After years of war between militants and the Pakistani Army, Swat is now considered safe to travel to, and is open for domestic tourism. To explore the culture of Swat, I embarked on a short journey this summer, taking a bus from Rawalpindi to Mingora, the main town in Swat. The journey took five hours, with several security checkpoints along the way. 

At Mingora I transferred to a local van to get to the next town, Bahrain. The road was severely damaged by the flood last year, making the ride bumpy and dusty. I reached Bahrain late at night, and it had started to rain. Tired and exhausted, I was greeted by my host Zubair Torwali, a man in his late 30s with thick, combed hair, a well-trimmed moustache, wearing a traditional shalwar kameez.

Before falling into bed I had a cup of tea with Zubair and his friends in the hotel lobby. He would talk to me in Urdu while the rest of them spoke a language I was trying hard to understand. I can understand Pashto. This wasn’t Pashto at all. I curiously asked which dialect of Pashto they were speaking. Zubair smiled, paused, and with a confident gesture replied, “It wasn’t Pashto. We speak Torwali.”

Like many Pakistanis my assumption was that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) they speak only Pashto. In school I was taught that the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, and that Pakistan has four provinces: Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (now KPK) where Sindhi, Balochi, Punjabi and Pashto are spoken respectively.

It was not until I started travelling that I realised this country has more languages than those we were told about at school. Saraiki is widely spoken in southern Punjab and some parts of KPK and Balochistan; Brahui and Persian are minority languages spoken in Balochistan; Pashto is not only the language of KPK but is also widely spoken in northwest Balochistan; Kutchi, Thari, Memoni and Gujarati are also used in Sindh, as well as Sindhi; in Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir, more than seven languages are in currency, including Shina, Burushaski, Balti and Kohistani.

KPK is home to speakers of Hindko, Kalasha, Khowar, Sarieki and Torwali, as well as Pashto and many other languages. Trying to hide my ignorance, I said goodnight to Zubair with an embarrassed smile. I had learned of the existence of a new language, becoming more interested in learning about Torwali than in being a tourist in Bahrain.

The next morning, Zubair Torwali invited me to his not-for-profit organization, Idara Baraye Taleem-o-Taraqi (IBT) – the Institute for Education and Development – working on mother-tongue based multilingual education in Swat.