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The Pashtun people of North-West Pakistan have their own laws and customs – including both the rule ...
2020-12-22 09:00:00

In the Land of Hospitality
A Pashtun Custom

A road in Mansehra District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. Photo by Muhammad Khubaib Sarfraz on Unsplash
In the Land of Hospitality
In the Land of Hospitality

A guest in a Pashtun house can expect more than a generous reception. The Pashtun idea of hospitality extends beyond the usual niceties of feeding and entertaining visitors, and also includes the obligation of protecting a guest and providing them with refuge if needed. Even if a guest is an outlaw on the run. Even if they or their families happen to be in conflict with the host’s family. Because the rule of hospitality precedes the rule of revenge.

Read in 10 minutes

The obligation of visitation

It was a cold, misty winter day. We were coming back from a wedding party in Peshawar, feeling cold and tired. But Ami insisted that we go to a village near the city of Mardan to see Iqbal’s family. Iqbal’s son was sick in hospital and in such circumstances, visiting the family to ask about the sick becomes an obligation for relatives and friends. I didn’t even know who Iqbal was, and in the drizzly weather the muddy country roads leading to the village appeared grim and uninviting. Muhammad didn’t feel like going there either. And neither he nor Ami knew the way. Before we found the village and the house it was almost dark, dinner time was past due, and the three kids travelling with us were hungry…

Iqbal’s family welcomed us in a traditional Pashtun village house. From the street outside, you can see only a brick wall. In that wall, hidden behind a curtain, there is a door or a gate leading to a courtyard surrounded by terraced rooms. Sometimes the courtyard is paved with bricks or filled with concrete. Here it was just a muddy yard, where chickens, peacocks and cranes strolled lazily, and some trees grew. Even in the rooms – except for the bathroom – there was no flooring, just an earthen floor. It was the first time I had seen such a ‘traditional’ house, with no kitchen, just a clay oven by the wall, with the wood fuel stored under a tarpaulin.

I entered the house with Ami and our kids. We were welcomed by women, older and younger, smiling. We could see some children hiding around the place. Ami knew these people, so following the Pashtun savoir-vivre, she asked about the health of each family member. I just said salaam alaikum and exchanged the customary double cheek kiss. In front of the older women I slightly bowed, accepting a kiss on the forehead. I was introduced as the Angreza, the English, the foreigner. But I was already a familiar foreigner, a part of the family really. Having learnt the language and wearing local clothes, I easily blended in. We were sat on a veranda on charpoys – traditional Pakistani beds made up of a wooden frame and legs, with a weaving of ropes or jute for the base. Some takyas – bolster cushions – were brought in, as well as blankets in case we wanted to cover our cold feet. One of the women kindled the fire in the oven. Others also disappeared from the side, but every now and then one of our hostesses would come to sit with us. Muhammad wasn’t seated with us, he was in the men’s section of the house. He wouldn’t be able to access the inner house – the women’s domain, and likewise we would not be able to enter the outer guestrooms reserved for men.

Tea was being prepared – and tea in Pakistan is more than just a cup of hot drink accompanied by a slice of cake or a biscuit. Tea for guests is a rather formal affair, more akin to British high tea, with sweet and savoury snacks. But my youngest child wasn’t patient enough to wait for the tea. She was hungry and loudly demanded dinner. And so dinner was served to her – turnip zemna and tandoori bread. Zemna is a staple of Pashtun cuisine – a one-pot dish of beef or mutton, rarely chicken, cooked with onions, tomatoes, spices and some seasonal vegetables. But this zemna was so different from the one I eat every second day at home. It was lighter and more aromatic, it had a different set of spices, including fragrant fennel seed. How do they manage to cook such good food in this outdoor kitchen?

While the child ate her zemna and the tea was brewing, Ami decided to reveal to me our relationship with Iqbal’s family. It was here, in this house, that Mamoo, Ami’s brother, took refuge and spent a few years living in hiding, nearly becoming a family member. And by extension, Iqbal’s family became our kith.

The obligation of revenge

I always thought that Mamoo was a tragic hero, because, just like the heroes of the Greek tragedies, he was forced to choose between two impossible alternatives. When his younger brother was shot and subsequently died, Mamoo could either fulfil the duty of revenge and lose everything as a result, or otherwise lose his and his family’s honour and good name – which is everything. Because badal, the rule of revenge, is one of the pillars of Pashtunwali – the code of life and the customary law of the Pashtuns. According to Pashtunwali, revenge is not only legal and permissible; it is an obligation, a duty to be fulfilled. As my father-in-law explained to me: you can lose everything, but you have to take revenge.

Mamoo lost a lot. The obligation of revenge fell upon him as the closest male relative of the murdered. And he fulfilled the obligation. He then had to leave his village and go into hiding, because the family of the alleged killer did not accept it was his fault and therefore felt obliged to avenge his death, too. That’s why Mamoo went to live with only his wife and children, far from his extended family. For a long time, he lived in Iqbal’s house, and afterwards he moved houses many times. When he’s in his village he rarely goes out of the house – it could be risky. Similarly, his sons feel safer indoors. They live in fear, but they are proud. Their father saved the family’s good name and honour, and thanks to his sacrifice his sons will find wives and his daughters will find husbands. His wife can hold her head high, even though her life hasn’t been easy ever since. It is hard to maintain a family when one is an outlaw. And it is hard to raise children without the support of the village.

The law for the lawless

Pashtunwali is a customary law. It is neither institutionalized nor codified. It is not enforced by the government, who could make sure that the law was followed and that any breach was punished. Rather, the motivation to abide by the law comes from deep-seated conviction, an internal drive. Because when it comes to Pashtunwali, the institution is the people, the codex is the custom, and every single Pashtun is the guardian of the law. It is also the people – the members of jirga, the unelected, voluntary council of elders – who act as judges in case of violation of the law. Isn’t it the ideal democracy?

While governments come and go, and borders are drawn and redrawn, the Pashtun people continue to live on their ancestral land, disregarding the colonizers and their laws, committed and loyal only to Pashtunwali. No matter who claims to be the ruler of their land, no matter what passport they have, the loyalty of the Pashtuns is tribal loyalty, their identity transcending borders. Such people cannot be colonized and de facto have never been colonized. Even though the governors of the British Empire built forts in Pashtun cities, even when the Pakistani government appointed political agents to manage relations between the state and the Pashtuns, it was always obvious that such rules applied only to outside relations between the Pashtuns and others. The British Empire, after a century and a half of unsuccessful campaigns aimed at colonizing the Pashtuns, at last decided that the policy of masterly inactivity promoted by the Punjab school would probably be the best course of action. It was best not to meddle with the internal affairs of the Pashtuns. Similarly, the government of Pakistan recognized certain territories inhabited by the Pashtuns as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and acknowledged that the governance of the state and the rule of the law did not extend to those lands. Even though in Pakistan FATA has become synonymous with lawlessness, the truth is that those lands are ruled by the Pashtuns and their customary law. Pashtunwali, then, is the law for the lawless and the state for the stateless, to quote Bruce Benson and Zafar Siddiqui from Florida State University.

Meadows at the foot of the mountains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan
Meadows at the foot of the mountains in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan

Benson and Siddiqui write that even when Pashtuns are politically active, even when they become political leaders – kings, presidents or prime ministers, as was often the case in Afghanistan and Pakistan – their rule is the rule of the Pashtun over other ethnic groups, and the law they represent as the head of the state is also the law for the others, for the non-Pashtuns. Because state government and the rule of law enforced by a government does not extend to the Pashtuns and does not apply within their community.

The land of hospitality

Guda chai – thick milky tea sweetened with jaggery – was ready. A large teapot was placed in the middle of a small table and one of our hostesses poured the hot drink into the teapots, undoubtedly some of the best she had in store. She encouraged us to have some of the tea snacks: bakery biscuits decorated with sugared chickpeas, the round, brown gulab jamuns sticky with syrup and ras gullah – balls of sweet cheese, some of them dyed in wild pink. There was a bread-shaped sponge cake and there were samosas filled with spicy potatoes. Finally, there was roast chicken – the bird was still alive when we arrived, but was duly sacrificed to appease the appetite of respected guests. Because in the land of hospitality, the guests always receive the best. For melmastya – the rule of hospitality – is yet another pillar of Pashtunwali.

Melmastya denotes hospitality, but it is a different kind of hospitality than the one we are accustomed to in Europe. A guest in a Pashtun house can expect more than a generous reception. The Pashtun idea of hospitality extends beyond the usual niceties of feeding and entertaining visitors, and includes the obligation of protecting a guest and providing them with refuge if needed. Even if a guest is an outlaw on the run. Even if they or their families happen to be in conflict with the host’s family. Because the rule of hospitality precedes the rule of revenge.

An important element of Pashtun hospitality (and yet another pillar of Pashtunwali) is nenawatai – literally ‘going inside’ – where an offender accepting his responsibility for a wrongdoing asks for forgiveness and asylum in the house of those they offended. There is a famous tale illustrating this rule, about an old woman who protected the killers of her sons. According to the story, there was once a band of robbers who attacked a village. The villagers, including two brothers, took to arms to defend their homes. Some robbers, as well as some villagers, died in the shooting that ensued, among them the two brothers. When the robbers saw that they could not defend themselves any longer they decided to run away and hide, but found themselves in a cul-de-sac. In desperation, they knocked on the door of a house and asked the old lady who opened the door for asylum. Soon after, the angry villagers knocked on the same door and demanded that the woman release the robbers, but she declined and blocked their way with a gun. When the neighbours accused her of protecting the killers of her sons, she replied: “It might be so, but they came nenawatai to my house, and as long as they stay inside my house, I will protect them.”

Olaf Caroe, the Governor of the North-West Frontier Province in British India, wrote on melmastya: “The giving of hospitality to the guest is a national point of honour, so much so that the reproach to an inhospitable man is that he is devoid of Pushto, a creature of contempt.” The law of hospitality applies not only to fellow Pashtuns, but to anyone, regardless of their beliefs or affiliation. It is no wonder then that melmastya has many a time proved to be an affair of political significance. As Benson and Siddiqui explain, it is the customary hospitality that compelled the Pashtuns to give refuge to the mujahideen from various countries, who, paid by the CIA, fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. When over a decade later one of the military groups drawn from the mujahideen claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks, the world demanded that the Pashtuns hand over the terrorists. But from the point of view of Pashtunwali, they were still guests and were covered by panah – the obligatory protection for visitors. To release the guests to their enemies – even such troublesome guests – would be dishonourable, unthinkable for a Pashtun. Even the bombs that started falling over Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan failed to discourage Pashtuns from defending the people they considered their guests. More so, it prompted them to seek revenge for the lives lost in the attacks. In this seemingly unsolvable conflict, where the law belongs to the strongest, and yet that law does not penetrate the local community ruled by its own customary law, it is the Pashtuns that are the victims. They lose their lives, their possessions, their good name, but not their honour. And honour is everything.

The farewell

We finished three cups of chai and tried all the sweets and savouries; our car was packed with sacks of home-made jaggery and I was gifted some embroidered fabric – on the occasion of visiting the house for the first time. We were ready to go home. We said farewell to our hosts and drove off towards Islamabad feeling much uplifted. Once again, I experienced the great Pashtun hospitality and, sitting comfortably in the car, I could think over its value and meaning, about the rules of Pashtunwali, so incomprehensible and out of place in the Western world and mind…

An eye for eye, a tooth for tooth, if someone hits you, hit them in return – even children here are taught that the best method to prevent violence is revenge, because this is the whole point of badal. Pashtuns will think twice before they reach for a gun, knowing that every bad deed will have its consequences and every mistake has to be paid for. Every life matters and seeking justice is everyone’s duty. Revenge is an obligation, but so is showing mercy to one who appeals for it; seeking nenawatai – refuge, protection and forgiveness.

The extreme hospitality of the Pashtuns is harder to comprehend than the law of revenge. It is the melamastya that proves to be of key importance for the Pashtuns, as well as for those who seek their protection, or those who come into conflict with them. A Pashtun host will go to great lengths to ensure that their guests are safe and comfortable, and his generosity does not demand recompense from the visitors. Melmastya is a kind of social security system, and a network of support for travellers. Not without reason is Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – the Pashtun province of Pakistan – known as the Land of Hospitality. It is a fascinating land, full of beauty and romance and drama. But even though there is so much to see here, no tourists come to visit – only guests.


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