Hogville is a peculiar name for a district full of Afghan Muslims who never eat pork, rather like finding a synagogue named after bacon or a Hindu village called Beefburgerpur. Yet it makes sense if the people of Khogiani tell you their secret.
Driving from the bustling city of Jalalabad, or coming the other way over the Pakistan border and the Khyber Pass, one motors over pitiless, rocky desert with vast snowy mountains in the far distance until one comes to Pigtown (an alternative translation).
Nestled in an ancient river valley, it is breath-takingly green and lush, shaded by slim poplars and broad-leafed chinar trees with bark mottled white and silver like sycamores, their trunks so thick that four people could scarcely get their arms around one. Everywhere are babbling brooks, some natural and others dug to irrigate the postage-stamp wheat-fields each surrounded by its own grassy hummocks sown thick with fodder for the animals, or dense orchards so heavily and improbably laden with oranges or apricots that a visitor thinks he has wandered into a storybook illustration forgotten since childhood. Over the treetops peek qalas, stately mud-brick towers built for defence longer ago than even the oldest and best-loved spin-girai, or grey-beards, can remember.
It is an enchanted place and they have lived there for a long time, a very long time. If you ask them to, some of the elders will recite their patrimony going back a thousand years but that is just for starters. Five hundred years before Christ (Hazrat Issa or the Prophet Jesus to your hosts), the Greek historian Herodotus reported clans living there with names that sound almost identical to the Pushtoon tribes there now. And they did not arrive just as Herodotus scribbled it down: these families have lived there for at least 3,000 years, since the days of Homer and Zoroaster, probably since Stonehenge or before.
Wearing their best silk turbans, several of the spin-girai are inevitably waiting for you to clamber out of your four-wheel-drive, rattled and dusty after crossing the devil’s anvil of hot, stony desert. After a litany of ritual greetings and hugs, they lead you to a cool, leafy glade where someone has placed handsome carpets, and then a small army of noisy little boys arrive to refresh the travellers with hot water in chased copper ewers, soap, towels and matching copper pans in which to catch the overflow. More boys and girls come behind juggling tall, tottering stacks of tea cups and saucers, pots of green tea, brown lumps of raw sugar from the nearby cane-fields and nakkal, nut-like kernals from inside apricot stones that are coated thick with spun sugar. All of this is standard hospitality. After you ask politely about the state of their crops and whether a nephew has returned from the bazaars of Kabul or Peshawar, while the womenfolk are still preparing a dozen succulent dishes the men will tell you how their home came to be known as Pork Junction (in looser translation).
So long ago that nobody can quite remember when, a nobleman and his retainers hunted wild boar and a wounded one darted into the mud-walled compound of a peasant farmer who appeared at the gate. The nobleman and his party, armed with lances and short swords, dismounted and asked the farmer to stand aside so that they could kill this wily, dangerous and (certainly to Muslims) notoriously unclean creature. The farmer looked the aristocrat straight in the eye, as Afghans do, and drawled “the animal has sought shelter here – so cross my threshold at your peril.” Rural Afghan men do good imitations of Gary Cooper. The powerful and privileged sportsmen stopped dead in their tracks. They had weapons of course, but the farmer had cousins and lots of them. Importantly, no one needed to mention the word Pushtoonwali, the Code of the Pushtoons, which had just been invoked. So, the noblemen went away, the district came to be called Khogiani and nobody knows how the farmer got the wounded boar out of his compound.
The old men watch your eyes to see if you understand what the legend means. They have just told you that here tradition always triumphs over everything else – including wealth, political power and even religion. You nod in acknowledgement but the army of children have returned with huge platters of rice adorned with raisins, almonds and candied strips of carrot beneath which lies fragrant roasted lamb because hospitality is part of their tradition.
If like the boar you sought sanctuary at a rural Pushtoon compound, I believe that the occupants would take you inside still today, and offer full hospitality for as long as you like without ever asking who you are or why you are here, for that is part of Pushtoonwali. And if your enemies pursued you, your hosts would give their lives to protect you for that too is the tradition – hence the farmer’s duty to the hog.
Tradition defines who they are and what they are. For rural Afghans, tradition is a living link with their beloved parents and grandparents and on back into antiquity. It binds them to their past, to their homes, to their land, to their families, to their dead, to their children and, one day, to their children’s children. That bond is more important to them than their individual careers or their aspirations or even their health and happiness. It is their shared, social DNA as much as any physical gene. It is how they express what and whom they love.
If one crossed the desert to Khogiani on foot or horseback, as many people did within living memory, a traveller would die without sustenance and shelter and so a stranger could depend upon being given nourishment and a place to sleep in a mosque or a tiny hudjra, a village-owned or family guesthouse. Were your cousin visiting another valley, he would need the same and so hospitality became a tradition serving a common need. Then hospitality became the measure of a man among his own people, reflecting who you are even more than signifying the importance of your guest. Afghans say “there is no khan without a dasturkhan,” meaning that there is no great man without a tablecloth on which to display his hospitality. But no Afghan performs such analysis anymore. Over time, people stopped thinking of the ‘why’ and simply imbued the traditional value until hospitality became natural – and they take enormous pleasure in providing it. Tradition moulds man.
Twenty years ago in nearby South Waziristan, a clever Pushtoon driver helped me escape a kidnapping organised by a corrupt Pakistani official who planned on a cut of the ransom money. When we reached the safety of the fort at Wana, he told me that a decade before the same road had been blocked and local brigands surrounded his car, demanding to know who he was before robbing him. “I had a funny idea,” the driver recalled, “and I said that I am a guest.” A guest of whom, they demanded. “A guest of you!” he replied enthusiastically, giving them his business card. “Now when you come to Peshawar, you will be my guest and you’re going to have the best kebabs you’ve ever eaten. But today I am your guest.” The confused highwaymen excused themselves and went into a huddle, whispering about izzat (honour), melma (hospitality) and baksheesh (baksheesh). They returned, asking him to carry on and leave them to rob the next passerby. Practicalities lay behind even a bandit’s respect for tradition: had word gone around, even inaccurately, that they had mistreated a guest, neither their daughters would find husbands nor their sons would win wives, and who would form a business partnership with someone from the sort of rubbishy family that violated tradition?
During their ten-year war against the Soviet invaders, fought valiantly by the people of Pigfield (translations looser still), a rogue resistance commander was anathema for taking money and weapons from both sides – the Russians and their puppet regime and the US and Pakistani intelligence services. His men, with nominal jobs supported by a foolish NGO, would steal equipment and beat the workers which my volunteer group supported on a liberated state farm nearby. After exhausting all other options, one day my Afghan colleague Daoud (David) declared that it was time to shoot a few of the interlopers pour encourager les autres. I replied that were we to get the reputation of being the charity group that shot people from another charity group, it might prove problematic. We compromised by him asking permission from his elder brother, a valiant and respected man who headed the loosely-knit committee of resistance commanders which included the rogue.
My young friend returned looking glum. His brother said no, we could not shoot the miscreants because we were not in this Holy War to build an Afghanistan in which one gunned down his enemies – no matter how richly they deserved it. We were struggling for a proper, civilised, decent Muslim country with judges and rule of law. So, for the time being we had to shut up, remain patient and trust that God would help the good people prevail. Had my young Afghan compatriot been familiar with the word “bummer” he would have deployed it, but deferring to one’s elder brother is the tradition and Afghans know that every tradition has its time-tested purpose even if that is not immediately apparent.
Some months later the rogue commander convened a meeting with elders, either Mohmand tribesmen or Shinwaris but I have forgotten which, and he took several of them captive for some days. After carefully sending Daoud’s elder brother off on some wild goose chase to the opposite end of the province, the lesser resistance commanders found the rogue and shot him to rags. They had no tradition governing roguery or civil wars or taking support from both sides, but he had broken the Pushtoon code of honour and hospitality in a place where tradition ever triumphs over money, power and even religion.
Five years ago, Daoud visited me in Kabul and I asked him how his neighbours down in Hogtown got on with the foreign military there. The Shinwaris, nearby, had booted out the Taliban once their elders decided that the insurgents were not real Muslims and, besides, the arrogant outsiders had insulted their grand-dads and shown no respect for tradition. There are still no Talibs to be found on Shinwari lands.
Daoud answered, evasively, that his pomegranate trees were in blossom and I should visit his garden. I repeated my question and he replied that his prettiest daughter, the one with flaming red hair, was growing up to be a beautiful young lady and I had not seen her in far too long so I should come and stay with them for at least a week. Being far too rude only because we were old friends who had saved one another’s lives several times at least, I asked a third time and finally his eyes went white with impotent rage. The American troops stood on the hot desert roads wearing only their underwear briefs while local people covered their limbs in traditional modesty. They hauled proper, polite families from their cars, abused the men and felt up their women. Similarly by night, acting on bad intelligence, they broke into innocent family compounds uninvited, beat and insulted the gray-bearded grandfathers and again defiled the women. “This,” he explained coldly, “is not our tradition.”
Today, quite unlike Shinwar District, many of the young men of Khogiani support the insurgents and even Afghan officials cannot visit there. American military leaders believe that resistance will cease if the young men are offered jobs digging ditches.
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