Saltbox was a one-week residency curated and produced by Salt Arts in June - July 2019, with a focus on interdisciplinary collaboration and community cohesion, and was built to address, and to realise the need for personal and collective thinking around a significant environmental and cultural crisis happening in Northern Pakistan – owing to the influx of irresponsible, disturbingly loud, high handed and heartless tourism.
Excess and abundance, personal demands versus cooperation, humbleness instead of the notion of the self as most important, this residency was not about the ‘I’, it was infact about listening to each other softly as a group and accepting change, as it is came along. Geographically letting the universe guide time, and poetically drifting with the massiveness of what the eye and heart saw. How does a group so diverse and so urban, adjust and move as one, realizing the power of collective understanding? Is real change triggered by the change in heart? Is human understanding the building block of future leadership, across disciplines?
Salt Arts Co-founder, Junaid Iqbal, emphasized on the need for professional and social diversity in this project, he was clear that we were looking for problem solvers to be in this mix, people who in their own capacities were pushing the boundaries in their fields. The production team itself was a diverse mix, equally benefiting from this creative journey.
Drawing from voices and relationships of women leaders, this residency was delivered from the female heart and was made of common visions and stories, and it is important to understand how gender roles, specially that of women impact this conversation of climate, cultural sustainability and future movements of art, music, entrepreneurship and overall economic and cultural growth across generations in Pakistan and beyond.
The women that inspired and conducted this residency include (in no particular order):
Asma Haider – Hospitality Lead, Mountain Story Resort
Anusha Shahid – Travel Lead, Find My Adventure
Ayesha Siddiqui – Manager Design and Production, Salt Arts
Raania A. K Durrani – Curator Saltbox and Artistic Director, Salt Arts
Aqueela Bano – Community Leader and Manager of Ciqam: Women’s Social Enterprise AKCSP
Iram Shaista – Research Associate AKCSP / Faculty Development Studies at Karakoram International University
The Team at KhaBasi Café and Residence, Altit, Hunza
Laal Shehzadi – Organic Farmer and Chef: Karimabad, Hunza
Saira Faiz – Hospitality Specialist, Moksha Resorts, Gulmit, Hunza
Interactive sessions and leaders:
SALTBOX 2019 was held in Aliabad, Hunza in Northern Pakistan, at the Mountain Story Resort, which is a solar powered, eco-friendly operation, ten yurts from the top till the bottom of a hill, orchards in between and a cosy common area with food, music and the warmth of the hosts, Asma Haider and Atif Khan.
Eleven residents, traveled from their hometowns (Karachi, Lahore, Mansehra, Dubai, Sargodha) to Islamabad, and then onwards to Hunza by road, sharing the magnificence of the Karakoram Highway and the vertical mountainscape, on the way the group stayed overnight in Naran, and then finally reached Hunza via the snowy Babusar Pass, where they were welcomed by the Salt Arts team. All travel and excursions were organised and managed by our partners at Find My Adventure – Pakistan’s largest online travel portal.
The pre-production process was quiet, yet exciting. When we secured our first funded position for a visual artist, we were ecstatic and hoped the generosity of Priya Fatima Khan and Faraz Khan, would inspire others to step up. We reached out to several organisations, artists and foundations. Soon after Strings pledged to support another position, of a woman musician, for which we ran a call for entries, the band selected Mavish Peter, flutist and fast bowler from Sargodha. Strings helped set the precedent of supporting the arts from within the sector in Pakistan, an empowering moment for all of us.
Engro, came forward and individual support came from our long time audience member, Hadi Akber Ali. This enabled us eventually to host 6 residents in funded positions, including Zahid Mayo, Wajahat Malik, Mavish Peter, Hussain Dossa, Fahad Saeed and Murtaza Jafri.
During this time we also faced situations, which made us evaluate the opportunity costs of certain production decisions – people were the strongest element of this project, and our like-mindedness was the glue. It was reassuring, that our partners and funders, valued the artistic process and the gracefulness of outcomes.
The week before was a production workshop of sorts for our team. Arriving in Gilgit was a big relief and a sense of familiarity brought comfort.
Moving over to SCOM phones, we first sorted our communications, which in comparison to the years before, was like magic. It already felt like sorcery, emails were interrupting the day, out of context whatsapp messages on social groups began pinging – it just didn’t make any sense. Surrounded by walls of rock and snow, clouds and sky, endless stars and satellites – one saw a photo of a friend climbing a wall halfway across the world. The universe had its complex systems of connecting people and hearts, and that’s when the ball dropped. All of this was supernatural. I sopped chasing communication that wasn’t absolutely necessary or driven by the heart.
Like a workshop in minimal production, the team learnt about using less and working with what was already there. Why disturb, and recreate the urban concert scene, why use lights that mask the night sky? Low-lit was the way.
The sound system arrived, after it had been used for a VIP visit at the Serena Hotels in Karimabad, Hunza – with the same system we set up a jam room, in Aliabad’s panoramic café at Mountain Story. Resident producer and musician Hussain Dossa worked closely with the sound vendor Tufail and created the best possible mix, by late afternoon the music had begun.
New friends and new sounds filled the cosy spaces, the round yurts and the twenty-two seater managed by Find My Adventure that the group traveled in.
We spent an afternoon with Aqueela Bano and her team at Ciqam, Aqueela is a community leader – a woman who has witnessed the struggle of poverty, gender discrimination – and day after day wins the fight and inspires many women like her to be financially independent while doing work that is meaningful and sustainable to the natural environment.
Ciqam, a women’s social enterprise supported by the AKCSP (Aga Khan Cultural Support Program) and the Norwegian Embassy features a women run woodworking and non-traditional crafts workshop, a beautiful residence, a music school and a café. Ciqam is now reaching financial sustainability through the innovative approaches and hard work of this team of women.
To date the organisation has trained over 100 women in trades, which were always seen as the professions of men. Aqueela makes a strong argument to those who ask her if women are able to sustain the physical labour required for carpentry, masonry and building. She brings to our notice that women for centuries in this part of the world have carried heavy loads of firewood, vegetables and water on their backs for hours, uphill, to feed and serve their families – isn’t that labour testament to their strength, should they not be allowed to earn from it?
It was a very warm day - tourists were going up and down the Altit Fort, the team at Ciqam, meticulously coaching them on decorum, trash management and general kindness.
We ate a beautiful meal prepared by the team at Kha Basi Café – our time there was limited and we had to move on. Aqueela returned to the office, attending phone calls, managing, resisting and securing.
Did we understand that the spaces we enjoy are a result of personal and collective sacrifices by the community? I keep thinking about that over and over again. I remember the stunning modular bench made of green wood in the Ciqam workshop, priced at 28000 Rupees, a number the group kept reflecting on as so low. The Salt Arts team returned after the residency, to spend the day with Aqueela and the musicians at the Leif Larson Music School, their struggle for sustainability is immense and their work is substantially impacting the issues of gender based independence in Hunza.
What one sees is not all that there is.
Is responsible travel only about limiting urban abundances and reducing trash? Is it not also about being humble and respectful to a land, its people and value systems? What is cosmetic, what is gimmickry and what is real? The heart and its compassion for people are certainly always real.
One night Mazuz and his trio came down from the Ghulkin village and performed in the low-lit orchard, under the pink bulbs we have used in over five shows in the past - some of which light our studio in Karachi. At the end of 2018, before we began producing our annual blockbuster Super Salt, we decided to end the excessive use of materials and plastics on our sets, making do and appropriation became our new direction. Locally crafted objects, reusable and natural design elements became our priority.
How bizarre and magical is appropriation. How the same things make different stories. That night was the first time Mavish Peter jammed with new people and performed outside her church and her personal spaces. Under the same lights, in the winter of 2018, The Mekaal Hasan Band, Mughal-e-Funk, Khumariyaan and Somewhatsuper - enthralled an inimitable Karachi audience on an unusually cold night at the Arts Council Amphitheatre.
A few days later Mavish spoke to me and said, ‘I never knew I could do this’. We soon found out that Hananah Zaheer, our resident writer from Dubai, was also a Sargodha girl. Born there and had attended the same convent school as Mavish for a short time. That evening we got the #sargodhagirls together in conversation, both women so different, yet so connected – spoke of their mothers, and the power of memory and desire.
Hanging off the back of a tractor with my team, I see Zahid Mayo meandering like a gentle river on his cycle, a thick smoke pressed between his dry lips, on the Karakoram Highway, with the immense Passu Cones behind him. I look to my colleague, Asad, and we share a moment. Zahid was the contemporary master. He was the artist who people would reminisce about and tell stories of on a cold night in somewhere in Punjab. Asad picks up the camera, we tell the tractor to slow down. Zahid rides over and swiftly disappears again, into his thoughts and out of our frame.
Our creative collaboration with Zahid started long before the residency began. We had been trying to reach Zahid, three days later we discovered he was down in his basement studio working without phone signals. In his signature style we agreed that Zahid would write Faiz Saheb’s poem, Shorish-e-Barbat O Nay, which we then adapted in music and in messaging for SALTBOX 2019.
This project while as much about realizing the need for letting go of urban abundances, was also about respect to the diversity of professions, thought and craft.
We travelled to Duikar one evening – a distant blur and a delusional climb later we reach a spot where the mountainscape danced in the evening light. Junaid Iqbal led a conversation here about urban productions, how to achieve scale in a way which is sustainable; environmentally and culturally – and also in a way that is socially equlaising.
As a small orgranisation of a particular ethos, this is something we struggle with on a regular basis, having the diverse views in response was priceless. While Hussain Dossa – musician and producer spoke from the audio-visual production angle, others such as Rayyan Durrani talked about need based production values at food festivals. Murtaza Jafri from Engro had a separate view altogether. Detailed conversations and related content will be published soon.
It was a very sleepy afternoon after a long day out, Hussain Dossa sent messages out to the in-house musicians, telling us to wake up and head over to the jam room. He was inspired and we began experimenting. Earlier that day we had met musician Zia at the Lief Larson Music School, and had invited him over in the evening as well.
Around the same time Rayyan was walking around the orchards with Chef Raees from Mountain Story, picking out local produce for the ‘long table’ dinner task he had as part of SALTBOX. The evening was mellow, slowly simmering music and food.
Around 8PM or so I had ended a team meeting in yurt 9, and decided to head to mine to put on a long-sleeve shirt as the night was chilly, minutes later Mayoon (a member of the Mountain Story staff) came running down and started banging on my door, yelling ‘Jaldi ayen, aap ko manager saheb bula rahe hain’ (Hurry over the manager is calling you) – I hurriedly put on my flip-flops and went running up – their team was as breathless as I, they told me that the President, of Pakistan was about to visit for dinner – in less than an hour.
They asked for our support in hosting Dr. Alvi, and welcoming him and his family into our evening activities. We were told he had been in Hunza attending the Tour De Khunjerab, and wanted to drop by for dinner. There was a sense of panic amongst the staff – we assured our partners we would help out. Soon after the entire team and the residents came together and helped set up seating in the jam room, we pulled out chairs, stools and everything we could find from all over the resort, rooftops and so on.
I can safely say that we were all in ‘holiday wear’, panting and out of breath from all the running around - but the situation was eventually quite chilled out, they were good guests. The president and his family arrived and enjoyed the ongoing jam, Hussain Dossa opened the evening with an announcement he says he had always wanted to make ' Ladies and gentlemen, the president is in the house', after which he led an open jam with Zia and Mujeeb on indigenous instruments, Mavish on flute, himslef and I on vocals. Later we performed Faiz saheb’s poem; Aaj Baazaar Main Pabajolan Chalo, upon request.
Around the same time in the kitchen the door flung open and Rayyan was informed that now he was cooking for the president as well. Rayyan narrates his experience the best. It was all well, the meal was enjoyed by everyone, Rayyan detailed what he had cooked – the president who is mostly vegetarian enjoyed the local spinach / Hoi stir-fry and Rayyan’s spin on the walnut cake. We gifted him some Salt Arts goodies, including limited edition Zahid Mayo merchandise and our signature hoodie. His teams insisted they pay for it, and were appreciative of the work and the process involved in this production.
On the last day in Hunza, the team had many conversations with residents, by this time layers of urban baggage had been abdandoned. In a lengthy conversation about gender roles, Fahad Saeed spoke about how women multiply the effect and impact of environmental sustainability, whereas Murtaza Jafri disagreed and said everyone had an equal role to play. Roommates Samia Hasan and Zainab Tariq, spoke about entrepreneurship, challenges for women and how to be resilient – Mariam Durrani, senior brand builder at Pakistan Cables led this conversation, and was keen on creating a set of recommendations for our partners at Ciqam. How do women lead in this area and how can they reach sustainability through innovation.
Remembering the heart to heart again, the Sargodha girls spoke about their mothers. It was a tear jerking moment, Hananah had last come to Hunza with her mother and this journey she said empowered her to make her creative work count more. Mavish mid conversation revealed on camera, that she was infact a fast bowler, having played in the Under 19 team from Sargodha. We were mindblown. What has stayed with us, are the stories we were able to unfold.
Zahid painted a Ghalib verse on yurt 5 all day – he spoke about the stark differences of the city of Lahore and its hot and polluted atmosphere versus the crispness of the thin air in Hunza. He spoke of what he saw and how he felt when new music and work was being created.
While we were recording his conversation, someone, I think it was Samia, was singing far away on the roof, enjoying the starry night – we needed some silence and before we could ask, Zahid yelled out to her in his classic and very affectionate Mayo humour - ‘Iqbal Bano – do minute to chup ho jao’. The group had bonded.
It would be fair to say that this project was filled with challenges. From the inception to the delivery – working in a space, which is so different in terms of its navigation, understanding of time, pace of action and the physical ask. It was a common joke between the team members that this production was best described as an obstacle course. For those of us used to working in offices, seeing the world on retina powered screens – the run up to the common area of the resort from the orchard stage and yurt 8 and 9 (our camp office) was about 6 flights, according to our production manager Hasan Ali. We all came back with stronger calves, and kinder hearts ofcourse – as we watched the staff at Mountain Story make endless trips up and down the site all day – with luggage sometimes, and always with a smile.
I mentioned earlier that this project was women led across partnerships, and it was inspiring to see the gender balance, as it should be. There were a few moments when we recognised that perhaps some experiences have been demystified for those who have had them before, but simply being in an environment; Pakistan’s most poetic natural heritage is deeply moving, every time. As a student I once read a book by a traveler that said something along the lines of - the more you see of these mountains, the more you want to see. There was also a challenge around maintaining clarity on what this project was, and why it was often being misunderstood as adventure travel, or an arts workshop. While our work is inter-disciplinary, this was the first time with a project like SALTBOX – and we have come back with courage and learnings.
In the late evening we recorded a live session, the last in that beautiful jam room with producer Hussain Dossa and members of Jiill, which will soon be released online. There are so many stories to tell, which will keep surfacing as we go along, for now the team is only just beginning to process all that went on. The fact that we in urban centers have become accustomed to the strange, the inhuman and the unnatural is what comes up again and again. Our new season is perhaps in a way connected to that idea of magic realism – what we see is not all that there is.
In a journal entry the day after the residency ended, when all bones ached, and the brain was fuzzy – the mountain just as immense.
July 2nd 2019: Today I thought about whether the heart – the place where things simmer and sing really is the heart. Isn’t that the functional organ? Isn’t the actual simmering spot the eye on the flamingo mountain face in the evening sun, doesn’t that tell you more than ever - about your love? Isn’t the ‘heart’ actually in the slowly swimming satellites of the massive night? Disguised as stars, quickening the breath, just as slowly - luring you into a cosmos of longing. Far off melodious sounds from the mosque and then - silence. Silence darkens the night sky. Technology was posing as our greatest ally.
Raania Azam Khan Durrani - July 2019
Ayesha Siddiqui Raania A. K Durrani Maan Sheraz