It may always have been in my heart, but these days Aman ki Asha is always on my mind. Perhaps that is why although I'm here to research the outstanding conservation and adaptive reuse project of the Shigar Fort hotel in Skardu, there is a parallel train of thought running through my mind constantly about the idea of "Aman".
There are many "Ashas" (hopes) in my heart as I sit under the sheer rock faces of the stark mountain landscape with almost fluorescent green trees in the lush Shigar Valley, admiring the painstaking conservation of a 400 year old fort palace into a magnificently run hotel managed by the Serena chain, in this breathtakingly beautiful part of northern Pakistan. The sound of the river rushing below drowns out most thoughts, but I keep returning to the possibility of "Aman". Can the lessons taught by the work of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Skardu be learned and applied in other parts of the country to offer educational and economic alternatives to brainwashed, disenfranchised youth and stop them being recruited by terrorist networks?
I realise this sounds simplistic but consider the positive ripple effect that just this ONE project has had on the region. It deserves to be looked at more carefully. Education, economic improvement and the cultural environment: a recipe for successful "Aman"?
The first time I visited the area was in 2003 when the Shigar Fort conservation project was started by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) after the successful conservation of Baltit Fort in Hunza. The building was in shambles, almost completely unusable. I was told that it would be converted into a boutique hotel. They had an excellent project team but I had my doubts. Now, compared to what I saw seven years ago -- this project deserves the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture: too bad it's ineligible since it is a project of the AKF Network!
Interestingly, the first thing I was shown back then, were the community development projects that the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP) undertook before they even started the conservation work: the improvement of the bazaar area, streets, drainage, washing areas, public bathrooms. They rebuilt homes for local residents, and established and maintained water purification and supply to three nearby villages. The goal was to improve the living conditions of locals, in the process gaining public support for the architectural conservation project.
AKCSP created Town Management Society, a community organization under the leadership of Wazir Fida Ali that participates in decision making and supporting the project. The manager of Shigar Fort, Karim Khan continues to create inclusive policies that don't alienate the community. For example, local women can take a tour of the Shigar Fort and its museum for free, without having to pay the fees charged from other visitors. The rest of the local community and students also pay a nominal amount, compared to the fees charged from visitors, Pakistanis or foreigners.
"Community elders were initially suspicious, understandably. They were not sure whether architectural conservation was the only goal or if there was a hidden religious agenda. They have come to realise that there is no such thing," says Mr Khan. They were also worried, he said, about the influx of foreigners contributing to a deterioration of the community's moral fabric. "We invited them to come and see what we have accomplished. Also, far from being a den of sin -- drinking and dancing -- this is a peaceful place where people come to relax. If anything, they pump money into the economy by shopping in the local market. Their very presence leads to a boost, since the hotel buys all its meat, dairy and produce, as well as guest supplies like mops and tissues, from the locals. We try to do this even if it costs more."
The hotel has also created jobs, with most of the staff being hired from the local community. The seasonal staff is sent to other Serena hotels for training. Furthermore, Serena's educational assistance program helps any staff member wishing to pursue further studies or educational training, including languages. Girls from Hunza provided vocational training to a group of high school girls, in digital mapping and site measurements to assist the AKCSP.
This wonderful little gem of a hotel also gets a boost as visitors often return home with the desire to help the village after an enjoyable stay. Many community development projects were initiated by different foreign governments and individuals, for example, the Abruzzi Secondary School funded by the Italian government, beautifully and sensitively designed by AKCSP architects Masood Khan and Wajahat Ali using local building materials and design features.
The Skardu bazaar has grown astonishingly, and there is an increased sense of prosperity in the region -- a stark contrast to the Skardu and Shigar Valley I experienced seven years ago.
Asked how Shigar Fort Residence had affected his life, a young local waiter's face lit up: "It has had a big impact! They buy all the produce and meat from us!" I later learnt that his father had lost his eyesight and the boy had not only supported his whole family, he had recently built a new house, and bought a shop with the help of the Microfinance Bank at Shigar.
I wondered what would have happened to him and countless others, had they not studied at these newly built schools, and been able to improve their lot. What if he, too, had nothing to lose, and only a convoluted religious philosophy to fall back on?
This is also a fascinating place because Baltistan is the only place in the world where the Nurbakshiyya sect of Islam with its Sufi teachings and emphasis on tolerance survives. Syed Hassan Shah, the Imam of the local mosque, is also the principal of the local boys' college and a PhD candidate (Karachi University) studying the origin and evolution of Muslim communities in Gilgit, Baltistan. He says that his Friday prayer lectures or "khutbah" are usually about tolerance and women's education. There were no facilities for higher education for women here, so he personally visited the homes of girls who had matriculated and convinced their parents to send them to the college and convinced the teachers to teach extra classes.
This is still not officially a co-ed facility, but he says the government leaves him alone because he makes no demands on them. But Karim Khan, the Shigar Fort manager, often introduces this unique initiative to visitors who support him. During a recent visit, the Spanish ambassador asked the girls about their ambitions. Future doctors, engineers, army officers, policewomen, even a pilot, piped up. These girls have been offered scholarships abroad for higher learning. With the kind of support and the visionary thinking of their religious leader (and teacher) they may be able to actually avail of them. Another visitor donated sewing machines to the women's vocational center. Someone else had paid the yearly salary of two teachers who were teaching girls at the local boys' college.
Kya Aman ki Asha hai? If the government and organisations have the desire for peace, and want to halt the growth of terrorism, isn't education and the economic uplift the way forward? If we all just avail this visa-less opportunity for a fantastic getaway that places like Shigar Fort in Skardu and the upcoming project at Khapalu offer, we not only experience a little bit of heaven but pump money into the economy. We need to support credible ventures like this, which are geared towards commercial as well as social success.
Sounds crazy, but here's what I think: visit the Northern areas and help eradicate, or at least halt terrorism. They may say I'm a dreamer. I know I'm not the only one…
- The writer is an architecht based in Islamabad firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, June 09, 2010
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