Posted July 2, 2012 by in Culture

The Way of the Pashtunwali

For this week’s special Photo Travelogue, there won’t be any happy postcards.

Nor will I be striking wacky, douchebag poses in front of historical buildings.

Nor will you see the usual cheery colors and smiling kiddies from the Unicef box.

This week’s Photo Travelogue is all about gender oppression, revenge killings, and a very drunk Prime Minister from Balochistan.

Because, apparently, this is what I do on vacation.

This week, I’m going to tell you about the Pashtunwali…  

Fiercely conservative and impossibly unruly, the Pashtuns of western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan occupy the largest autonomous tribal territory in the world, where the laws of government hold as little sway as the sunday horoscope. Instead, the people live in semi-anarchic villages, where all ruling and decision-making is performed by a jirga (a local council of Gandalf-bearded elders), and villagers follow the way of the Pashtunwali–the moral code of the Pashtuns…

Of the four pillars of the Pashtunwali, the first is siali, which guarantees that all villagers are equal. (Except maybe the women).

The second pillar of the Pashtunwali is Nang, or Honor. The importance of honor above all else is the distinguishing characteristic that makes Pashtun culture so confusing (and perhaps terrifying) to Westerners—whose values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are completely antithetical.

Upholding the honor of one’s family (especially the honor of the women) must be done at any price. This partially explains why women’s fall, spring, and summer fashions are always burka-couture, which leaves most females looking kind of like Ring Wraiths. But these women could care less about fashion, or practical safety concerns, and are more than willing to sacrifice such comforts to maintain their nang. Wearing the burka in public proves the woman’s modesty and integrity. In a Puritanically religious society, where jean-skirts are as scandalous as assless chaps, a woman in burka is a mark of pure class.

Directly relating to siali and nang, the third pillar of the Pashtunwali code is bidal, or vengeance. Bidal decrees that if someone’s honor is compromised, then they have every right to exact equal vengeance to restore balance.

Say, for instance, that I tape up the breathing holes on your sister’s burka and she dies. You would then be entitled to tape up my sister’s breathing holes as an ‘honor-killing’—unless I first come crawling to you in complete submission, groveling for mercy. In which case, you would then demonstrate your unfathomable magnanimity by forgiving me, thus restoring your honor.

Because of bidal, Pashtuns are notorious for their violent, Shakespearian-style family feuds, which often span generations, and often start over things as trifling (by Western standards) as a verbal insult, you stupid buttheaBANGBANGBANGBANGBANG!

The last pillar is melamastia, or hospitality, which visitors receive in embarrassing excess. An old Pashtun proverb explains, “Guest is God,” which says a lot because, oh boy, do those Pashtuns love their God.

Above: I was in Chitral when my laptop charger started hissing and belching smoke, so I took it to the bespectacled, local electrician—who had clearly never seen such a device. After staring at the alien object and banging it hard against the table a few time, he whipped out a soldering iron and went to work.

Within twenty minutes, it was fixed, and the old man turned his efforts to force-feeding me an entire pot of chai. When I finally stood up and asked how much I owed him, he cried, “No, no! You’re my guest!”

While some Westerners might hold frosty opinions about the Pashtuns, I find myself quite smitten. Without contest, they have proven themselves  to be the most trustworthy, honest, and generous hosts that I’ve encountered in any of my travels.

This especially applies to the fifty Pashtun engineering students who abducted me in Islamabad…

I was sitting in the lobby of my hostel when they found me. I was half-way through typing a paragraph when a few of them appeared in my periphery, politely asking where I was from, what I was doing, the size of my family, where I intended to visit in Pakistan, and how I was enjoying it. They excitedly told me that they were engineering students from Quetta, in Balochistan, and that they had come to Islamabad for a class field trip.

The next thing I knew, they were dragging me off to their professors’ room…

The two professors of the group, Irfan and Niwaz, were jovial and very well-spoken, flaunting their mastery of the English language by dropping such words as, “Dude,” and “Fuck that, fuck.”

I quickly realized that many of the students had never met an American foreigner before, and Irfan and Niwaz insisted that I stick around, perhaps as a sort of cultural class hamster.

That night, they took me out on Islamabad. With beer frowned upon by Islamic custom, we wiled away the evening over fancy iced coffee (one cup costing more than my hotel room), and at dinner, they treated me to a white-linen Pakistani Barbecue restaurant.

 Niwaz insisted I order for the group. “What do you want?” he asked.

“Anything,” I insisted.

“No, you pick!” he grinned. “You might not like what we order. We are from Balochistan. We eat stones.”

While Pakistanis typically eat without the hinderance of utensils, this particular restaurant provided silver forks and knives. Maintaining nang, they attempted the cutlery, though it was clearly a struggle.

Halfway through a Piri Piri chicken, Irfan frustatedly put down his fork. “I don’t like it,” he frowned, before I gave him nod, and I joined him in picking apart the chicken with our hands.

After the meal, Niwaz pointed to a nearby table, where a group of older men were chattering in hushed voices.

“That’s the Minister of Balochistan!” he gushed.

“Yeah! He’s corrupt!” Irfan added. “Let’s say hi.”

A moment later, I was summoned over to the Minister’s table, so that he could vigorously shake my hand. He was yelling, and I could smell the reek of whiskey on his breath (naughty Muslim!). He was completely tanked. And in case there was any doubt of this, he demonstrated by offering to pay for all of our dinners—all fifty-one of us.

Melamastia upheld! $$$$$$$

Late night nonsense in Irfan and Niwaz’s room.

Irfan asked the students if they had any questions for me.

“What did you think about 9/11?” earnestly asked one.

It’s a sad and disturbing reality that, in traditional Pashtun societies, 9/11 is sometimes revered as a great victory for the people of Afghania, a restoring of nang, like a grand honor-killing to recompense for the death and mayhem left behind by America in the wake of the Soviet Invasion. While not all Pashtuns share this view, it seemed like a few of my new friends might have.

“Uh…” I fumbled, before Irfan swooped to the rescue.

“He’s not the Ambassador,” he snapped. “Don’t ask stupid, fucking questions. Ask him something else.”

The student thought for a moment, before one of them chimed, “What does KFC stand for?”

Thinking that their hospitality was finished, I took a taxi the next morning to the Ministry of Interiors, and spent most of the day battling over legal documents. I didn’t return to the hostel until 5PM.

“Where were you?” asked Irfan. “We were waiting for you for a very long time before going to lunch.”

Before I could properly apologize, several of the students eagerly announced that they we were going to a comedy play.

“Cool, have fun,” I offered, and they laughed.

“No, Steve! We’ve got a ticket for you too!”

“This is supposed to be a learning experience,” said Irfan, as the students settled into their seats. “This is what some people do to have fun.”

As the actors shouted punchlines in Urdu, the students laughed and clapped. Then music cued for a safe and unsuggestive co-ed dance number, which would have been safe for Nick Jr., but still sent the audience into scandalous murmurs.

I was shocked to find out that this was the first time most of the students had ever seen a play. In schools in Balochistan, students aren’t exposed to performing arts.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Irfan shrugged. “People are starving to death, why should we care about dancing?”

After the show, the students seemed to be feeling inspired, and a traditional Pashtun dance routine unfolded in the parking lot.

“Can you show us American cultural dance?” asked one student.

I thought for a minute, contemplating the looks of horror I’d receive for doing any realistic American dance moves, before finally settling on the Fist Pump.

“Wow, that’s really cool,” they said, thinly veiling their disappointment.

Tonight would be a ‘Cultural Dinner.’

“We’re going to Hardey’s Burgers,” announced Irfan, to the dismayed groans of students who would rather eat biryani rice or curried goat brains.

At one point, I made a foolish effort to give back to my Pashtun hosts, and ran into the nearby Import Store to buy them a bag of good-and-honest, ‘cultural’ American Doritos chips.

I was about to hand the cashier three-hundred rupees, when the door exploded open and Niwaz and Irfan came rushing in, screaming in Urdu as the startled cashier dropped my cash.

“No, you don’t do that!” they scolded me, pulling out their wallets. “You are our guest.”

“In America, it’s polite to give back to you hosts,” I later told them.

“Well, it’s quite rude here,” explained Irfan. “In Pashtun culture, it’s the hosts job to take care of the guest.”

On the third day, we parted ways. One of the students gave me a Pakistani SIM card for my phone, while another filled it with minutes. A parting gift, and a means to keep in touch.

“Come to Quetta with us!” A few of them baited. “You’ll love it! It’s just like Afghanistan!”

Sadly saying farewell, I urged them to come visit.

Irfan tipped his head pensively. “I would like to see Las Vegas,” he decided.

“The girls who dance there are even more scandalous than the dancers in the play,” I warned, and his eyes twinkled with excitement. “Alright,” I laughed. “You showed me Islamabad, so I’ll show you Las Vegas… You’ll be my guest.”

The next day, I logged onto my computer to discover fifty new Facebook requests.

That’s fifty new friends. Fifty new digital Pashtun pen-pals. By far, my favorite souvenir from Pakistan.


Backpackology has a Facebook Page and YOU WILL LIKE IT. Or else.

For more photography, click the Photo Travelogues tab at the top of this page.

For a more articulated reflection on Pakistani culture, check out the travel tale Kidnapped in Alipur.

For a hospitality tale from the slums of Mumbai, read the misadventure The Heart of the Slums.

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