The waistcoat from Waziristan
‘Where does it come from?’ I asked the shopkeeper. His was a small, open shop in the town of Gilgit, in northern Pakistan. It was one of the few where you could buy something of interest, in terms of local craft. The waistcoat was covered all over in vibrant mirror pattern embroidery.
‘Waziristan’, he answered.
When he repeated the name, it sounded as remote or unreal as Shangrila. This was 1995, and Pakistan hadn’t yet come into focus as a source of jihad and terrorism. Tensions were building in some areas, but we were visiting as regular tourists, something almost unthinkable now in terms of a journey by road from the Chinese border to Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Gilgit itself was not a fun place to be though, even back then. I noted in my travel diary that
‘Gilgit has polo ponies and very little else’, and that women do not walk the streets.'
Later, on a second visit in 1997, we saw half-naked men with a fierce, haunted look in their eyes and sporting red weals on their back from the self-inflicted lashes during a recent religious festival. There were army snipers positioned on the rooftops too, alert to any outbreaks of trouble.
But in 1995, the place was still receiving foreign visitors, and we could wander the streets more or less safely. And then the merchant told me an irresistible tale, of how local merchants crossed the mountains by night to avoid official checks, and bought costume and jewellery from the local tribespeople, transporting it back secretly across the border.
He added another seductive element to the pitch, as I offered a lower price than he quoted:
‘You were our rulers once, so for you I give a discount,’ he announced with great dignity, and the deal was clinched. I suppose I was half seduced by the fact that I might still have memsahib status, a touch of colonial authority, and a little horrified that we were still thought of as empire-builders. Both emotions worked in his favour.
Only now do I look up on the map and find exactly where Waziristan lies - on the Western edge of Pakistan, bordering Afghanistan. It is called a ‘federally administered tribal area’ of Pakistan, and the Wazirs were never ruled by the British, unlike their neighbours, though they made life difficult with raiding parties into occupied territories. The waistcoat, as you can see, is bright and bursting with cheerful colour, a mix of elegant symmetry and crazy patchworking of the different pieces. Yet I learn now that in Waziristan, ‘women are carefully guarded, and every household must be headed by a male figure’. Could this be a male waistcoat? Possibly, although internet images I view now under Waziri embroidery show skirts and women’s attire.
Whatever, whoever it was made for, it is a beautiful piece of work. It’s stiff and unyielding as a waistcoat but I like that too, and it sits well over a plain purple dress that I have, or to top a pair of black trousers. It marks a time and place for me, and as well as joy in wearing it, I feel a sadness too that the world has changed and now I will never make it to Waziristan.