Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pashtunwali and Modernity

NATGEO's jailed abroad episode on Pakistan should be an inspiration to anyone who thinks that Pashtun tribes are backward and that their tribal code (pashtunwali) is archaic and inhuman. Modern world has long given up on honor, dignity and character. It produces people like Bernie Madoff who robs people and still manages to keep a smile on his face. This episode reminds me off Samurai warriors who would cut themselves up when they were dishonored.

Here's the link to a short promo to the episode:

A better review was written of the episode and is posted below

Our "enemies" can be inspirational, compassionate, and teach us valuable lessons.

I recently watched an episode of National Geographic’s program, “Locked Up Abroad”, specifically an episode titled “Pakistan”. I would definitely check your listings and see when it airs next in your area. I can’t find the entire episode on YouTube, and the summary that NatGeo posted does not do justice to the real human story (one I doubt they intended for the series). But here is my brief summary if you don’t have cable / NatGeo.
Amardeep Bassey, a British journalist of Indian and Afghan descent, was working for his English newspaper in Islamabad, Pakistan in 2002. In early May 2002, he was placed on assignment to head into Kabul and report on the real pulse of the Afghan citizens in the wake of the American-led war.
He made contact with Tariq Khan in Peshawar, northwest Pakistan, in order to begin arranging his trip to Kabul. Tariq was an aid worker (human rights commission) and a well-known contact for journalists traveling in the region. Amardeep expressed his concern for safety; Tariq then suggested he could have one of his friends or relatives tag along for the journey. Everything was agreed upon, and the journey began.
In order to reach Afghanistan, Amardeep would need to cross Pakistan’s tribal areas and their six million inhabitants, which are dominated by fiercely independent tribal chieftains. The checkpoint where Peshawar ends and the tribal areas begin are clearly marked with signs such as “No foreigners beyond this point”, and this is where Tariq got out of the taxi and let Amardeep continue on..
Amardeep arrived in a town within the tribal areas to meet his arranged escort, Noushad Ali Afridi. Noushad was a relative of Tariq Khan and a son of a powerful tribal leader. When Noushad finally arrived, he and Amardeep sat down and got to business, talking about what the journalistic intentions were.. After a short talk, each got the impression the other was “OK” and essentially gave each other their word they would both head to Kabul together.
The next day, Amardeep was dressed head-to-toe in Muslim clothing in order to blend in. It is worth noting that Amardeep is a Sikh, a religion with roots in 15th-century India. Sikhism is not compatible with Islamic views, and as we all know, Pakistan and India have never had the friendliest relations. As a Sikh, Amardeep had on a silver bracelet placed on him when he was a child, and these things don’t come off because you grow into them and your wrist becomes too big for the thing to come off. This becomes important later…
Everything works out; they cross the porous border very easily, get into Kabul, and over the next day complete their interviews. It is now time to head back. They catch some transportation to the border, and upon crossing Amardeep goes through Pakistani passport control. Turns out his visa was not valid for multiple entries (Amardeep knew this ahead of time, but was told it could be sorted out at the passport office). Long story made short, he was detained for interrogation at the border.
During the interrogation, he was accused of being an Indian spy, as there were heightened tensions between India and Pakistan at the time. His notebooks of interviews with Afghan citizens were written in shorthand (a journalistic way of capturing data quickly) and it was assumed this was some kind of “spy code”. They also assumed the British passport was a forgery, and told Amardeep he was going to jail for being a spy.
This is where the story gets really interesting. The Pakistani intelligence officer informs Amardeep he is being sent for “processing” (jail), and informs Noushad he is free to go. Noushad, having known Amardeep for only 48 hours or so, refuses to leave. He simply tells the intelligence officer, “I am going with him (Amardeep)”. Amardeep is as taken aback at this as the intelligence officer, since Noushad has not been charged with anything. The intelligence officer asks Noushad to reconsider, but Noushad simply replies with “Pashtunwali”. Pashtunwali is a code of honor, in which you offer protection for someone, regardless of religion, nationality, or background. Because of this code of honor, Noushad links his fate to that of Amardeep’s, and informs the intelligence officer he must accompany Amardeep to prison.
Let’s review the situation for a second. Noushad is the son of a prominent Pakistani tribal leader. Pakistan is a Muslim country, and has been in a perpetual state of strife with India since its inception as a country. Amardeep is a Sikh, and even worse a British (westerner) Sikh. Here we have two absolutely sworn enemies, basically a steroid version of Montague/Capulet, and Noushad having only known Amardeep for 48 hours will still commit himself to the same fate in the name of selfless honor.
Once again, long story short, after several months bouncing between prisons and interrogation facilities, Amardeep is finally released. Noushad is not. Amardeep is torn to friggin pieces, here is someone who stuck up for him, helped him within the different jails & prisons, and went through all of this torment based on “My WORD is my BOND”. If you want to know the heart-warming end of the story (it involves a meeting in 2008, 6 years after all this went down), go watch this show or have someone you know YouTube it.
We Westerners are so distanced from this kind of honor and dignity. We sign contracts because we need assurances we won’t be fu**ed down the road. We keep receipts so that we can return that blender after it fails to chop ice in the way we had imagined. We wrap ourselves into a massive blanket of “cover-your-ass” paperwork and procedure to the point someone’s word is worth nothing unless legalized, documented, and signed in triplicate. I don’t think anyone I have known for 48 hours in the western societies would go to third-world prisons and interrogation sessions just based on their word, especially if they were told several times “you are free to go….”
I am not saying we can change the system; it is all too far gone for that. I will sign contracts, keep receipts, and make sure I “cover my ass” moving through life in this “honorable western world”. I am simply saying we can take a lesson from those our system calls “backwards”, “archaic”, or as more commonly known, “enemies of freedom”.

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