Addiction: Nesting with naswar

Published June 8, 2014
Preparing Naswar
Preparing Naswar

In his book Zarguzisht, veteran Urdu writer Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi finds himself quizzed impromptu by Mr Anderson, his senior at the Bank.

“Name a significant product from the North Western Province (today’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), apart from maize,” asks Mr Anderson.

Dumbfounded, Yousufi blurts: “Pathan.”

The high-and-mighty British manager rebukes Yousufi for his ignorance. Mr Anderson then asks Yousufi to consult a colleague of Pashtun descent, learn about the finest quality of tobacco cultivated in the region, and write up a detailed account.

In his quest to discover tobacco, Yousufi would have returned with tales of naswar — an addictive drug that is not only popular among the Pashtun people but also has cultural roots in them. Such is the relationship that, over time, naswar has become a key characteristic of the Pashtun stereotype.

Ground dried tobacco leaves, ashes of a tree bark, oil slaked lime ... a perfect recipe for a common addictive

“A lot of people we routinely interact with assume that being a Pashtun, we must be familiar with how to use naswar and that we’d have some square or round plastic packet somewhere in our pockets,” says Muhammad Asad, a Pashtun student currently enrolled at a vocational college in Karachi. “There are plenty of jokes about the use of naswar by Pashtuns, along with some other generalisations about them.”

Packets being made
Packets being made

For the Pashtun people, though, associations with naswar are based in family and tradition. For centuries, naswar has served as the indigenous ‘drug’ of choice among the Pashtun people. During the olden days, when marriage proposals were discussed, particular enquiries were also made regarding the prospective bride’s ability to grind and make naswar.

Women were to be in charge of the process of making naswar at home, but the addiction was largely that of men. “I remember an aunt who was considered to an expert in preparing home-made naswar; she was quite popular among the family for this skill,” says a Mardan-based lawyer.

As naswar left the chaar diwari, it has also become more widely consumed. A large number of its users are people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pashtun parts of Balochistan.

“The way gutka has gained popularity among Pashtuns, naswar too has users from other ethnicities as well. Most of our customers might still be Pashtun, but you know, Karachi has a mixed taste,” says Muhammad Ismail, owner of Khyber Naswar Shop in Baldia Town.

The original owner of Ismail’s shop was his father, Muhammad Ibraheem, who had set it up some 24 years ago. After his recent demise, the shop is now run by Ismail and his brothers, with the aid of an uncle.

Per tradition, explains Ismail, sun-dried or heat-dried tobacco leaves are grinded and first mixed with ash from tree bark. Oil-soaked lime is added for cohesion, followed by flavouring (e.g. cardamom, menthol) and colouring agents (indigo or yellow). The choice of flavour and colour depend on the choice of the user. The mixture is then crushed and poured into a curved stone. Another round stone is used to beat the mixture, until it burns and turns black.

With the passage of time, the use of machinery and electric motors have made the process easier and can be produced on a larger scale by using locally customised and innovated machines for the mixing and crushing process.

The ingredients too have had their share of changes over time: guar gum is now added for cohesion, while ammonium chloride — which locals call “naushadar” — is added as a preservative and to give naswar its bite. Different proportions of ingredients are added or subtracted, based on final quality, essence, and how long the naswar will last.

The majority of people associated with the naswar businesses — making, supplying raw materials used in it, selling it — in one way or another have some share in the cultivation of various kinds of tobacco, including the one used in naswar. Tobacco leaves and stalks used in naswar are mostly brought from Sawabi, Mardan and other bordering districts.

Tobacco from Jampur, a town of district Rajanpur, has also gained popularity. The growers in Jampur are locals but people dealing in purchases and sales of tobacco there are mostly Pashtuns from Balochistan and Afghanistan. Other regions involved in naswar production include Hazro (Attock), Dera Ghazi Khan, Mailsi (Vehari), Bubak/ Rasoolabad areas, district Dadu, and the Pishin/Qila Saifullah districts in Balochistan.

Domestically, a majority of the naswar made by Ismail’s family is supplied to Gaddani, Hub Chowki and Winder — towns in District Lasbella, Balochistan.

“Gaddani’s ship-breaking yard has thousands of skilled and unskilled labourers coming from different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Seraiki region, who are all users of naswar.

Then there are truck drivers travelling on the RCD Highway, who tend to buy naswar from roadside hotels and restaurants. Because of its relatively low price as compared to other addictive drugs, naswar is more popular among working class Pashtuns and people of other ethnicities,” says Ismail.

But the market for naswar is not simply restricted to home; there is great demand for naswar in the countries of the Middle East — but naswar sellers have to be creative to pass border checks. Despite their caution, however, custom authorities at Jebal Ali in the United Arab Emirates recently seized one of the largest consignments of naswar transported there from an Asian country.

“Wherever you will find Pashtuns, naswar too will have made its mark in that corner of the world,” smiles Ismail.

Ali Arqam is a Karachi-based journalist. Connect with him on Twitter @aliarqam or write to him at

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 8th, 2014



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