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Dubious ancestors

Updated January 22, 2017

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In 1981 a book arrived in the offices of my paternal grandfather. It was authored by a distant cousin of his and a fellow Paracha. It was called the History & Culture of the Paracha Tribe. Originally penned in Urdu, it claimed that the Paracha tribe was made up of the descendants of a man called Ali Yemeni in Arabia who had converted to Islam during the early days of the faith in the 7th century CE.

The book went on to suggest that the tribe followed Yemeni into Persia where the Parachas became traders. From Persia various branches of the tribe spread out across north India, Central Asia and Afghanistan.

I was 14 when this book was published. It was rather nice to know that the tribe that I belonged to had not only been Muslim for hundreds of years, but had Arab genes. The author of the book had not cited any convincing sources to substantiate his claims other than perhaps mentioning what he had heard from his immediate elders. But his narrative about the origins of the Paracha clan became rather popular among his tribal brethren in Pakistan.

Even though as a teen I, too, had believed the claims made in the book, things in this context began to come apart when, as a college student in the mid and late 1980s, I came across a few tomes which steadfastly challenged the contents of the history text books being taught in our educational institutions. It was a liberating feeling.

What pioneering Pakistani ‘revisionist historians’ such as Dr Mubarak Ali, K.K. Aziz and Ayesha Jalal also did for young folk like me was to inform us how one should go about authenticating (or rejecting) claims presented as historical facts.

Surely, I thought, there must be more about the Paracha tribe beyond verbal folklore and modern narratives weaved to suit contemporary theological, social and political trends. All one had to do was to look for it.

In early 1993 I stumbled upon a dusty old book at a tiny bookstore in Islamabad. I was in that city as a reporter of an English weekly, sent there from Karachi to cover Benazir Bhutto’s ‘long march’ against the first Nawaz Sharif regime. I found the mentioned book two days after the march. It was called Tribes & Castes of Punjab and NWFP.

The book was published in the early 1900s and was authored by H. Arthur Rose, a British bureaucrat serving in the British Colonial government in India. It’s a fascinating read. It is entirely based on two detailed reports on the census conducted by the colonial set-up in Punjab and NWFP in 1883 and 1892 respectively.

And, indeed, there was a whole section on the Paracha tribe in it. According to the report, the Parachas mostly resided in the hilly Potohar region of north Punjab and in areas near the Punjab-NWFP border. They still do. Most fascinating (at least to me) was when the 1883 census report reproduced in the book quoted some elders of the tribe saying that the Paracha tribe migrated from Persia as Zoroastrians and became Buddhists in India. They then converted to Islam sometime in the 11th century CE.

But just as the dubious 1981 book had done, the 19th century census reports too were quoting Paracha elders. Nevertheless, another book confirmed what the 19th century old men were suggesting. In his hefty 2007 book Pakistan through the Ages famous Pakistani archaeologist, historian and linguist Ahmad Hasan Dani mentions the names of some of the tribes which accompanied the Kushan people, who established an empire in Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan between first and third centuries CE.

According to Dani’s archaeological findings, the Kushan were a syncretic people in Persia and Central Asia. They were followers of a faith which was a hybrid of Zoroastrianism and classical Greek mythology. During the time of the empire’s greatest ruler, Kanishka, the empire became entirely Buddhist. One of the tribes which Dani suggests accompanied the Kushan into what today is Pakistan, was called Pirache which later became Paracha and/or Piracha.

I think I’d rather stick to the claims of an accomplished archeologist and historian than some guy who concocted a figure called Ali Yemeni because he found the idea of being from Arabia rather appealing.

Anyway, these days a simple DNA tracking method can actually trace back one’s ancestors millions of years. Take the example of the Pakistani-American lad who was always told that his ancestors came from Arabia until in August 2016 when he got his DNA tested. The results showed that he was 97 percent South Asian and had zero percent Middle Eastern ancestry. He gleefully announced these results in a video on Youtube.

Dr Mubarak Ali, in his book In Search of Identity writes that the practice of claiming non-South-Asian ancestry among the region’s Muslims began during the collapse of the Mughal Empire in the 18th century CE. According to him, the Mughals largely employed Persian-speaking men in their courts. Almost all of them were migrants from Persia or Central Asia. But when the influence and power of the Mughal dynasty began to recede, such men stopped travelling to India. Their places were gradually filled by ‘local converts’ or South Asian men who had converted to Islam (from Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and other religions in the region).

The resultant ascent of local Muslims in India initially saw them taken pride in their ‘local’ roots (thus the sudden mushrooming of Urdu). But Dr Ali suggests that once they were established as the new courtiers, traders, feudal lords and members of an expanding Muslim middle-class in India, most of them began to alter their ancestral histories.

Since the idea of nobility was still associated with non-South-Asian Muslims, and the fact that Muslims of India had begun to see themselves as a separate cultural entity, claiming to originate outside of South Asia became a norm.

This norm continued even after the creation of Pakistan, especially after the mid-1970s, when because of the rise of oil-rich monarchies in the Middle East and the growth of so-called ‘Political Islam’, the trend of claiming Arabian ancestry became rampant.

But the thing is, the many social and political complexities of this issue can now actually be untangled in one go by the ‘Human Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing.’ It is simple and relatively cheap. Apparently a person can get one done for less than 150 dollars.

In 1987 three well-known genealogists (Cann, Stoneking and Wilson) published a stunning report of a worldwide human mtDNA survey. The survey had collected DNA samples of numerous men and women from around the world to see who originated where. As they dug deeper and looked further back, they found that mtDNA in every living person on the planet today stems from a woman who lived in Africa some 200,000 years ago!

Scientists now believe that no matter what faith, language, nationality, immediate ancestral history or colour of skin one possesses, he or she came from a single woman who was a member of a pre-historic tribe in Africa. A rather humbling thought.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 22nd, 2017