Her friends would comment that the quality of her prose matched that which could only be found in the Victorian classics. In addition to several guidebooks, she also authored two travelogues namely Beyond the Northwest Frontier and Journey to Jalalabad. She also produced a third work titled From Disaster to Catastrophe, which details the losses wreaked by the floods on the valleys and their inhabitants.

Maureen Lines was of a stocky build and would sport very short hair. She was meticulous about her manicure as she liked keeping her fingernails at fashionable length – something which she would ensure even during her times of great physical discomfort. Her dress consisted mainly of corduroy pants and a shirt, with a scarf. During her calls on the officials, she would be seen wearing a waistcoat in keeping with the English manners which she never forsook even for a minute – despite the fact that she had abandoned London as her home long ago.

She loved Kalash wine which she would ensure was brewed under her keen supervision in the summertime, and would bring ample supplies upon her return to Peshawar to serve it with roasted walnuts and crackers to a group of her close friends.The lively dinners and parties at her home, especially to celebrate the New Year, will be forever missed by her admirers and friends.

Maureen Lines made the Birir valley her home in Chitral

Though she mostly lived, recently her adopted Kalash family joined her. She wanted her adopted brood of girls and boys to receive the best education in Peshawar. Her home in University Town, an upscale area, had everything conceivable to make it a complete English household: with immaculate china and linen, fine goblets for different types of drinks and silverware to match each meal and the accompanying dessert. And not least, there was a pair of dogs, one of whom she had picked up from the street in a poor state of health. When the dogs died a couple of years ago, Maureen ensured that they got a proper burial in her green lawns.

Photography crowned all her extraordinary talents and achievements. In photography, like writing, Maureen was in a class of her own. She had a vast collection of photographs which she took during her wonderful journeys around Pakistan, Afghanistan and her nearly half-a-lifetime’s stay amongst the Kalash. More than a hundred of those evocative pictures adorn the walls of her drawing room in painstakingly made frames. All those pictures made up her coffee-table book titled The Kalasha of the Hindu Kush, which she succeeded in publishing about two years ago through her long-time friends and admirers, the Bhandara family.

The roads of the Lowari Pass, which Maureen Lines traversed as part of her work, are among the most treacherous in the world – and they are open only in summer

She insisted that I should write the blurb for that book. I kept procrastinating, nervous that I would not be able to do justice to such a great piece of work. Finally, though, I did succeed in writing a blurb of sorts, which I reproduce here:

“If anything could most vividly bring to life what George Scott Robertson chronicled in ‘The Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’ more than one hundred years ago, it is none other than this pictorial tour de force by Maureen Lines about one of the world’s most ancient people living on the fringes of civilisation. Having lived among them, off and on, for more than thirty years, in ‘The Kalasha of the Hindu Kush’, Maureen, an indefatigable traveller, a gifted writer and a tenacious social worker produces indisputable proof of her latent talent as an accomplished photographer. This fascinating coffee-table book contains scores of fascinating glimpses from the everyday life of Kalasha who appear to be fighting for their jealously guarded hundreds-of-years old privacy in a world rent asunder by religious frenzy and a predatory lust for commercialisation. But before it was too late, Maureen has conserved what ardent lovers of wilderness and nature must value beyond everything else.”

We couldn’t launch the book here for several reasons, one being Maureen’s peculiar loathing for the month of March. “No, Nasser, not in March! I am a strong believer in the Ides of March, they spoil everything for me!” she would protest vehemently. “Let April come, and I shall be swinging from the chandelier!” were some of her last words before she bid adieu. She is survived by her adopted Kalasha family, consisting of a widow whom Maureen would call ‘Bau’ (‘sister’ in Kalasha), and her four children who were all by her side when the fighter departed from our midst.

Lines made it a priority to try protecting the forests of northern Pakistan from the destructive effects of the timber industry

Sadly, the “Ides of March” that she had so prophetically mentioned to her friends were finally proven right.

The 17th of March, 2017, would be engraved on her tomb in the Christian Cemetery, where she lies amongst luminaries of the British Raj period dating from 1850 and onwards. A long list of administrators, civil and military officials, missionaries, explorers, adventurers and families – women and even children as old as six months old – lie buried next to her grave under a huge tree.

She must wonder even now if there were more ‘conquests’ and achievements for her to accomplish, in terms of protecting heritage and the environment, conservation of, animal rights and foremost, the Kalasha culture that she zealously and jealously helped to guard. She wanted Kalasha sites to be on the UN’s World Heritage Sites list.

And so passed the Grand Dame of Kalasha, who was always larger than life.

The author may be reached at [email protected]

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