I was traveling from Minneapolis to Saint Paul on a light rail car when I started a conversation with a guy in sitting next to me. He asked me where I was from, and I told him the northwestern part of Pakistan.
“Really!,” he said, surprised by the answer.
I asked if he knew much about Pakistan, and whether he had ever been there.
“No,” he said. “But I’m a highly educated person and I am following news related to the world. I know that there are terrorist attacks, suffering, and killings over there.”
I asked him if he has heard any good things about the people from my region, the Pashtuns.
He laughed a little and said he didn’t , but he assumed that they are “violent and rigid.”
This thinking is unfortunately mainstream. Many people in the United States believe that there is no normal life in Northwestern Pakistan. To them, that part of the globe is synonymous with terrorism. To them an uneducated and “barbaric” lot live there, people who kill each other on daily basis.
Yes, there is terrorism in those areas; but along with that there is normal life. I think the narrow vision is not their fault. It is a fact that terrorism is ongoing in Northwestern Pakistan. Thousands of Pashtuns, including women and children, have been killed and thousands have been injured in terrorism-related incidents in last three decades. Indeed, militancy is a major problem in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA).
Nevertheless, there are other things going on that the international and mainstream U.S. media do not tell their audiences. Pashtuns are famous for being very romantic, and perhaps rightly so. There are hundreds of love stories in Pashto literature that talk about lovers and their unachievable happily-married-ever-after lives.
Yousaf Khan Shair Bano, Fateh Khan and Rabia, Musa Jan and Gul Makai, Adam Khan and Durkhanai, Momin Khan and Sheerino, Shadi and Bebo — these are some of the most famous Romeos and Juliets of Pashtuns. Attan, Khattak, Mahsud and Waziri are our traditional dances at different events.
Pashtuns do follow Pashtunwali, “a flexible unwritten code and traditional life style.” It is an ancient system of law and governance that is still in use today, mostly in the rural and tribal areas of KP province and FATA.
The codes of the Pashtunwali include the following traditional features: courage (Tora), revenge (Badal), hospitality (Melmastia), and generosity to a defeated. Pashtunwali promotes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge, and tolerance toward all (especially to strangers or guests).
Pashtuns are very social people, and know each other throughout whole neighborhoods and villages.
To understand more about Pashtuns, it’s important to know some background about how Pashtuns in Northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan were radicalized and used by outside interests. Billions of dollars was spent by the other countries, primarily the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, through intelligence agencies to establish religious schools, or madrassas, that included extremely conservative lessons and anti-Russian propaganda meant to radicalize young people and counter the growth of Marxism and build opposition to the Soviet invasion during the 1980s in Afghanistan.
In the 1980s, the Pakistan army collaborated with the United States to create, train and use jihadists to fight against Soviet Russia. Some of these jihadists later formed what’s become known as the Taliban. After the end of Cold War, Pakistan recognized and supported the Taliban in Afghanistan as part of its strategic interests.
The so-called Taliban also exploited the Pashtuns to their advantage; whenever they were winning during their armed conflicts, they were Muslim; whenever they were losing on the front lines, they connected the traditional principles of Pashtunwali to mobilize the Pashtun population and to earn their support.
Coming back to the topic, let me tell you that Pashtuns are simply valiant, hard-working people who are proud of their culture and heritage and just plain beautiful, inside and out. They are not only kind and hospitable towards their guests but also respectful towards women. If a traveler gets a chance to go to Northwestern Pakistan, he or she will encounter hospitality and love.
Summing up the character of Pashtuns, the 19th Century statesman and historian Mountstuart Elphinstone of Scotland wrote, “They are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependents, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent.”
The culture of the Pashtun people is highlighted since at least the time of Herodotus (484-425 BC) or Alexander the Great, who explored the Afghanistan and Pakistan region in 330 BC.
Let me conclude with a poem by Rehmat Shah Syal:
An imposed war in my homeland kills me over and over,
Strangers reap its benefits, imposed by outsiders, it kills me over and over.
My attire torn, my being shattered, I am being killed again and again,
What a deadly skill, kills me with my own, I am being massacred over and over.
Whether Peshawari or Kabuli, the Pashtun is a single spirit,
One is my sweetheart, the other my beloved, I am being assassinated over and over.
Our streets are coloured by my beloved blood every day I watch them burn,
The war is alien, the guns are foreign, I am being killed over and over.
Oh peace loving people of the world, stop these warmongers,
This my doomsday, end of my world, I am being killed over and over