REFLECTIONS – MONTH 9: Sharbat and Süpürjüvn

After that delicious moment spent floating in time (see Reflections – Month 8), month 9 of our trip (still in Pakistan) passed in more active engagement and found us immersed in the local culture.

Our 9-year absence from Pakistan did not seem to have diminished our status as honorary guest and friend rather than foreign tourist. Wherever we went, we were welcomed as long-lost family members by old friends (including their close and distant relatives), and were greeted with shy admiration by veritable ‘fans’ of Matthieu. “Are you Matthieu Paley? The photographer? Would you come to my house for tea?” Who knew that Matthieu had a celebrity status in a far away corner of Northern Pakistan…

We spent most of our time in Gojal, north of Hunza, namely Passu and Chapursan. The region is inhabited by Wakhi people, which, if you would come and visit, would most likely defy the image you have of a remote mountain people in Pakistan. Let me quickly illustrate with some of Matthieu’s pictures:

Passu village, cricket player.

After a dust storm, cricket player in Passu village.

Straight out of Williamsburg….

Total hipster, wouldn’t you say? Anyways, those were the people we mostly hung out with. Through their modern views of the world and with perfect English – studying in Karachi, USA and Europe – we entered their strongly rooted Wakhi culture through some very special back-doors. One of those doors was opened to us by Sajid, who, in his own words, for a while was “the only Wakhi in the whole of Turkey”. Sajid had connected with Matthieu via Facebook when he found our book ‘Pamir’ and then realized that we all lived in Turkey. When he came to visit us in Alacati in 2015, I cooked a Moroccan style chicken for Thanksgiving (not that any of us is American)  and we stayed friends. Since then, 30-year old Sajid has finished his Masters in Engineering in Eskisehir and has returned to Passu, his home village. Of course we were staying with him and his family.

Life in and around Passu village, in Gojal region, upper Hunza.

Can you spot Timo and Iluka? Part of the family from the first moment…

Sajid’s mother, Hakima, is barely older than me. Married at 12, she had Sajid when she was 15 and, cliché defying, she is a modern, entrepreneurial Pakistani woman with a fashion store in Gilgit, who drives a car and has recently gotten into local politics. She opened her house to us with a generosity I would love to pay back one day. Sajid, while busy with his own projects (the development of a home biogas system for his mom, preparations for his Phd in Sweden) drove us around, organized a photography workshop for the local media interested youth with Matthieu and even tried to put together a mixed gender Pilates class, which got cancelled because it coincided with the first day of the annual cricket match… (These people really have to get their priorities straight!)

In the many years we’ve come to Pakistan in the past, we have spent a lot of time with the Wakhis in Gojal, have visited their high pastures, experienced their traditions and lifestyle and even learned their language (especially Matthieu who speaks Wakhi quite fluently). There was something different this time. It was like for the first time I saw Wakhi culture not through a filter of romantic tradition, but through the eyes of a lively and active youth that marries their respect and for their customs and culture with a fresh and modern take.

Through our personal connections we had a ‘way in’ that we didn’t have before. The children of our Wakhi friends from 10 years ago, had grown up and were living a modern lifestyle including mobile phones, facebook and email, building a bridge to our Western lives. We were allowed to attend the yearly celebrations of Salgira, a date that commemorates the Aga Khan’s first visit to the region, in the local Jamatkhana (which is the Isma’ili equivalent to a mosque and usually closed to non-Muslims). The ‘night show’, as they called it, was a mixture of recital of traditional Wakhi songs and poems as well as tongue-in-cheek sketches and plays performed by the youngsters, which had the old ladies in their embroidered skull caps chuckling and the girls whistling for more. We didn’t understand much, but it was clear that the Wakhi have a great sense of humour when it comes to making fun of their own culture.

Next, there was a series of wedding invitations, which seem to increase exponentially with the amount of weddings we attended. Every day we could pick, be it a süpürjüvn1, a tui2, a rhusat3 or all three. In Chapursan, Mehnaz, the nice of Alam Jan, our close old friend, was getting married, so here, we were really like family members and less like foreign ‘special guests’ who are readily invited to any wedding you might come across in Pakistan. For three days, we helped to prepare the bride, as well as the food, helped serve the wedding guest and hung out with the close family members of the bride in the back rooms waiting for the groom’s family to arrive from the neighboring village. One night, Matthieu even had to hold a speech in Wakhi, which earned him much respect and remarks including the words: ‘our esteemed international family’ and ‘we live in a global village’ by a local elder.

1 the day before the wedding, where the groom and bride get dressed and receive family members and guests in their own respective homes

2 the wedding day itself where the bride ends up leaving her home to move in with her new husband

3 the day after the wedding where the family of the bride goes to visit the family of the groom in their daughter’s new home.

The kids? Well, they just blended in somehow. We didn’t see much of them to be honest. Weddings all over the world come with children running around somewhere outside, living their own world of hide and seek, of playing ball and making friends, oblivious to tradition, speeches and meal times. After a few days of boiled mutton and bhat (a bland cream-of-wheat with melted butter poured on top) and much waiting around and drinking tea, I took a break from the wedding celebrations and worked on a self-imposed project to paint one of Alam Jan’s Guest House walls. For two days I immersed myself in my artwork trying my best to copy the view over our beloved Irshad Pass on a 2 x 4m wall. This resulted in the biggest migraine I’ve ever had in my life. It even made me throw up, which hadn’t happened to me since puberty. For 5 hours I sat in my bed, wanting to die, wanting rip my head of before I finally drifted into sleep. Matthieu is convinced I poisoned myself with the paint fumes. I recall washing my hands with turpentine a several times…


The famous ‘Orange Mountain’ on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. A special place in history…

It was a very special time, these weeks we spent amongst the people of Gojal. There is a hard-to-express beauty in feeling so at ease and so comfortable in a culture so different from my own. And, despite remembering to always have felt this way in Pakistan, something was different this time. I think it is age. In a good way. I feel good in my skin. Up there in the mountains amongst those people. Truly comfortable. For Matthieu, with his love for people and his language skills, it has always been easy to crack a joke and make himself welcome or quickly be forgiven for any intrusion. Me, I am more shy, I tag along, I observe. I am not the girl that asks a lot of questions, that confidentially squats next to a shepherd women and asks to help milk the goats. I need time. This time, it felt that I had finally caught up with myself. I knew who I was and that was just fine…

Towards the end of the month it was time to go back down the Karakoram Highway towards Gilgit. We were eagerly awaiting some VIP guests: After years of talking about how wonderful Pakistan is, we had finally convinced our very good friends Emanuelle and Julien to come and visit. They were bringing their two small daughters, Pema (8) and Mila (4). Timo and Iluka were more than excited to spend time with likeminded souls. Arthur, Matthieu’s younger brother, had also decided to jump on the opportunity, and so we are to be a merry group of nine for our remaining weeks in Pakistan.



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  1. Bob stanton /

    Thank you. a fascinating look at a corner of pakistan I had never seen before.

  2. Bernard Grua /

    Dear Ms Paley

    Matthieu Paley is a great source of admiration for me. Not only about his non questionable photographer talent but also about his human vision of the people. When I heard about the expected publishing of his book about Pamir, I could not stand waiting for it. I was expecting it like something very special. I religiously purchased the book for my brother and gave it to him, in our old family home of central Brittany. At the same time, my father gave me the same book, at the same place… Each picture is a gem. Your story across Wakhan corridor and little Pamir can only compare, for me, to Arsenyev’s one in Primorie.
    I decided to visit Wakhi people in Northern Pakistan this summer. Moreover, I wanted to see yaks. They fascinate me. I was told I should go to Chapursan and Shimshal. I collected the few information available and I read about Alam Jan, the unreachable man. Moreover I read about your friendship with his family.
    I was able, once, from France, to chat on internet with Alam Jan. I asked numerous questions. He told me he lived at the bottom of Irshard pass, your pass… He told me many things. I said him how I admire Matthieu Paley’s work. I think he liked it. Eventually, I wrote him “you are the man with whom I have to talk”.
    I arrived, a bit by accident in Sost, while I got a car opportunity in Karimabad. Hotel Reveria had no room for me. I was ready to leave. Where to go? I decided to stay and put my tent in the front yard. Once it was done, I was at the reception of the hotel facing difficulties to charge my cell phone. I was unable to get phone connection. Hotel internet was down.
    How could I join the mysterious man? How could I go to his home? And I saw him, just in the reception of the hotel! The way he looked, the way he talked, his smiling and open face, I knew it was him. Forgive me to be emphatic. I think Stanley was not so happy when he found Livingston. This was a providential encounter. I spent the following night in his guest house of Sost. I already observed that mentioning Alam Jan’s name was a magic password in Sost. I could just imagine how it would be in Chapursan valley.
    And I went to Zoodkhun with Alam Jan in his car. I slept in the room of your painting. Alam Jan and his large family spoke so many times of you. You are very special to them. They love you and they are proud of you. They never said that for any other foreigner but they told me you are part of their family. I heard the same words, about you, from Sarfraz Khan’s children. All the words of your article are the right ones. This is a real story better than any fiction. Thank you!

    Sincerely yours

    Bernard Grua, Nantes, Bretagne

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