Pashtuns in Lahore

Jan 2016

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Fabrics for Pathan floor cushions and interior fabrics

Fabrics for Pathan floor cushions and interior fabrics in Walled City, Lahore. | Photographer: Rabia Nadir

On any day in the old Walled City of Lahore, men hawk sunglasses, mobile accessories, roasted corn, or mend and polish shoes by the side of the road. Young boys with fashionable haircuts, dressed in second-hand branded clothes, zoom past you on their motorbikes. In the circular garden outside, a gaggle of girls play keeri kola (Shari for hopscotch) while their mothers sit shelling chilgozas (pine seeds). These are the many faces of Pashtuns of the Walled City and a growing number of specialized shops selling distinctive female clothing, bright floral fabrics for floor cushions, Pashto music CDs, naswar (tobacco snuff) indicate an increasing population in recent years. 

This essay is a response to the caricatured images of Pashtuns migrants in conversations and popular media and allusions to a deluge of migrants who are taking over the cities.1 These representations conflate distinct ethnicities, classes and old and new arrivals into a monolithic entity and fanning insecurities of the ‘other’ with links to a distant home and socially conservative outlook. The essay is not focused on explicating this wider vilification of Pashtuns but tries to present an empirical account from Walled City to highlight the diverse histories of communities unfairly portrayed as a uniform population of grossly exaggerated size.2 It is a narrative of their vulnerable class position, exacerbating conditions of survival in face of anti-poor developments in Walled City and war in their villages of origin and their  resistance in face of these adversities.

Walled City or Androon Shehr (inner city) is the ancient core of metropolitan Lahore. Presently, it houses many regional wholesale markets, specialized retail bazaars, small-scale manufacture, and pockets of high-density residential living. The majority of residents are lower-middle and working class, the result of a century of out-migration by the privileged and the exodus of the largely wealthy non-Muslim population in 1947.3 It remains attractive for working class migrants because of the availability of diverse amenities, security, fraternal living and above all work opportunities.

Walled City is changing with continued growth of commercial activity and shoe manufacture fueled by cheap imports on one hand and a state sponsored project of historical conservation aimed to enhance its value as a cultural and tourist asset. The commerce and manufacture is expanding by aggressive acquisition of residential space for markets, workshops and warehouses pushing up real estate prices, accelerating out migration of residents and destroying historical building stock.  The project of conservation aimed at promotion of tourism, too is leading to eviction and expulsion of the poorer inhabitants as it builds an historical spectacle for a well-heeled class of visitors. The Pashtuns are the more identifiable migrant poor who are sustained in a degraded but vibrant hub of work and residence that is the walled city of Lahore.   

Shaari boys

Shaari-speaking youth hang out at a local dhaba.

Who is Pashtun?

Diverse ethnic, religious and trade based communities continue to occupy distinct neighborhoods in the city, a common trait in historical urban centers. Places such as Thatti Malahan — literally the abode of the  boatsmen — or Gali Peshawarian (street of the Peshawaris), or Kucha Kakezayian (neighborhood of the Kakezaye) denote this settlement pattern. The Afghans,  including  Pashto speakers, have been a part of Walled City since the time of Mahmud of Ghazni in the 11th century A.D. Many old Walled City families continue to identify with their Pashtun or Afghan lineage even though most do not speak Pashto or any Afghan language. It may be noted that an Afghan may be a Pashto speaker — and hence Pashtun — or belong to the diverse other ethnicities that reside within the modern boundaries of Afghanistan—and still be commonly identified as Pashtun within the colloquialisms of Walled City. Within Pakistan, migrants from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa (KP), the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Swar  are, as a rule, Pashto-speaking though they may have distinct local dialects. This essay focuses on two distinct communities of Pashto and Shari speakers who are popularly identified as ‘Pashtun.’ The two communities are henceforth in the narrative referred to as the Pashto-speaking Pashtun and the Shari-speaking Afghans.

The Shari, also referred to as Pashai, hail from eastern Afghanistan, and are a small linguistic group with an estimated 500,000 speakers. They are culturally close to other mountain tribes of the area near Jalalabad on both sides of the Kunar river near the Pakistan border. The spoken form of the language has been around for roughly 2000 years but has been in written form only since 2003. 

The majority of Shari came as Afghan refugees in the 1980s; they came here because they had some earlier Shari-speaking contact in Walled City like many Afghan war affected who moved out of refugee camps or came directly to live with relatives. Some Shari families shared history of their ancestors who had lived in Walled City even decades before the partition of 1947. They spoke of rich Hindus, who had close ties with their grandparents both (Hindus and the grandparents) belonged to the same region of Jalalabad in Afghanistan.  Sharis are “Pashtun” in the Walled City colloquial and seldom contest this category. Pashto speakers, on the other hand, disassociate themselves from Shari-speaking Afghans and emphasize their Pakistani identity versus that of the Afghan muhajir (refugee)

The Shari are largely engaged in a variety of low paying jobs such as helpers in eateries and tandoors, salesmen in the wholesale markets a few are businessmen. Their small businesses include recycle material depots, mobile phone recharge and motorbike repair, accessories and rental shops. Shari women work as housemaids and waste scavengers in the markets of Walled City. The Shari women, unlike their Pashtun-speaking counterparts, engage in work outside the home. The women scavengers are visible collecting recyclable packaging material in the all-male domains of Azam and Pakistan Cloth markets. A major livelihood for women is shelling dried fruits such as almonds and pine nuts for a pittancemostly at home while some go to work in factories on Bund Road for the same. Few Shari families had managed to set up small plastic molding units which manufacture cheap plastic products such as simple toys and soap dishes. However, these units have closed down in the last few years due to the competition from Chinese products, which are cheaper and of finer quality, and the rising cost of electricity. Narrating his present predicament, one unemployed Shari exclaimed:

Ay Cheen saaday goday gitiyaan wich beyh gaya aye

“China has disabled us, has literally destroyed our limbs.”

It is possible to find Pashto-speaking Pashtuns from all regions of Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa and FATA, and Balochistan. Those who actually have live inside Walled City as opposed to those who come for business hail from Mohmand agency, Bajaur, Swat, and, less commonly, from Khyber Agency and the settled areas of Karak, Kohat, and Peshawar. Their livelihoods in the city are defined by sub-ethnicities related to their native place of origin and kinship-based networks that help them gain entry into a profession. An old resident of Walled city explained:

Momand taal walay ne, jutian tey ainakaan walay Bajaur dey nein, chhalli walay Dir, Malakand, tay chaa walay sub Swat denein

“Momand are firewood sellers, Bajaur men sell shoes and spectacles, the roasted corn vendors are from Dir and Malakand, and tea stalls are run by those from Swat.”

 The absence of Pashtuns in the groups of daily wage seekers at places such as the Pani Wala Talaab confirms their relatively low dependence on the open labor market for work. The business of firewood or taals is monopolized by the Pashtuns from Mohmand agency, and they have also branched into new enterprises such as rickshaw driving and transportation of recyclables. The Pashtuns from Bajaur are typically wholesale shoe dealers, hawkers, and chowkidars. Many Swati Pashtuns from Buner and Shangla run tea stalls and small bazaar eateries while migrants from Khyber Agency work in the more lucrative transport and Chinese import businesses. These migrants from settled areas of KP, are more prosperous and educated; they also work as teachers and clerks in the larger Pashtun-owned businesses in the wholesale markets.

The Pashtun migrants from Mohmand, Bajaur, Dir and Swat who live and work in Walled City cite need for cash, a condition for basic survival given the breakdown of subsistence economy and lack of employment in the villages as drivers of migration. The pull of the city as a place of riches and easy life is almost never cited as a reason for migration. Both the Shari Afghans and Pashto-speaking Pashtuns come from rural and economically underdeveloped areas. Migrants from Swat who run the tea shops and work as coolies in the cloth market come from the poorer and backward districts of Buner and Shangla rather than Mingora or Bahrain. Similarly those from Mohmand Agency hail from the upper Mohmand region close to the Durand line, an area that is remote and dependent on rain-fed agriculture. Along with rising need for cash in the provenance is cited the erosion of tribal Pashtun values of melmastia(hospitality) and pannah (protection) leaving each to fend for himself as a driver of migration. The change in the villages leaves them with no choice but to migrate. 

Among the Pashto-speaking Pashtun, although the Pashto language is a strong cultural binding, their lives in Walled City are manifestly separated by livelihoods, relationship with varied locales, and increasingly by  differences in class as rich Pashtun traders have become significant investors in the markets of cloth and imported goods. As a rule, rich investors and businessmen among Pashtuns do not live in Walled City and seldom have any links with the Pashtuns seen on the streets or living in the mohallahs. While there is an increase in the number of big businesses controlled by Pashtun in the wholesale markets and owners continue to employ labor hailing from their native villages, the numbers Pashtun workers living in the city is small. The high price of accommodation in Walled City commercial areas ensures that most live in the peripheral dense localities outside the markets. Many Pashtun respondents also preferred the more spacious accommodation available outside in the close vicinity of Lunda Bazaar and Misri Shah.

The Shari Afghan, with their large extended families, occupy the large stock of low rent, dilapidated structures in the non-commercial neighborhoods of Walled City. They had once faced little competition in finding housing given their willingness to take up residence in the most run down properties: including state-controlled non-Muslim religious properties. Sharis are the most vulnerable to the rising real estate value and harassment by the security agencies. 

For the Shari-speaking Afghans born in Lahore, or those living in Pakistan since 1980, their homes in the valleys of Laghman are inaccessible and they have no myth of return. They have assimilated in the social world of Walled City. Their larger number compared to Pashto speaking Pashtuns, presence of families and lack of contact with homes in Afghanistan may have promoted the adoption of local mores, especially among the youth. Most Sharis speak fluent Punjabi; young men socialize freely with local boys, and the children, including girls attend school.

The Pashto-speaking Pashtuns, on the other hand, seldom have families in the city and are more invested in their village communities. They practice strict segregation of females, and are socially conservative and religious. There has been little or no vertical mobility among the Sharis living in the Walled City Lahore for over three decades, even though they are more adapted to the majority culture than the Pashtun migrants. The Shari parents shared the other poor Walled city parents tales of woe and spoke of unemployment, addiction to video games, mobile phones, extreme motorbike sports, cricket and drugs among the youth. A Shari father lamented their induction into city ways of life and loss of ‘unemplo (farmer) ability for hard work.

The imagined link of the Afghans with their native homes is the basis of paranoia regarding criminal behavior associated with the group. However, their sheer poverty, the nature of their livelihoods, and absence of significant record of criminality starkly refutes this claim. Jan Din, caretaker at a private school, narrated how his family had struggled in grinding poverty for three generations but considered the present time to be the hardest because they had lost community ties.

“Ab tu har koi qasai key bakray ki tarah latka hai.”

“Today each one is hanging helpless like a butchered lamb.”

Walled City space and society is changing. Space is transforming through commercialization of land use forced by explosive growth of market in cheap imports. It is also changing with formal planning focused on heritage conservation for economic growth through the creation of a market in tourism. Presently, the burgeoning wholesale markets and expanding shoe manufacturing factories create jobs for poor migrants including the Pashto-speaking Pashtun and Shari Afghans, but also make the city unaffordable for working class residents. Heritage planning will promote investment in heritage properties leading to enclosures of commons as was seen in the “Food Street”area on Fort Road. The perception of promised livelihoods in the future tourist market of Walled City ranges from deep skepticism to outright rejection by the working classes and small business owners including the Pashtuns. 

Shaari woman showing her blister from shelling pine nuts.

Shaari woman showing her blister from shelling pine nuts.

Coping with hard times

The lower class residents like the Pashtuns had benefited from the peculiar spatial and social environment of Walled City. The pedestrian streets were rich in security and opportunities for multiple social activities, the dilapidated properties were affordable and could be salvaged by native ingenuity while the thriving local bazaars and high-density neighborhoods and bazaars ensured livelihood. The Afghans and Pashto-speaking Pashtuns brought a tradition of hard work and social capital rooted in their native villages. They survived in the city as vendors, scavengers, and owners of small businesses and services and some even prospered. They did because they were able to aggregate their community and clan resources given their traditional tribal ties. In a typical Swati tea stall, for instance, men belonging to the same clan work on three to six monthly rotations that allow fellow workers to attend to their duties in the village. 

In the new spatial structuring and the harassment of the community by the police because they are suspected of links to terrorists, life for ordinary Sharis who have been living in Walled City for decades and the Momands, Bajauris and Swatis who run small businesses and work as laborers life has become very difficult. Post 9/11 and since the start of the Pakistan army operation in the tribal agency there are periodic campaigns for identifying Afghans with fake Pakistani identity cards. Many Sharis do not allow their children to associate with fellow Sharis fearing some may not have proper Pakistani papers, as they could suffer by association. Among the Pashtuns, the conditions in the villages where relative stability of traditional society allowed them to leave children and earn in Lahore are disappearing. They are unable to afford bringing families and life in the villages is rocked by the war on terror. 

The Pashto-speaking Pashtuns and to a lesser extent the Sharis show an active resistance to the social culture of Walled City. They cope primarily by protecting their social capital based on tribal ties and ethnic identity. Language, communal ties of shared rituals, recreation and regular visits to village homes all contribute to reinforce binding ties. Language is a powerful bonding and there is more to lose than gain from abandoning the native language for both the Shari and Pashto speaking Pashtuns. As one of them said, 

‘Baji sab sey pehlay hum bachoan ko apni zubaan sikhatya hain.’

“Sister the first thing we teach our children is their language).”

Work in niche sectors generally precludes the need for acquiring more than functional language skills of local Punjabi. For the Sharis, language is their strongest link but they do not flaunt it publicly and insist on being identified as Punjabis. 

The fear of loss of patriarchal authority and filial unity is countered with support from religious sanction and strengthening of tribal ties. Education is spurned as it is seen to promote disdain for manual work and small family business. There is some concession for madressa-based religious education, which is deemed as a way of protecting their distinct cultural values and a more pragmatic career choice. Sharis, traditionally a less conservative community, show a turn to religious networks such Tablighi Jamaat for community support. Respondents reported discontinuing the traditional ataan dance at weddings and other rituals because it un-Islamic. 

The social capital of Pashtuns is the product of a material world of agricultural production and tribal culture. They try to maximise this social capital and save it from erosion. It is being lost as urbanization is overtaking the provenance and the city is schooling them into a new culture. Their conservative, anti-liberal practices are an effort to freeze and protect what capital they brought rather than get nothing from the city and also lose the past. The respect they carry in the city is because of their past culture that gave precedence to strengthening tribal ties over personal gain. They realize once assimilated they would be judged by class not by their culture.

Typically, Walled City residents regurgitated the media narrative of Pashtun deluge and blamed poor Pashtuns for bringing unhygienic living practices and the rich Pashtun traders for taking control of the markets. On further probing they conceded that there is little display of power and aggression on part of the Pashtun migrants both Shari and Pashto speaking given their social position as laborers and petty businessmen. They were rather more defensive than aggressive in their dealings. Rather, many Walled City residents were impressed by the hittefaq’(unity) of Pashtuns and their capacity for work and sound business ethics. The school teachers at the government school signaled out their Shari girl students as the most diligent and hard working students. Another Punjabi neighbor spoke of the discipline of the young Pashtun boys who worked and studied with passion she found lacking in her children. These traits attracted awe and praise but were also seen as a threat. Some locals feared the solidarity of the Pashtuns allowed them unionized takeover of businesses and property especially in face of the absence of any comparable structure among the majority Punjabis. 

Walled City, till recent times, had managed to protect diversity in its narrow lanes with rich commons. The many Pashtuns and their work circuits are part of Walled City’s heritage which is least valued and now actively targeted. The community is responding by recoiling into the shell of ethnicity and clans, an act of ‘unfreedom’ in an increasingly hostile environment.

Rabia Nadir is an Assistant Professor in Media Studies at the Lahore School of Economics.

  1. The latest eviction and bulldozing of a predominantly Pushtun squatter settlement in Islamabad is a particularly stark example of the use of stereotype images and obfuscation used to influence public perception and justify a violent destruction of homes. In the context Walled City the influential  English language daily Dawn May 2015 reiterates the claim made by the same author in August 2011  of the new emerging landscape of Walled City populated by an Afghan and Pushtun majority. There is also unhesitant packaging of the narrative of terrorists hiding amongst the Pashtuns, it warned, ‘. . .60 per cent are Afghan refugees and Internally Displaced Persons from the northern-western areas because of the Taliban troubles. For all you know, the enemy is entrenched firmly within, strongly placed inside the walled city.’ See foot note (2) for more realistic numbers. There is also condemnation of this by some see and Tanqeed August 2015 but this only confirms the presence of this trend. []
  2. There are no published figures available for Pashtuns according to the the last census in 1998 the population was 160,734 which may have decreased further over the years. Based  interviews with the WCLA social surveyors and the Agha Khan Cultural Services field representatives as well as the authors own observations Pashtun resident population could be maximum 2-3,000 persons. []
  3. According to Agha Khan Cultural Services Pakistan (AKCSP) Socio-Economic Survey 2009, unpublished report submitted for the Sustainable Development of Walled City Lahore Project 20% of the population were daily wage workers and 37% worked as private employees in small businesses, majority of the households were able to meet expenses by borrowing money. In sampled studies of 50% of Eastern and 64% Western Walled City population earned less than $160 per month. []

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