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Cultural balance and Music in Pashtun Society



VIEW: Cultural disequilibrium —Kahar Zalmay

Music is too popular in Pashtun society and each and every Pashtun likes not only listening to music but also participating in it. There is a musician in every Pashtun and the reason is the availability of musical instruments

Pashtuns are traditionalists and pride themselves for being connected to their traditions. Like the Jews they have traditions for everything and that is how they kept a balance in society for many years. But the recent wave of religiosity and militancy has shattered what they tried to keep for centuries. Change was supposed to come and they knew it would but with the speed it came, they were neither ready for it nor were they expecting it.

Sitting at a hujra (a room to entertain guests in a household) in Swabi (where the traditional hujra is still intact in some shape) on a weekend, a middle-aged traditional Khan expressed his grief and anger over the cultural disequilibrium that has been shaping the Pashtun society for the last three decades.

“I hear intellectuals, both Pashtuns and otherwise, heaping praise on the Pashtuns for breaking shackles of Khanism. But they do not know how much harm it brought to the common Pashtun man. The Pashtun culture revolves around the traditional institutions of hujra and jirga, its weakness is actually a cultural imbalance that weakened the Khan and strengthened the position of the mullah,” the local Khan said.

Some of our viewers might argue that since the institution of Khanism is the loser, that is why the Khans consider this change harmful for the people but what I gather from the local Khan’s talk is that the cultural disequilibrium promoted individualism, which is harmful for social institutions. Traditions brought order to contain this individualism that is a source of chaos and anarchy. Intellectuals and commentators not aware of the roots of Pashtun society generally mistake its individualism for individuality.

The major role in this shift was played by the money sent from Saudi Arabia for the promotion of Wahabiism. In the 1970s, thousands of Pashtuns went to Saudi Arabia for work. They not only brought money but a Saudi-indoctrinated religiosity as well, which was not in link with the local religious traditions. As a child I remember how a Saudi Arabia-returned would argue with the local people in the mosque to pray like the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia made sure that its vast sums of money donated for mosques and madrassas is inextricably linked to Wahabiism. This money strengthened the position of the rigid Wahabi mullah who ultimately weakened the position of the Khan and the traditionalist ulema (people of knowledge) who had a monopoly over the meaning and message of Islam. The military-sponsored Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was the last nail in the coffin of Pashtun traditional society.

The arrival of the Wahabi mullah deprived the Pashtuns of their traditions. Anything not conforming to Wahabiism was declared un-Islamic and had to be discarded. The jirga gradually lost its impact when the mullah became its leader. Jirga has historically been a secular institution that believed in debate and equal representation. The mullah thus became representative of religion and equally embroiled himself explicitly in the civil and political affairs like the 9th century Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun. It should be remembered that in the Pashtun culture the mullah is not considered a Pashtun but an outsider who is required to guide people in religious affairs like the modern priest.

After hitting the cultural institutions like the jirga and Khanism, the mullah turned to the shrines that were not only places of worship but entertainment too. I fondly remember in my childhood going to a shrine on the occasion of urs (death anniversary of a sufi saint). People from different areas would come there to pray, dance and sing. It was a social gathering that provided peace of mind and entertainment. Even Christians and Hindus would attend these urs. Tolerance was at its best on these occasions. Were those urs held now, I asked a childhood friend in my home town. No, he said with dismay.

Folk music is another prey of the new order in which the mullah is both a king and a pope. Music is too popular in Pashtun society and each and every Pashtun likes not only listening to music but also participating in it. There is a musician in every Pashtun and the reason is the availability of musical instruments like rabab, sitar, Piano, mangi in the village Hujra. It does not exist anymore. Local musicians were not awarded any importance in the social structure but they were happy making their living. From a child birth to circumcision to engagement to marriage, the musician had many occasions to display his art and feed his children. I hear these musicians are now driving rickshaws and doing odd jobs in the urban centres. They are the direct victims of this cultural imbalance but indirectly the common Pashtun man is a victim too who is deprived of not only a tradition that was kept alive for centuries but a source of entertainment too.

I believe that the Pashtuns are on the wrong side of history. Without traditions, their lives are shaky. Change for the worse applies to them well. Their present is a picture of suffocation and chaos and their journey into the future is directionless.

The writer can be reached at kaharzalmay@yahoo.com

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