The Alphabet Book

Taj Khan Kalash is passionate about stories. He has a vast collection of them, which he keeps inside and doesn’t reveal until the perfect opportunity–stories of his childhood, his travels, his dreams. But The Alphabet Book, while inspired by stories told by Taj, is really a story about Taj. For his own life’s story is as interesting as any that he has ever recounted.Taj was born into a shepherd’s family in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Northern Pakistan, in one of the three valleys inhabited by the Kalash, an ancient, pagan tribe that has dwindled to 3000 members. Legend holds that the Kalash people are descended from members of Alexander the Great’s army, which passed through the area over 2000 years ago. But the details of this legend have never been recorded. Like all Kalash stories, this one has been passed from generation to generation according to a great oral tradition.

When Taj was a child, the Kalash language had no alphabet. There were no schools for Kalash children, and the Kalash people were largely illiterate. There were, however, madrassas in the Valleys, where the Muslim faith was preached and classes were taught in Urdu and Arabic. Taj was sent to one of these schools, but when the mullahs tried to force him to covert to Islam, his uncle Jinnah, one of the few educated members of the tribe, took Taj to the capital, Islamabad, to attend a secular school. Taj was educated in Urdu and English, and eventually became the first member of the Kalash to graduate from university with a degree in law.

When Taj returned to the Valleys after his school years in the capital, he discovered a changing world. Government-built highways had brought trade, tourists, and missionaries to the once-isolated villages. Taj’s uncle Jinnah had helped begin Kalash schools, but classes had to be taught in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. With the new generation learning in a different language, the tribe’s elders began to worry that their oral legends and history would soon be lost. This growing threat to the tribal legends sparked in Taj a passion that drove him around the globe and back. Taj understood that the best way to preserve his culture was through education. Thinking of the legend of his tribe’s origins, he decided to look to Greece for help and inspiration in an essential project: the creation of a Kalash alphabet. Taj studied linguists in Greece, and with the help of several linguists, completed the alphabet. Then, with the help of a Greek non-profit organization, he published The Alphabet Book.

Our film begins with Taj returning to the Valleys after his years in Greece, a stack of small, colorful children’s books in his sack: The Alphabet Book. We see him driving in a dusty jeep on a dirt road that winds along the edge of a cliff, the dramatic snow-capped mountains rising above, a bright blue river coursing below. The jeep arrives in the lush, green valley, and is greeted by throngs of women in traditional black robes with colorful beads and headdresses and men in the simple salwar kameez; Taj’s family and friends who he hasn’t seen in years. Taj loves to hear stories as much as he loves to tell them. We’ll film him sitting on by the river or under a tree with the craggy-faced elders, drinking tea and listening to their stories. As Taj traipses through the Valleys working on his next book—a collection of Kalash legends as told by the elders and transcribed in the new script—he will also narrate his own story, the story of his childhood, his identity, and his struggle to save his endangered culture.

The accomplishment of creating an alphabet for an ancient language that has never had one is a feat of mythic proportion. But Taj faces one more challenge: before he can teach the children the new alphabet, he must convince the Pakistani government to give official recognition to the Kalash language and script, so that it can legally be taught in the schools. Then he can finally give this tool to the tribe, so that the legends can be committed to writing and the children can be taught in their own mother tongue.

This film, about the importance of language to our global heritage, the struggle for cultural self-determination, and the passion of one young storyteller, set in the verdant, enchanting Kalash Valleys, will be shot in High Definition video, and will be approximately 80 minutes long.


Extracted by Pattern Films

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