Tuesday October 19, 2021

‘Kafiristan’: identity and ethnicity

An Italian researcher and scholar has deconstructed the myths around the Kalasha community living in the Kalash valley for centuries.

In his work, he has tried to tackle the stereotyping of this most peaceful community and the many identities imposed on them by Western authors and outsiders.

In his thesis, ‘Fence of Peristan – The Islamization of the “Kafirs” and Their Domestication’, Alberto Cacopardo suggests the word ‘Peristan’ for Dardistan and Nuristan, formerly lumped as ‘Kafiristan’.

Alberto Cacopardo, an ethnographer and researcher who along with Augusto S Cacopardo has done extensive research on Kafiristan and Dardistan, suggests the word ‘Peristan’ for the region usually referred to as ‘Dardistan and Nuristan’, which were formerly dubbed as ‘Kafiristan’ by invaders who forcefully converted many of these people. Alberto has his arguments for this construct in a rare book, ‘My Heartrending Tragic Story’, the sad autobiography of Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah Khan ‘Azar’ written in Urdu in 1908. The manuscript of the book was found by the Norwegian linguist, Georg Morgenstierne, who used it for his linguistic work but a full translation and analysis was done by Alberto Cacopardo and Ruth Laila Schmidt in 2006.

Alberto has sent a copy of the book to me from Italy. His insight is very interesting and he deviates from the colonial writers, foreign and local, who described the region in their own way mostly based on an outsider’s distorted views and biases.

This book was written after the Azar fled the wrath of Afghanistan’s ruler Amir Abdul Rahman in the 1890s; the ameer had unleashed a series of targeted brutality on the people of Kafiristan. The Azar settled in Chitral and also served the British army and learnt Urdu as their second language.

Other works by Alberto Cacopardo and Augusto Cacopardo include: ‘Gates of Persitan – history, religion and society in the Hindu Kush ‘, ‘Fence of Peristan – the Islamization of the Kafirs and their domestication’, ‘Anthropology and Ethnography in Peristan‘, ‘The Pre-Islamic Cultures of the Hindu Kush‘, ‘Some findings of archaeological, historical and ethnographic interest in Chitral’, ‘The Kalasha winter solstice festival’, etc.

“Until a couple of decades ago, indeed, the pre-colonial history of the areas ranging from Nuristan to the borders of Kashmir, including Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Nager, Dir, Upper Swat and the Indus Kohistan, had remained clouded in thick mist”, writes Alberto.

“Lacking access to hardly any written source, the early writers of colonial times had produced a number of accounts, largely based on oral traditions that, though quite vague and contradictory, had generally come to be accepted as actual facts.

“This had stimulated, since the late 19th century, the production of local historiographies in Urdu and Persian, which had often added fictitious dates to form chronologically arranged narratives that had in turn influenced subsequent Western writers. The result was a puzzling congeries of incoherent narrations that had baffled for decades whoever tried to reconcile them into a consistent picture of that pre-colonial past”, he argues.

The main construction of ethnic identity in this region ‘Kafiristan’ (present-day Nuristan, Chitral, Upper Swat and Upper Dir, Kohistan, Gilgit and parts of Kashmir) is exogenous. Various writers have described these people and used various labels for them.

“In fact, Muslim writers were always puzzled by the Kafirs and from time to time tried to assimilate them to the Zoroastrians, the Christians, the Hindu or even the Jews. But by the 16th Century CE, the Islamic world had started to coagulate an awareness of the Kafirs of the Hindukush/Karakorum as a distinct category with its own peculiar religious practices. Reference to the use of wine is perhaps the standard topos that, in written sources from this period, provides the marker to distinguish our ‘Kafirs’ from the rest. Gois, [a Portuguese writer and traveller who visited Afghanistan in the 16th century], in this way, is no exception”.

Identity construction – whether Kafiristani, Nuristani or Kohistani – is “heteroethnopsis”, the “others’ view”; and are thus imposed. Over time these very people, as per the rule owing mainly to social and political status as the region is in between three empires, internalised these imposed identities. This heteroethnopsis – or its extreme form, ‘telethnopsis’ – “has its own array of exonyms, including such “telethnonyms” as “Nuristani” or “Kafir”. Another useful view of identity construction is ‘periethnopsis’ which means ‘view from the surrounding’, implying how these different linguistic communities name each other. This is very interesting and useful to know the identity of the people because they have been known to each other for the entire history.

Alberto Cacopardo writes: “Thus, for example, the Khowar speakers who nowadays call themselves ‘Chitrali’ are known as ‘Patua’ to the Kalasha, as ‘Bilo’ to the ‘Kati, and were once called ‘arnya’ by the people of the Gilgit region; the people of Ashret and Biyori who call themselves ‘Palula’ are known as ‘Dangarik’ to the Chitrali and as Kohistani to the Pathan; while the people that the ‘Kom’ call ‘Prasun’ and the Kalasha ‘Wietdeshi’, call themselves Vasi, but are called Paruni by the neighbouring Pathan. And, quite interestingly, the Kalasha are called ‘kalash’ by the Chitrali and the Pathan, but the Kati call ‘Kasua’ only the people of Bumburet and Rumbur, while they have a different name, ‘weru’, for the people of Birir”.

The same is true for other sister communities in the region. For example, the Torwalis of Swat call the people of Kalam – who speak the Gawri language – ‘Gaw’ while they call the former as ‘Torwal’. The Torwali and Gawris call the people of Kohistan ‘Musha’ and ‘Mathu’ or ‘Kandhai’. They call Shina-speakers ‘Shanaek’ and Khowar speakers as ‘Gokhi/Gekhi.

In the past, researchers, both colonial and those associated with the Mughal dynasty or the Pakhtuns, used collective exogenous labels.

Alberto argues, “All this precision is entirely foreign to the sphere of telethnopsis where the ‘Kafir’ label belongs. Like other labels in this sphere, such as ‘Kohistani’ or ‘Tadjik’, this concept lumps together all distinctions”.

Over time, and due to various political and social factors, these historically brutalised people internalised the identities given to them by outsiders, and are still under that impression. The regions which were not directly ruled by the Pakhtuns have somehow maintained their unique identities, mainly because they had their own states as the centre of power. For instance, the Kho of Chitral, the Shina speakers of Gilgit, the Brusho of Hunza and the Balti of Baltistan have somehow maintained their independent ethnic identities.

While emphasizing a collective identity for these people, we also need to consider pre-colonial and pre-Islamic literature and the traditions of identifying themselves that these people had maintained in the past. We also need to keep in consideration how these distinctive ethnic communities with some common ethnic collective name each other instead of focusing on certain terms used vaguely for these people by foreign writers and researchers who had access to the languages and cultures of these people through middlemen which were men mostly Pakhtun and Persian/Iranian.

One such important middleman was a certain Mughal Beg who wrote Sairul Bilad and used to be a major source for researchers and writers. A portion of his work was translated by Major Raverty and parts of the translation can be found in Raverty’s work, ‘Notes on Afghanistan’, too. Mughal Beg very often used terms for these communities which were continued by subsequent British and other researchers.

The writer heads an independent

organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.

Email: [email protected]