Review: The Tribal And The Universal In Akbar Ahmed’s Mataloona
The “matal” or proverb in Mataloona: Pukhtun Proverbs and Mizh: A Frontier Classic (Oxford University Press, 2020) that I find the most delightfully emblematic of the value of a book such as this, is “(don’t be like) the frog that climbed a clod and said he saw Kabul.” The saying not only captures the dynamic nature of the folk literary genre of the matal itself in its imagery, wisdom and humorous incongruity, but sheds light on the contradictory position of a tribal culture held together by tradition and isolationism but forced time and again to contend with outsiders and adversaries. As inward advice, it is a reminder to stay humble in seeking knowledge. As an outward saying, it implies that there is always much more than meets the eye, therefore, beware of hasty judgment. In the context of the geopolitical history of the region, this matal forces us to consider: is it better to invest in fortifying ourselves against the threat of constant invasions or to gain knowledge about the greater world that often seems irrelevant in relation to the challenge at hand?
The matal also illuminates the rare dexterity of the author/translator/editor of the book, Akbar Ahmed, whose body of work is defined first and foremost by his close study of clashing ideologies and building a genuine understanding between cultures through a clear, honest, but compassionate look that is not marred by academic frigidity. In doing so, he honors the contradictory realms of tradition and cosmopolitanism, individuality and plurality.
Ahmed’s Mataloona differs from his other recent works in a few respects: it is a revised version of a book he assembled nearly half a century ago, one that resulted partly from his personal experiences working in civil service. In his new foreword, which serves as an excellent contextualization of the continued relevance of understanding the psyche of the Pukhtuns, he says:
“To know people, listen to their proverbs and poetry. At difficult moments in the jirgas that I conducted as Political Agent in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, I noticed that a judiciously chosen proverb could alter the mood of the gathering. The use of one of my favorite proverbs invariably elicited smiles and nodding of heads, while simultaneously rescuing me from a difficult discussion.”
Besides the description of the precarious dangers that his role put him in, there is an exuberance in tone that belies a personal attachment to the place and a special reverence for “Pukhtun Wali” tribal code. Instead of a cold, hard look at the culture as an anthropologist, this work harks back to the time in the author’s life when he encountered both the diplomatic entanglements with a rigid system as a civil officer as well as the gift of rarified and well-preserved tradition of tribal life in which he recognized a certain warmth and sense of dignity, being of Pathan stock himself. Sir Olaf Caroe and Evelyn Howell, who had occupied a similar role as diplomats in service of the Raj had succumbed to the same charms and enigmas of tribal existence and had penned what later became literary/historiographic gems.
Howell’s “The Mizh: A Monograph on the Government’s Relations with Mahsud Tribe” appears side by side with Ahmed’s Mataloona in this new OUP iteration, providing not only a great frame of reference but also a moment of overlapping personal history for Ahmed, who met, and was in conversation with his (much) senior colleague in London before the publication of the 1971 edition. Sir Olaf Caroe’s preface to Mataloona is short and sweet like the Mataloona themselves, but reflects his deep and abiding interest in the ways of the Pukhtun people. Where Ahmed acknowledges the British imperial agenda elsewhere, his tribute to Caroe in his introduction is beautifully apt, heartfelt and makes an important statement.
The Pukhtun tribal ethos, though richly praised, does not overshadow Ahmed’s own, more judicious, pluralistic instincts; he remains bound to seeking the universal, inclusive, pliable, humane— true to the spirit of bridge-building that inspires the rest of his works. This is reflected in his introduction: “There will be cases of notable omissions: there will be those mataloona where the reader might prefer his own translation. He is welcome to it. No finality is advocated or claimed. As a rule those mataloona of a general nature have been selected and those reflecting inter-tribal rivalries or strictly local prejudices have been omitted.”
Ahmed’s ambivalence is easy for me to relate to, and indeed I touch upon it in my recent book Comb, a hybrid memoir about growing up in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa during the time of the Soviet war. I too cherish the culture as someone who knows it intimately (albeit as less of an insider than him), and I too cannot but register the prejudices and intellectual boundaries of a tribal people’s survivalist mindset, even as I marvel at their strength and perseverance throughout history— from antiquity up until our times, through the current conflicts and wars. The stark mountain-scape of my childhood remains the most fitting metaphor for the resilience, simplicity and rigidity of the Pukhtoon people. Turning my head as a bride for the last gaze in the direction of the legendary Jamrud that led to home and to the Baab e Khyber beyond, is still a lucid memory. I wished never to forget the embrace of the Safed Koh mountains, the essence of the place that shaped who I was— its lore and language in which “kore,” as a word for home, held something of my core.
Mataloona illuminates what lies in the deep crevices of a culture obscured by both— the Western imperial agenda, as well as its own isolationist tendencies that are part and parcel of a tribal society. The sayings and nuggets of wisdom capture the subtleties that humanize a people who prefer to present themselves to be as impenetrable as the mountains and valleys they inhabit, and are further exoticized and even demonized in some of the narratives that are popular in the mainstream cultures of the West. The original intent of Ahmed’s book may have been to preserve the charming, pithy maxims in translation, and offer a dimension of cross-cultural understanding, but over the past decades of war, the value of this project has increased manifold.
Proverbs such as “Feuds ate up the mountains, taxes, the plains” and Ahmed’s explanation (“In the mountains, though free, people were ruined by vendettas based on the code of chivalry and tribal rivalries; in the plains Government taxes crippled them”) provide the context to the dilemmas of the Pukhtun’s assertion of tribal identity in modern times. Similar notions of tribalism and patriarchy are reflected in the following sayings:
“He who can be killed by sugar should not be killed by poison.”
“He is not a Pukhtoon who does not give a blow for a punch.”
“The Pukhtoon who took revenge after a hundred years said, I took it quickly”
“Where there is money the woman will come even from Kalabat”
My personal favorites are those mataloona that express the pleasurable, lighter side of life; these are words that I imagine hearing in the domestic realm, perhaps in the voices of women; some of these lock in names of places I miss:
“When the horses were being shoed, the frogs also put up their feet.”
“To play the rabab before the buffalo.”
“It rained in Tirah and the donkeys of Akbarpoura were carried away.”
“The goat hiding from death passed the night in the butchers house”
“You have not even seen the Bara river and are already removing your trousers.”
Khyber Pass, the great gateway of empires and wars, is a fierce symbol of guarding a hard won freedom. The Pukhtun define themselves proudly by their struggle, bravery, and readiness to sacrifice all for what they call their own. As someone who was raised in this land, I treasure the spirit of its people because I see it as more than combative— I know its compassionate side and I yearn to see more of the feminine, civilizing influences, some of which may be heavily subdued but are clearly present as a powerful undercurrent and an element that balances the tribal with the universal, as Akbar Ahmed’s Mataloona amply shows.
A matal such as “One’s share is preordained and neither altered by force or by competition” echoes, I imagine, the voice of a mother making peace between two children, or perhaps a matriarch advising rival clans. In the spirit of Ahmed’s work that emphasizes the underlying humanity necessary to be seen and honored by us all, whoever and where ever we are in the world, a matal to take home from this book is “The soul is the mirror of the world.”
The writer is a Pakistani-American poet and essayist, is the winner of the San Diego Book Award and the Nazim Hikmet Prize and has been nominated for the Pushcart multiple times. Her books include Kohl and Chalk, Baker of Tarifa and Ghazal Cosmopolitan.