Folklore and folk music


Ethnic groups


Religious non-leteracy in a literate culture

Folklore and folk music

Folk music and instruments

Settlement patterns

Life cycle

The inward looking society

AFGHAN folklore and legend often intimately relate to Islam, although much of the corpus definitely preceded Islam. Of course, all religions, however sophisticated, build on neighboring earlier faiths and adapt existing legends to fit new needs. Folktales and folk songs in Afghanistan, as in other non-liter ate and pre-literate societies, are group reinforcing, and psychologically satisfying to the individual.

Folk poets constantly rise from the Afghan milieu and are honored. Malang Jan Besudi, a modern example, lived hard and died young in a motor accident in 1957, but his poems have been printed, sung, and remembered. Literate Afghans always find a verse to fit any situation or, better yet, compose a couplet on the spot. All Afghan verse is rampant with double entendre, be the topic political, psychological, or sexual.

Folklore and folk music in a non-literate society have many functions, but all revolve about instruction and entertainment. They explain and justify the group’s existence. They define the ideal personality type, and describe ideal interpersonal, in-group and extra-group relations. Afghan folk songs and folktales tend to perpetuate, not protest, the existing order.

Just as written history reflects the culture in which it is written and interprets facts subjectively in any given period, so does folklore. In reality, history tends to be accepted fiction. at any given time by a specific people. For example, Russian and American historians of World War II and the rise of the Cold War vary considerably in their discussion of the role of their respective nations. If written history tends to be subjective in time and space, how much more true of non-literate folklore?

I have collected hundreds of folktales in Afghanistan, and have reached some tentative conclusions concerning the patterns and functions of folklore in non-literate Afghan society. Several are discussed here.

The Accordion Effect: Folktales seldom observe correct chronological sequence, but historically verifiable incidents generally compare favorably with written accounts.

The Skewed Evolutionary Aspect: Technological advances (such as the automobile) often find themselves included in events which occurred centuries ago.

The Educational Aspect: Group reinforcing values are stressed. In the origin myths, the uniqueness and superiority of the group over other groups are stressed. The ideals of the culture are described and pitted against the reality of social living.

Social Control: The individual is told by illustration what he or she can or cannot do, and what rewards and punishments await the individual in response to his or her deeds.

The Entertainment Aspect: In a society with no television, few radios, no movies except in the large cities, and no friendly neighborhood bars, the entertainment value of folklore and folk music cannot be overemphasized. Villages with folktellers who give excellent personalized performances consider themselves lucky, and they invite neighboring villagers to attend sessions. Often the folkteller will interject personal experiences into the tale, particularly if he (or she1) is elderly. The audience seldom sits passively through a performance, but shouts approval, encouragement or dissent over various points, and sometimes arguments break out over conflicting versions of a tale. Sometimes a tale will be partly told, partly sung, using either two-line (ghazal) or four-line (charbayti) stanzas.

The folktale serves as a great emotional safety valve in any non-literate society.


I have divided the folktales of Afghanistan into five, somewhat overlapping, categories: religion, history and legend, love and jealousy, virtue and morality, and, for lack of a better term, jokes.


Village and nomadic-camp Islam, as examined earlier, often only superficially resembles the literate Islam of the Qor’an, Ha,dith, and Shari’at. In general, the villagers know the dramatis personae and many of the incidents related in the Qor’an, but give both a local twist. To reinforce his beliefs, the rural Afghan localizes his religion. In addition, pre-Islamic saints become Muslim saints, complete with Muslim names, and, often, rites and rituals connected with the pre-Muslim saints remain almost unchanged.

To bring Islam even closer to the Afghan, several important Islamic figures are believed to be buried-in Afghanistan or, like ‘Ayub (Job), are said to have passed through the country. A healing hot spring, Chashmah-yi-’Ayub, bubbles forth at a spot where the Balkh Rive emerges from the mountains in north Afghanistan.

More important, ‘Au ibn Abi Talib, the fourth caliph, cousin, Son-in-law, and foster-brother of the Prophet Mohammad, is "entombed" under a magnificent structure at Mazar-i-Sharif, "Noble Tomb" or "The Shrine of the Sharif ‘Ali." Afghan legend states that after ‘Ali’s assassination at Kufa, his followers tied his body to the back of a white female camel. Ali had given instructions to bury his body at the exact spot the camel died. At what is now Mazar-i-Sharif, the camel expired, and ‘Ali was buried. Other (probably more accurate) traditions have his body interred near Kufa, where the town Najaf (now called Mashhad Ali) grew up around his tomb.

But to many Afghans and other Muslims, Ali is buried at Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, and their belief is what is important. If one doubts that ‘Ali visited Afghanistan, the believer can show concrete proof in many places where unusual basaltic, granitic, or other dikes zigzag through the mountainous landscape. "Hazrat ‘All killed these dragons and Allah turned them into stone," they will say. ‘Ali is the Muslim Gilgamesh or St. George, the dragon-slayer. Most areas have legends concerning his dragon-slaying prowess and, according to some, by drawing his fingers through the earth, ‘Au created most of the mountains and valleys in north Afghanistan.

If one continues to doubt, the believers indicate oval or semicircular depressions in horizontal rock outcrops and say, "See, .the hoofprints of the great horse of ‘All, Daldal!" Actually, Daldal was the horse of Husain, but never mind, the proof of the importance of Afghanistan to early Islam is clear and undeniable to the believer. ‘Ayub slept here, and ‘AU lies buried in Mazar-i-Sharif. Some believe the Prophet Mohammad ascended to Heaven on Daldal, and that the Milky Way is the stardust raised by Daldal as he galloped across the sky. According to Afghan legend. barq (electricity) is named after the Prophet’s true horse. Baraq because of the Milky Way exploit.

Another interesting attempt to connect Afghanistan with Qor’anic text concerns the Ashab aI-Kahf (in Arabic. People of the Cave. Sura 18: 9-27 in the Qor’an). The Qor’anic Asliab al-Kahj tells of a number of men seeking the ‘truth,’ in the company of their faithful dog, several centuries before the Prophet Mohammad Allah in His mercy put the seekers" to sleep in a cave to await the Revelation.

The traditional site of "The Cave" is in jordan or Iraq but one also exists near Maimana in Afghanistan, watched over by a group calling themselves "Arab" and Sa’adat (Descendants of the Prophet). They do not speak Arabic, however, although some know much of the Arabic Qor’an by heart. A blind "Arab" Sayyid told me this story in Persian (I paraphrase):

In the days before Mohammad, peace and blessings be upon his name, all people were Kafir [heathen]. and Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. the All-Knowing, waited to give His Messenger the Message.

There were several young men who began to seek the truth, but the true message was not yet. They traveled for many years accompanied by their faithful dog, and one day, weary from the search, they entered this cave and fell asleep. .The dog slept outside to protect them. Allah, knowing they were good men and wishing them to be witnesses for Him, placed the men and their dog in a magic sleep to await the revelation of the Message.

Six hundred years passed and the men slept, and, at last, Allah sent Gabriel with the Message to Mohammad, blessings be on his name. Mohammad, may his name be blessed, heard the story of the Sleepers, and sent four of his intimate Companions (‘Ali, ~bu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman) to announce the coming of the true Message to the Sleepers. The Companions flew3 to the Ashab-iKahJ. Allah had awakened the Sleepers before the arrival, of the Companions, and they, being hungry, sent one of their number to the bazaar for food. The shopkeeper would not accept their strange money, and the Sleepers began to realize they had slept much longer than just one night.

The arrival of the Companions cleared up all their questions. The Companions instructed the Sleepers in the true Message.

The Companions offered to return the Sleepers to Arabistan. but the Sleepers looked at each other and said, "What have we to offer when we have gained so much? Allah has preserved us to learn the true Message, so all that remains is Paradise."

So the Sleepers returned to the Cave with their dog, and Allah in His wisdom put their bodies to sleep and transported their spirits to Paradise.

The Companions flew back to Mohammad, may his name be blessed, and informed him of the miracle they had seen.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, asked, "How many Sleepers were there?"

While all listened in wonderment, Hazrat ‘Ali said, "Four." Abu Bakr said, "Five," ‘Umar said, "Six." And ‘Uthman said, "Seven."

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said sit~tply, "The ways of Allah are wonderous, and only He knows how many Sleepers there are. Only He knows when one will awaken. The world is full of seekers and only Allah knows their number and when they will awaken."

This tale essentially parallels that found in the Qor’an, but for the doubter, the "Arab" Sayyid caretaker reports an accretionary localized tale:

About a thousand years ago, an Afghan king doubted the story of the Ashab-i-Kahf, so he desired to visit the cave, count the bodies-if any truly existed-and put an end to, the nonsense. He left with his whole court, with his favorite tazi [Afghan hound] and baz [falcon], for he planned to hunt ahu [gazelle] along the way.

As the King’s party approached the night’s camp, a large, beautiful ahu appeared in the distance. Swiftly the King unhooded the baz and unleashed the tazi, and those experienced companions of the hunt sped toward the fleeing target. Soon after, they disappeared and night fell just as the camp was pitched.

The King did not worry unduly, for the hunt had often been long, and the tazi and baz sometimes returned at night. This time, they did not return, which even more angered the King as he mounted to go to the Ashab-i-Kahf the next morning.

When the King reached the cave, he leaped from his horse and threw open the wooden door leading to the burial chamber. And there. just inside, the entrance, were three mumified objects: his baz, his ta:i, and the ahu. The king believed and left the cave without counting the Sleepers. To this day no one save Allah knows how many Sleepers are in the cave.

"If." the "Arab" Sayyid concluded. "anyone is rash enough to try to count the bodies. Allah will strike him blind and mad, and he will wander these hills cursed by all until he dies. Listen tonight and you will, hear a blind, mad pilgrim howling at the moon. Last week, he tried to count the Sleepers."

I received permission to enter the cave to view the Sleepers by candlelight. Another pilgrim had tacked a gaudy-colored print of the Ka’ba, like those the Hajjis buy as soveniers in Mecca, over the door. The plastered entrance bore grafitti of generations of pilgrims. To the right of the door, the shrine of the dog of the Sleepers had been piled high with goat and sheep horns, more evidence of the persistence of the prehistoric, possibly totemic, "goat cult" of Central Asia and the Middle East. I stepped through the door and into the void.

In the darkness lit only by an unstable candle, I could see a platform covered with muslin. Several humped hillocks pressed snugly against the muslin. I lifted one edge of the covering cloth, gently, and with some apprehension. Underneath I. could see several mummified bodies, so I just as gently lowered the shroud. I did not bother to count the number of bodies for the prospect of wandering blind through the Afghan hills overcame my curiosity. So presumably, only Allah still knows the correct number.

History and Legend:’ Most historical legends deal with inter-tribal and extra-tribal fights. Warfare plays a major role in most non-literate societies, either its pursuit or avoidance.

Students of warfare often ignore the relation of leisure time to fighting in the ecological cycle.. Wars, naturally, be they tribal feuds or world holocausts, must be justified by the men who fight them. Blaming wars on the aggressive-animal instincts in man satisfies no one, so variations on territorial or property integrity or group honor arise within the cultural patterns. Actually, in-group tensions account’ for much out-group aggression, particularly in non-literate societies. When the agricultural off-season occurs and the nomads are not moving, long hours of boredom result. Young men sitting idle in. villages and nomadic camps rapidly find suppressed anxieties rising to the surface and violence easily erupts. How much better for group survival if this explosive violence could be channeled away from the village or camp, and directed at "outsiders." Relatively few people are killed in tribal fighting but the safety valve aspect cannot be underestimated. Group unity, threatened by individual outbursts of violence, is curtailed, and the bored human animal has an outlet for his passion. After all, we must remember that the non-literate villager or tribesman has little in the way of entertainment apart from his legends and his legendary heroes, whom he hopes to emulate. Even most Afghans with western educations tend to identify with the warlike traditions of Afghan tribal society.

Sporadic feuding also performs an important biological function: it helps maintain population control. During a visit to a Pushtun village in Paktya in 1962, I witnessed attempts by another tribal group to steal some trees (trees are valuable in this part of Afghanistan) and a feud which had been dormant for ten years flared up anew. Within a week 10 of the 100 adult males in the village had been killed.

All Afghan groups with which I am familiar look on themselves as bold warriors, and their folklore reflects this attitude. However, each group always wins. Neighboring groups often tell the same stories about an identical tribal war with only the ending slightly modified; the group of the folkteller always wins. In the real sense, each group does win, for the fighting usually ends with approximately equal amounts of blood spilled and of property destroyed on both sides. Often, tribal fights are described as individual combats, in which the legendary hero of one group defeats another in single combat.

Another important function of the folkteller is genealogical. Many folktellers can recite the entire genealogy of the group’s important khans and, as the recitation takes place, intertwine folk songs and folktales. The life of each hero epitomizes a period in time.

Different ethnic groups sometimes have distinct legends of origin and development, but many tales overlap and often spread far beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan. The Turkic-speakers in north Afghanistan usually have variations of Geser, the epic of the Mongols. The Uzbak relive their days of greatness in several epics, which tell the story of the Golden Horde and the Central Asian Khanates as reflected by the lives of their great leaders: Alpamysh, Koblandy, Yen-Targyn, Yedigy (who led the attack on Moscow).

The Kirghiz epic. Manas, greatly influenced later Islamic historical folklore with its emphasis on the horse-cavalry complex.

One historical folktale I collected in Kohistan illustrates these various points. The historical event described is relatively accurate, but note that the folkteller, .a Tajik, plays up the Tajik folk hero, Bacha Saqqao, rather than the Pushtun hero, General Mohammad Nadir Khan (King of Afghanistan from 1929 to 1933). Official Afghan histories, of course. report this incident with different emphasis. The tale traces the actions of Bacha Saqqao after he had been surrounded by Marshal Shah Wali, Fat eh-i-Kabul ("Conqueror of Kabul"), and the events leading to the death of Bacha Saqqao a few months later:

Bacha Saqqao walked through the entire army of Shah Wali with his wife on his back, and no one in the thousands upon thousands dared lift a weapon against his fierce look. Bacha gathered a few followers around him in his Kohistani home and unsuccessfully attempted to regain the throne. But he remained such a menace that the new king, Mohammad Nadir Shah, invited Bacha Saqqao to come to Kabul and rule Afghanistan jointly with him.

The loyal followers of Bacha Saqqao pleaded with their leader not to trust the Pushtun king for the proverb goes: "Trust a snake before a harlot, and a harlot before a Pushtun."

But the Bacha said, "It was written that I would be a king, and King I was, and king I shall be again, if Allah wills. I go to Kabul to be king again, or to die."

King Mohammad Nadir Shah threw Bacha Saqqao into a dungeon and a few days later, ex-King Habibullah Ghazi (for such was Bacha Saqqao called when he ruled Afghanistan) was executed by a firing squad. He laughed and joked until the shots were fired, and those with him asked, "Oh, Bacha, do you not know your last hour is here?" Bacha replied, "I do not need for you to tell me that. It has been decreed by Allah." A mullah asked why Bacha did not pray as did the others.

"Why should I raise my voice to Allah? He has given me more than I asked for in life, He has made me king. What else shall I ask of Allah? I have always been in his hands."

In another Kohistani village I collected the following variation:

Amanullah was a good king, but he had bad ideas for the people of Afghanistan, and when he was overthrown by Bacha Saqqao, everyone in the country accepted the Bacha as a good king. Some people said he was Tajik, but this is not true. Bacha Saqqao was an Arab of the purest strain.

He was really named Habibullah Ghazi, and he destroyed all the bad opposition in the country. Shah Mahmud and many members of the Durrani became his supporters. Habibullah Ghazi asked Nadir Khan to come back to help him form a modern army. Nadir Khan agreed, but when he reached India, he talked the Pushtun people into revolting against the true king, Habibullah Ghazi. The British helped Nadir Khan or the Bacha would not have been defeated.

Before his defeat, Bacha sent Shah Mahmud to ask Nadir Khan why he had turned against him after he had offered him the job of. commander-in-chief of the army. Shah MahmUd then joined his brother, Nadir Khan, instead of returning to report to the Bacha.

A traitorous general told Nadir Kban about an unguarded pass to Kabul. Shah Wall took a force to Kabul, and found Bacha Saqqao in the arg [fort] with only 400 men. Forty thousand of the army of Shah Wali surrounded the arg. Bacha Saqqao came forth alone with machine-guns and drove off the entire force. After two days, deserted by all his faithless companions, the Bacha walked out of the org with his wife, I think it was his second wife, on his back. Not a single one of the Pushtun tribesmen dared to fire into that masculine glare.

He marched straight to Charikar and Gulbahar and into the Nijrao area, where he was joined immediately by 60,000 loyal followers.

Frightened, Nadir Khan once again sent Shah Mahmud to beg the Bacha to come to Kabul and discuss who should be King and who of the two should be Prime Miuister. Bacl~a Saqqao was at first against the plan. He asked Shah Mahnuid why he had deserted him after he had been so good to him in Kabul.

Bacha’s followers,, however, were not so bold and brave as Bacha. They wanted to negotiate. After a little thought, the macha laughed and said, "Come, let us go to Kabul because I have been king, and am not afraid to die, for if we go to Kabul, the treacherotis Durrani will surely kill us. So do not be afraid, it will be as Allah desires. I return to Kabul either to be king or to be a corpse." So Bacha Saqqao and some of his closest companions went to Kabul, and were immediately admitted to see a nervous, floor-pacing Nadir Khan, who had not slept all night. The two great men greeted each other with hues and kisses. Nadir Khan begged to be excused immediately, claiming to be very sleepy.

Soldiers entered and immediately arrested a laughing Bacha Saqqao and his followers. Prepare to die," he said.

The next day, shot down by thirteen soldiers, the Bacha died laughing. All the bodies of Bacha and his followers were hung in the Chaman for a week.


Love and Jealousy:

In a society where romantic love-though not forbidden-often takes a back seat to family-arranged marriages, legends of passion and jealously serve both as safety valves and to remind men and women what punishment to expect if they violate the code. The preferred marriage for a man is to his father’s brother’s daughter or as near that relation as availability permits. Afghan attitudes toward women permeate these tales.

One story will be sufficient to illustrate their flavor. Naturally, the tale has several variations, a common phenomenon in folklore. I collected the following version of a Silas Marner-type tale in a Pushtun village near Qandahar.

Three brothers had children born the same year: to Mohammad Ayub, a son named Khadi; to Mohammad Akbar, a son named Aslam; to Mohammad Sufi a daughter named Marghalai. Mohammad Akbar and Mohammad Sufi were wealthy farmers but Mohammad Ayub had lost all his land in a flash flood by the Khash Rud, and worked for his two brothers.

As Khadi and Marghalai grew up together they fell in love, and would meet often in a clump of trees near Koh-i-Duzdan [Mountain of Thieves]. Their love was as pure as they were young, and one day Khadi asked his father to ask his uncle for Marghalai in marriage. The father gently tried to dissuade the son, but could not. So he set out on his impossible task, for he knew that Marghalai had already been promised to her wealthy cousin, Aslam.

When the lovers met the first time after the sad news, they both wept, and Khadi announced his decision to leave and seek his fortune in Hindustan.

"I shall return wealthy and we shall be married," he said, and left in the darkness, followed by the eyes of Marghalai, flooded with tears.

Years passed, and a rich caravan from Hindustan approached. The leader was Khadi, now wealthy and handsome by the grace of Allah. The caravan camped near the same clump of trees, and Khadi, disguised as a peddler, entered the village and asked about Marghalai.

The people told him, "She is well and happy, the wife of Aslam, and the mother of Jamila, ‘Ayub, Akbar, and Khadi. Allah has been gracious to her."

"And what of Mohammad Akbar?"

"Dead, many years ago. He died of a broken heart because his son, Khadi, left without a word, the ungrateful wretch!"

Khadi sadly returned to the clump of trees. The caravan left and slowly made its way to Hindustan with its riches, and with Khadi and his broken heart.

This tale contains many recurrent themes found in Afghan folklore: unrequited romantic love; respect for age; filial piety; acceptance of parental authority; the joys of having children; riches and happiness can be attained only if Allah permits.

Many other popular Pashto romances exist, with the hero being a selfless lover who sacrifices himself, and the heroine, his sweetheart, who sacrifices herself. They actually sacrifice each other to each other. Most of these revolve around a Romeo and Juliet theme and among the more common are:

A dam aw [and] Durkhani;

Fateh Khan ow Rabia;

Momen Khan aw Shirini;

Shanhdi Khan aw Bibu;

Turdalai aw Shahi;

Saif ul Maluk ow Badri Jamaleh;

Sharij Khan aw Mabaie;

Farhad aw Shirin;

Yusuj ow Zulaika.

One of the more popular Romeo and Juliet tales in Persian concerns Leila and Majnun, told many times by many poets, both as oral folklore and as literature. Among the Persian poets writing the story of Leila and Majnun were Nizami in the twelfth century and Jamin the fifteenth century (Arberry, 1958, 124, 126, 447-48). The story of Leila and Majnun is basically an ancient Arabian story, and the theme deals with the love of the poet Qais bin-Amir, called Majnun or "Mad One," because his passionate love for the beautiful Leila, daughter of a great nomadic chieftain, drove him insane. Leila, forced to marry another against her will, dies. His arms embracing her gravestone, a heartbroken Majnun follows her in death (Nazimi, 1966).

One tale, with variations, reaches back to the familiar Old Testament story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Note this pre-Muslim tale hints at adultery (to be considered later), but really points at the hypocrisy of man (and woman):

Yusuf [Joseph], son of Ya’kub Jacob, son of Ibrahim [Abraham] was the youngest son, but the most beloved. He went with his brothers on a trading caravan from Caanan, somewhere in Arabistan, to Egypt. The brothers dumped Yusuf in a well, killed a sheep, wrapped up the sheep in a cloak, then took the bloodied cloak to Ibrahim. A caravan came along, looked in the well, dragged out Yusuf, and sold him as a slave in Egypt.

The handsome young slave became the favorite of the Pharoah’s wife, Zulaika. Tongues among jealous females began to wag, so Zulaika held a banquet for her lady friends. She served apples with knives. Then Zulaika asked Yusuf to come in with some grapes. All the lady guests began to swoon and accidentally cut their wrists while looking at the beautiful Yusuf. Zulaika then said, "See, you are just as guilty of secret lust as I am."

Omissions in folklore often reveal as much as the tales themselves recount explicitly. Usually, omitted themes would release disruptive forces if individuals even admitted such thoughts. Probably the most important omitted theme is adultery, because in spite of statements to the contrary, much extramarital dallying goes on in the villages and nomadic camps. Heavy penalties result in discovery: the guilty couple can be stoned to death by the wife’s husband and his relatives.

Because of the prevalence of such rural goings-on, however, it seems strange that folktales denouncing the practice do not exist in large numbers, if at all. Several plausible reasons may account for this. Cowardice in battle, a public act, disgraces the group as well as the individual; adultery, a private act between consenting parties, endangers group equilibrium only when made public, and then it disgraces the cuckolded husband’s manhood, and, by extension, violates potential property tights of his younger brothers (the levirate). So all the husband’s immediate kinsmen become involved in a matter of honor and property.

Possibly the psychological root of the problem goes back to a simple ~iologica1 fact which has obviously disturbed man for millennia. A woman always knows she is the mother of her children, but a man can never really be sure he is their biological father. In a tribal-peasant society with the existence of common promiscuity, permissive or non-permissive, sociological fatherhood becomes more important than biological. The sociological father assumes economic and political rights and obligations, as defined by the society, toward the son, and vice versa. The unsure biological equation probably helped precipitate the continued efforts of man to prove his superiority over women, carried to extremes in non-literate Islam. I personally believe all the world is a matriarchy, although some societies (or individuals) will not accept this.

By ignoring adultery-or refusing to admit its widespread existence. Afghan villagers and nomads perpetuate group survival. In addition, women play their public economic and social roles as inferiors faithfully, and only in a choice of extramarital sexual partners can they exercise genuine free will in a society, which often tends to regard them as simply a form of livestock. Discovery can mean death for the woman and her paramour, and the group would lose two valuable politico-economic creatures, another reason for ignoring the adulterous activities in the villages.

Women, however, sometimes crack under the strain of combined boredom, frustration, and mistreatment and suffer various forms of female hysteria. Often, their families will take them to a shrine near Jalalabad, which specializes in such maladies. The woman is trussed up and left overnight at the shrine, cared for and prayed over by the resident brotherhood. Such treatment usually brings her back to normalcy quickly.


Virtue and Morality:

These tales articulate the values of the society in both positive (he who does what he should is rewarded) and negative (he who does what he shouldn’t is punished) aspects. Although folktales in all five categories emphasize, in one way or another, the idealized basic personality type (a warrior-poet), the virtue and morality themes constantly epitomize the chevalier preux, sans peur.

The general traits, which characterize the Afghans can be categorized thus: their suspicion of outsiders is modified by a traditional code of hospitality; they believe but seldom worship; they are ruggedly irreligious unless an outsider challenges their beliefs; their brutality is tempered with the love of beauty; dynamic when work is to be done, they are easily swayed to indolence; their avarice is combined with impetuous generosity; conservative in their mountain homeland, they adapt quickly to new ideas and techniques when citified; they have and anarchistic love of individual freedom softened by the accepted rule of their aristocratic khans; their masculine superiority complex tacitly recognizes women’s rights; their love of isolation is overlaid by curiosity about the outside world.

The ideals found in folktales, however, focus on key themes expressed in the Pushtunwali (or Pukhtunwali) and other codes of the hills. Major themes are melmastia (being a genial host; giving lavish parties), mehrmapalineh (hospitality to guests), nanawati (the right of asylum, and the obligatory acceptance of a truce offer), badal (blood revenge), tureh ("sword," i.e., bravery), meranah (manhood; chivalry), ‘isteqamat (persistence; constancy), cabat (steadfastness), imandari (righteousness), ghayrat (defense of property and honor), namus (defense of the honor of women).

I have been collecting local versions of the Pushtunwali for many years, and the following paraphrases the major or generally accepted features of the code:

  • To avenge blood.
  • To fight to the death for a person who has taken refuge with me no matter what his lineage. [Example: If a man, rich or poor, kills a man of another lineage, he can force anyone outside the slain man’s lineage to help him simply by killing a sheep in front of that individual’s hut or tent.
  • To defend to the last any property entrusted to me.
  • To be hospitable and provide for the safety of the person and property of guests.
  • To refrain from killing a woman, a Hindu, a minstrel, or a boy not yet circumcised.
  • To pardon an offense on the intercession of a woman of the offender’s lineage, a Sayyid or a mullah. [An exception is made in the case of murder: only blood or blood-money can erase this crime.]
  • To punish all adulterers with death.
  • To refrain from killing a man who has entered a mosque or the shrine of a holy man so long as he remains within its precincts; also to spare a man in battle who begs for quarter.

 This is a stringent code, a tough code for tough men, who of necessity live tough lives. Honor and hospitality, hostility and ambush, are paired in the Afghan mind. The values of the Pushtun and of the Muslim religion, modified by local Custom, permeate in varying degrees all Afghan ethnic groups.

The warrior-poet, brave in battle, will also be articulate in the jirgah, able to speak on any subject, evoking poetic imagery and illusion on specific points. Few men fulfill the idealized requirements to become great warrior-poets; when they do, however, they become the heroes of their age, as did Khushal Khan Khattak.

Afghan village and nomadic society has little room for dissidence. The folktales emphasize this. Some tales describe what happens when a coward returns home: his mother disowns him. It is almost always the mother who rejects the coward—again emphasizing the importance of woman in the society. A coward killed running away from a fight will not be buried in the Muslim rites. He becomes a ghost, never to reach Paradise.

This Baluch folktale illustrates many of the themes mentioned in most virtue and morality tales:

The tents had been pitched and the women prepared the evening meal. As dusk approached, so did a rider out of the desert. He rode to the tent of the Khan and threw himself from his horse, prostrated himself at the Khan’s feet, and demanded protection. He was being followed, he claimed, by a large band of horsemen with whom his family had a blood feud. The old Khan, wise beyond years, and as pure as his white beard, granted the supplicant asylum. The man was led to the guest tent and there fed, and told to prepare himself for the evening.

The Khan’s young son came to his father and cried, "Oh my father! That is Badshah Gul, who but two months ago slew my brother and your son"

"Yes, my son, but now he is a guest in our camp. He has asked for asylum. We have given him asylum. And remember, my son, even if it takes a hundred years, your brother’s death, my son’s death, will be avenged."

The young son, inflamed, left his father’s tent and, taking his brother’s dagger from its honored place, crept to the guest tent and buried the dagger into the breast of the guest, as they had buried his brother two months before.

The next morning, amid cries and lamentations, the body of the guest was discovered. Tearing his clothing, ripping his turban in agony, the old Khan cried, "Who could have done this? Who could have brought dishonor on the name of our family? The camps of the Baluch will forever condemn us for this dishonor!"

The young son threw himself at his father’s feet and begged forgiveness, saying that in a moment of blind rage, he had dishonored the group.

The old Khan took the knife which had killed the guest and plunged it into the heart of his son.

The Baluch camps still tell of the killing in the guest tent, but they tell the story with honor.

Afghan parents often scare children into obedience and respect by threatening them with bogeymen (jinn, fairies, giants) who will spirit them away. In Nuristan, children learn early of an "abominable snowman" type of creature, and some adults actually claim to have been attacked by the beast.

Kalilah-wa-Dumnah, Persian versions of animal fables (resembling those of Aesop), have long been used in Afghan schools to teach moral values. Villagers and nomads know many more in the oral tradition.



This category Of folkloric themes includes those "safety-valve" tales which attack certain institutions by using individuals as butts of the jokes, often filled with double entendre. Many can only be called dirty stories. Peasants and nomadic herdsmen, living close to nature, have earthy, descriptive, foul, but flowery ways of expressing poetic images in everyday intercourse, a talent carefully hidden from casual visitors. Current political jokes also serve as outlets for the literate Afghan as his country moves, for some much too slowly, toward a democratic system of government.

Religious leaders, usually behind their backs, become the butt of jokes in villages. But who can say whether or not these religious men do not possess the power to curse in the name of Allah? The Afghan feeling of independence and equality is strong in these jokes. A common figure of fun throughout the Muslim world is the Mullah Nasruddin. At times a sharp operator, who outwits all his opponents, he sometimes becomes trapped in his own net of intrigue. At other times the Mullah slyly attacks Muslim ideas and society to make specific points.

Two stories concerning the Mullah Nasruddin will illustrate these types of stories:

The Mullah Nasruddin had a beautiful daughter the desire of all the evil eves of the men living in his village. Everyone sought the hand of the fair maiden, but the Mullah Nasruddin protected her from the outside world saving her for the wealthy young Khan who lived just outside the village.

At last the young Khan came to ask for the hand of the beautiful maiden. The Mullah Nasruddin drove a hard bargain and was to receive the highest bride price ever bargained for in the entire region. With the usual Muslim regard for ceremony, the Mullah Nasruddin insisted on a long waiting-period before the wedding vows could be taken.

It seems that the young and beautiful daughter of the Mullah Nasruddin had a mind and a body of her own. She fell in love with a young stalwart ne’er-do-well in the village, who constantly showered her with attention as she went to the nearby well to gather water in the morning and at dusk. Her trips to get water began to take longer periods of time. Most people in the village knew what was happening, but no one dared tell the Mullah Nasruddin.

The time for the wedding approached and the young, wealthy Khan came to collect his bride. Mullah Nasruddin brought her to greet her betrothed. Lo and behold! She was well pregnant by this time. The young, rich Khan was horrified, and turned on the Mullah Nasruddin, demanding to know why such a thing had occurred. And when the Mullah Nasruddin merely replied that such things are normal when people get married, the young, rich Khan stormed out of the Mullah Nasruddin’s compound, and said that be withdrew his offer of marriage to the young and beautiful daughter of the Mullah Nasruddin and therefore would expect a return of the down payment on the bride price.

The Mullah Nasruddin, genuinely shocked, called after the young, rich Khan and the young Khan returned. "Let us be sensible about this," pleaded the Mullah Nasruddin. "Actually, I should double the bride price now that my daughter is truly pregnant and son give you a son."

The young Khan even more horrified stuttered and asked. "In the Name of Allah. Why?’

The Mullah Nasruddin calmly replied. "Why just last week I delivered a cow to a man to whom I had sold the cow several months before. In the interim period, the cow became pregnant, and when I delivered the cow, I demanded and received twice the original amount. Now what is so different between a cow and a daughter? 


Nasruddin heard that there was a banquet being held in the nearby town, and that everyone was invited. He made his way there as quickly as he could. When the Master of Ceremonies saw him in his ragged cloak, he seated him in the most inconspicuous place, far from the great table where the most important people were being waited on hand and foot.

Nasruddin saw that it would be an hour at least before the waiters reached where he was sitting. So he got up and went home. He dressed himself in a magnificent sable cloak and turban and returned to the feast. As soon as the heralds of the Emir, his host, saw this splendid sight they started to beat the drum of welcome and sound the trumpets in a manner befitting a visitor of high rank.

The Chamberlain came out of the palace himself, and conducted the magnificent Nasruddin to a place almost next to the ‘Emir. A dish of wonderful food was immediately placed before him. Without a pause, Nasruddin began to rub handfuls of. it into his turban and cloak.

"Your Eminence," said the prince, "I am curious as to your eating habits, which are new to me."

"Nothing special," said Nasruddin; "the cloak got me in here and got me the food. Surely it deserves its portion." (Paraphrased from Idris Shah, 1967, 42).

The final tale, a morality joke with personality implications, comes from Laghman:

One night, three thieves of the Ut Khel tribe approached a peddler, riding a donkey: After salaams, two of the thieves walked on either side of the peddler, regaling him with enchanting stories, while the third walked behind, jabbing the donkey with a pointed stick to keep him moving at a steady pace. The two thieves then gently lifted the saddle of the weary peddler, while the third led away the donkey, heavily laden with bazaar goods. The peddler eventually fell asleep and the Ut Khel thieves lowered him to the ground and hastily left to join their fellow thief.

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