It had already been a bad month. Several people we knew, connected to the school at which my father taught or other family friends, had already died. Two had been on motorcycles, in accidents with no helmets. One, we called him the “Tickle Monster,” had been one of our favorites of dad’s students. Another had been a leader in his community for several decades, and many called him the “Peanut Butter Man.” My grandfather has written a book on his life.

Our family would gather together, it seemed, every time we heard news of someone else dying. “Family meetings” would later become something that we would not do, or at least not the name by which we called them.

I don’t remember the order in which everyone passed away. I do remember one family meeting, though. The girls and I were gathered together by our parents, and told that something bad might have happened, and one (or both, my memory is fuzzy) of my parents had to go away for a bit and then would come back and tell us what happened. When they came back they let us know that Dr. Fazal had been killed.

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I’ve just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and just started I Am Malala (Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb). I’m not far enough along to compare the two books (the former stirred conflicted emotions in me, though it is definitely an insightful read even if the prose at times is a tad pretentious) but Malala’s initial descriptions of the Swat Valley took me back to the mid 1990’s.

Oddly enough, and as a brief aside, passages mentioning the history of Swat recall two other books I’ve read recently: Winston Churchill’s Malakand Field Force (Malala notes that “he was not very complimentary about our people” while not shying away from some of the less flattering characteristics of Pashtuns herself. Churchill is quite racist, and not just in a condescendingly colonial manner, in his memoir) and Marc Aurel Stein’s On Alexander’s Track to the Indus: Personal Narrative of Explorations on the North-West Frontier of India, in which the author explores the archaeological ruins of ancient Buddhist stupas in Swat, following Alexander the Great’s path of destruction.

But it is Malala’s description of her home valley that brought back old memories. She describes the valley in broad, superlative terms, and although she uses some hyperbole it is generally fitting. I have very fond memories of Swat, from brief visits with my family years ago. It is an incredibly beautiful part of the world, and I remember the mountains and the greenness, and the rushing torrents of water. The Swat River was horrifying in its tremendous speed and violence, and the rickety cable cages that spanned the river only intensified the feeling. Other streams were joyful, and I remember sliding off of large, slick rocks into placid pools of cool water. Pakistani boys blew air into their shalwars to create makeshift water wings, puffing up their legs into huge balloons.

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