In the cross-hairs of the Taleban
By Harald Doornbos in Peshawar
At first glance it is hard to see anything out of the ordinary. The white villa is large. The living room is spacious and beautifully decorated. The sofa is soft. The drink served this morning is tea with milk.
“This is certainly different from Finland, but I enjoy living in Pakistan”, says 30-year-old Maryam Mirja Jusufazai, Finn from Rauma.
Maryam covers her head with a scarf. She speaks fluent Pashtun, the language spoken by residents of the area near the border with Afghanistan. In the living room are also Maryam’s husband Osama, 34, and their two-year-old son Armaan.
“Sometimes I feel that it would be better to leave Pakistan. It is too dangerous here”, says Osama. “But believe it or not, Maryam wants to stay.”
The danger in Peshawar is so concrete that weapons are stored in the house: pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles.
The story of Mirja Nordling would be interesting as such - that of a Finnish girl who became a Muslim woman and moved to Pakistan to live with her husband and her in-laws. But the story has an even more exciting aspect. Instead of falling in love with an ordinary Pakistani man, she found Osama Jusufzai, the son of a renowned and influential former brigadier, ex-security secretary of the tribal areas.
Mahmood Shah, 60, is well-known for his anti-Taleban and anti-Al Qaeda stands. This has made him a hero among many ordinary Pakistanis who themselves are too scared to speak out against Islamic extremism.
But it has also made him some enemies. Last October, Shah was warned by the Ministry of Interior in Peshawar that he is on the Taleban’s death list.
He had the dubious honour of being number one on the list. Because Shah and his wife share their house with Osama, Maryam and the baby boy, the whole family is a target.
“I am not afraid of these Taleban guys,” Shah nevertheless says, “Of course; I do not take every day the same route to my work. But I sleep well.”
Numbers two and three on that same list - both politicians - have already been attacked by Taleban bombers.
As Maryam, Osama, and their son live in the same house with Osama’s parents, the whole family is in jeopardy.
The threat of the Taleban is very real in Peshawar. Armed guards are on duty everywhere outside the Mahmood Shah’s family home.
This is Peshawar’s so called Defence Colony, where mainly army officers and their families live. Ever since the Pakistani army has launched successful offensives against Taleban forces around Peshawar - in the areas of Swat and Waziristan - Taleban suicide bombers have tried to avenge their losses.
Armoured vehicles patrol the streets everywhere in Peshawar. Nervous, but friendly policemen are on duty at checkpoints in the city.
The soldiers have set up bunkers of sandbags on the rooftops of government buildings, schools for girls, mosques, and the local museum. The task of the snipers there is to shoot potential Taleban attackers before they can detonate themselves and create yet another massacre in this busy city of over a million inhabitants.
The most recent casualty figures paint a dramatic picture of the security situation in Pakistan’s most dangerous city Peshawar and the rest of the North-West Frontier Province or NWFP. According to the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), in 2009 a total of 1137 terrorist attacks took place in the province – more than three a day. In Peshawar alone, there were 170 attacks, in which a total of 445 civilians were killed, and over 1,500 were injured. In addition, the Taleban killed about 200 policemen says the Inspector General of police, Malik Naveed Khan.
Maryam and Osama met Osama had come to Finland to study international business at a school in Rauma. One of his friends had a sister. Her name was Mirja.
“It wasn’t love at first sight,” remembers Maryam, who studied Business Administration, “It slowly grew”.
Initially, neither one would have wanted to fall in love with someone from another culture.
“I thought that it would be easier to marry a Pakistani Muslim”, Osama admits.
“I too never intended to start dating a foreigner,” Maryam recalls, “let alone a dark Pakistani, a Muslim.”
After meeting Osama, Maryam started reading the Koran. “Religion was new to me, because I had not been raised in a religious way at all.”
In 2001 Maryam told Osama that she wanted to convert to Islam
“It was a small shock to me”, says Osama. “I thought this was not necessary.”
In early 2001 the couple decided on the date for Maryam’s conversion: September 23rd, twelve days after the attacks of 9/11.
It is hardly surprising that it did not go well with most of Maryam’s family and friends.
Born into a middle-class family, Maryam’s father worked as a steelworker at a Rauma shipyard, her mother was a housewife with Estonian roots. “Some were scared that I was becoming one of those terrorists”, Maryam recalls.
Emotions ran high on both sides. Mirja chose the Islamic name Maryam. Her mother stopped speaking to her for a little while.
“I cannot blame her family for anything. Religious conversion is a big matter”, says Osama, who spoke fluent Finnish by then.
On a lighter note Osama recalls how life stayed the same for him after 9/11. “I never felt discrimination in Finland because I am a Muslim”, he says.
After the terror attacks in New York and Washington, Finnish friends would jokingly call him Osama Fin Laden.
“I thought that was kind of funny”, Osama giggles adding that “I checked it out and came to know that Osamaa, with two A’s at the end, is actually a Finnish family name.”
In 2003 Maryam visited Pakistan for the first time to meet Osama’s parents.
“I and the rest of the family immediately liked her”, recalls father-in-law Mahmood Shah.
A good relation with your in-laws is crucial in a country like Pakistan where the joined family system prevails. Couples do not move out and live separately from their parents; married couples move in with the parents of the husband and all live under the same roof.
“I told them one thing though”, says Mahmood Shah, in a very serious tone.
“I know my family tree back until 1680. I know every name of every ancestor, every generation. And never – I repeat never - was there a divorce.”
he point was clear. Mahmood Shah had nothing against this mixed marriage between East and West. But once married, you stay married. Divorce is not an option.
A year later, on Valentine’s day 2004, the girl from Rauma and the boy from Peshawar got married in in Mardan, a city close to Peshawar.
During the three day long traditional Pashtun-wedding, Maryam dressed colourful clothes. “I was pretty nervous,” smiles Maryam, “I only relaxed a little on day three.”
Not long after, a formal marriage dinner was hosted in the Pearl Continental, Peshawar’s sole five-star-hotel. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali sent the couple a gift. The governor of NWFP attended, as well as several high-ranking officers of the Pakistani army.
How did these Pakistani Muslims react to a Western bride?
“Very positively. Their comment was Masha’allah [the will of God]. He with his dark hair and she with her green eyes and blond hair, they make a good couple”, Mahmood Shah says.
After the wedding the young couple returned to Finland and found an apartment in Helsinki. Maryam had started to cover her hair with a scarf.
“It is not like you cover your head immediately”, she says. “But slowly and gradually you also become a Muslim from the outside.”
Some of Maryam’s friends felt that her behaviour was “rather strange”.
“I was the only one in Rauma to use a scarf”, Maryam recalls.
In 2006 Mahmood Shah started to develop health problems. According to Pashtun tradition, the eldest son is expected to care for the parents. Osama was therefore expected to move from Helsinki back to Pakistan to help his family.
“I hesitated. Pakistan is a dangerous country, where life is sometimes difficult for a woman. But Maryam felt that we should go to Pakistan”, Osama says.
On June the ninth last year, Maryam felt the blast of the explosion. Osama felt it as well.
The Taleban had detonated a massive car bomb two kilometres away, blowing up the hotel where the wedding dinner of Maryam and Osama had been held. Large parts of the Pearl Continental hotel collapsed. Eleven civilians were killed in the blast and 50 were injured.
“The whole house shook. I immediately held our son close to me”, Maryam says.
Many more attacks followed in Peshawar. Car bombs, suicide bombs, bicycle bombs, donkey cart bombs. Banks, markets and mosques were blown up. There were rumours Peshawar would fall into the hands of the Taleban.
Three times Osama was close to the scene of a bomb blast.
He describes one of them: “I was blown to the floor,” he explains, “Twenty meters from me a bomb went off. You see many dead and wounded people lying on the floor. It is just terrible.”
Whenever there is a bomb blast now, Maryam checks by text message to make sure her father and father-in-law are still alive.
“You never think you would have to do these things in life”, Maryam says.
Osama agrees: “In Finland I once read a story in the newspaper about a car crash. Nobody was dead, nobody was wounded. Still, it was news enough to make it into the paper.”
Like his father, Osama has nothing good to say about the Taleban.
“Why do they try to shove religion through somebody’s throat?”
Mahmood Shah responds: “Pakistan is an Islamic state and is a state for Muslims. These fanatics have hijacked the whole religion of Islam for their version of Islam.”
With the ongoing violence in the city and the Taleban threat to their house, is it possible for Maryam to keep on living in Peshawar?
“I still like it here. I live among wonderful people. The atmosphere in our home is very good. The family members of my husband are like a father, mother, and sister to me. They take good care of me.”
Maryam admits to missing at least one thing in Finland: being able to move around freely on he own.
“Because of traditions and due to the security problems, a woman in Peshawar can’t travel by herself. So I can never just go somewhere. People always stare. You either sit at home or you have to wait until somebody drives you somewhere. Just going out on your own, yes, I think I sometimes miss that.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.3.2010