There are many character traits that describe Geoffrey Langlands: wise, experienced, disciplined, stubborn. In my view, “energetic” best describes the 96-year-old Major, headmaster of the Langlands School and College in the Chitral Valley, Pakistan, from 1989 until his retirement in 2012. He has been driven to serve his country as a soldier, to educate schoolchildren, first in England and then in Pakistan since independence in 1947, and ultimately to persevere in a region shaken by instability and destruction.
It is a monumental life that has been masterfully captured by my colleague Daniel-Dylan Böhmer, a journalist at Die Welt, in his book about Langlands, The Major Who Outwitted The War, published in Germany. It goes well beyond the biographical details and the challenges Pakistan currently faces: it is even more the story of what the country might look like once peace prevails. Langlands has become a global figure attracting global attention to Chitral while Pakistan’s future remains fragile.
In remote Chitral, bordering Afghanistan and the war-torn Swat district, tolerance has become a reality through the Langlands School. A different narrative of Pakistan is being written there. Boys and girls alike enjoy a good education, parents take pride in the opportunities that then open up for their children, and the Major is accorded the greatest respect for his commitment to the region in which he still lives. (You can follow him on Twitter, where he has nearly 32,000 followers.) He has a firm and realistic belief that children need attention, identity and success stories they can write themselves.
The people of Chitral have resisted the Taliban because of their moderate religious beliefs and because their children embrace debating the politics that touches their young lives instead of taking up arms. Their strongest weapon is their thirst for empowerment. While education can be sometimes the right way to combat radicalism, empowerment always is.
It is too early to call what the people of Chitral have created a real civil society, but it is certainly the beginning of one. That future society is made visible through the individual stories that Böhmer relates in his book — a biography that reads like poetry. Böhmer describes how coincidences have always been part of the Major’s journey but, as he says, “You don’t live this kind of a life by accident.”