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A quail of a tale in Pakistan


Depending on the intensity of the traffic and the state of repair of the Grand Trunk road, the village of Pabbi is about 45 minutes from Peshawar in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. Among NWFP’s valleys and fertile plains are found idyllic villages. Here life is agricultural, governed by the coming and going of the seasons. Crops in golden fields sway gently in the breeze. Tall elegant trees line paths between villages and fields. Sporadically a lovingly tended garden resplendent in flamboyant color bursts forth amidst the muted browns and greens that dominate the landscape. Hardly a sound can be heard apart from nature’s gentle soothing charms. Pabbi is not such a village. It assails the senses as a city does, her raucous markets teeming with people, and buses and vans and trucks and most especially rickshaws spewing out noxious exhaust fumes, soot and dust. A garish hand painted sign dominated by a giant set of teeth advertises a dental practice; beneath it tired donkeys trot past baring their own teeth at blows from the sticks of their masters. Squashed vegetables and fruits litter the roadside. Garbage festers in open drains, the acrid stench of their dank waters mingling with the biting smells of cooking wafting over the imposing walls of secluded homes.

Children playing amidst Pabbis alleys

Children playing amidst Pabbi’s alleys

Pabbi may have the body of an adolescent city, but the cultural blood flowing thickly through her veins is pumped by a rural heart. Vast loosely extended families cluster alongside various lanes and roads of the village, linked by forgotten marriages of years gone by. People rise early in the morning. Crops are tended in fields scattered throughout the village, becoming more abundant further away from the main road.

In Pabbi females and males are profoundly segregated from a budding age until death. Only children are free to see whom they please. Females are enveloped by flowing burkas whenever they go into the streets. Some men call the burkas shuttlecocks, for when they are white–as they often are–the resemblance is striking.

Shuttlecocks in field, Pabbi

Shuttlecocks in field, Pabbi

Refugees from Afghanistan have made their home in between the seams of interlocking family units in Pabbi, where despite the gangs they have formed and occasional police raids, life is safer and more prosperous than in Afghanistan. Although like the locals they too are Pukhtuns, locals refer to them as Afghans, noting that someone must be an Afghan if they are unable to locate where in the village the locals live.

Afghan girl, Pabbi

Afghan girl, Pabbi

As Pukhtun culture dictates, wives move in to live with their husbands in large family compounds, where brothers share the same compound as their parents. In the sanctity of the home gender demarcations rigidly and stubbornly retain their force, with brothers barred from laying eyes on their sisters-in-law even in progressive families. From one generation to the next the marriage of first cousins is especially common–birth defects are a subsequently reality in some families. Despite this danger marriages between cousins remain popular, not only to secure the financial standing of the family and because of limited social opportunities for young men and women to meet one another, but also because people who are not known cannot be trusted.

Girl in alley, Pabbi

Girl in alley, Pabbi

I spent thirty days in Pakistan. Although it was not my first exposure to the country, my thoughts were dominated as never before by a simple virtue: trust. Or more particularly, an apparent lack of trust exhibited by many Pakistanis toward each other and to human nature more generally. It has scarred seemingly every aspect of Pakistani society. Where does this profound distrust come from? Although I was not able to come to any substantial conclusions beyond mere speculation, throughout this little piece I will share one or two examples, and some ideas. Perhaps some readers may like in turn to share their own observations.

Boys in madrassa (school), Pabbi

Boys in madrassa (school), Pabbi

Pabbi is the village of Dr. Sher Zaman Taizi (DSZT), a former government worker turned novelist, academic, historian and translator. Cicero is reputed to have proclaimed “He who does not know history is destined to remain a child.” DSZT knows history. Born November 3, 1931 in the house of Kator Shah in Pabbi, DSZT is an authentic village intellectual in whose accounts the echoes of the distant past reverberate as robustly today as those from the present. Language fascinates him. Once in conversation he explained the origin of the early symbols of the ancient Egyptians, alif and beit. These characters eventually found their way into Arabic, and are still in use in Arabic to this day. He pointed out in English we use the term alphabet, the first two Middle Eastern characters thus linking East and West.

Dr. Sher Zaman Taizi (DSZT), Pabbi

Dr. Sher Zaman Taizi (DSZT), Pabbi

I share with DSZT a common interest in the life of the great Pukhtun and Muslim leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988). I have been a guest in DSZT’s home on two occasions now, first in 2001 and most recently in 2006. Our admiration for this truly remarkable man has led us to become friends.

DSZT has just finished translating the Pashto autobiography of Khan into English. Khan had two autobiographies, the earlier and less detailed of which is English. Unfortunately his more detailed autobiography was written late in life, when his memory was naturally not as strong as it once was. Furthermore he was not a great writer. Nevertheless the value of its translation should not be underestimated, as it will assist more people to become familiar with Khan’s vision and practice of a vigorous, tolerant and spiritually grounded Islam, and his hitherto unique historical innovation in forming a disciplined, well-trained and highly organized nonviolent army.

Khan took on landlords, British imperialism, and ignorant local religious clergy with a powerful sense of honor and dignity that sprung from his total conviction that nonviolence would advance his people’s lot. A practical visionary, in addition to his nonviolent army, the Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God), he founded schools, a journal and political organizations. He initiated a social revolution where formerly marginalized peoples achieved positions of respect and social power. He campaigned for the liberation of women. He did so in a complex, deeply stratified society where poverty and illiteracy were the norm. For his work he spent thirty years in prison yet never advocated revenge.

Policeman by Qissa Khawani Bazaar, Peshawar

Policeman by Qissa Khawani Bazaar, Peshawar

Khan did all this while working through his people’s culture, using strong cultural traits such as a sense of honor and the value of keeping one’s word to overcome elements of cultural decay. These included a fanatic fascination with revenge as well as more mundane characteristics that retarded their development, like their disdain for trades like shopkeeping.

While sitting over a cup of piping hot tea on an equally hot day in the dusty village of Pabbi it is easy to believe with total conviction the truth of DSZT’s assertion that for Pukhtuns, their culture is more vital than their religion of Islam. The religious clergy likes to see themselves as the arbitrators of religious life, but they know that should their religious preaching contradict local customs, they will be ignored. Besides this, their religious knowledge is weak and DSZT goes so far to refer to them as parasites.

Man laughing in Islamic bookstore, Peshawar

Man laughing in Islamic bookstore, Peshawar

One is tempted to relegate Islam to be of little force compared to local cultural norms. This would be wrong of course. Islam does exert considerable influence on the thinking of most Pukhtuns. Khan himself used Islam to advance the notion of nonviolence among Pukhtuns. Yet there are cultural norms so deeply held by a large number of Pukhtuns that one wonders what possible sway religious teachings could have in opposition to them. Take the issue of “honor killings” in which Pukhtuns who are perceived to have violated cultural norms are killed for their transgressions, including especially if they have broken taboos like sexual activity outside of marriage. Perpetrators are likely to be killed by their community or family if they get caught engaging in such behavior. Only those who are able to exploit their position of privilege and power, like landlords, are able to regularly get away with extra-marital heterosexual (and homosexual) behaviors.

DSZT and I had a passionate discussion about honor killings. He is a strong proponent of them, going so far as to refuse to call them honor killings. Couching his argument in terms of rights, DSZT believes that when an individual violates cultural norms, they have violated the rights of the community and must therefore be punished. I suggested that even if one was in total agreement that such behaviors were in violation of community rights, why did the perpetrator need to be killed? Could they not be punished in some other manner? He responded by saying that such people were no longer human, and therefore had to be killed. I pressed the issue further, saying that people can be led into such behaviors due to difficult circumstances over which they may have had little control, such as traumatic marriages devoid of love or childhoods in which they experienced sexual or emotional abuse. Furthermore, people make mistakes. Is not compassion therefore superior to community sanctioned murder? DSZT rejected this approach. He said that were these punishments not in place, society would break down and many people would naturally behave immorally. Killing wrongdoers is therefore essential to preserve decency.

The idea that people will behave badly should there not be a fear of punishment is not intrinsically wrong. There is an element of truth to it. Yet the idea that people must be killed to enforce limits on sexual behavior is predicated on the notion that people cannot be trusted. It indicates a fear of what people could do if they are free. In doing so, it shuts down the space for individual spiritual and moral growth by placing totalitarian faith in exacting adherence to community norms. The most prominent aim of honor killings is not the growth of individuals and their society, but the application of the most severe form of control over individual behavior possible–death–to enforce a vision of a good life which is clearly not shared by all people at every point of their life. In his classic work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire stated that freedom is “the indispensable condition for the quest of human completion.” Early last century, in his book Jnana Yoga Swami Vivekananda expressed the same idea even more forcefully:

[Y]ou must remember that freedom is the first condition of growth. What you do not make free, will never grow. The idea that you can make others grow and help their growth, that you can direct and guide them, always retaining for yourself the freedom of the teacher, is nonsense, a dangerous lie which has retarded the growth of millions and millions of human beings in this world. Let men have the light of liberty. That is the only condition of growth.

DSZT is a progressive Pukhtun man. His ideas on honor killings are likely representative of Pukhtun males of his generation, and probably a good number of Pukhtun females as well. Yet they are not representative of all Pukhtuns. Generational change may be taking place. One person who embodies such change is Samar Minallah, who is Executive Director of EthnoMedia and Development in Islamabad. She acts as media consultant to a range of organizations.

Samar Minallah, Islamabad

Samar Minallah, Islamabad

Samar is a Persian name meaning fruit. Minallah is Arabic, meaning from Allah.

Samar is a Pukhtun who is working to reform her culture, focusing on the rights of women. Samar says that the situation of women is very difficult to change in the NWFP. “It really is one of the close to untouchable aspects of Pukhtun life,” she says.

Samar has faced heavy criticism for this work by Pukhtuns who believe she is unpatriotic and embarrassing Pukhtuns. However, when she has spoken out, she has also received support from Pukhtuns who like what she says but feel powerless to say the same thing. Like DSZT, she believes that generally speaking, culture is more important to Pukhtuns than Islam. Being a worthy Pukhtun is more important than being a worthy Muslim. The honor of being a Pukhtun must be defended. Samar believes that aspects of Pukhtunwali–the ancient code of Pukhtun honor and custom–are good, even as there are other areas in need of reform.

I was interested to know how Samar developed the consciousness to work with women on the reformation of Pukhtun culture. She told me that she was encouraged by her father to develop friendships on an equal basis with Pukhtun women living in villages in rural areas, despite their lower socioeconomic class. As Samar grew older, she began to develop an awareness of the restrictions that these women faced in their lives, and which she did not face herself.

Woman watches wedding dancing, Rawalpindi

Woman watches wedding dancing, Rawalpindi

Interested in anthropology, Samar began documenting the cultural traditions associated with tribal Pukhtuns who were visiting shrines. She was interested in the particular customs of such visits. She noted that through folksongs, many of which are developed by women, women had a public forum in which they could air their problems in a culturally acceptable manner, somewhat anonymously but still publicly. The folksongs therefore contain a lot of meaning. Being a Pukhtun woman herself, Samar found that the tribal women accepted her and were very open to sharing their problems with her.

Samar points out that culture is never static. What is seen as a fixed cultural tradition today may have developed over time from an honorable tradition into a profoundly negative one. For instance, a current “traditional” method of dispute resolution involves the payment of a girl to a family that has been wronged. Samar has documented this practice in two districts in the settled areas (settled areas are parts of NWFP under formal government rule, as opposed to tribal areas which are largely autonomous). A similar practice occurs in other provinces of Pakistan, albeit with different names. Historically, Samar believes this tradition involved a girl from one family or village going to another family or village, and returning with gifts, signifying the respect of one family or village for the women of the other. However this practice decayed until it reached its present form. Samar is challenging this practice of dispute resolution in the Supreme Court, hoping to have it declared illegal.

Old man, Rawalpindi

Old man, Rawalpindi

There is the difference between the culture of the Pukhtuns living in the tribal areas, and Pukhtuns living in the settled areas. In the tribal areas, women work in the fields. Men are happy to introduce their wives to guests. In the settled areas, men will not do this. This may be because cultural traditions are more easily enforced when there is sufficient economic prosperity. In the tribal areas, women must work outside the home. Naturally they will meet outsiders from time to time. However, in the settled areas, it is not seen as necessary that women work outside the home.

As part of her work, Samar produced a talk show for a Pashto television channel, which she hosted. She invited some respectable guests. One of these guests was Dr Wiqar Ali Shah, a historian whose published works include research on Abdul Ghaffar Khan in the Khudai Khidmatgars (KKs). On the program, he defended the honor killing of women and said this is justified under Pukhtunwali. Samar was shocked that a professor from a prestigious university in Islamabad would advocate such a position. She temporarily forgot her role as talk-show host to challenge those statements of Dr Wiqar Ali Shah. She believes that due to his role as an academic, he is a role model to many young Pukhtun men.

In my opinion Samar is right. The primary role of an academic in society is to develop and pass on ideas to others. When these ideas include the killing of women for particular behaviors, then the person advocating them has one hand on the handle of the knife that is driven into the chest of the women being killed, and the other hand on the mouth that is smothered to stop the screams. Freedom is never merely an abstraction.

***

One approach to understand the intensity of distrust in Pakistan is to link it to the prevailing political and economic conditions. Since the country’s creation in 1948, her governments have been dominated by military dictatorships; Pakistan is currently ruled by a military dictator. Their claims of selflessly serving the people aside, it is hard to escape the conclusion these regimes have grossly retarded Pakistan’s political progress. One Pakistani illustrated this with a vivid analogy. Supposing, he said, the guard at the entrance of the hotel you are staying in storms the hotel and takes it over, kicking out or even murdering the owners and dominating the guests. That is what the military has done in Pakistan. The analogy was especially effective because hotel security guards in Pakistan are fairly low status, in contrast to the military, which has awarded its members all kinds of lucrative perks. Indeed the military has enmeshed itself in another of Pakistan’s long-standing problems–feudalism–which keeps millions in squalor and makes the practice of genuine political democracy extremely difficult.

Pakistan exists because in the lead up to the independence of India from Britain, some Muslims feared that they would be dominated by Hindus, so they clamored for a state of their own. They successfully convinced a sufficient number of Muslims to join them in fighting for a Muslim homeland. The fruitful collaboration of Muslims like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the KKs with Hindus directly challenged this separatist worldview. Khan and the KKs did not support the creation of Pakistan. When Pakistan became a reality, they were called traitors by Pakistani elites and severely repressed. Despite the fact that they had sacrificed more than any other Muslims for independence from Britain, they were shamefully ignored or demonized by many non-Pukhtun Pakistanis. Pakistan’s first Prime Minister, Liaqat Ali Khan, called Khan a Hindu. In 1948 150 supporters of the KKs were killed, and 400 wounded at a massacre carried out by the police in Babra. Khan spent fully half of his 30 years in prison in Pakistani prisons.

Could it be that Pakistan, which so successfully repressed honest, decent leaders like Khan and in their place put feudalists, dictators and extremists, is naturally, almost unconsciously, going to impart upon its citizens a fear of human nature and a profound distrust in its possibilities? Could there be a connection between political repression and repression of human intimacy, both being founded on perceived need to control and manipulate society?

***

One way to explore these questions could be through poetry. Social activities in Pabbi are limited. Poetry is a local pastime that brings people together to exchange ideas and of course poems. On the first Sunday of the month the Kamil Pashto Adabi (Kamil Pashto Literary Association) meets in what is known as a mushaira. Mushaira, meeting of poets, is itself an interesting name, its etymology including poetry and consciousness. There are more than 250 such Pukhtun poetry groups throughout Pakistan and some cities in the Middle East.

Kamil Pashto Adabi, Pabbi

Kamil Pashto Adabi, Pabbi

The use of local languages in Pakistan is highly political. The official languages of Pakistan are Urdu and English; major local languages include Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto (spoken by Pukhtuns), Saraiki and Baluchi. Many Pakistanis converse in their local language but receive their education in Urdu and English, both of which are imported languages. Pakistan television provides only very limited programming in local languages like Pashto, and while there is more extensive radio coverage in local languages radio is not as popular as television. Pashto print media in NWFP are not widely read.

Fifty or sixty years ago it was hard to find an educated person who would write in Pashto. But thanks to the work of Pashto reformers the language has undergone a revival. Reformers included Bacha Khan, who formed the journal Pukhtun, and literary figures who introduced a range of literary genres into Pashto such as novels.

The Pabbi poetry group has been operating since at least the 1970s. For some time it was dormant, but on June 21 1979 it was revived. It is named after a significant literary figure, Dost Muhammad Khan Kamil Momund, who was from a small village close to Pabbi. Kamil was a lawyer and keen student of Khushal Khan Kattak, publishing a popular collection of Kattak’s poetry. The group used to be called the Khushal Pashto Adabi Jirga, but the name was changed on 23 July 1983 because there were already two other groups with the same name in Pakistan.

The Kamil Pashto Adabi presently hold their monthly meetings at the privately operated Cenna School and College, one of two popular schools in Pabbi. The proprietor and administrator of this school is Ghulam Nabi Cenna. Cenna has provided funds for publication of three books of poetry, including one by his son Adnan Mangal, who is a member of the poetry group. Adnan is a passionate and emotional young man in his early twenties who told me within five minutes of meeting me that he “would die” if I did not stay as a guest in his home. I did not stay with him. He did not die. Adnan married last year and he hopes to soon join his wife in Florida, where she lives. As a man who values his culture, I probed him as to how he would cope in a foreign culture and with a wife who might not necessarily share his views on the role of women. It quickly emerged that Adnan would not like his wife to work. “Not at all?” I asked. “What if she wanted to become a lawyer or something like that”. He agreed this would be a fine occupation–he is happy for his wife to be in any job where she is the boss, but he would not like to see her work under someone in any job which impinged on her honor or dignity. He would rather have her at home. Only late in our conversation did it emerge that she is still in high school and is only 15 years old.

Adnan Mangal, son of Ghulam Nabi Cenna, Pabbi

Adnan Mangal, son of Ghulam Nabi Cenna, Pabbi

Men and women do not mix in social occasions in Pabbi. The only exceptions are activities such as weddings, which are in any case limited to family only. So in this poetry group only men meet. There is a young and bold poetess in Pabbi, Naheed Sahar. She runs a school known as the Sahar Educational Academy. She was previously vice-principal at Ceena. Despite being a published poet, as the subculture of Pabbi dictates, she is unable to attend Pabbi’s mushaira. Fortunately for her (and her society, I believe), she is able to attend mushaira elsewhere in NWFP, where gender segregation is not so unyielding.

The poetry meeting I attended was a small affair. But this is not always so. On the 22nd of Feburary1980 a big show was made at the Government High School in Pabbi in which guests included the Federal Minister for Education, Tourism and Culture Nawabzada Mohammed Ali Hoti, and the Provincial Advisor for Education Abdul Hasham Khan. The audience was over a thousand. The meeting continued for the whole day and into the night. The theme of the meeting was the famous Pukhtun poet Khushal Khan Kattak, the second most famous poet among Pukhtuns. Kattak was a kind of warrior prince, a man who adored poetry as much as the many women in his life.

Pervez, a taxi driver, is another member of Pabbi’s poetry group. He recited his poem by singing it in what is known locally as a “sing-song” manner. His father-in-law Ahmad Khan was a very popular folk singer who used to sing on Peshawar radio. That was in days before the radio station had recording equipment, so such performances were live. Ahmad Khan adored quails, and one time he brought a live quail with him into the studio, which he placed on a chair. While he was singing on air, a man entered the studio and sat in the chair, leading Khan to shout loudly in the middle of his song “You are killing my quail!” One can imagine the bemused reaction of his listeners throughout the province!

Mr Pervez, son-in-law of Ahmad Khan, Pabbi. It was his father-in-law who brought a quail into the radio station and caused a commotion on air.

Mr Pervez, son-in-law of Ahmad Khan, Pabbi. It was his father-in-law who brought a quail into the radio station and caused a commotion on air.

Other members include Nasir Afridi, who is an English teacher and student of Buddhism and Pashto. Zahidur Rahman Saifi is a railway station master; Liaqat Ashiq, a tailor; Hajji Adbul Wadood, Chief Head Draftsman WAPDA (retired); Mohammed Ghafoor Khan Kheil, another railway station master, but from Swat.

Hajji Adbul Wadood reads his poem, Pabbi

Hajji Adbul Wadood reads his poem, Pabbi

In the meeting the poets read (or like Pervez sing) their poetry, eager for feedback from other members. The meeting was a joyous affair, with affectionate laughter and murmurs of appreciation accompanying most readings. DSZT introduced the idea of poetry criticism to the group. Before this poets read their work and there was little or no feedback. At first poets felt insulted or aggrieved when their work was criticized, but in time they came to appreciate the feedback. DSZT suggested that it was best that they not respond to any criticism or feedback from the group, except when answering questions of clarification. This mirrors the process of publication, for when a book is published, there is no chance for dialog between the reader and writer–the book takes on its own life in the mind of the reader.

Man listening to music, Karachi

Man listening to music, Karachi

Perhaps in poetry we might find expressed the yearnings of the Pukhtun spirit for not only their traditional desire for political freedom, but freedom from all that bonds the human spirit. This could be an interesting area of research. Intriguingly, the most popular poet among Pukhtuns is the mystical poet of Peshawar, Rahman Baba (A.D. 1650-1715). If Kattak is the archetype of a stereotypical Pukhtun male, then Baba could well be its antithesis. Baba hardly bothered following religious norms, instead bathing himself in the intoxicating presence of divine love. For one who feels such ecstasy, what need is there for social customs and rules?

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