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Pakistan’s Afghanistan

Updated Jul 05, 2013 02:48pm


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“Your eyes aren’t eyes, they’re bees
I find no cure for their sting”

enter image description hereThe above is a “landay,” or a folk couplet, common among the Pashtuns living on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This particular one was written by one of the twenty million women. The creators and listeners of landay, which are meant to be sung aloud, do not have to be literate, and in Pashtu the landays rarely rhyme. The only formal property of a landay is that it consists of 22 syllables, nine in the first line and 13 in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.”

The story of the landay, the above selection, and many others written by predominantly Afghan women, were compiled, collected, translated, and then published by Poetry Magazine in the United States. The author of the volume, Eliza Griswold, traveled across Afghanistan collecting them. The result is an evocative collection that allows a glimpse into the private world of Pashtun women, one largely unavailable for public consumption. There are landays about lost loves, landays about drones, landays about emotional misgivings, and personal ones. As Griswold narrates, collecting them was difficult; the women were often afraid. In one instance, when she tried to take a picture of the gathering with her iPhone, they took it from her and hid it. In Pakistan, everyone would know why; we bury women for transgressions caught on cell phones all the time.

There is something sorrowful about reading the account in an American magazine, much like learning of a neighbor’s illness from the mouth of a distant, faraway acquaintance. But such is the reality of our estranged proximities. In the decade of fighting the Taliban, from the days when they were a mysterious faraway force marauding Kabul, to the present when their names, faces, and ravages are well known, Pakistanis have never really learned much about either Pashtun or Afghan culture. As the Tehreek-e-Taliban have usurped the rhetoric of religion – appointing themselves the arbiters of authenticity, of righteousness, and of faith – there has been protest. Many mourn and question this; Islam must not be lost to the Taliban.

Fewer have mourned the loss of Pashtun culture, of poetic forms such as the landay, of traditional music, of storytelling. The politicisation of Pashtun identity has meant that the loss has been constructed in entirely political terms, cultural appreciation thus neatly equaling ethnic segregation. Pakistan’s aging but persisting ethnic enmities have dictated that any appreciation of cultural tropes associated with ethnic identity must be celebrated only by those who either ascribe to that identity or who have forgotten it completely. Add to this that the loudest, brashest, and most violent claimants of culture usually win, and you have a rout in which the Tehreek-e-Taliban own Pashtun culture.

The dynamics above, the language of geopolitical maneuvering, and strategic balancing has dominated Pakistan’s understanding of its next door neighbor. Any remaining space has been filled by images of an encroaching refugee horde, in the 80’s and the 90’s and recently as a result of the Nato invasion. The dark grays and blues and beards and burqas of the men and women that live on the outskirts of our cities add to this stark and dehumanised palette. There is no room for culture here, no room for understanding. Humanising the Pashtun and the Afghan is thought to impose costs far too dear for us to bear. After all, our bloody cities, our bombed schools have given us enough to mourn and little left; looking to the pain in another’s poetry may impose still more costs, and we are all emotionally bankrupt.

So it is left to others to celebrate the landay. In the Pakistani imagination, Afghanistan remains a black hole of mystery populated only by worn images of fighters perched on mountain promontories and nameless, faceless women in blue burkas. What we have in common, the Pashtuns that live here and there, has been understood only in terms of the political liabilities they impose or, on good days, the strategic gifts they can bestow. The state is dismal and it can best be captured by the landay that begins the essay published in Poetry magazine. Written by a teenage poet who goes by the name Rahila Muska, from Helmand in Afghanistan, it simply says:

“I call, You’re a stone
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.”

Author Image

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and human rights activist. She is a columnist for DAWN Pakistan and a regular contributor for Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and many other publications.

She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon Press 2015). She tweets @rafiazakaria

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (18) Closed

Tajammal Jul 05, 2013 04:35pm

Afghans are our unwanted guests for more then 30 years!

Gerry D'Cunha Jul 05, 2013 04:52pm

looks like these women in shuttle-cork burqa in afghanistan and part of pakistan are treated as bank lockers or i am sorry to say as legal prostitutes, only to quench the lust of an individual who has the 'nikka namma'

K G Surendran Jul 05, 2013 05:35pm

Sad to see women in mobile prisons. the kind of society that will evolve from such subjugation will deeply impact their future generations.

Sonal Jul 05, 2013 06:02pm

Very interesting insight. I suspect part of the problem is that Pakistan has, since it's existence, always been preoccupied with something or the other more important than learning about Afghan / Pashtun culture. And hasn't KPK / NWFP been a troubled state for the longest time? Where will they get the time to learn about Afghan culture? Besides, in the time that they did have, I'm sure they wanted to learn about more progressive and 'cool' things than Afghan culture (I say this keeping in mind that most of our cultures are very aspirational more than anything else... and Afghanistan is not necessary an aspiration).

On a different note, please can someone explain the difference between Pashtun, Pakhtun, and Pathan? Are they three words for the same thing? Thanks!

Concerned Pashtun Jul 05, 2013 07:59pm

Pashtun, Pakhtun, Pathan and Afghan are synonyms. Indians use the word Pathan, Persians use afghan, pashtuns themselves use pashtun or pakhtun depending on the dialect.

Portraying same people with different names can cause confusion. For example, if we say 100 afghans and 50 pakistanis died in the war on terror. Now if someone asks, how many pashtuns died during same time due towtowar on terror or how many of these combine 150 people were pashtuns?

You will most likely get an answer that 140 of them were pashtuns. This is just an example.I hope it clarifies the confusion.

The old name of pashtun region in pakistan was called afghania.

pathanoo Jul 05, 2013 08:09pm

A moving article from a compassionate heart ruminating the hurt and crying out for compassion.

Concerned Pashtun Jul 05, 2013 08:27pm

So its worth thinking whether the article should be titled pakistan's afghanistan or afghanistan's pakistan.

Parvez Jul 06, 2013 12:26am

The Afghan conflict has so dehumanised the people that the world has forgotten the rich history, culture of these people who loved to sing, dance, recite poetry, paint and do all the things that today a system influenced by a repressive understanding of religion has almost destroyed.

fawad shinwari Jul 06, 2013 12:58am

I disagree with the author, she see the pashtoon from western view point.Afghan/pashtoon are more civilized people in the region. You will not find prominent decision making women in others ethnics such as in pashtoon. Actually the pashtoon introduce the civilization in to the region such as Ghori, Sori andLodi.

So that is insult saying humanizing pashtoon/afghan.

fawad shinwari Jul 06, 2013 01:01am

@Sonal: Pashtoon, pakhtun ,pahtan are the same and even afghan is also used for pashtoon

Israr Khan IsmailZai Jul 06, 2013 09:52am


Pashtun, Pakhtun and Pathan are all the names of same group of people. The ethical afghans (not tajiks, uzbeks or hazaras etc) are called pashtuns living in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

alam Jul 06, 2013 02:55pm

@Tajammal: Pakistan is unwanted distribution of subcontinent for more than 67 years

Fawad Khan Jul 06, 2013 08:28pm

@Sonal: All these names refer to the same people. Pashtun: People speaking Kandahari dialect of Pashto language call it Pashtuns. They inhabit the southern part of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pukhtun: People speaking Peshawari dialect of Pashto call it Pukhtuns. They inhabit the northern part of afghanistan and pakistan. Pathan: Non-Pashtuns/Pakhtuns call them by this name. There are many stories about the origin of this name. But all these names essentially refer to the same people.

Muhammad Awais Jul 07, 2013 12:40am

Sad about the face and situation described above but they had made all these things and added them as a cultural representative. Women are not allowed to go out of houses or if allowed then have to wear this dress, a strict and stern hand action is played by the Pakhton with respect to their women.

Muhammad Awais Jul 07, 2013 12:40am

Sad about the face and situation described above but they had made all these things and added them as a cultural representative. Women are not allowed to go out of houses or if allowed then have to wear this dress, a strict and stern hand action is played by the Pakhton with respect to their women.

gary Jul 07, 2013 02:24pm


The present situation in Afghanistan was created by Pakistanis and Americans. Americans have long gone, and Pakistanis are left in the lurch.

Sonal Jul 07, 2013 08:59pm

@Israr Khan IsmailZai: @Fawad Shinwari:

Thanks very much for clarifying!!

Sonal Jul 08, 2013 12:31am

@Concerned Pashtun: Thanks!