Book Review: Pashtun Tales from the Pakistan-Afghan frontier, by Aisha Ahmad & Roger Boase, London: Saqi Books, 2003, 368pp. Book contents include Preface, List of Plates, Folkloristic Analysis, Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index of Tale Types & Folk Motifs.
Commentary by Angelina Merisi
The long-standing indigenous tradition of storytelling, folktales, fables and verse narratives has constituted a means of didactic communication, underpinning cultural identity, tradition and custom in Pashtun society for many centuries. An illustrious feature of folklore in Pashtun regions is that it thrived in oral tradition: tales, fables, stories, myths and legends which were relayed as ‘performance’ at local gatherings such as the hujra (guest-house) or in homes of neighbouring villages. The folklore of regions and nations reflects and embodies localised knowledge, collective memory, history, customs and traditions of a culture. For Gramsci, ‘folklore bears a constitutive potential, insofar as a people are the ideas they believe and practice – the worldviews they embody and around which they construct identities.’ (Cited in: Gencarella, 2010) Dhar (1976) defines folklore in modern jargon as an ambiguous term used for the ‘voices of folk, dealing with unrecorded traditions, or as a generic term to designate customs, beliefs, traditions, tales and songs that have been handed down from generation to generation.’ Before the advent of internet, television and radio, storytelling was often the only form of entertainment and means of discovering events happening in the outside world, as travellers and traders would exchange tales and stories learned during expeditions. The authors of Pashtun Tales, tell us that the Qissa Khwani (Storytellers’ Bazaar) of Peshawar, (modern day capital city of Pakhtunkhwa), because of its geographical position, was an important stopping-place for traders on route from China, India, Persia, Turkestan and beyond: it thus became a place where travellers met and exchanged tales.
Pashtun Tales delivers a valuable addition and recording of Pashtun folklore. Although many of the themes, tales and motifs which the authors claim illustrate and reflect the institutions of Pakhtunwali (Pashtun code of honour), the stories concurrently identify associations with similar motifs in literature and folk culture from other regions far and beyond. Recurring themes such as fairies (jinn) good and bad, supernatural events, kings, viziers, princes, princesses, holy men, animals and birds are feature motifs of historical and mythological origin common in most Asian and European folktales.
The book contains 35 tales in total split into six divisions under the headings: ‘Wit and Intelligence,’ ‘Virtues and Vices,’ ‘Miracles and Magic,’ ‘Courtship and Infidelity,’ ‘Epic and Romance,’ and ‘Comedy and Farce.’ The authors furthermore provide an in-depth folkloristic analysis to assist the reader in understanding how the tales depicted in the book incorporate common themes found among the broader international body of folklore literature.
The authors tell us that despite Peshawar’s reputation as a meeting place for storytellers, it took months to find the tall dark Mohmand Pashtun named Saeed Khan Baba, nicknamed Qissa Khwan (story teller). Although illiterate, he claimed to know five hundred stories by heart which he could recite in either rhymed verse or prose.(12) We are told that the authors listened to Saeed Khan Baba recite his stories in the heat of summer afternoons in Peshawar in 1977. It is assumed therefore that the stories were delivered in Pashto and subsequently translated into the English language. Although it is stated that the vast majority of stories were recounted by Saeed Khan Baba, the authors also mention Feroz Shah, Master Sahib and Fazle Hadi in gratitude for their assistance in the collection of the remaining tales. It therefore would have been helpful to make known to the readers whom exactly recited which tales and whether they were all originally recited in Pashto.The authors do not clarify whether there was an audience present during meetings with Saeed Khan Baba, (other than the authors), therefore we cannot decipher if the Qissa Khwan merely recited the tales or if he performed his craft as he would have done within the settings of the hujra. They do tell us however, that it had been customary in Pashtun society, (since the storyteller was obliged by profession to utter falsehoods in order to please or flatter his audience), to regard the Qissa Khwan as a sycophant or even a liar and thus he was often regarded as a figure of ridicule in the village.(12) Nonetheless, it was the storyteller’s responsibility to spin remarkable yarns, and as the audience grew tired of the old stories, he had to invent new ones, more outlandish tales, while crucially incorporating familiar motifs and folk types, always culminating with a noteworthy moral or lesson. It could therefore be argued that within the moral of the story, a greater understanding of cultural values could be extracted and understood.
While knowledge of pakhtunwali would certainly benefit the international readership, ideals concerning honour, revenge, hospitality and forgiveness, although characteristic and often perceived as inherent institutions in Pashtun society, are also recognised values and traditions among broad ranging cultures. While it is beyond the confines of this short article to provide analysis of the tales reflecting all aspects of Pakhtunwali, noteworthy recurring themes running through the compilation underpinning ideals of badal (exchange/retaliation) and Namus and Purdah (protection and seclusion of women) are worth mentioning.
On the theme of badal, (The Barber and the Farmer’s Wife: no. 35) the story goes that the barber cuts off the farmer’s moustache.The aspect of significance in this tale is that it is his wife who avenges the insult but she does so by disguising herself as a man. Seclusion of women in Pashtun society is regarded as the best way to defend a female’s reputation and consequently one’s own honour. Breaking purdah is therefore ill advised, although in this tale, by donning her husbands clothes and disguising herself as a man to avenge the insult, the act is considered acceptable and even one of courage.
On the other hand, themes concerning adulterous wives (tor) crops up regularly: an act which can only be atoned for by exile or death of the adulterer. As a recurring theme, which deems women as fickle, unfaithful beings, the reader may consider the tales to be by and large misogynistic. For example, in The Prince and the Fakir (no. 19), the King tries to arrange marriage for his son, but the prince refuses stating his teachers had taught him that women are fickle and cunning. Instead, the prince chillingly insists on taking a two year old girl whom he keeps in seclusion and marries when she is old enough.
In another tale (The Three Friends: no. 23), the king relates how his wife had turned him into a dog upon learning that he had killed her black lover and how he retaliated by turning her into a donkey. ‘Revenge’ in most of these tales is sought and taken by males and husbands. However, in contrast, other tales depict the virtuous woman who knows how to preserve her honour and is thus considered to possess more wisdom and courage than a man. (16)
Another theme presented in numerous tales is the importance of male heirs, which coincides with Pashtun societal norms, considering it a perceived ‘strictly patrilineal society organised on the basis of kinship.’ (Lindholm: 1979). This underlying ideal, one could say, is further underpinned by much scholarship which documents that women who give birth to sons are highly revered amongst family members and the broader community.
Many other recurrent themes, which do not necessarily reflect distinctive features of Pashtun culture, but would certainly be understood and popular in the region, recount tales of supernatural, extraordinary feats performed by Pirs (Sufi saints) and belief in fate or destiny. The authors state that the Pashtun believes that man is impotent in the face of destiny. In the tale Luck and Intelligence (no. 1), if a man is destined to succeed, he will do so despite his blunders, whereas if a man is destined to die, his intelligence will not save him. (14) Many tales are not without humour, one such hilarious story tells of two swindlers attempting to out-swindle each other and another tale, although comical, concerns mishaps and misunderstandings arising from the affliction of deafness. Overall, the collection covers a multitude of themes including popular wisdom, riddles, stupidity and disloyalty, and melmestia (hospitality), therefore providing broad ranging subject matter capturing the free, and somewhat fierce spirit and often quirky mindset of Pashtuns.
Considering the folklore of Pashtuns is idiosyncratically an oral tradition, written accounts with recurring themes and motifs can seem a little repetitive to the reader at times as one becomes familiar with identities and form in which certain motifs and characters will take shape leading to the predictable outcome and moral of the tale. Nonetheless, the language elaborately woven into tales that at times shifts unexpectedly from the sublime to the ridiculous, leads one to conjure up images of how a live performance of such stories may have been experienced, particularly if transmitted by a charismatic, natural story spinner, through guile, charm, humour, wit, shock and fear tactics. This book is an important anthology of Pashtun tales as well as a valuable addition and contribution to knowledge and scholarship of folklore in the region.
Stephen Olbrys Gencarella ‘Gramsci, Good Sense and Critical Folklore Studies,’ Journal of Folklore Research, 47:3, 2010, pp 221-252
Somanath Dhar, ‘Some Aspects of Asian Folklore,’ India International Centre Quarterly, 3:4, 1976, p.294
Charles Lindholm, ‘Contemporary Politics in a Tribal Society,’ Asian Survey, 19:5, 1979, p.486
Writer: Angelina Merisi
The writer hails from Ireland. She is part of the Pashtuns Times News Network. She is a PhD scholar at the University College Cork, Ireland. Her current research is focused on Islam and Pashtun male migrants in Ireland, masculinity and honour concepts. She can be reached at
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