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Pakistan’s threatened minorities and diversity get a warm tribute in a photojournalist’s new book

Mobeen Ansari spent years travelling through Pakistan to meet and photograph Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Baha’is, Kalash and Parsis.

In 2012, Pakistani photographer Mobeen Ansari set out in search of a woman named Bibi Kai. A member of the Kalash tribe, which is a minority in Pakistan, the 74-year-old is famous for being one of the most photographed women in her community. To find her, Ansari had to travel to a remote village in Rumbur Valley, situated on the northwest bank of the Chitral river in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is connected to the rest of the country by a single road. And all he had with him was a printout of an older picture of Bibi Kai’s.

“On reaching [the village], I showed the printout to a local who then took me to see her,” said Ansari. “I finally met Bibi Kai and was intimidated by her piercing green eyes. Her presence was so powerful. No photograph I ever took of hers over the next five years did justice to her. However, we did get to know each other over the years and now I see her as an adoptive grandmother.”

Bibi Kai of the Kalash tribe. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
Bibi Kai of the Kalash tribe. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.

Ansari’s portrait of Bibi Kai throws her wrinkles in sharp focus, yet it is her piercing green eyes and steady gaze that are hard to look away from. It appears in White in the Flag, Ansari’s book of photographs that focuses on ethnic and religious minorities living in Pakistan, a country where over 95% of the population adheres to Islam.

Instances of forced conversion are still reported from Pakistan. A recent story in The Tribune reported that members of the Sikh community in Hangu district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were allegedly being forced to convert to Islam by Assistant Commissioner Tehsil Tall Yaqoob Khan. In 2016, Dawn reported that a girl belonging to the Kalash tribe, which is already less than 4,000 strong, was forced to convert to Islam.

White in the Flag includes religious minorities, such as Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Baha’is, Kalash and Parsis. Launched on December 10 – the International Day of Human Rights – it is named after the white stripe on Pakistan’s national flag, which represents its minority communities.

Farokh Variawa, a Parsi man, throwing milk into the sea as an offering of respect on Ava Roj, a day dedicated to water. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
Farokh Variawa, a Parsi man, throwing milk into the sea as an offering of respect on Ava Roj, a day dedicated to water. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.

Ansari, now 31, conceived of the book around the time he graduated from the National College of Arts, Rawalpindi, in 2011. “Before migrating to Pakistan, my grandmother had a Parsi best friend, Rubyna Colombowalla, who remains the only best friend she ever had in life,” he said. “They kept in touch through letters for some time, but had to stop writing in the early 1950s due to uneasy relations between both countries. Stories about her gave birth to my initial fascination with the Parsi community. A close friend of my father’s, a Christian by religion, donated blood when my father was suffering from abdominal tuberculosis and was in dire need of blood. One of my uncles is the chairman for the National Peace Council for Interfaith Harmony of Pakistan and often took me to churches and temples which further fueled my curiosity and fascination. This gave me exposure at an early age to the concept of interfaith harmony.”

Children from the Kalash tribe celebrate Chowmos, a dance festival that takes place in the month of December in the Kalash Valley in north western Pakistan. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari
Children from the Kalash tribe celebrate Chowmos, a dance festival that takes place in the month of December in the Kalash Valley in north western Pakistan. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari

After an attack of meningitis at a young age, Ansari’s hearing and eyesight have been permanently affected, a fact that he says helps him understand what it means to not be a part of a majority.

The aim of White in the Flag, said Ansari, is to highlight the fact that Pakistan was envisioned as a democratic and tolerant society with equal rights to both the Muslim majority as well as to its non-Muslim citizens. On August 11, 1947, in a speech to the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, the country’s founder Jinnah had said:

“You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State… We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now, I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not so in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the state.”

Diwali being celebrated at the Kali Mata temple in Umerkot. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
Diwali being celebrated at the Kali Mata temple in Umerkot. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.

Ansari spent seven-and-a-half years travelling from the remote Wakhan corridor in the north, to the plains of Punjab and the streets of Karachi and Rawalpindi – “I visited the Himalayas, covered every nook and cranny in urban cities and travelled to the desert areas down south, which border India.” His photographs showcase the ways in which Pakistan’s diversity can be observed, through places of worship, the celebration of festivals like Holi and Christmas and the dance rituals of Kalash women. He photographed a procession of Sikhs on Guru Nanak Dev’s birthday and the Star of David carved into the stone façade of a building that was once a synagogue in Rawalpindi.

Sister Angelina at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
Sister Angelina at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Lahore. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.

“It is sad that in both Pakistan and India, there is a disregard for the rights and safety of the minorities. This unfortunately is the human condition everywhere in the world where there is a large majority of one faith. Especially in countries which are developing and their character is still evolving. This is why the intolerance of the minority by the majority is so raw and visible,” he said. “The people featured in my book, simply wanted the world to get a glimpse into their lives and festivities and to dispel the notion that Pakistan is only a Muslim country.”

A Jewish cemetery in Karachi. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
A Jewish cemetery in Karachi. Photo credit: Mobeen Ansari.
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