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Haniya, who has a home in Mississauga, and Zeb in Karachi. (Nida Rehman/Nida Rehman)
Haniya, who has a home in Mississauga, and Zeb in Karachi. (Nida Rehman/Nida Rehman)

Power of Song

Music aids women in making bold moves Add to ...

While the war trucks on in Pakistan, citizens are trying to go about their daily business. And some, such as two young women named Zebunissa Bangash and Haniya Aslam, are even making bold moves outside their gender and ethnic boundaries.

Zeb and Haniya, as they are known, are Pathan, part of the Pashtun culture. To people in the Western world and even to those in Pakistan, the Pashtun are inextricably linked with the Taliban, and hence often demonized. The two women from Lahore, both 30, have chosen music as a creative outlet, something that goes against the puritanical Taliban ethos. In Peshawar, in the northwest of Pakistan, for instance, the Taliban violently and regularly intimidate musicians.

As Pathan women musicians, they carry the burden of explaining to the world that music has deep roots in Pashtun culture.

Zeb and Haniya don't obviously look Pakistani or Afghan or Iranian or Indian. They look like princesses who have stepped out of a Mughal miniature painting, except that they wear jeans and carry guitars. Last year, when they played live under a full moon and a night of palm trees in Karachi, a full house of 14-to-16-year-olds fell under the duo's bluesy spell. The concert included a haunting rendition of a love song, with political overtones, Paimona.

Paimona is a rendition of a Darri-language song. Darri, a close relation to Persian, is a minority language in Pakistan and most of the audience would not have understood the words. The foreignness of the language corresponds with the distance most people in Pakistan's largest city feel for the war-ravaged Pushto- and Darri-speaking northwest.

They first heard the song when they were children. They have produced two versions of the song, one in a jazz-and-blues style and the other in a traditional seven-beat cycle with a rabab (a string instrument).

Paimona has received a million hits this year on the Coke Studio website and their own website, and tons of mail from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, England and Europe. And so you could say the singers are a hit. Indeed, Time magazine compared them to Bob Dylan. But unlike, say, Leslie Feist, the experience of becoming a star in Pakistan differs from Toronto or New York. They usually sing in Urdu. They perform in the big cities of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, but they must avoid Peshawar in the northwest of Pakistan, because it is dangerous for them, even though that is where their roots are.

Cousins, Zeb and Haniya went to college in the United States and have received unusual support for their music. Most women from middle-class Pakistan would not. "We have gotten crucial support from our extended family, most of which live in the northwest. A grandmother is a poet who composes in Persian, all the uncles sing, and Zeb's father, an ex-army officer, has encouraged her vocal training with Lahore-based classical musicians for more than a decade," Haniya says. For Haniya, he has set up a studio space in his house in Lahore.

In Karachi and Lahore, the two biggest cities, the problem of extremism and Talibanization is usually and conveniently and hypocritically referred to as a Pashtun problem. "As if extremism is a problem that's over there somewhere in the north, as if it has nothing to do with what we here think and behave, and nothing to do with the Cold War and history," Zeb says.

Haniya is a Canadian. Her family moved to Mississauga in the nineties because her father moved his business here. She says she wrote most of the songs in the first album, Chup, one winter watching "one particular snowbank" from her window.

For Haniya, there is a disconnect between moving from Canadian to Pakistani culture and back. At a Toronto café in early spring, Haniya says, "I just met someone who was furious about Facebook and some issue of privacy and has started a stop-using-FB campaign." She smiles, and then becomes pensive. She says the U.S.-led war on terror has made people frantic, since the Pakistani Taliban are retaliating by taking the fight into the cities of Pakistan. "A friend of mine, a popular talk show host, a young woman, received threatening phone calls after she had criticized the Taliban on her show," she says.

She also talks about the news in mid-March of a student in a Peshawar university who was beaten for playing music in his room by activists from an Islamist organization. He later died.

Nevertheless, they are determined to continue with their music. With their next album, they will tap into the music of the singers, poets and composers who moved to Peshawar from Kabul, escaping the 30-year conflict. The music from these Afghan émigrés is what Zeb and Haniya grew up listening to in Peshawar.

"We are very optimistic about an audience reaction that crosses borders in surprising ways. Pakistanis think we are Iranian. Indians think we are Turkish, Afghans think we are Afghans. Let's see what they think of us in the West," Haniya says.

Special to The Globe and Mail.

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