Saad Khan of Khajistan chatted with Hamza Tahir Yusafzai in a podcast episode uploaded on 13th October 2020. The duo talked about Durand Line, Khyber Pass, Pashtun identity in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as in the diaspora, sexuality, language, culture, Martial Race Theory, Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), Pashtun representation in the media and larger imagination, state oppression, among other things Pashtun. This piece is a summary of their conversation.
Listen to the full episode here:
The conversation starts with Saad and Hamza comparing their experiences of growing up Pashtun in two contrasting environments. Saad, while growing up in Lahore, the hub of Punjab, found the experience to be hostile and lonely, as he was often the only Pashtun kid in the school as well as in a larger social setting, so he had to face a lot of bullying and racism early on because the whole social and state apparatus is devised to make Pashtuns feel like children of a lesser God. The neocolonial state subsequently carried on a lot of the colonial stereotyping of Pashtuns, the so called independent nation-state of Pakistan, where the dominant elite of Punjab co-opted the notorious martial race theory when it came to Pashtuns. That is why, to this day, Pashtuns are merely disposable bodies for the state. And as the state runs and controls the narrative, most of the people didn’t un-learn the colonial understanding of Pashtun people. In such a scenario, where the state and society are hell-bent on dominating and alienating you, where your identity can only be looked at within the state parameters, growing up Pashtun is a challenge on multiple fronts, as Saad found out pretty early on in his childhood. Hamza, on the contrary, grew up in New York among the Afghan diaspora, where he felt acceptance for who he was, beyond the constraints of the nation-state and all it espouses. His experience was vastly different from Saad because there was a sense of community and no power imbalance. Living abroad, you have certain autonomy and you can decide not to put up with shit thrown at you. In Pakistan, on the other hand, it’s hard to put up a fight because the dominance and oppression is rooted in so many different aspects of life, from class to state to society and beyond. “Afghan Pashtuns accept you for who you are,” says Hamza, “and the national identities are discarded.”
Then we move onto culture and what constitutes it, and whether it is a monolithic structure that doesn’t evolve or change - something that stays static and is taken as such by the people involved in its practices. Pashtun culture, according to Hamza, is carelessly, anachronistically represented as something homogenized when it’s anything but that. Pashtun culture, much like all others, have gone through several influences and subsequently evolved as a result. Pashtunwali is not rigid. It’s not rigid because historically there has hardly been any central power that could decide people’s culture for them. It is flexible also because of the vast geographical areas that Pashtuns have occupied over the years. They have traveled, settled, traveled again, and mobility means more exposure and influences from the outside. Some argue that Pashtunwali is very Islamic, while there’s also another theory, although unsubstantiated by strong evidence, that Pashtuns have descended from the lost tribes of Israel, and therefore there’s more influence of the old testament. In either case, there’s fluidity when it comes to the origins of Pashtun culture. What matters more is that no one should dictate what people ought to believe in or how they live their life, breathe, make love to each other. What matters more is that a state shouldn’t be allowed to imagine Pashtun bodies as fodder for their geostrategic games. Some could find solace in the fact that they descended from the lost tribes of Israel or that Khalid Bin Waleed was a Pashtun. Why should those people be told otherwise?
Hamza then talks about the sorry state of the Pashto language in Pakistan. In KPK, a province with a Pashtun majority, Pashto isn’t taught at a single primary school throughout the province. There are genuine fears that the language might cease to exist altogether in the near future. The state wants to homogenize its subjects because then it becomes easy to control them. It also becomes easy to peddle narratives that benefit the state, but harm the people. That is why, under the project of mass Urdu-isation of the people of Pakistan, indigenous languages have slowly been pushed to the edge of our collective consciousness. Saad describes the death of language as essentially the death of culture, as he argues: “If you want to suppress someone and get them below you, you erase their culture and that starts with erasing their language.” Although the Pashto language has descended orally, Hamza believes in today’s modern age, if it is not taught and written down it will very likely cease to exist altogether.
Talking about his experience of the Pashto language, Hamza mentions how he has developed a Kabuli form of Pashto, which is different from what is spoken in Pakistan. When he went to a bazaar in Peshawar and spoke the Kabuli version of the language, he was treated differently by the vendors and shop owners. They thought he was an Afghan refugee. It was classicist discrimination, which is unfortunately the fate of many Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Moving onto the Durand Line, Saad, and Hamza mention how there was so much mobility among the Pashtuns in the past. They are ‘pastoral’ people, says Hamza, and they interacted with people spread across the Khorasan region. Before Afghanistan, there was never one central Pashtun state. The spheres of influence, so broad in the past, shrunk considerably in the colonial and postcolonial times. There was no Durand Line in the past, a line that divides as much as it controls the movement of people. Now there are only heavily monitored check-posts and state surveillance to go along with militarized violence brought on by the state. Furthermore, when we talk about the partition of 1947, in our collective imaginations only Punjab was partitioned. There have been thousands of documents, films, literature, books that discuss the horrors of the Punjab partition, but hardly anyone ever discusses the other partition: the Durand Line. There has hardly ever been any nuanced discussion around the social and historical context of the partition that separated and divided Pashtuns. Along with that, Hamza mentions how most of the anthropological studies of the Khyber Pass (Western media was obsessed with Khyber Pass in the days of GWOT) have been very colonialist/imperialist. And even when our own people wrote anything, orientalism was at insane levels. No serious effort has ever been made to understand the region, its people, and their histories.
Then the discussion moves on to Martial Race Theory and how the Pakistani state later co-opted it. As it was becoming exceedingly difficult for the British to colonize regions with a Pashtun majority, they came up with Martial Race Theory, according to which the British stereotypically outlined the characteristics of different ethnicities of the subcontinent. According to this theory, Pashtun and Punjabi were martial races who could be utilized as manpower for the Raj, while Bengalis (the intellectual resistance to British Raj primarily came from Bengal) were short, stocky and unfaithful. In a way, the colonizers lured Pashtun and Punjabi men to join hands with them to substantiate their power in the region. The British recruited them as commandos of the Raj. Later on after independence, owing to its neocolonial structure dominated by the Punjabi bureaucracy and military which had served under the Raj, similar racial stereotypes were co-opted by the Pakistani state, and they exist in Pakistani imagination to this day. Unfortunately, it was also internalized by many Pashtuns as well. For the state, Pashtun people are merely bodies ready to be used for its protection. Not only that, they are bodies ready to be disposed of at the behest of Americans and their dollars. Not only has the Martial Race Theory lived on, the colonial violence directed at Pashtuns has also continued. Today in Pakistan, Saad says, “everyone wants a fair Pashtun wife but without the sociopolitical context….a very sterilized version.”
Many people use ‘Pathan’ when referring to a Pashtun. On the Pashtun vs Pathan debate, Hamza argues that just don’t use Pathan. That’s it. That pretty much settles the debate. It’s insensitive and wrong and there should be more people taking offense over it.
Talking about the Punjabi diaspora in North America, Hamza and Saad talk about how they are so pro-military and perfectly aligned with the state ideology. But growing up outside Pakistan means there’s no power imbalance that forces you to
put up with their bs. “Once you are outside,” Hamza mentions, “the power dynamics are gone.” The demographic dominance fades out, but the cultural dominance is still there, but you can also easily refuse to engage with people who are indifferent to the years of state violence and oppression that the Pashtuns in Pakistan have gone through. Not only Pashtuns, the Balochs have been treated in a similar vein if not worse. As Saad aptly says: “Pashtun bodies are used by the Pakistani state but Baloch bodies are just erased.” What has been happening in Balochistan for so many years now shouldn’t be privy to anyone. The Pakistani state has been committing war crimes against the people of Balochistan. Not only are their resources exploited, not only has there been zero development in the region, but their men have been forcefully abducted, tortured, and more often than not murdered by the military intelligence of the country.
After that, both talk about Persian and Urdu and how they are spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, respectively. In Pakistan, there is an overwhelming preference of Urdu ascribed by the state, while in Afghanistan, the similar role is given to Persian. Regardless of that, Pashtun, unlike the Punjabis, are very proud of their language, and they speak it unabashedly. “It’s the Pashtunwali within them,” says Hamza; it has kept their Pashtun identity firmly intact despite various oppressions and suppressions. In Afghanistan, Pashto is still at least taught in the schools and is taken seriously by the educators. In Pakistan, that has sadly not been the case. The language is left to survive on its own.
The conversation then moves to sexuality. Despite nuances and many cultural intangibles, the outsiders have often described the sexuality of Pashtuns very carelessly and wrongfully. Mostly, they are described as ‘Bacha Baaz’ (pedophile) because people stupidly conflate homosexuality with pedophilia, and then such a description slowly turns into a hardcore stereotype. That is why outside obsessions are often harmful because the outside vantage point often misses many nuances of the particularities of a culture. Pashtuns have their own expression and grammar of sexuality. The outside labels are often forced and fail to consider the full scope of cultural realities. Saad mentions the impact of live streaming apps on desi queer culture - how people have been able to get in touch with their community through these apps. With the help of these apps, many laborers in the UAE have been able to invite boys for dance parties. Apart from homosexuality, the culture of homosociality also runs large among the Pashtuns. ‘Malgharay’ is the Pashto word that is used to describe a homosexual affair. For many, marriage becomes a social performance and they understand the need for a homosexual relationship. They don’t fuss about it as much. Saad mentions how Pashtun cab drivers are so chilled out about sexuality. They don’t care whether you are in a relationship with another man. There’s often a sort of tacit understanding and acceptance displayed by them. What has actually harmed the sexual culture has always been the outside gaze - whether it’s that of the colonizer or those who espoused colonial understanding of the Pashtun people. Pashtun queer grammar and expression has been really harmed by outside aggression. Unfortunately, a lot of that is slowly internalized by the very victims of that oppression, and thus begins self-problematization which is equally harmful.
There has been a lot of discourse around decolonisation and what it actually means: does it mean we go back to some sort of imagined, hazy utopia that might or might not have existed, or whether it means to recognise the perils of colonialism and modernity and move forward towards a radically different future. A future without dominance, a future without oppression and prejudice. Hamza believes in working towards that future. He neither wants the often imagined glorious past nor the postcolonial Islamic imagination but a future where our culture and life and everything between it is neither tampered nor violated; where our bodies become a source of our own pleasure rather than a disposable tool for the state’s geopolitical interests. No one has any concrete idea about the precolonial queer culture, there are only hazy notions. Pashtunwali, argues Hamza, is not rigid or clear on sexual relationships, as gender in Pashtunwali is not focused on social identity or ethnicity; it allows liberality of sexual expression. Even in the Shariah court, mentions Saad, there is a punishment for sex outside marriage or legal constraints but there’s no specific mention of the gender. Despite all that, says Saad, “we love in hiding.” “We also love to talk about it,” responds Hamza.
The podcast ends with a little reflection on Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), a civil rights movement that calls for an end to militarized state violence against Pashtuns. Pashtuns have been at the receiving end of Taliban attacks as well as military violence. According to the leaders of PTM, destabilization in the Pashtun regions has become a source of profit for the Pakistani state. Whenever they want American dollars, they bring the insurgents back into the civilian areas where they ruthlessly kill people. As a response, the military conducts an operation that creates further unrest. People either die or they become IDPs. In both cases, the military fills its pockets with dollars. PTM, says Hamza, “is a much-needed response to the disappearance of Pashtun bodies. It embodies the lineage of suffering and Trauma.” The state has tried many different narratives to discredit PTM. They paint them as either ‘Yahoodi Agents’ or agents of ‘Raw’, and yet they continue to protest for their rights. That is why PTM exists under the framework of a civil rights movement. It cannot be a Pashtun Nationalist Movement when the whole state apparatus is set out to cast you into an oblivion. Questioning non-existent motives behind the creation of PTM aren’t the right kind of questions. We need to ask what were the historical and political events that forced Pashtuns to come out and protest against the state. Why is there such a disconnect with actual histories of oppressed people? Hamza also mentions how well-off Pashtuns who have settled in Islamabad and other metropolises buy into the state's false narratives. Many Pashtuns who feel that they have been assimilated into the mainstream Punjabi spaces become skeptical of PTM and start looking at themselves as more Pakistani than Pashtuns, which is rather unfortunate. There are people in Waziristan who continue to suffer partly because of the indifference and blind subservience of the state practiced by members of their own community.