A Journey to Kashmir’s Gurez Valley

Seeking to learn more about the area, we met with a 31-year-old assistant professor of English language and literature at Dawar College. Raqeeb Ahmad Lone had grown up in Tulail — and loves Walt Whitman’s poetry and “Lord of the Flies.” After talking with him for a couple of hours about Dard Shin folk tales and traditional life in Gurez, he offered to ask a local cultural group to perform for us. “They usually play just once or twice a year, on special occasions,” he said, “but let’s see.”

The following night, the Habba Khatoon Dramatic Club gathered at Dawar’s Tourist Reception Center, singing Shina ballads and dancing, accompanied by drums and a harmonium. Each song, Raqeeb explained, was an appeal from a lover, filled with unrequited longing and rich descriptions of the beauty of the beloved. By the time the 45-minute show was over, the room had filled with local men who had come to watch.

The troupe declined to be paid. It was their duty, the lead singer said, and they were happy to do it. (When I asked Raqeeb why no women had come, he thought maybe it was because of the spontaneity of the event, but didn’t know for sure. He said it would have been perfectly appropriate for men and women to socialize there, as at many events, including weddings, “you will find men and women singing and dancing together.”)

After a few sunny and satisfying days spent hiking in the hills around Dawar and visiting nearby villages, the time had come to return to Srinagar. We were advised to travel in the evening, when it would be safer, as it happened to be the second anniversary of the killing of the revered Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani. Mass demonstrations against Indian rule were anticipated in Srinagar, Bandipora and the surrounding towns, and throngs of stone throwers were expected to be on the roads during the day. Meanwhile, near Dawar, we met families who were out picking wild cumin.

Leaving Gurez as the sun began to set, I wondered what would change there over the next decade. We followed the golden light as it retreated up the valley’s walls and over the Razdan Pass. The 17 days we spent there already felt like a dream.

Michael Benanav is the author of “Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals — and an Ancient Way of Life.”