We’ve heard all kinds of terrible things about Pashtuns… but are they true? Who are the Pashtuns of Pakistan?
It’s deathly silent. A weak orange sunrise illuminates a pale gray sky over the river. A bloodied knife sits at my feet, a pistol lying ominously next to it. I squat on my heels, straining my eyes as I peer out through a wall of grass, searching for any sign of movement. After a few moments, a faint buzzing noise reaches my ears.
Mechanical clicks of guns raising and firing. Bang! Bang! Bang!
Blood splatters and water splashes as several shapes plummet into the river.
Hoots of delight; our duck hunt is officially a success.
Everyone stands up from our grassy hide to peer out over the river. Sebastiaan and I stretch our cramped legs, while our friends stand to count their kills.
Hamza, boisterous duck hunting enthusiast and our Peshawari host, gingerly rests his rifle on some grass before watching his help, Seyar, dash into the water to fish out downed ducks. Siraj, Hamza’s witty cousin and friend, makes a joking comment in Pashto, the local language. Our hunting guide, a man with a chiseled face few would dare to mess with, examines his own rifle with satisfaction before looking out at the river contemplatively.
Sebastiaan and I can’t help but note how this scene is everything our governments and other Pakistanis have advised us against. Within arms’ reach are knives, multiple guns, bloodied bodies… and an excess of Pashtuns.
Who are the Pashtuns?
But wait… who or what are Pashtuns?
For those not in the know, Pashtuns—also known as “Pathans” and “Pakhtuns”—are an ethnic group of people found throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Historians have debated Pashtuns’ origins for ages. Some say they’re a lost Jewish tribe. Others think they’re descendants of Alexander the Great’s men. Many historians believe Pashtuns to be ethnically Iranian. What is known for sure is that Pashtuns have been living in the areas now known as Afghanistan and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan for centuries.
We met some Pashtuns during our time in Afghanistan, but our recent adventures through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were our first deep encounter with Pashtun culture. Aside from a couple of naughty words of Pashto learned from a friend in Kabul, our knowledge of Pashtuns was mostly limited to a variety of… less than positive stereotypes perpetuated by Pakistanis. Some charming examples include:
- All Pashtun men like to molest young boys.
- Pashtuns are uncivilized, uneducated tribal people from backwards villages who can’t handle themselves in modern society.
- Pashtuns are violent, gun-loving terrorists at the root of all problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obviously these stereotypes couldn’t be entirely true… could they?
Truths and lies
We admit that stereotypes are often founded upon some sort of truth. Throughout our days with Hamza and Siraj—and other adventures in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province—the truths and falsehoods of the stereotypes gradually revealed themselves to us.
The notion that all Pashtun men like to molest young boys is, of course, false, though Hamza and Siraj were all too delighted to make endless quips about Bannu, a town in KPK infamous for older men having young dancing boys as partners. “They say when crows fly over Bannu, they keep one wing over their bum,” Siraj joked in the car one day as Hamza giggled at the wheel.
The stereotype about Pashtuns not meshing well with “modern” values rang more true… in ways. Though I hesitate to deem anything “backwards”, we learned Pashtuns are indeed quite conservative compared to others in Pakistan, though not for the reasons we expected.
Pashtun values, known as Pashtunwali, are very defined and strongly upheld. Honor and respect are essential pillars of Pashtunwali, and dictate much of their custom. For example, according to tradition, women are encouraged to hide from prying eyes under burqas and behind doors not because they are forgotten, but because they are highly respected, and must be protected from men.
Above all else, however, it is the Pashtun love for guns that rang the most true. Everything from pocket-sized pistols to heavy machine guns paraded before our eyes at some point or another while in KPK. The majority of men we met carried at least one gun, concealed or not, and all knew their way around a firearm. Hamza had a collection of 17 guns, some of which were touted around by Siar whenever we went out and about. Siraj and Hamza entertained us many an evening with stories about their days fixing phone towers for a telecom company; the most common causes of tower outages in KPK, they said with grins, were stray bullets severing the tower’s wiring.
What people won’t tell you about Pashtuns
Boys, burqas, and bullets… I presume this is the point where you’re scratching your head. So is there anything good about Pashtuns?
Hold your horses—there’s one last Pashtun stereotype I have yet to address. It isn’t as widespread as the others; it’s something we’d heard only from other Pashtuns, or travelers who visited Peshawar.
They told us Pashtun hospitality is unrivalled, even within Pakistan. Of all the stereotypes, both positive and negative, I think this holds the most truth. Showing hospitality to guests is another essential piece of Pashtunwali, and we saw nothing to convince us otherwise.
During our time in Mardan and Peshawar, we experienced hospitality on a level above and beyond anything else we’ve experienced in Pakistan so far. We’ve been saying that Pakistanis are some of the most hospitable people on earth, and we’ve recently extended our statement: Pakistanis are the most hospitable people, and Pashtuns are the most hospitable of the Pakistanis.
The most hospitable people in Pakistan
In and around Peshawar, together with Hamza and Siraj we explored ancient Buddhist ruins, admired delicate old havelis, and learned to shoot on the banks of the Kabul River. We canvassed half of Peshawar in Hamza’s car as he rattled off facts about every other building we drove past, in between explaining the intricacies of Pashtun culture to us. Siraj kept us cackling as we stayed up late into the nights, playing Ludo and chilling under the stars. Every kind of kebab under the sun landed on our plates at some point—Peshawar is a land of passionate carnivores—and Hamza made sure there was never a single moment where we went hungry, much to my gluttonous delight.
Knowing the difficulties of experiencing village life as foreigners, Hamza arranged for us to spend an afternoon in the village areas around Mardan. His brother, Harun, walked us through their fields and showed us how they make gur, a kind of local jaggery. The family farmhand laid out a feast of an afternoon tea, and drove us around the area in his massive tractor, much to the amusement (and confusion) of the other villagers.
Late another evening, upon learning it was Sebastiaan’s birthday, Hamza disappeared, returning half an hour later with a birthday cake, an explosively glittery confetti bomb (the only bomb blast we saw in the area), and variety of other gifts. A miraculous accomplishment given the late hour of the night.
Though we’ve since left Mardan and Peshawar, Hamza and Siraj still keep in contact with us. They’ve found us friends and hosts in other cities, argued over the phone at army soldiers hassling us on the road, and loaded us up with advice on places we’d never even heard of. We’re separated by thousands of kilometers at this point, and still they manage to take care of us and keep us laughing, all at the same time.
In Pakistan, there are more than 200 million people. The world’s population is rapidly approaching 8 billion. With so many people in the world, its inevitable that some will fit whatever stereotypes we create and subscribe to. What we need to remember is that there are plenty of people who don’t fit the bill.
Hamza and Siraj are the complete opposites of the backwards, uneducated, violent Pashtun cliché. Both are highly educated, as revealed by flawless English and thoughtful explanations. They were patient with all of our questions and needs, and respectful of our own cultures while teaching us about theirs. Sure, they had guns, but they were incredibly cautious with them in our presence, and handled them with care. The stereotype best suited to them was that of utmost hospitality.
When two different worlds come together, it is tolerance that helps them stay together, and learn from rather than fight each other. During our time in Peshawar and Mardan, we learned of many stark differences between Hamza and Siraj’s Pashtun culture, and the Western amalgamation Sebastiaan and I represent. For example, we found it extreme that Pashtuns sometimes kill the man and woman when they are caught having an affair. Hamza found it extreme when we explained how in many places in Europe and the US, men and women can sleep around with as many people as they want before marriage. But rather than judge each other and fixate on the differences in our cultures, we all simply used our differences as a learning experience, and carried on together. No hotheaded shouting or gunfire necessary.
If we allow negative stereotypes to get in the way of meeting new people and visiting new places, worlds of opportunities will be missed. To fully experience something new, forget stereotypes and prior notions. Aim to learn firsthand, not through hearsay, and like us, you might end up blown away by what you find.