As difficult as it may be now to imagine it, there was an Afghanistan at peace before the “forever wars” which now consume it. Nancy Lindisfarne-Tapper’s research among Piruzai Durrani Pashtun of Northern Afghanistan in the 1970s is a record of that other not-in-the-news Afghanistan.
Many of the “voices” captured in this recent volume were first recorded by Tapper in her 1991 volume Bartered Brides. The new book reprises this work as well some material published by the Tappers in the 1988 collection of papers The Tragedy of Afghanistan.
Afghan Village Voices aims to reveal the cultural life of these Pashtuns in their own words through stories from a time before the disruption of the warfare which has continued since 1978.
Lindisfarne-Tapper’s research provides a rich seam of stories. One example is the case of the Durrani woman who elopes with a Hazara and who is castigated as a “whore” for bringing shame on her community. The Hazara, being both Shia and often of an apparent Mongol mien, are—due to race and religion—on the lower rung of the social order in Afghanistan;. The Pashtun are of course Sunni and Caucasian.
Ordinarily a Hazara, nor indeed any other ethnicity such as Uzbeks, would never be able to marry a Durrani; Piruzai women would only marry their fellow Pashtuns. The Piruzai men did however marry Persian-speaking women. The Piruzai nevertheless bemoaned their plight when their kinswoman did not settle for a Sunni Uzbek or an Afghan Arab. In such cases, the communities in question would have had to pay financial compensation to make good the “wrong” perpetrated by elopement. As it was, the Hazara had escaped to his home region, the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, where the Durrani Pashtuns could not safely enter.
In another story, a Turkmen abducts the young wife of a Piruzai while she was at a stream filling her goatskin with water, and takes her back to the Turkmen region. The distraught husband becomes a dervish and wanders for some years in various communities until he finally finds his wife. Killing the abductor, he returns to his home village safely with his bride, who has sadly come to prefer her abductor to her own husband.
If a man is attracted to a woman he can either pay her family a bride price or contrive to captivate the object of his affections through the use of traditional spells.
Hazara mullahs do this sort of thing well—and give him a lot of money say 2,000 rupees; I’ll show him her name and those of her mother, her father and her brother; he’ll put them all in the charm and give it to me. I dissolve it in water, which I will sprinkle on some sweets and raisins and send these to her house.
Then the girl would fall in love with the man and elope with him.
Even though the Durrani Pashtun were supposed to be conservative, the oldest trade in the world nonetheless continued among them. A man would pimp some of the local village women to local men. Women could travel from home to home in the village without suspicion and this allowed prostitutes the opportunity to go and visit their clients.
Lindisfarne-Tapper also reports cases of the “evil eye” where a person admiring something or someone causes that thing harm, but the power to do so is obviated by saying “praise be to Allah”, “you have become so fat” or “are really handsome”. One of the villagers, Saleh, was renowned for casting the evil eye,
Two years ago Mayoddin-Jan Agha was very fat. One day … he was asleep in the shade of the mosque. Saleh came up … and said: Hey, Agha-jan, you’ve really put on weight, today you look very well! … From that time until today he’s been unwell.
The author writes,
As for Pashtun society generally, the oppression of women, and customs such as bacha-bazi and baad/bad, have been widely published since the 1990s, largely thanks initially to the postures of American personalities commenting on Taliban rule and justifying the 2001 invasion, followed up mercilessly, and with a little understanding, by legions of journalists since. The stories narrated here will provide some of the social, cultural and political context needed for a fuller understanding of such customs—and indeed, I hope of some Taliban practices.
Although the historical perspective is certainly useful,one wishes that the author had revisited Afghanistan in more recent times to find out what has actually become of those among whom she lived.
Farrukh Husain is a lawyer as well as author of Afghanistan in the Age of Empires (2018) covering the first Anglo-Afghan war; he has worked as a history researcher for academics and William Dalrymple.