Families in Kashmir are falling apart, literally and psychologically. Caught for decades between a militant separatist uprising and brutal government suppression, they are increasingly turning to Sufi holy men, along with Western medicine, to cope with their distress. As you navigate Robert Nickelsberg's photo essay, listen to him and reporter Judith Matloff discuss how they reported this story together.
Read Judith Matloff's article.
Robert Nickelsberg is a photojournalist currently documenting the ongoing effects of terrorism in South Asia and the Middle East. He has worked in photojournalism for more than three decades. Recent work includes assignments in Afghanistan and Iraq for publications such as TIME and the New York Times.
Judith Matloff was a foreign correspondent for 20 years, lastly as the bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor in Moscow and Africa. She teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War (1997) and Home Girl (2008).
To cope with unprecedented psychological distress, many Kashmiris turn to holy men known as peers. They practice Sufism, a mystical school of Islam imported from Middle Asia in the 14th century, and are believed to have miraculous powers of healing. After reciting Koranic verses and blowing into a water bottle, peer Munshi Syed Hussin Kazmi runs beads over this young man’s face to restore his sight.
Thousands of people have died or disappeared during two decades of Islamic separatist uprising in Indian-ruled Kashmir. The unending violence has spawned what experts say is one of the highest levels of post-traumatic stress in the world. This woman just lost her son, who was mistaken for a militant and shot as he smoked a cigarette during a wedding celebration.
One of the most popular peers is Ahad Sahib, from the town of Sopore. He is also among the more eccentric – sitting naked under a blanket without uttering a word to the believers at his feet.
Many people see peers regularly, such as Hameeda Nazir, a mother of two whose brother and husband who were killed by security forces several years ago.
Up to 600 faithful can converge on peer Ahad Sahib’s house on a given day to seek his blessing. They extend all manner of things to be touched, from sacks of rice to salt, pens and identity cards.
Other peers are more like faith healers. For instance, Munshi Syed Hussin Kazmi keeps regular consulting hours much like a doctor. He strokes patients with daggers and beads to relieve their stress.
After tossing herbs in a charcoal brassiere, this peer jotted down a Koranic verse on a piece of paper and instructed Hameeda Nazir to wear it close to her heart. Then he handed the pair some blessed rock sugar, which they were to eat to dispel disturbing symptoms.
Peer Munshi Syed Hussin Kazmi uses beads as he treats a couple for anxiety and depression.
Funerals are a reminder that new deaths can exacerbate old traumas. Hameeda Nazir had been coping with the loss of her husband until another relative died recently. Then her heart palpitations, insomnia, and sense of dread returned.
Western medical experts may question these methods as unscientific, but they provide a powerful salve for the pain of deeply spiritual Kashmiris.
Read Judith Matloff's accompanying story on coping with trauma in Kashmir.
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