Book Review: On Pashtuns and Tribal Areas

BOOK REVIEW: Tribal stories that reveal character by Khaled Ahmed
Daily Times, September 30, 2007

Pashtun Tales from the Pakistan-Afghan Frontier
by Aisha Ahmad & Roger Boase
Publisher: Saqi Books 2003

The foremost theme of the treasure collected in the book pertains to what the Pashtunwali terms badal or revenge. In the tale titled Musa Khan Deo, it is the jinn that has to avenge the insult of a moustache snipped by a proud princess

A scion of the great Pathan tradition in Pakistan, Aisha Ahmad, has collected the tribal stories that underpin the complex Pashtun psyche in Pakistan. Somehow Peshawar in Pakistan’s NWFP province has been associated with the recall of this collective mind. There is even a Qissa Khwani Bazaar in Peshawar where visitors have flocked again and again in vain to collect the lost tales of a great ethnic stock known in India and Pakistan as Pathans.

When Aisha went in search of the tales, she predictably failed in the Qissa Khwani Bazaar which may now resonate exclusively with the Wahhabi inspiration unleashed by the warrior-priest in the region. She finally found the bard named Saeed Baba in the Mohmand Agency in 1977 and collected what may be called the last treasure of ancestral tales that the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda may be about to destroy. Along with the radio, the modernity of “facts” is in the process of defeating the Pashtun soul.

The preface notes: ‘The traditional Pashtun way of life was seriously disrupted by the social consequences of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, and many years of civil strife”. Over 80 percent of the 6 million refugees displaced by the intervention were Pashtuns, 12 million of whom live in Pakistan as opposed 7 million that live in Afghanistan. Saeed Baba’s fairy tales are treated with the same kind of modern disdain as the tribes treated their professional classes.

The book quickly brings to the fore the tribal denigration of the professionals. This applies to all the ‘devolved’ Pathans too that live in the plains of Pakistan and India. Employment of the state became honourable for those who climbed down from the mountains. This extended later to the employment of the British Raj, but the professions remained clean of Pathans because the ancestral memory of the highlander hinterland made fun of these callings. From barber, weaver, spinner, tailor and story-teller, the scoffing devolved to all commercial callings with the passage of time and today stands in the way of ‘modern’ normalisation of the Pashtuns.

The stories encompass the Pashtunwali, the code of life that bestows and takes away the honour of the Pashtun and makes them so attractive to the detribalised people of the plains. The foremost theme of the treasure collected in the book pertains to what the Pashtunwali terms badal or revenge. In the tale titled Musa Khan Deo, it is the jinn that has to avenge the insult of a moustache snipped by a proud princess. Even wives take up arms to avenge the insult attached to the rape of the husband’s moustache probably because the man himself was too prostrated by the grief of losing the hair on his upper lip.

The second item in the tribal code is melamstia or hospitality found in all pastoral societies where the tribe is isolated with territory strictly delimited according to its food sustainability. Melmastia goes together with nanawati (submission) when a stranger is offered hospitality and protection after he has thrown himself on the mercy of the host tribe. In both cases the delimitation of territory is significant and the relief at knowing that a stranger is not a marauder triggers large-heartedness. Prince Bahram forgives six jinns because their sister had been hospitable to him during his wanderings.

The book classifies the tales under rubrics of belief in fate, debt among peasants, importance of male heirs (read denigration of the female child), and stupidity and clownishness of the menial tribes, giving rise to much humour today under attack from the high-seriousness of hard Islam. The story of a king pondering his lack of a male heir in a secluded corner of his palace recalls stories in the plains as well where sons are even today considered more important than daughters against all available evidence. Menial tribes give rise to humour and point to the racism of the Pashtun especially when he is juxtaposed with the plainsman Punjabi.

‘The Parrot and the Starling’ expresses the fear of the black man as sexually superior, so well expressed in the tales of The Arabian Nights, which could well be the source of the tale as the Pashtuns hardly had any truck with the African slaves in their society. The miracle story, when they mixed with Islam, could have been imported too, probably from the fuzzy Shia-Sunni borders of the mystically inclined people of the plains of India. The tales of Imam Hanif, the half brother of Imams Hassan and Hussain, is definitely borrowed from the Punjabi qissa tradition sung in the streets of Lahore in the 1950s.

Ahmad and Boase have done a great job by preserving what could be the last vestige of the Pashtun mind as it was before modernity — and that includes hard Islam — overtook it. Surprisingly much of Saeed Baba’s fantasia gibes with the tales still bandied by the settled Pathans of the plains with longings of the tribal past they said goodbye to a long time ago. Their tales also include some from beyond the Pak-Afghan tribal territory and extend to the Armenian-Turkish zones of contact, mostly by those migrants who came into the Pashtun lands and Pashtunised themselves.


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