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Passion for preservation

Profile image for By Alyssa Scavetta / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Alyssa Scavetta / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
Heavy rain and mudslides created plenty of havoc during Sadaf Munshi’s trip to Gilgit and the Yasin Valley in Pakistan last summer. The linguistics professor at the University of North Texas was working with natives of the area to preserve the Burushaski language.
Heavy rain and mudslides created plenty of havoc during Sadaf Munshi’s trip to Gilgit and the Yasin Valley in Pakistan last summer. The linguistics professor at the University of North Texas was working with natives of the area to preserve the Burushaski language.

Some of her colleagues think of Dr. Sadaf Munshi as a modern-day Indiana Jones - a daring explorer of the dying languages of South Asia.

Every chance she gets, the soft-spoken University of North Texas professor - who prefers the orange Kameez dresses of her homeland, Kashmir, over traditional business suits - immerses herself in some of the most remote and inhospitable regions of Pakistan in search of endangered cultures and dialects.

During recent adventures in the Gilgit district and the Yasin Valley, Munshi faced harrowing encounters with massive floods, suffocating dust storms and wary natives who felt threatened by the professor and her ever-present recorder and video camera - all in the name of preserving the Burushaski language.

It was Munshi's eighth field trip to preserve Burushaski. During the first few years of her documentation work in a small neighborhood situated by the Hari Parbat Fort in Srinagar, India, the main city in the Kashmir Valley, she said, "getting to talk to a man about the language was difficult."

"In Kashmir, women are discouraged to talk to men who are not in their family. Documenting a language entails the development of lasting relationships with the native speakers," she said. "Every man in the Srinagar Burusho community is called by the surname raja, or king, and women tend to intermingle only with their gender. I had to visit year after year, build up a rapport and break the gender barrier."

Munshi persisted and slowly began winning over the natives, who eventually came to see her not as a threat but as a savior determined to help them preserve their waning language, their culture and, ultimately, their identity.

As she gained their trust, the anxious inhabitants of the politically disputed region began to flock to her in droves, hoping to preserve any piece of their culture and language that they could.

"They were very excited to see me," she said. "They sang and danced. The songs were very old, but they wanted to document those songs."

Munshi laughs as she talks about her visit to Gilgit last summer. She waved her hand, signaling her video camera was ready, and recorded their vivacious songs and hypnotic dances.

Linguists and cultural anthropologists familiar with her Documenting Endangered Languages project, funded by the National Science Foundation, contend that the success or failure of Munshi's efforts will have significant consequences, not just for the places where Burushaski is spoken and threatened, but for any part of the world, including North Texas, where local dialect and patois plays a pivotal role in a region's culture, commerce and way of life.

"The reason we should preserve languages is because they preserve us," says Haj Ross, a friend of Munshi's and a linguist and professor at the University of North Texas. "Language is the closest thing that can come to mind, and mind is the closest thing we can poke at with science to get to the spirit or soul. And of course the greatest writers, they've managed to say 'soul.' They say words which can start revolutions, which can make us weep, which can take us through battle. For example, in Japan, the character for the word 'poem' has the character for 'word' inside the character 'temple.' A place to make words sacred - imagine losing that."

The language of the estimated 100,000 Burushos (speakers of the Burushaski language) sets them apart from all the other inhabitants of the region, shaping their songs and dance, their poetry and their way of life. As Munshi discovered while recording, documenting and studying their language over the last seven years, there are no words in English that can truly capture the meaning of a large number of words in Burushaski.

"There is no word which simply means, say, 'eye', 'mouth,' 'egg', et cetera," says Munshi. "You have to say 'my/your/ his/her … eye.' For example, 'alcin' - 'my eye' ['al' rhymes with English 'mull', and 'cin' is like 'chin']. And then say, 'gulcin' - 'your eye' ['gul' rhymes with 'bull' in English)."

Words like that, however, are gradually being replaced by words from languages, such as Urdu, that are more dominant in the region. Without any written documentation of the language or previous preservation efforts, Burushaski will quickly dissolve into the ranks of dead languages.

The journey Munshi is on is not one of revival, but rather preservation. She's alerting the masses that this culture, and this dying language, exists and will not fade without leaving a mark.

Within its lavish beginnings, Burushaski bears a lively history. The ancestors of the Srinagar Burushaski dialect were from a royal family brought to Srinagar and put under arrest by British and Dogra troops in 1890-91, before India became an independent state. That is just part of the history that Munshi stumbled upon.

Munshi grew up in a traditional area known as Kashmir. She graduated from the University of Kashmir, and soon after became interested in linguistics. Though she lived and went to graduate school in modern Delhi, India, for four years before changing continents, her first visit to the United States required a big cultural adjustment.

"It was a totally new experience in terms of knowing the people whom I was only familiar with through film and TV," she said. "My perspectives about the Western society were quite different from what I actually experienced in reality."

Culture shock seems to go both ways, however. As Munshi travels back to her now-politically volatile hometown, she's found that she is forced to lead something of a double life. "Whenever I go back, I find myself putting on my usual conservative dress. Not only is it looked down upon to not have your head covered, but ..." she strains her voice to find the right term and agrees within herself, "I feel as if I stick out like a sore thumb."

That cultural diversity doesn't stop the determined linguist from accomplishing what she flew around the world for. She arrives in a small town in the Gilgit Valley, where cars may go but phones and Internet access are scarce. She sets up in one of the many mud-roofed homes and gets to work. Gently setting her recorder on the kitchen counter, escorted by her research assistants Wazir and Piar, she meets with native speakers and scrupulously goes over words. For many minutes, she simply asks each speaker to say what they know about the language, and the speaker repeats with words, songs and poems.

In a language that has never been written, all poems are spoken, so they must be recorded and documented. This process is repeated with each member of the town - their knowledge varying with the subject - who is willing to present their best knowledge of the language, starting with men and then moving on to the women.

Munshi shouts at Wazir, "You finish the recording; I need my sleep!" and Wazir generously agrees and finishes the task for the evening. It may sound like daunting work, and seemingly unnecessary, but this woman and these people who are caretakers of the dying language know why it needs to be done. They are preserving their heritage, and Wazir seems to be the leader of the pack from Yasin Valley, just like Masterji is from Srinagar, or Piar from Hunza, fully aware that they are close to losing it.

Those, however, weren't the only trials Munshi faced. Last summer, the Gilgit region and adjoining areas where Munshi was studying were hammered by vicious rainfall, creating a massive flood within hours that washed away roads and the mud-roofed homes of several villages. Signs of peril appeared when Munshi was in Hundur, a small village in the Yasin Valley, the day before, when the weather took a sudden shift from sunny to windy.

"It was as if dust was raining from the mountain," Munshi said. "It got so dusty, we all went inside and closed the doors because it was getting suffocating. And then we closed the doors and windows and we were sitting in the room. Still recording, it was like choking into the microphone."

That night, the rain started falling on sleepy Hundur. By the next morning, "the water was gushing down," Munshi's said, laughing. "There was no way our car could have gone through the roads and made back to the Gilgit city, which was five hours down the road."

In a frenzy, she was told to leave early before the roads closed. The car Munshi and her associates were using was damaged in a massive mudslide caused by the rapid rains. They decided to abandon the car and hitch a ride. They finally made it to Gilgit city, which also was badly affected.

Coming back from her studies across the world, it's back to the normal life of a professor in the West for Munshi. She wakes up at 6 a.m. to get her 5-year-old son ready for school, and still takes time to ready herself for her job at UNT. Daily activities include teaching, research and phoning her husband, who lives in Minneapolis. Later, she picks her son up from school, feeds him and gets him ready for bed.

Yet the process of documenting and recording Burushaski is not over. Thus begins the transcription process. Five minutes of recordings and video logs could translate to several tedious hours of work and study, and Munshi knows she can't do it alone. Sitting by her computer, she starts with the audio recordings. She lets it play for a few words at a time then pushes pause. She writes a word down, along with her notations and translations, making it readable for others willing to view her findings. She then plays more verses of voices that fill the room like humid air and escape quickly into the sound of silence once she pauses again. She reminds herself that soon it will be available for the world to study and remember.

Friends and associates of Munshi speak nothing but praise of her work. Timothy Montler, a UNT professor of linguistics, was eager to talk about his colleague.

"She is the leading expert in the U.S. on Burushaski, and she is uniquely qualified to study the language," Montler said. "She is a brilliant young scholar with a wealth of knowledge to share. Her work will have the attention of scholars around the world."

With a glow in her eyes, Munshi says, "In our university, they focus on working not only in local areas, but in far-flung areas where much research has not been done before. It's good for the university because we are able to work on new research in far-away remote areas."

By preserving such a tenuous language such as Burushaski, she's helping preserve not just a form of communication, but an endangered culture.

"The linguistic data could be historically very important and thus a contribution to several fields in social sciences globally," Munshi says. "Not just linguistics, but cultural anthropology, sociology and history."

She preserves an identity among the people who still speak it. If she is not successful, a piece of history that she knows - along with those who travel far to speak with her - could soon be forgotten in an ever-changing world.