Sunday, July 22, 2007

MEMOIR: My Pashtun friend

One of the most memorable persons that I met during my World War II military service in India was a Muslim I will call Abdul. (I do not remember his real name.) Abdul owned a concession in the PX at a U.S. Army base near Calcutta, repairing and making shoes. Like the shoe makers at every Army PX I patronized in India, Abdul was an ethnic Pashtun and a Sunni Muslim.

In that era, at least, it was evidently a local tradition that a particular ethnic group monopolized a specific occupation or industry. In Calcutta, e.g., I recall that all the taxi cab drivers were Sikhs. They were as geographically far removed from their Punjab homeland as the Pashtuns were from their native habitat in India's Northwest Frontier Province.

This occupational tradition may have been influenced by the Hindu caste system in which a family occupation is normally passed on from one generation to another.

I remember Abdul as a tall, bearded, fair-skinned man who wore a loose-fitting, full-length tunic with long sleeves and a sash at the waist. His clothing was not well suited for the Calcutta area's torrid sub-tropical climate, but this didn't seem to bother him.

His face bore an inherently fierce expression that always reminded me of tribal warriors in a Rudyard Kipling tale about British troops battling the natives in the Khyber Pass. All that seemed to be missing was a rifle in his hands or a sword hanging from his belt. Actually, Abdul was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered man with little apparent inclination for fighting.

I first met Abdul when I brought him a pair of shoes to repair. I was struck by how different he looked from the local Bengali men, who were shorter, dark-skinned people dressed in dhotis, the loin cloths similar to sarongs that are universally worn by India's Hindus.

Being the inquisitive type, I asked Abdul where in India he came from. His fluency in English was adequate, and he was eager to talk about his personal background. I was probably one of the few GIs who discussed anything other than shoe making with him.

Abdul told me that he was a Pashtun. The Pashtuns are the major ethnic group in the Northwest Frontier Province and are also known as Pathans. When I returned to pick up my shoes several days later, Abdul was happy to continue our conversation about his people, about whom I had known nothing.

I learned that their culture is dominated by a warrior heritage and a pre-Islamic militant code of honor that decrees death to invaders and protection for guests. Abdul boasted that despite centuries of invasion by foreign armies none had ever successfully conquered the Pashtuns.

On subsequent visits to the PX I would invariably visit Abdul at his counter, enabling me to develop the kind of personal relationship that I never established with any other Indian.

Abdul would frequently complain that the British colonial rulers had arbitrarily divided the Pashtun lands between Afghanistan and India. After World War II, when Pakistan was carved out of India as an independent Muslim country, it acquired the Pashtun territory that had been governed by the British as part of India.

Abdul was a fervent Pashtun nationalist. I assume that he was active several years later in the unsuccessful campaign, launched after Pakistan's creation, to establish a separate independent country of Pashtunistan.

I hadn't given much thought to Abdul in recent years. But memories of my talks with him more than 60 years ago were revived after 9/11, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to retaliate against Osama bin-Laden's Al-Qaeda and the Taliban rulers who had sheltered the terrorist organization.

The Taliban is an extremist Islamic movement composed solely of Abdul's people, the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group with about 40% of its population. Pashtun tribes--there are more than 100 of them--are also the dominant people across the border in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Area.

Actually, the border means nothing to Pashtun tribesmen. They travel freely across it, regarding the border as little more than a line drawn by foreigners. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda easily find refuge in this essentially lawless region. Pakistan's central government--like the previous British colonial rulers--has been unable to establish authority over its warlike Pashtun inhabitants. (And that is why bin-Laden and his top aides have been able to elude capture by the U.S. Army.)

Not all Pashtuns, of course, are bad guys. Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's pro-American president, and Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, are both Pashtuns.

As the U.S. continues to battle Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, I wonder whether the descendants of my old friend Abdul have abandoned the trade of shoe-making and are among the jihadi warriors who have been fighting the U.S. for more than five years.

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Anonymous Claude said...

Thanks for this very interesting and informative post.

Monday, July 23, 2007 1:29:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

No foreign invader has ever been successful in that part of the globe. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan all those years ago, they failed. Back then the CIA trained the locals to use modern techniques against the Soviet invaders. We're not doing so hot there either just now. We should really be careful who we arm and teach.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 12:33:00 AM  
Anonymous mary said...

Thanks for the interesting post...The world is changing a bit too rapidly for me. Wouldn't it be nice to return to that time when we trusted each other....when we could leave the keys in the car? Ahh, nostalgia..
I hope you are well...

Sunday, July 29, 2007 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Interesting thought to ponder about your Pashtun acquaintance's family -- still shoe-makers and maybe jihadists, too, or maybe not, we could hope.

What you have written confirms a former Afgan's description of his country's culture explained to a local interested group here a year ago. He was quite correct the Taliban was far from eradicated, that it was likely only a matter of time before they surfaced again.

He also spoke of the historical code of values that persists among inhabitants. That generations-old code dictates individual's provide protection for anyone seeking such in their homes -- even should the protected one turn out to be sought because he had actually murdered a family member of the protector.

Sunday, July 29, 2007 7:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Alice said...

Nice post! Makes me remember my own favorite character from my travels in India. I may post a blog of my own on that some day soon. I'm glad you took the trouble to get to know someone in another culture at such a young age. The world needs more of that, especially now that we're living in a global economy. The oceans don't isolate us so much anymore, do they? And we do need to understand and care about other cultures better than we have so far.

Thursday, September 06, 2007 2:41:00 PM  

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