Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Wakhi in Hunza – Sabine Felmy’s travelogue


I’m currently reading The Voice of the Nightingale by Sabine Felmy, a German woman who visited this remote mountain valley ‘at the top of the world’ in northern Pakistan, in the Ghujali region, in the early 90s. It’s a short, brisk read, and it makes no pretensions to any sort of objective or critically-analytical eye. However, her account of the people, architecture, agriculture and customs of the region is remarkably broad and – as the subtitle of her book suggests – deeply personal. She clearly grew to love the Tajik-speaking Wakhi people of this region, and her sympathetic portrayal of all aspects of their life, has the remarkable ring of truth-to-life that can only come from an observer who loves whom she observes.

Felmy starts her account of the Wakhi of Hunza with some personal narratives from the elderly people in the village she visits, whom she interviewed. The sketches she provides of the elders of the village, such as Musafir Khan, give us both a glimpse of the fundamental decency and fair dealing of these people, the troublous and often lawless settings which they inhabited, and the political troubles that scattered them from their native Wakhan Corridor (today the easternmost part of Afghanistan) into the three neighbouring countries of China, Pakistan and Tajikistan. Because of this diaspora, it is clear that they would be considered political footballs in the contests between Tsarist Russia and the British Empire in their ‘Great Game’. The British Raj imposed heavy taxes on these northernmost of their subjects. A folk lament recounted and translated by Felmy rather aptly encapsulates Wakhan attitudes toward the British rulers of India:
Naghdiv maz di pastor.
shuprem ghata da Jurghol.
ruchnerem ghate Siriqol.
Siriqoli lup diyor.
dushman angrez verspo avol.

In the night I am forced to move.
I reached Jurghol.
In the morning I arrived in Sariqol.
Sariqol is a big village.
The British enemy is responsible for all my troubles.
She goes over some of the larger-scale political conflicts in the region as well as some of their smaller-scale effects. She describes how Musafir Khan was compelled to settle in Hunza as a result of a trade deal that fell through – in part because of poor communications, in part because of feckless business partners, in part because of lax administrative capacity, and in part because of the atrocities committed upon the Wakhi by their Afghan and Turkic neighbours. (Much of this animosity is sectarian: the Wakhi are mostly Nizâri ’Ismâ‘îlis; as a result, they were often treated as slaves or almost as bad by their mostly-Sunnî neighbours.) The Wakhi people sought stability and political refuge with the Russians and the Chinese, but the revolutions in both countries created difficulties particularly in terms of movement. However, the Wakhi who moved there did find stability of a sort in Xinjiang.

Felmy then describes the daily life of one of her hostesses, whom she refers to by her initials, N.S. The daily lives of the Wakhi tend to be fairly hard. The men and children get up early in the morning to do agricultural work, while the adult women take care of the house. Wakhi houses are open-structured around a single room: this leaves little room for privacy, but Wakhi culture tends to privilege gregariousness. It also privileges politeness: Wakhi treat each other with great decorousness; when greeting others, one is expected to stand; when sitting together the Wakhi people take care not to turn their back on anyone else present; and when leave is taken they are amiable but a bit less formal. The Wakhi hospitality is renowned. Guests are treated first, to the best food, and are not permitted to work. (It was some time before her hostess was at all comfortable with Felmy helping her around the house, let alone in the fields.) Here is how one of the early British visitors to Hunza – General Sir Edmund George Barrow, in fact – described the customs of the Wakhi:
One great charm in travelling amongst the Tajik races is the unbounded hospitality with which one meets. They seem on the whole honest, truthful and religious, and there is a happy absence of fanaticism.
As Felmy describes, the Wakhi are physically very affectionate with each other. Hugs and kissing are common greetings among friends, and a common greeting among both men and woman is to take the hand of the person being greeted and to kiss it. People show that they care about you by asking you about your health and work, and those of the rest of your family. In this way news travels quite fast, and everyone knows what everyone else is doing and how.

Because Hunza is fairly remote, even the variant of Shi‘â Islâm practised by the Wakhi is fairly syncretic. Felmy describes among them khalifas (who are sort of informal holy men, often given the status of an imam even if they have no formal Qur‘ânic learning), fortune-tellers, and informal doctors – in particular chiropractors and bone-setters, who often have their work cut out for them when it comes time to harvest fruit: children often fall out of trees and break bones. Felmy is quite respectful and even deferent in describing these people and their expertise, with particular attention paid to a bitan, or fortune-teller, named Bibi Khand. Felmy describes how Bibi Khand accurately described the journey which brought her to Hunza, even if not all of her prognostications to her are recounted in full. However, despite this prevalence of folk religion, the neo-Platonic philosophy of Nâsir Khusrau is quite important to the Wakhis, and many of them have memorised or are at least familiar with his writings.

The diet of the people of the high mountains is, as one might imagine, heavy on meat and milk and their derivatives (particularly yoghurt and butter) – and the crops which are grown here are barley and wheat, with wheat mostly displacing barley in recent times. Bread is therefore also a common staple. Apricots and mulberries are the fruits grown here: apricots being particularly valuable as a nutritional supplement. Juniper – which seems to be somewhat overharvested – and white flour are both considered pure and holy, and are used in religious ceremonies. Salted milk tea is drunk, of course – though this drink proved more popular with the guests than with the hosts, who would usually drink water flavoured with apricot juice when thirst needed quenching.

Some attention is also paid to the sports played in the high mountains of northern Pakistan: polo and buzkashi. Polo is a sport of ancient provenance, though matches can be fairly brutal on horses and players both. (Passing references are made to horses killed in polo matches.) Buzkashi, which is also played in Kazakhstan, is an even rougher sport: bare-shirted horse riders scrum over a stuffed dead goat carcase. These events are quite festive, however: bands featuring drums and oboe stand on the sidelines and encourage the players.

She also goes into some depth describing the calendar and festivals of the Wakhi people of Ghujali. In February the Wakhi celebrate Kitithid, a custom similar to Groundhog Day in which the people symbolically celebrate the leaving of the cold and the welcoming of spring. On the last week of February the Wakhi celebrate Woth xak, the clearing of the channels, in which the trenches are dug out and the fields are prepared for sowing. Actual sowing, or Taghum, begins in early March. The second and third weeks in June belong to Wungastoy, a festival for the ‘marriage of the birds’, in which the Wakhi people celebrate wild bird life (and ask it to leave their crops alone). The main harvest festival, Chenir, takes place at the beginning of July. And the Wakhi finally celebrate the return of the animals from the pastures at the end of September and the beginning of October, in a festival called Kuchkhemak khudoi.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the book is when Felmy describes how readily the Wakhan people embraced literacy and particularly women’s education. As of the time she wrote this text, Felmy describes the dismal educational statistics and literacy which were endemic to northern Pakistan – and then goes on to note how the Wakhi are a happy exception to the rule… even if their literacy and educational abilities are in Urdu and Arabic rather than in their own Tajik tongue. (It is interesting that Felmy describes some of her female cohort, including N.S., being more comfortable in Urdu or standard Tajik than they are in Wakhi. The preservation of Wakhi language in written form has been aided greatly by the Russian linguists Aleksandr Grunberg and Ivan Steblin-Kamensky.) But the reason the Wakhi people seem to have this very progressive attitude toward women’s education is, in large degree, the encouragement of Âġâ Khân III, who encouraged the Mir of Hunza to begin opening schools for Wakhi children in 1946. The Diamond Jubilee schools opened by the Âġâ Khân tend to be upwards of 60% girls. Even the current Âġâ Khân, His Majesty Karîm al-Ḥusayn Šâh, says:
If a man had two children, one a boy and the other a girl, and if he could only afford to give education to one, I would say that he must give preference to the girl.
Unfortunately there seems to be a bit of a brain drain going on in Hunza at the time that Felmy wrote; she describes how educated couples tended to move to where there were jobs. At the same time, she expresses hope that the development projects, urbanisation and infrastructure engineering occurring on both sides of the Pakistan-China border would provide greater opportunities to the well-educated ’Ismâ‘îli men and women.

Felmy closes out her narrative by describing some of the Wakhi poetry and proverbs and riddles – the staples of any healthy folk tradition! She details the forms of poetry appropriate to men and women, with lyric and religious songs being the province of men and the bulbulik (or ‘nightingale’) form being proper to women. The triplet-based form is very evocative, often wistful and sad, sometimes couched in euphemisms. The proverbs that Felmy cites showcase the tight family feeling and emphasis on hospitality that are the proper feelings of the Wakhi, such as:
When there is harmony at home
that is a sign of wealth, of wealth.
When there exist discord and disputes
nothing but misery and misery prevail.
Also:
You can live without animals, but not without parents.
And (disapprovingly):
He promises a chiffon; he only talks about it to have something to say, without actually presenting it.
This book is a fascinating look into one of the more captivating minority cultures along the ancient Silk Road and the new OBOR, who live at one of the highest inhabited points in the world. It is not difficult to see why the people who live here tend to love peace and political stability. Being a minority which has historically been persecuted, and also maintaining a lifestyle which can be fairly marginal, having good neighbours suits them quite well. As said before, Felmy’s book may not have the sort of depth which one might associate with a scholarly anthropological study, but the love with which she presents the culture and people she describes makes this a fine ethnographical snapshot of a small ethno-religious community spread across four modern countries. I confess, I have a soft spot for the Wakhi and the Sarikoli that I tend to share with the similarly mountainous ethnic minority, the Carpathian Rusins of Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and the Ukraine.

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