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Sifting The Layers Of Pakistan's Past And Future

A man rides his bike down the former main street of the ancient city of Sirkap, which was a crowded settlement more than 2,000 years ago. Villagers now use the street as a shortcut home.
John Poole
A man rides his bike down the former main street of the ancient city of Sirkap, which was a crowded settlement more than 2,000 years ago. Villagers now use the street as a shortcut home.

In northwestern Pakistan, there are signs of ancient civilizations -- far, far older than the British Empire that once ruled the subcontinent.

We're visiting a green valley in Taxila. It's covered with the ruins of ancient cities, which are layered on top of even older cities.

But we've come here to focus on India's and Pakistan's youth. And amid the relics and ruins, we've found at least three layers of Pakistan's next generation.


The Officer's Daughter

One layer is represented by a 16-year-old named Mah Gul. We met her amid the artifacts at the Taxila Museum, where she was wandering with her sister and brothers.

Her favorite display was the coins and jewelry, Gul says. She is beautifully dressed, with a glittering scarf around her shoulders. The kids came here with their father, an army colonel. In Pakistan, that fact means a lot.

As a member of a military family, Gul attends a good school, reserved for military personnel and their offspring. She's poised, and speaks English well. She has many future prospects.

Gul wants to go to college, to study to be a cardiologist -- "because my mother liked this occupation," she says.


As Gul's father knows well, there's a war against Taliban militants under way just a short drive from this museum. It keeps some of the tourists away from Taxila.

But it won't necessarily keep this family from living a good life. Pakistan's military has gradually taken a larger share of the country's business, and land.

The Museum Guide

When we move out to see more of Taxila, we find another layer of Pakistan's youth: Assad Mehmod, 24, approaches us at the ruins of an ancient city. He works here as a guide. He promises to show us three city levels.

"You know, now we are standing on the third city, and two more cities still under the ground," he says, noting that the same city was destroyed three times over.

The building walls are long gone, but the foundations have survived, for around 2,000 years. In the late afternoon sun, we stroll along what was once the main street. This valley was a crossroads of cultures -- Buddhists, Hindus and others -- as the remains from several religions' stone temples attest.

Mehmod's late father worked as a guide here. Now Mehmod is a guide; he wears a loose brown shirt, with a white pen in the pocket. His job brings in the equivalent of $83 a month.

But Mehmod has ambition. He's taking exams for an archaeology degree.

He gestures toward the open ground beyond these ruins. He believes he could find more ruins buried there. All he needs, he says, is a budget to work with. And if his work takes him away from home, that's fine with him.

Asked if he thinks he would have a better life outside of Pakistan, Mehmod says, "Yes. I hope. Yeah."

The Stonecutters' Life

As the sun sinks behind the mountains, we pull away from the ruins -- and into a present-day bazaar. Music pours out of a shop that sells souvenirs and artwork. It's a Shiite Muslim song of mourning.

Nearby, several shops sell decorated gravestones, and stonecutters work just off the road.

Malek Tehmush Sehgal, 23, pushes a block of stone across an electric table saw. Water pours down to keep the saw blade cool. It turns the workshop floor into a swamp at his feet.

Of course, he wears no gloves or goggles -- this is an old-fashioned business. Electricity came to these workshops only 15 years ago. The shop owner, Mohammad Anis, says his father was in this business, and his father before him.

"We've been doing this for 1,000 years," he says in Urdu.

The finer work is still done by hand, with hammers, chisels, spikes and other tools that a workman fishes out of a shed. The workers cut Quranic inscriptions or designs of leaves and vines into the gravestones.

Many of the stonecutters are young, without much education. In another shop across the street, we watch one of the youngest workers, chipping away.

His name is Raja Junaid Mahmood, a smooth-faced kid who says he's 17. His father and grandfather were also in the business.

An Uncertain Plan For The Future

When we ask what he thinks of the ruins of ancient cities up the street, Mahmood replies in Urdu, "I think about those people who were lords, and kings, and they were destroyed."

It's possible people will find Mahmood's stone carvings someday.

"Maybe," he says, "somebody will look back and say we were artisans."

Mahmood enjoys stonecutting, but he's just doing it to earn money. He's attending a government-run high school at the same time. Asked if he wants to continue cutting stone after high school, he says no.

He'd like to get more education, maybe become an electrician. But he's not certain how to do that.

So far, he's been able to save 500 rupees -- the equivalent of $5.89. It will take a lot of work for him to reach beyond the world of his ancestors.

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