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Asia Society
Homeland Afghanistan

Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.

Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.

Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.

Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.

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Pashtun Unity

CIRCA 1747 CE
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Identity & Perception

Reveal Source

Bowman, Capt. Vanessa R., and U.S. Army. "070721-A-5475B-768." Digital image. Defenseimagery.mil. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://tinyurl.com/36rdm3c.

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Dupree, Nancy. 61-313. Dupree Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Evans, Steve. "Northern Pakistan." Digital image. Babasteve's Flickr Photostream. March 13, 2007. Accessed August 29, 2010. http://www.flickr.com/photos/64749744@N00/528858449.
Creative Commons license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en
 
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KES-138-H-49. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
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KES-2188-HG-11. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
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Map of Afghanistan during the Safavid and Moghul Empires. 1747. Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
 
Naqqash-bashi, Bahram. Portrait of Nadir Shah. 1743. State Hermitage of Russia, St. Petersburg.
 
Nastaliq. Xayr ul-Bayān, the oldest known document written in Pashto, circa 1651. Digital image. Accessed August 21, 2010.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Chair_al-Bayan_retouched.png.
 
Portrait of the Members of Court. 1901. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 
Portrait of the Members of Court. 1901. Khalilullah Enayat Seraj Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
 

Rahim Shah. MAAMA DEY. Courtesy of Khanzentertainment, MP3.
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UNAMA, and Fardin Waezi. "Photo of the Day: 9 February 2010." Digital image. UNAMA's Flickr Photostream. Photo of the Day: 9 February 2010.

Producer: Kate Harding

 

Reveal Transcript

The Pashtuns are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and they share a common heritage and language. But understanding what it means to be Pashtun is like trying to catch the wind. No matter where you grab it, it’s still going to find ways of blowing around the definitions. Ethnicity is powerfully felt, but it’s also powerfully adaptable.

When the Persian leader Nadir Shah was assassinated in 1747, he left behind a crumbling empire. By the end of the year, one of his favorite commanders, an Afghan, established his own army and declared autonomy in Kandahar. His rule would expand into what is now India, Pakistan, and Iran. And he was able to do this because he mobilized the Pashtun tribes to work together as a single unit. This leader, Ahmad Shah Durrani, would become known to many as the father of modern Afghanistan.

With Ahmad Shah’s campaigns, the Pashtuns began to see themselves as a group who shared important commonalities in spite of their differences. Today the Pashtuns number an estimated 40 million people, living mostly in Afghanistan and in Northwest Pakistan, divided in half by the borders of nation states.

There are many more Pashtuns in today’s Pakistan North-West Frontier Province and Balochestan than there are in Afghanistan. The division between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the so-called Durand line, divides the Pashtuns, particularly the eastern Pashtuns between Pakistan and Afghanistan and this is a border that Afghanistan has considered illegitimate since the time it was done on the grounds precisely that it does divide a Pashtun nation.

But despite being split in half by an international border, the Pashtuns are held together by a certain bond–a bond that unites more than 60 distinct tribes and 400 subclans. That bond allows for shared experiences, traditions, and language, as well as a sense of meaning and a sense of belonging in the world.

It’s hard to understand what the bond is, and the definitions, like all ethnic definitions, are constantly, almost necessarily, slipping out of reach. They are debated, contested, and re-made every day.

On the one hand, Pashtuns define what it is to be Pashtun by tracing their lineage to a man named Qais Abdur Rashid—a man who traveled to Mecca in the 7th century and met the Prophet Mohammed.

In general the Pashtuns claim descent from the founder of the Pashtun lineage, a man named Qais. Because they do that, every Pashtun group can put itself on a genealogical chart and relate itself to any other Pashtun group. The closer you look at these genealogies the more you discover that they may be considered questionable.

Because of this, people define what it is to be Pashtun through another means: their language. Pashto is one of the two main national languages of Afghanistan. But there are lots of Pashtuns who don’t speak Pashto, and there are lots of non-Pashtuns who do.

Another way that Pashtuns identify themselves is through Pashtunwali. This is a code of conduct that governs Pashtun life, from individual behavior to tribal affairs. It’s an unwritten code that encourages people to act in accordance to justice, honor, bravery, and righteousness. But because it’s unwritten, it means that it’s up to each individual to interpret and re-interpret throughout a lifetime.

Huge questions can flare about what it means to follow true Pashtunwali–and a lot of that can be seen in the political issues throughout Afghanistan.

Today the question of Pashtun identity is one that is especially politicized. In the 80s, many Pashtuns mobilized to fight the Soviets. And in the 90s, many joined the Taliban. And as in many other countries, political weight can be tied to demographic weight.

The question of ethnic groups in Afghanistan is highly political because the question of how large a group is and how much influence it should have is a subject of considerable dispute…And that’s because every ethnic group that you ask tends to inflate its own numbers and reduce the numbers of the others. So the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, its estimated make up about 40 percent of the country’s population. But if you ask questions they’ll say no, no we’re a majority, 50 percent, 60 percent, maybe more. Are they? We don’t know. And that is true of all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.

Pashtuns have been tied to politics for centuries. After Ahmad Shah died, he was soon replaced by a string of Pashtun leaders that continued until the 1970s. In some ways, even the national identity of Afghanistan is tied directly into Pashtun identity because at one time, the very word “Afghan” was a synonym for Pashtun.

So we find the Pashtuns being considered, or considering themselves to be the most important group in Afghanistan and they can point to the name of the country, because Afghan in the 18th and 19th century used to be the equivalent of Pashtun. So one could easily say Afghanistan was land of the Pashtuns.

These ethnic divisions may look like a recipe for the kind of violence seen in many other parts of the world. But unlike many other countries, Afghanistan hasn’t splintered into ethnic mini-states, and perhaps we need to be careful not to oversimplify what ethnicity means for Afghans.

In America, when for example they do the ten year census, people will check off in a box that they belong to a particular group – white or black or Asian. And so that gives us the sense of ethnic identities being something very concrete. And in a place like Afghanistan, ethnic identity is much more flexible and variable.

That flexibility means that what it is to be Pashtun is something that is forever in flux and forever open to reinterpretation.

One could say, it’s up in the air.

The Pashtuns are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan. While ethnicity is powerfully felt, it is also powerfully adaptable.

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