ISLAMABAD — In Pakistan’s northwest tribal region, where drones hum overhead and militants hide, this is romantic: “I am looking for you like a drone, my love,” a verse of a local folk poem says. “You have become Osama, no one knows your whereabouts.”
When Americans talk about drones, they envision terrorist targets in faraway lands. When Washington pundits talk about drones, they question whether push-button combat impedes intelligence-gathering or if civilians are accidental casualties.
But for those who live in the areas bombarded by armed drones, shadowy U.S. warfare has infected culture. Drones, reported to have killed at least 2,500 people in Pakistan alone, are featured in the music and poetry created there.
An Islamabad-based research group tracked the impact of the war on terrorism on Pashto literature and art in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, speaking with artists, poets, and literary figures to illustrate the cultural transformation since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“As a war was initiated on the soil of Pashtuns almost immediately … the bloodshed, bomb blasts, drone attacks, and aerial firing compelled writers to forget evergreen topics of love, romance, and nature,” said the FATA Research Center’s March report. “The violent circumstances that rose from the ashes of 9/11 compelled Pashto literati to write about broken families, severed limbs “¦ rather than silky curls and rosy cheeks of their beloveds.”
Those traditional, flowery images are sometimes combined with the war machines in art. A popular Pashto singer, Sitara Younis sings: “The touch of my lips sweeten words. Intoxicating as wine are my looks. My gaze is as fatal as a drone attack.”
Younis’s popular songs play on the radio and at weddings. Her other hit has an even darker theme: “Don’t chase me, I’m a trick,” she sings, warning a man to keep his distance. “I’m a suicide bomb.”
The violence in art reflects how dramatically life has changed in the tribal areas over the last decade. Average Pashtuns, the report found, now understand the meaning of English words such as “drone,” “terrorist,” and “suicide blast.” Children reference the Taliban and the Army in games. Many families were too afraid to invite guests to their homes after the drone campaign began for fear they could not protect them, says Irfan Uddin, a FATA Center researcher.
Some artists refer specifically to the Taliban as intended targets of the U.S. strikes. “Your eyes are no less than a drone,” one poem reads. “They turned me into ashes, as I was facing them like a member of the Taliban.”
When Uddin lived in Miranshah to conduct research, he saw how drones could inspire the acute fear that formed the basis for the art and poetry to follow. He was sitting in a courtyard one day when a friend calmly said, “The drone is coming.”
“I did feel it coming, but I never saw it,” Uddin said. “I got up, and started running to the house. It was the most awful moment in my life.”
A Pashto singer, Nazia Iqbal, highlights those feelings of helplessness in her poems: “My love, you are far away from me, and these drones will target you. I am helpless and can’t stop them, and my tears are dropping from my eyes as if water is dropping from a spring.”