It is a chilly winter evening in Katlang, Mardan, as Yasir Ali puts dinner on the table for a guest in a hujra of the small village of Azi Khel. The guest is an old man who has come from Kohistan. He asks the boy Yasir Ali, “Where is that tall, handsome and white-bearded man who used to bring me food whenever I came here?”
“Oh, you talk about Muhammad Nabi Kaka,” Yasir answers. “He is no more with us. He died on Eid last year,” he says, with a deep sigh. The guest stares at the boy, motionless.
“Died?” the guest repeats, his eyes open wide in shock.
Then tears rush down from his eyes, and flow down his cheeks and beard.
“I have never met such a generous person [as him] in my life,” the old guest says in a low, quivering voice.
Yasir nods: “Yes, he was the most hospitable person in our village. He was poor but he was rich at heart. He was very fond of the hujra and always advised us to take great care of it and of the guests who come here to stay.”
The boy tells the guest that, after the sprawling old building collapsed, people rebuilt this hujra by collecting money from all the villagers — all the 100 households and even the poorest man of the village, Sartaj Khan, who had contributed fifty rupees.
In Pakhtun society, it’s hard to imagine a village without a hujra. The hujra is a multi-purpose cultural space, exclusively for men, built and maintained collectively by the villagers as it ties them together as a community.
Renowned Pashto writer Abaseen Yousafzai, says that the Pakhtuns can trace their history to 5,000 years ago, and the origin of the hujra is as old as Pakhtun history. The institution originated alongside the social life of Pakhtuns “because hospitality was second nature to them and to be hospitable, they needed the hujra.”
A hujra is considered much more than a mere building in a village. It has served as a seat of learning, a centre for teaching young people Pakhtun traditions by abiding to ‘Pashtunwali’ — the code of conduct of Pakhtun society. Since various activities are held in this multi-functional building, the hujra serves as a community centre, social club, parliament, alternate dispute resolution centre, wedding hall, and literary and traditional music club.
The hujra has long occupied centre-stage in Pakhtun communities for good reason. But busy and technology-driven lives have begun to threaten this age-old institution. It may not be too late to revive it
“The hujra is the backbone of Pashtun society and has a unique distinction in global cultures,” Abaseen Yousafzai observes. “Other nations may have guest houses, community centres, gymnasiums, playgrounds and wedding halls but, in Pakhtun culture, all of these activities take place in one hujra, which is a reflection of Pashtun culture and character.”
“People used to learn ethics in the hujra, such as respect for elders and avoiding idle talk. A person well-versed in the norms of the hujra is called ‘hujra pass’,” says Professor Noorul Amin Yousafzai, a researcher on Pashto culture and literature. “Even if a person is a PhD, but unaware of the values of the hujra, he is deemed as someone who has not mastered the ethics of Pakhtun culture.
“The hujra functions as a sort of parliament house for Pashtuns where they can achieve collective goals such as specifying a proper burial place for someone in the graveyard or resolving security issues. Young people learn the art of dialogue and dispute resolution here,” he further explains.
Pointing out the correlation between the Dispute Resolution Council (DRC) and the hujra, Gul Faraz Khan, a registrar at the DRC Tehsil Katlang, claims that the idea of the DRC had been derived from the jirga system at a hujra by KP police.
But despite this long history, the institution is under threat. In many Pakhtun areas, noble, learned and experienced people stopped patronising hujras and the neglected hujras were abandoned to drug users, gossipers and illiterate individuals. This has endangered the very existence of a centuries-old and exceptional institution associated with Pakhtuns.
“In the past, people had more leisure time, which was spent in hujras, as there was no radio, television or mobile phones,” says Abaseen Yousafzai. “In today’s busy, technology-driven life, the role of the hujra has naturally declined.”
While the deep-rooted culture of the hujra can never be erased from Pakhtun culture, it does need to be revived as an institution to fulfil the social and cultural needs of Pakhtuns belonging to different age groups from all walks of life.
Abaseen Yousafzai points out that a revival of the hujra is not an impossible mission. Certain steps such as the installation of wifi for youngsters need to be taken, so that they can fulfill their educational and entertainment needs under the supervision of elders. Indoor games such as table tennis could also be introduced to attract their presence and participation.
Sana Ijaz, a prominent women rights activist based in Peshawar believes that if Pashtuns fail to revive the hujra, Pakhtun youth will be left isolated and this could lead to psychological and mental health issues. It would also be a setback to local politics. “Being a multi-dimensional place, the hujra has always served as the best and most useful platform for promoting a culture of dialogue, debate and dispute resolution,” she says.
In a typical Pakhtun social set-up, a hujra is used exclusively by men. In order to create a more inclusive space, Ijaz suggests women too need community centres with access to libraries in their villages, so that they can learn from each other’s experiences and read books to keep pace with the modern world.
Professor Noor ul Amin Yousafzai reiterates that, to prevent the fragmentation of Pakhtun society, the re-establishment of the hujra must be taken up at the provincial assembly level. “We need to re-establish the hujra with the consensus of all stakeholders such as the political government, the community, cultural experts and institutions,” he explains. “The government, through public-private partnership, could chalk out a plan for the hujra, such as allocating rooms for a library, indoor games, a meeting hall and guest room with internet facility and essential furniture. Constructing shops nearby could generate revenue which could be used for the maintenance of the hujra.”
According to the former chief minister KP and Awami National Party (ANP) MNA, Ameer Haider Khan Hoti, the ANP government (2008-2013) had provided special funds to 700 hujras collectively owned by the people in the entire province. These hujras were converted to community centres so that people could participate in social, political and recreational activities.
Hoti recalled that, as the CM, he had taken the initiative for the revival of the hujra purely on administrative and development grounds, which needed more willpower than legislation, and suggests that present and future governments need to work along the same lines.
Considering the after-effects of militancy on society, the hujra system, restored as a powerful academy, can help connect the youth to its roots. It will only help nurture a culture of tolerance, dialogue and a peaceful narrative, taking young Pakhtuns away from the militant cultures of violence and terrorism.
The writer is a rural development professional and Master in European Studies can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 11th, 2020