The Afghan Character

Northern Alliance fighters. Afghanistan, 2005.

Modern Pakistan is filled with myths about “the Afghan character,” particular to its urban middle class. As a result, students of Pakistani politics frequently encounter bizarrely colonial appraisals of “culturally Afghan” groups in Pakistan.

This is especially the case with Pashtuns, which leads to articles like Yasmeen Aftab Ali‘s Understanding Pashtunwali. Ali describes Pashtuns as having “relied on a code as old as time itself to conduct themselves as individuals and as a society in their dealings between themselves and with others.”

It is crucial to remember that analysts like Ali have inherited these attitudes from the British Empire. Imperial authorities disseminated much of their ethnographic research among Indian Muslim elites that assumed key positions in the new state of Pakistan, and many bureaucratic structures were untouched. As a result, ideas like Pashtuns being naturally predisposed to honour, which is a rehash of the imperial notion of martial races, have been reproduced for seventy years.

Unraveling the problem requires an examination of the original texts. Below are selections from the first chapter of Among the Wild Tribes of the Afghan Frontier: A Record of Sixteen Years’ Close Intercourse with the Natives of the Indian Marches. The author, Theodore Leighton Pennell, was a doctor who founded a missionary hospital in Bannu, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Despite being published in 1909, many of his impressions are echoed in Pakistan today.

Pakistani general visits Afghanistan. 2010.
Pakistani general visits Afghanistan, 2010.

Chapter I

The Afghan Character

Paradoxical—Ideas of honour—Blood-feuds—A sister’s revenge—The story of an outlaw—Taken by assault—A jirgah and its unexpected termination—Bluff—An attempt at kidnapping—Hospitality—A midnight meal—An ungrateful patient—A robber’s death—An Afghan dance—A village warfare—An officer’s escape—Cousins.

The East is the country of contradictions, and the Afghan character is a strange medley of contradictory qualities, in which courage blends with stealth, the basest treachery with the most touching fidelity, intense religious fanaticism with an avarice which will even induce him to play false to his faith, and a lavish hospitality with an irresistible propensity for thieving.

There are two words which are always on an Afghan’s tongue—izzat and sharm. They denote the idea of honour viewed in its positive and negative aspects, but what that honour consists in even an Afghan would be puzzled to tell you. Sometimes he will consider that he has vindicated his honour by a murder perpetrated with the foulest treachery; at other times it receives an indelible stain if at some public function he is given a seat below some rival chief.

The vendetta, or blood-feud, has eaten into the very core of Afghan life, and the nation can never become healthily progressive till public opinion on the question of revenge alters. At present some of the best and noblest families in Afghanistan are on the verge of extermination through this wretched system. Even the women are not exempt. In 1905, at Bannu, there was a case where a man had been foully murdered over some disputed land. It was generally known who the murderer was, but as he and his relations were powerful and likely to stick at nothing, and the murdered man had no near relation except one sister, no one was willing to risk his own skin in giving evidence, so when the case came up in court the Judge was powerless to convict.

“Am I to have no justice at the hands of the Sarkar?” passionately cried the sister in her despair. “Bring me witnesses, and I will convict,” was all the Judge could reply. “Very well; I must find my own way;” and the girl left the court to take no rest till her brother’s blood, which was crying to her from the ground, should be avenged. […]

The officer who has most power with the Pathans is the one who, while transparently just, yet deals with them with a strong hand, whose courage is beyond question, and who, when once his mind is made up, does not hesitate in the performance of his plans. To such a one they are loyal to the backbone, and will go through fire and water in his train.

“Tender-handed grasp a nettle,
It will sting you for your pains;
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
Soft as silk it then remains.”

This has its counterpart in a Pashtu proverb, and is no doubt a true delineation of the Afghan character. […]

Christmas party Taliban. Salzburg, 2013.
Christmas party Taliban. Salzburg, 2013.

The Afghan has in some respects such inordinate vanity in connection with his peculiar ideas of sharm, and is so hot-headed in resenting some fancied insult, that he sometimes places himself in a ridiculous position, from which he finds it difficult to extricate himself without still further sacrificing his honour. […]

Bluff is a very prominent characteristic of the Afghan, and this makes him appear more formidable than he really is to those who are not acquainted with his character. He is also a great bully and exults in cruelty, so that he becomes a veritable tyrant to those who have fallen into his power or are overawed by his bluff. At the same time, he has a profound reverence for the personification of power or brute force, and becomes a loyal and devoted follower of those whom he believes to be his superiors.

It is often asked of me whether I carry a revolver or other arms when travelling about among these wild tribes. For a missionary to do so would not only be fatal to his chance of success, but would be a serious and constant danger. It would be impossible for him to be always on his guard; there must be times when, through fatigue or other reasons, he is at the mercy of those among whom he is dwelling. Besides this, there is nothing which an Afghan covets more, or to steal which he is more ready to risk his life, than firearms; and though he might not otherwise wish harm to the missionary, the possibility of securing a good revolver or gun would be too great a temptation, even though he had to shed blood to secure it. My plan was, therefore, to put myself entirely in their hands, and let them see that I was trusting to their sense of honour and to their traditional treatment of a guest for my safety. […]

Although the honour which an Afghan thinks is due to his guest has often stood me in good stead, yet sometimes the observance of the correct etiquette has become irksome. A rich chief will be satisfied with nothing less than the slaying of a sheep when he receives a guest of distinction; a poorer man will be satisfied with the slaying of a fowl, and the preparation therefrom of the native dish called pulao.

On one occasion I came to a village with my companions rather late in the evening. The chief himself was away, but his son received me with every mark of respect, and killed a fowl and cooked us a savoury pulao, after which, wearied with the labours of the day, we were soon fast asleep. Later on, it appeared, the chief himself arrived, and learnt from his son of our arrival. “Have you killed for him the dumba?” he at once asked; and, on learning from his son that he had only prepared a fowl, he professed great annoyance, saying: “This will be a lasting shame (sharm) for me, if it is known that, when the Bannu Daktar Sahib came to my village, I cooked for him nothing more than a fowl. Go at once to the flock, and take a dumba, and slay and dress it, and, when all is ready, call me.”

Thus it came about that about 1 a.m. we were waked up to be told that the chief had come to salaam us, and that dinner was ready. It would not only have been useless to protest that we were more in a mood for sleep than for dinner, but it would also have been an insult to his hospitality; so we got up with alacrity and the best grace possible, and after a performance of the usual salutations on both sides, we buckled to that we might show our appreciation of the luscious feast of roast mutton and pulao that had been prepared for us. […]

Among the Afghans theft is more or less praiseworthy, according to the skill and daring shown in its perpetration, and to the success in the subsequent evasion of pursuit. […] Notorious thieves and outlaws have frequently availed themselves of the wards of the mission hospital when suffering from some fever or other disease which has temporarily incapacitated them; but, of course, they come under assumed names, and otherwise conceal their identity. It is to be hoped, however, that they benefit all the same from the addresses and good counsel which they daily hear while under treatment. Sometimes, as in the case I am about to relate, their identity becomes known.

A few years ago, in Bed 26—the “Southsea” bed—there was Zaman, a noted thief, who came in suffering from chronic dysentery, and continued under treatment for over two months. He lingered on, with many ups and downs, but was evidently past recovery when he came in. He paid much attention to the Gospel that was read to him, and sometimes professed belief in it, but showed no signs of repenting of his past career. But when told eventually that there was no hope of his recovery, he at once had a police officer summoned, so as to give him the names of some of his former “pals,” hoping thereby not only to get them caught and punished in revenge for their having thrown him off when too weak and ill to join in their nefarious practices, but also to gain a reward for the information given. He gradually sank and died, professing a belief in Christ; but He alone, who readeth the heart, knoweth. I do not think he would have turned informer had not his confederates apparently deserted him in his distress. […]

A Political Officer in the Kurram Valley was once visiting a chief of the village of Shlozan, who, like all chiefs, had a high tower, in which he would seek security from his enemies at night. His host took him up into the tower, after carefully seeing that a window in the upper story was shut. The officer, thinking he would like a view of the country round, went to open it, but was hurriedly and unceremoniously pulled back by the chief, who told him that his cousin had been watching that window for months in the hope of having an opportunity of shooting him there. The officer made no further attempt to look out of the window, but some months later he heard that his friend the chief, having inadvertently gone to the open window, had been shot there by his cousin.

So universal is the enmity existing between cousins in Afghanistan that it has become a proverb that a man is “as great an enemy as a cousin,” the causes of such feuds being such as are more likely to arise between those who have some relationship. The causes of 90 per cent of such feuds are described by the Afghans as belonging to one of three heads—zan, zar, and zamin, these being the three Persian words meaning women, money, and land; and disputes are more likely to arise between cousins than between strangers on such matters as these.


Photographs courtesy of Yan Boechat, Regional Command East, and FS1 – Community TV Salzburg. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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