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Exhausting, unrelenting, fattening

Sheet lighting fleetingly illuminates the death drop beneath me. Thunderous rain sprays off frail wooden slats and a quaking handrail dips to shin height. I try to keep the raging Chitral River out of my peripheral vision, close my ears to its threatening rumble. I’m scared.

Softly, softly the guitar plays, harmoniously the crowd sings, slowly the men circle each other- Stephen Bailey

Three groups of solemn men have performed a torch relay to bring me here; 30 minutes walk from the narrow valley road. Most governments advise against all travel to Pakistan’s Chitral region, although all locals I’d met believed this warning to be absurd. Chitral has never had problems they say.

But I’ve placed all my trust in one man I met on the bus, a man who leads me through the bleak Pakistani night, and onto this bridge. Am I walking into my own kidnapping? My brain desperately attempts to resurrect my gut instinct: the man had a moustache not a beard.

Three days later I’m ashamed of my quivering apprehension. And I understand how foolish it would have been to decline an invitation to an Eid celebration in a rural Pakistani village.

The following morning Sajjid takes me to meet the Chitral scouts. I’m excited, envisaging a phone call to my father telling him to arrange an exchange programme with the local boy scouts back home.

But Chitral scouts know nothing about knots. Nor campfires, toasted marshmallows or Akela. They have guns. A semi-autonomous unit of professional killers, they protect the district from its mountainous border with Afghanistan and the advances of the Taliban. Over chai and biscuits I teach them about Rupyard Kipling.

During an exhausting day I get a tour of Sonorugh, never making it 100 metres without an exuberant invite for chai in a villager’s verdant garden. My definitions of family are challenged. Is it true that Sajjid has three mothers, nine sisters, eight brothers, and over 100 cousins?

Not a single person passes that he doesn’t know and it’s rare that I’m introduced to a friend, usually shaking hands with a “relative of mine”.

Conversing with the few that speak English, the conversation invariably turns to politics. Views are unanimous and obstinate. Exemplifying them is Sajjid’s uncle, wrinkles around his eyes knotting in discontent as he speaks: “Democracy does not work in Pakistan… the government is weak and scared of potential independence movements from the states… we need a military government and martial law.”

Finally I meet Sajjid’s obsequious sisters. For 24 hours they’d cooked meals, passed them from behind the door and examined the strange foreign guest secretly through the window. They gather in the corner with Sajjid’s mother and wife, giggling and turning bashfully when I return their gaze.

On the morning of Eid they’re more confident, bounding into the room and presenting me with a ring as a gift. Graceful and poised, they appear even more lustrous in fine silk outfits and delicate henna that weaves along their hands. It seems I’m trusted, treated as one of the family now.

Festivity and excitement consumes the streets, hundreds of smiles, not a single frown. The women will stay together today, touring the village’s 300 homes to congratulate and celebrate.

For Sajjid and I, the first stop is the playground. A good egg can last for two to three years, breaking its rivals, gathering a reputation feared across the valley. But today there is scandal.

A haughty boy imperiously smashes his opponent’s egg but foul play is suspected. Tapping the circumspect egg against his teeth, an elder declares it’s been strengthened illegally using chemicals. The egg is exchanged and is promptly cracked, men and boys peering over shoulders and cheering as the two eggs are smashed together.

To the victor comes respect, a pocketful of broken eggs to please his mother, and the year-long boast that “my cockerel is stronger than your cockerel.”

Exhausting, unrelenting, fattening. Our Eid tour meanders through the village, stopping for chai and lunch innumerable times. Stuffed, I’m resigned to graciously accepting all the convivial offers.

In 2007 a landslide destroyed a quarter of the village homes. Some lie crushed, alongside the school and health centre, beneath metres of broken rock. Others have disappeared, swept into the river. Among the joy of Eid is the reality that families still live in makeshift tents.

“Rest,” implores Sajjid, “tonight there will be a cultural show just for you.” I’ve grown accustomed to his comments and thoroughly enjoy them: inflating my ego, they simultaneously enhance his reputation as a good host.

Arriving in an austere room I initially believe him. Nine nonchalant men watch as a solo strummer plucks at a five-string guitar. It’s going to be a long night.

But more men drift into the room, slowly at first, then more regularly, 40… 50… 60… finding a space on the bare living room floor. Metallic petrol cans are fastidiously tapped, deep bass sounds vibrating around the walls as a hypnotic solo voice starts a song about the village. Like a football terrace anthem the crowd follows, proudly and blissfully asserting their identity.

More people arrive, leaving only a tiny central space unfilled, a space that two men rise to fill. Standing, chin in the air, they stare arrogantly at each other. A fight over the tainted egg?

Softly, softly the guitar plays, harmoniously the crowd sings, slowly the men circle each other.

I admire the crowd. A hundred faces from the same village, not a single one alike: a picaresque grinning Mexican, a Persian prince with cheekbones above the crowd, a 1980s German porn star with an enviable auburn moustache, a peasant farmer with a weathered face, and David Ginola blazing away in the corner.

Clapping begins, drowning out the guitar, growing steadily faster. Spinning turns to dancing and the two men never miss a beat as they twirl, flaunt and excite the crowd.

People rise, encouraging their man, on their knees at first, then the whole crowd on their feet, shouting and stamping, pumping their fists, petrol cans being pounded at an unrelenting pace, dancers in a trance, whirling uncontrollably, until one collapses into the crowd and the drummers call a halt to proceedings.

Seated; calm returns. Hashish is passed around as the musicians gently goad new volunteers into stepping forward. It’s going to be a long night; I don’t want to leave.

Over four hours the room fills with smoke, music and the sublime efforts of dancers. Charismatic and elegant, his bulbous red nose shining beneath a neat woolen hat, the eldest man by at least 20 years closes the party. Dancing and singing solo with unrivalled control and decorum, his performance cannot be succeeded.

To his credit, Sajjid maintains it was a cultural show despite several men telling me this is the traditional men’s celebration for important occasions such as births, marriages and Eid.

Sensing my desire to leave and continue my journey in Pakistan the whole family wake me with breakfast and verbal confirmation that I am part of the family.

When I leave, I sense anger and annoyance among the family at my decision. “Not anger,” reassures Sajjid, “everyone is very upset, they wish you could stay with us, one month, one year, two years.”

Re-crossing the creaking wooden bridge I am both genuinely upset and exultant. I’ve had an awaking that challenges the stereotype that rural Pakistan is for fundamentalist maniacs with a penchant for beards, suppressing women and suicide bombs.

An experience that proves that fear isn’t the only thing you will find in the unknown.

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