Yahya Khan of New York Talks about the Change and Development in Hunza, Northern Pakistan, in a Comparative Context

June 21, 2020

By Fazal Amin Beg

This small contribution mainly reflects the societal and cultural landscape and development of the past and present (pertaining to and after the time of the former Hunza State) through the lens of a key informant Yahya Khan of New York (United States of America).
Though, Yahya Khan son of Khalifa Amanullah basically belongs to Ghulkin village of Hunza valley, Northern Pakistan, for more than two and a half decades he is permanently settled in New York State, the United States of America (USA) along with his nuclear family (comprised of his wife, three sons and two daughters). As there was no written tradition in practice in the past, he is not clearly sure of his date of birth. However, through various reference points, it’s becoming clear that he was born in 1951 after four years of the emergence of Pakistan on the world map in August 1947.
Yahya Khan interestingly reflects back on the Hunza society and community in different realms ranging from the socioeconomic to cultural and political as well as compares the societies of the past with the present and with that of other societies.
He is so enriched with decades long experiences exposed to different societies while laboring or working in different regions of Pakistan and finally settling in the USA. He does offer his careful observations and critiques on various aspects of the community and their development as well as identifying some political bottlenecks of the past during the Mirdom and then in post-Mirdom eras.
The video interview mainly comprises on different themes including the peoples living condition, their world view, their simplicity, the educational and health conditions, the political realities he has observed or evidenced, his narrations mainly of a crucial decade from 1960 to 1970, the end up of the former Hunza state, the development interventions by different organizations of the Government and more particularly the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), more particularly the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), and many more.
I trust, the readers, viewers and listeners of his video interview would not only enjoy but rather also try to understand in a critical context the overall development of Hunza and Gilgit-Baltistan Region.
I’ve made the English translation of the video interview available here and would present it with the readers, particularly with those who cannot understand Wakhi. Any productive feedback would be highly valued and welcomed.
Those who can understand Wakhi and wish to watch the video, they can click on the following link of Eagles World Channel to get access to and watch the interview.

From here onward, I’m going to offer the English translation of the video interview of Yahya Khan that’s in a natural and lively order.

FAB: It’s January 14, 2009 today. I’m in Gilgit and brother Yahya (Khan), who is originally from Ghulkin but now is lives in America (New York). He is settled there along with his family. We’ll have some discussion with him, particularly with regard to the changes he has been witnessing in his lifetime. When we revert to his date of birth, it goes back to 1951. What were the conditions in the past and how are they now at present? He’d briefly share with us on different aspects for 10 or 15 minutes. How was the living condition in the past and how is it now? How was the political situation in the past and how does he see it at present? What were the positive aspects in the past and what are positive in the present context? What were the negative aspects in the past and what are they at present? He’d therefore talk on such themes.
YK: In the name of God, the most beneficent, the most merciful. Well, the story is so that the history is so long but you restricted it to 10 or 15 minutes. When in terms of age, it’s 40 years, so at least if you’d spared 40 minutes, it’d have been great. How could I transform the forty years into forty minutes?
When there was the dark period, that was the age of chimney (light lit with the help of a small tin of kerosene oil at night). Even not the light based on Chimni, rather with the help of dried sticks such as that of chirir (bushes), on which our ancestors have subsisted to light at night. This we could see in our family in line with the priesthood (khalifagi) to the village headman ship (nambardari), though with regard to village headman ship there has not been so prominence (with our family) as there was little education those days. In very difficult situation, with the help of the Pirs (religious gurus), some people have studied the Holy Quran and fulfilled the tasks of conducting their rituals. That was not the age of knowledge because they were under the light of the dried chirir (bush). When the society moved ahead towards chimni,rather chiroghdun (light made up at night with the help of oil) and then chimni, from Chimni they evolved to lantern light, from the lantern light towards the gas light and finally reached to the electric light. They have thus a long story or history.
It’s quite clear that there was no way in the age of darkness, except for those who had plenty of livestock, such as rich in sheep and goats, rich in cattle, enriched in landholding and horticulture, they were thus termed as wealthy. This was the reason, the Mirs (rulers) would then also look at and consider these aspects and would extend their relationship with them by fostering the class of zharzh (upper class).Those who could not meet the criteria, as they won’t reach to such level, they were then termed as borwar (literally as porter but refers to the lower class).these were the characteristics of the past society.
Anyway, in the present context, it’s the age of Imam of the Time and the entire world is bright. The time, which is at present of Mawla (the Lord), at international level, we have also become well educated and thanks so much to the Lord.
It needs to be cleared here that when we talk about the Mirs (rulers of Hunza, some points during the discussion may go against someone and some of them may lead towards someone’s support. However, there may not be that much blame on the Mirs, in a way, because the time was defaulted in such a manner that they had control over the people in the past.
When the control of them finished, there came up then the period of police department. I would say that, in the old days, there was no crimes, as they would fear the penalties (regulation). But at present when the period of police has come, when the Hunza State was eliminated, there didn’t remain the role of the State.
It was not understood at that time (by our people) that the seed that the British had cultivated, would have evolved appropriately. When the State was completely abolished, that specific role also ended, perhaps within Pakistan we are not up to that level. At present, though, the Northern areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) is merged with Pakistan, it doesn’t have that right, which other Pakistanis avail and enjoy. Gradually, it may move towards the Free Zone or what happens regarding its fate, it’s not known.
FAB: you talked about the educational situations, it’d be appreciated to highlight them a bit, as you specified about the clothing of the people, the footwear, the food they had, the people’s mobility, permission to the people regarding their travel, and the like.
YK: Well, in that respect, I may not know that much as I’m yet like a young child, those who are elders know them very well, who were of that time and made a history. For instance, in our village, there was uncle Tawar well versed in oral history. I remained outside the village and couldn’t gather the historical accounts.
The situation with educational achievement was not attractive, as I remember, up to 1974 when there was the princely state up to this time, there were some matriculate students rather very few people having intermediate level of education such as that of uncle Ghulamuddin (of Gulmit) and from Shimshal there was Dawlat Amin.
Apart from them, people having their matriculation certificates, middle and primary level education were not that much common. Even they were not at the Government school level, those who had gone to Karachi and acquired their education (at such levels. On the other, some people traveled from our area down to Gilgit and completed their secondary level education. Even in Gilgit, there was no high school rather it was at middle level.
Well, in the present context, you just imagine educational institutions up to degree college have been established. It ranges from the degree colleges to the establishment of Karakoram University but in 1974, as I remember, there were few matriculates and intermediate level of students.
In 1974, the Mirdom ended and it sustained up to this timeframe due to Mawla. We cannot however term them (the rulers) guilty as the prevailing circumstance was in such a manner that it involved such things (unfriendly aspects) within itself.
When the time of Mawla came up, due to him our history transformed so rapidly, but we need to understand, too, that the Government (of Pakistan) had no focus on the development of our region.
We have advanced rapidly in education presently but we continue to think how could we develop our area. Though, for such matters, we have now doctors and engineers, we could not also tell them anything as they don’t have any resources for the purpose, but why? because, among us the system within the community is weak. We don’t have leadership. I know it well that when it was put before us as a challenge. Let me revert to 1983.
(Late) Ramzan Merchant, being a community leader of the Isma’ili Council (for Pakistan), asked us: “When would you prepare yourselves in leadership? For how long, we would work for you people?” He had asked/advised us contextually regarding an issue on the congregation of the Imam of the Time to be chosen in Gojal but because of weak leadership, there was no congregation venue finalized to facilitate the community in Gojal.
What we could observe that in the aftermath, when there was the congregation (in 1987), relatively Gojal developed more than (Central Hunza) in line with education and economically due to AKRSP (Aga Khan Rural Support Program) after its inception of the programs in 1983.
Because of such interventions, people’s income increased and it also contributed towards increased knowledge. If such program interventions had not come in the area, the status quo of the past (poverty) would have remained till today. For such reasons (of development program), people got increased income.
It was back in 1982, Imam of the Time in Karachi gave his directive to the students of Northern Areas that without any purpose they should not live in Karachi. They should acquire their education, and should return to their areas. He guided to enhance their skills and go back to their areas. Without any reason, the students should not live in Karachi, he emphasized. Instead, they should go back to their respective areas (to contribute to their community development) and they would witness the changes themselves in ten years’ period.
In 1982, Shoaib Sultan (founding Genral Manager of AKRSP) had given an interview to the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) regarding AKRSP and the program started in our area in 1983.he said that it’s imperative to change the peoples mind and their living condition, though changing their thoughts is not an easy task, he said. Thus, after 1983, the changes we have been witnessing that for two or three years he looked at their condition to bring change through the community themselves.
We need to accept that we do have some weaknesses as we don’t have unity within ourselves, which is equal to nothing. When there would be unity, we can then combine them together. It’s important to form groups and initiate for enterprises because from employment there won’t be that much development. If we venture in businesses, we can then get benefits out of them and it’d be great, indeed.
FAB: From 1960 to 1970, what were the conditions as you observed?
YK: Looking back in 1960, when Imam of the Time visited Hunza, there came up gradual change in the area. Mawla especially has fixed his targets as we watch the videos in the United States, that he had his full focus on the Northern Pakistan. Imam had also his observations that his followers lived in very backward areas. Today, the region is evidenced ahead of other regions. It’s noteworthy that The United Nations has had its research on the region and has mentioned in its report that if 25 years prior, there was freedom to the people, they would have gone ahead incredibly. Nonetheless, in 25-30 years, the development in the Northern Areas is so exemplary that nowhere in the world such type of development was seen comparatively.
FAB: If you observe yourself, through your own eyes your own village, other villages and areas, how was the living condition of the people? At that time, there used to be traditional food, so how was the food condition? For instance, I’d like to see the earlier conditions before 1970, as after 1970 the Karakoram Highway also connected our villages. I’d like to see the earlier situations and then to compare them with that of the AKRSP era.
YK: That situation was so painful. Even, today, our own children deny to accept those grave conditions. They would argue that if we have gone through such difficult situations, what is for them out of those bitter realities? They are not ready to accept that we have bitterly experienced the hardship. The more we cry, the more we talk of those hardship, they do not believe. However, no matter what they think of them.
But, it’s worth mentioning that even today we have that same history, which is being repeated. The more the economy will worsen, not only of our people or region but also of the entire world.
We could observe our situations of the past that all were not equal economically. Those who worked hard, they would strengthen their economy and go round the year. We have witnessed it ourselves that when a guest would visit our houses, we would not avail the wheat breads to eat. Instead, breads of barley and faba-beans(Baqla) were baked and two or three wheat nigans (circular thin chapatis) were put on top of them so to give honor to the visiting guests and make them happy. When we look at those conditions of the past, today Mawla has changed the grim situations and it’s something else (like a dream). In other words, it’s better than the past or so great thankfully.
But it’s important to note that presently, due to the mixture or fake products supplied in the bazaar, there are series of diseases with the people as earlier no one had witnessed cancer, or other diseases. Those who would get in health trouble, many people also would die before their death, as there was no hospital and no medicine available in the area. There was no health facility available. If there was any, from the Government side there was nothing. After that the Aga Khan Health Services, Pakistan (AKHSP) was introduced and established in the area and a change was thus brought in health sector.
FAB: Was there any hospital available in the area?
YK: No, there was nothing. There was a dispensary run by a compounder and it was perhaps in 1963 or 1964, as I guess, the dispensary was established in Gulmit. This was the government dispensary. In the aftermath, when the AKHSP established the health centers, the local people had not the tendency to avail such facilities. Thus, from AKHSP, the vaccines were introduced. For this purpose, the health organization provided formal ration of basic food to the children to attract the parents. Resultantly, people used these support like an income for is important to note that the children were given ration and those who had no milk (at home), they would receive the milk powder, grains, and the like. Consequently, the children were directed towards the health centers to provide them with vaccines. Keeping in view such lucrative approach, the parents became conscious that they themselves would take their children to the health centers and take care of them.
FAB: How was the status of clothing, hygiene, footwear, food and so on, as they all would contribute towards health condition?

YK: What could I say about the clothing. It was the age of krest (leather mantel made out of sheep or goat’s hyde), that was the time of sandal (leather long shoes made at home). It was the time of tawching (a lowest model of traditional footwear through wrapping cloth), and it would protect them. The housing structure was attractive as a traditional house possessed four or five doors and thus a person would reach inside the main house. In the old days, the people had such deep thoughts or consideration that for the purpose of protecting themselves from the cold air, they made these doors. But at present, the people make the direct door of the house and construct it with concrete or cement. Consequently, the pneumonia would enter in the bodies of the people. They thus cannot tolerate the difficulties.
At present, those, who have income sources at home, they can subsist, but those who have no income, how would they spend their days is a question mark. It’s thus quite clear to everyone. Conversely, in the earlier time, there were the leather mantel (krest) and the rug (plos). No one could imagine for the quilt of these days (termed as shohpos). People would use the rug as quilt at night. Besides, they would lay down their trousers as mattress and the coat or pull over as cushion. In such manner, our people subsisted and spent their lives in the harsh environment. That was the time of poverty. But after 1960, gradual change began in the lives of the people.
FAB: When the Chinese came to the area and began the road construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), how was the condition of the people? Were you there in the area during those days?
YK: Almost in 1968, they had started the road construction and when it completed and opened in 1978, I visited for the first time the area (from Karachi) in 1973 after hardly qualifying my matriculation exam as I was engaged with service and continued my study alongside employment.
FAB: How old were you when you had left your village for Karachi?
YK: Perhaps, I was 12 or 15 or 16 years old.
FAB: At that time, there was no vehicle, I think. Is it so?
YK: Well, we would travel on foot up to central Hunza in 1968, from there onward we got a vehicle up to Murtazabad, then we continued on foot up to Khanabad, then crossed Khizerabad, and thus we reached Gilgit. However, somewhere we traveled on foot and somewhere availed vehicle by paying Pakistani rupees five, I thus reached Gilgit from reiterate, the story is so painful where we traveled half way on foot and half way in vehicle.
FAB: Okay, please highlight them.
YK: Well, what could I say. You could say that I had fled home. Getting ten rupees, I run away from my house. I then got employment for ten rupees per month in Gilgit. First I worked in a baker (tandur).
FAB: Well, these are so interesting ….
YK: Then the family of the Mirs would also come across us in Gilgit. Though, people would get education, there was little importance of it at that time.
FAB: Would they (the rulers) allow people to get education?
YK: no, at that time, there was no any particular restriction in getting education. Perhaps, there might have been the control during the time of our fathers. But in my lifetime, I didn’t witness there was any restriction imposed on education by the Mir. However, when I reached Gilgit, there was gentleman called Faraj uncle. Whosoever would reach Gilgit in Bigyar’s hotel would see him. I thought, Bigyar may be any Punjabi, or someone else, but when reached him, I found out he was a man from Gulmit. He was so interesting man. They would inform the Mirs (as informer) at any cost that so and so people had visited him. Anyway, there was no restriction. But there might have been limitation on the generations before us, as we would hear them saying that there used to be a bridge somewhere and from there onward people were not allowed to go out of Hunza. However, I don’t know much about those stories. As far as I remember there was no control on travel. I myself when fled, there was no check or control.
FAB: To what extent, there was political freedom when we observe it from 1960 to 1970?
YK: Well, between 1960 to 1970, there was not that much freedom. As I witnessed a situation from my own eyes. When I was a student of Grade 2 or 3, in the court of the mir (the year I don’t remember, the decade was between 1960-70). When I was going to school (coming from Ghulkin to Gulmit as today it’s the band office), I saw the Mir was sitting in the balcony of his palace above the courtyard. Uncle Gul Muhammad might have come to Gulmit from Karachi on vacation. He had put on a robe and the sleeves he had put around his shoulders. He appeared at the shop of uncle Adina Baig and moved down towards the polo ground, perhaps going towards Chamangul.
The Mir said, look how was the son of Dustik ignoring us and didn’t greet. Suddenly, uncle Silum (of Gulmit) jumped, ran behind him, caught and hit him. He was then arrested and restrained him inside the telephone room of the Mir. This case I have witnessed myself when he was trapped because he didn’t greet the Mir. At that time, the elders became emotional and I observed it myself and it’s not something I’ve heard from someone.
FAB: How did you feel about this situation at that time?
YK: Well, I couldn’t understand about such matters. There was the only thing and that was to get education. The people would say contextually that there had come up a registration. I naively thought maybe it’s about that register where at school our names were enrolled, it may be that type of register. I understood later that they (anti Mir people) wrote letters and sent them as registered mail. We had such thoughts at that time. They might have written political letters to the people and registered them officially. These accounts I remember. Besides, I had also heard that Sultan Madad or Ghulam Muhammad of Passu was also arrested and imprisoned in central Hunza. I however am not clear about them.
FAB: Well, if you keep that situation before yourself, the Karakoram Highway (KKH) was also opened, and you yourself traveled on it at that time, and if you see the changes coming in the society, what do you think in which field more rapid changes you find? Please, compare this time (post-Mirdom period with the Mirdom period)? In addition, kindly also tell us that when you’ve settled in America, from that time till today, in your own life, what type of feelings do you have? Would appreciate to elaborate it.
YK: You can understand now the situations of the past when I was at Ghulkin that I shared with you in addition to the laboring I did. Interesting to note that when an airplane or helicopter would come to our area, we would think it as a bird whether and say it’s halal or haram (lawful or unlawful to eat as per Islamic law. This notion has been put in such manner by the people of Shimshal and it had remained a funny example. We would thus wonder to see an airplane or a helicopter whether it was halal or haram. That was a time of ignorance. When the soup was being cooked at home or when we would drink it but hear the voice of the airplane/helicopter, we would leave the food on the spot and run out of the houses to see it.
Incredibly, the time then also came that we worked/served the airplane as an employee in Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) Company. PIA was thus a source of emigration for us to leave the country. After emigration, we began to live overseas. we have thus got the citizenship of the United States of America. Well, it’s other theme, anyway.
FAB: Please continue on the theme as you could see such type of change within your own life.
YK: The change thus began from there onward. The laboring we would do in our area by carrying 20 kilograms of weight, perhaps I was 15 years old at that time, and transported it from the mountain to the village and from the village to the barren-land of Passu village: it was so critical as it would thus become evening carrying the load on our back. In two days, we would earn only one and a half Pakistani rupees. At present, there is no value of one and a half rupee but at that time, it had very high value as we would buy eight eggs on one rupee and at present for eight rupees we buy one egg. This is the difference when we compare the changes of the past with the present.
To add more, I may say we reached up to and settled in the United States but in absence of knowledge we are compelled to do many things we wish. When we talk about the experience of our lives, we can express ourselves around the subject matters but due to absence of education we cannot do anything, as education is so compulsory. We have not advanced ideally, though, we have strengthened ourselves domestically, at international scale we don’t have any leader at religious as well as political level.
FAB: You’ve settled all your children in the United States, what do you think about their marriage preferences? In the context of our Wakhi culture, there has come up a change that our people have emigrated from Pakistan, let’s suppose, your children prefer that they would get married there in the United States (out of the community), what would be your thoughts or reactions?
YK: no, I think wherever a human is born, the place he misses at any cost. For example, I myself, and my children are also on the same track, that if twenty-four hours we are in America, for twenty-three hours our thoughts are connected within our motherland. Only one hour in our thoughts we may be in the United States and it’s because for the purpose of laboring here. What else then? Education in the United States is also so great. In America, if you did work hard, you could become a millionaire. If you struggled, you could become educated otherwise, you may become very poor. But, regarding my children, I trust they are rooted within their culture and will remain in it.
FAB: Do you the Wakhi families or Ismaili community members have interactions together there in the United States?
YK: Yes, we have enormous interactions. I’d say there is more interactions at communal level. The community members are so helpful, though in financial term, they cannot help that much. However, in line with advisory or counseling, they help facilitate a lot. In voluntary capacity, they also help the community members, though we are not that much in population, you could say next to nothing in a sense.
FAB: Where are you settled there?
YK: We are settled in New York. Well, I’d like to say that those who contributes in social work/voluntary capacity and took part in every task enthusiastically, they must not consider it as a humiliation for themselves. They should compete with the time and for leadership. Second, for the leadership, honesty is so imperative. If one contributed to it with a dedication and purity, he or she won’t fail.
FAB: One thing I forgot regarding your children. You shared your thoughts about the marriages but what’s the situation with the language?
YK: they try to speak our language. First, it was so when they reached in the new environment, they had to improve their English language within that environment. We have been trying to communicate with them in Wakhi so they should not forget their mother tongue. Otherwise, our identity will be lost. They thus speak Wakhi.
FAB: What about other families settled there? Does each one of them speak with their children in Wakhi? How many Wakhi families are there in New York?
YK: They include my family, Babar Shah of Sisuni and his family/children, Amir Ali of Passu with his family and Barkat has also half of his family shifted there, and half of them have to be come. In New York State, we are this much Wakhi families from addition, there are also families in Atlanta, California (such as Sirajuddin), Florida (such as Shaghul and his family) and the like.
FAB: Could we say you have telephonic interactions together (with those living in other states)?
YK: Yes, we do have contact with each other, wherever they live.
FAB: What final message would you like to give?
YK: Finally, I’d like to say that whatsoever work you do, that should be carried out with dedication, and honesty, whether it’s in the political field or religious. Whether it’s within the fraternity or at village level. Whatsoever you think, do it with honesty so you’ll earn a good name and also perform like an ambassador of the Imam.
FAB: So, kind of you, indeed. Thanks a lot.
YK: Thanks so much.

My special and deep gratitude to Mr. Yahya Khan who was on a visit to Pakistan in 2009 and we got an opportunity to meet at my brother; Amin Beg’s house, at Gilgit. It was thus this time he gave his consent and showed his interest to share some of his life experiences with me.
I’m grateful to Mazdak Jibran Beg for the ever help and facilitation with regard to editing the videos for Eagles World and maintaining the channel in addition to proof reading of the typos of the English translation.

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