Reviving the hujra culture

April 7, 2024

This year, the Peshawar Literature Festival ran an informal session called Hujra-i-Mir to promote the culture of dialogue

Reviving the hujra culture


teve Inskeep, the celebrated host of the American NPR’s Morning Edition for almost two decades, is widely known for his mastery of the art of bridging divides and building constructive debate in interviews. In 2023, he published a book titled Differ We Must: How Lincoln Succeeded in a Divided America, in which he mentioned sixteen of Lincoln’s encounters with his opponents and showed how he succeeded by bridging the gaps instead of widening them further.

What was the secret behind Lincon’s exceptional people’s skills; his school, textbooks, a short course at an academy or his teachers? It was none of those.

Luckily, Inskeep shares the secret behind Lincoln’s extraordinary social skills: the study of fellow human beings. The resource is easily available.

The author quotes Sarah, Lincoln’s stepmother, as saying that “when grown-ups would visit their cabin, the boy would listen carefully, never speaking or asking questions till they were gone. Then he must understand everything –even to the smallest thing.” Thus, when Lincoln was in his twenties, one of his acquaintances found that the former’s mind was a “great storehouse of facts acquired by reading but principally by observation and intercourse with men, women and children.” To the Pashtun child, the opportunity to listen and observe the elders and to grow socially, intellectually and politically was provided by the unique traditional institution of the hujra.

The Peshawar Literature Festival brought it back to the youth’s imagination this year. Aptly called Hujra-i-Mir, it is named after the person behind the revival of book culture and literary activities in Peshawar— Aslam Mir sahib, often described as a living library.

For nine of eleven nights of the literary festival, an informal session was held with a prominent elder from the community every night. It hosted guests like Prof Hanif Khalil, author of many books and director of NIPS at Quaid-i-Azam University, along with several eminent poets and intellectuals who shared experiences of their lives, recited poetry and engaged with the audience.

A night was dedicated to Mushtaq Ahmad Yousafi. It was titled Mazah Paray - Yousafi Khwani. Aslam Mir sahib, himself fluent in Persian and Arabic as well as some other languages, read selections from Yousafi’s writings. Mir sahib told the audience that Yousafi used multifarious allusions including Persian and Arabic words. Sometimes he coined new words. Th modern reader, more familiar with English than Arabic or Persian, might face difficulty enjoying Yousafi’s words. Mir sahib said he was working on compiling a ‘dictionary of Yousafi’ to make the celebrated humorist’s writing more accessible to such readers.

Another night was hosted by poet, playwright and columnist, Prof Nasir Ali Sayyed. Apart from narrating his life’s journey, where he explained how he started his literary career, learnt Hindko and Urdu languages, got a teaching job and worked with the radio Pakistan and the PTV, he mentioned some of the prominent people Peshawar has given to the arts and entertainment industries.

It is more urgent than ever before to revive the declining institution of hujra and the culture of community, belonging, mutual respect and polite disagreement that the cultural institution helps nurture. 

Here I share an interesting anecdote that Syed sahib related while reminiscing about his friend Ahmad Faraz.

During the recording of a PTV programme, Ahmad Faraz quoted a verse saying it was in his Pasi Andaz–i-Mausam. Nasir Sayyed disagreed, saying it was in Khwab-i-Gul Pareshan Hain. “Is it my book or yours,?” Faraz retorted in his signature style. “It’s your book, sir, but I know where the couplet is,” Nasir insisted. Faraz asked for recording to be paused and checked the books. He found that Nasir was right. He then autographed the book and gifted it to Nasir.

During Nasir’s conversation at the Hujra-i-Mir, a student asked, “You have written in three languages, Pashto, Urdu and Hindko; if someone asks you which one is your favourite language, what would you say?” I held my breath, waiting for the answer. But Nasir was calm, “The language of love, beta. That’s my favourite language,” he said. I inhaled and laughed. In that moment, I also realised how time spent with one’s elders is always well spent. I also recalled the Nigerian poet and novelist Chinua Achebe who once said, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

Hujra has played a key role in the socio-cultural life of the Pashtuns. It was not just a guesthouse; it used to be a place for debate and deliberation, for reaching agreement and resolving conflict; and for sharing experiences and telling stories. It was a place for sharing happiness and pain, a centre for the dissemination and preservation of indigenous knowledge and wisdom.

Given the rapid urbanisation and global transformations, many of our youths are on the one hand not consuming enough knowledge from new and on the other not benefiting from traditional sources like learning from their elders. This has resulted in increasing polarisation and intolerance. One hears about people making and breaking friendships, even marriages, over political or religious affiliation. The verbal argy-bargy and physical scuffles spread from public transport to live TV shows and parliamentary sessions and absurdities are treated like ‘quotable quotes’ on social media.

It is more urgent than ever before to revive the institution of hujra and the culture of community, belonging, mutual respect and polite disagreement that it helps nurture.

The 3rd edition of PLF ran from February 21 to March 02, making it perhaps the country’s longest literature festival.

The writer has a background in English literature, history and politics. He can be reached at and at X @nadeemkwrites

Reviving the hujra culture