Losing a cultural institution

January 23, 2022

The Hujra has lost much of its significance in the Pakhtun society; its revival is a mammoth task

Losing a cultural institution

Human societies are governed by norms, traditions, values and laws. The Pashtun community is governed by its cultural code, customs and values. An integral part of the Pashtun society is a common room known as hujra. The hujra serves as a fundamental institution of Pashtun culture in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

It is at a hujra that the youth learn the Pashtun way of life. The objective is to teach them how to live an honourable life. They learn to meet and greet friends and strangers, show respect to elders and guests, act and react in various situations, attend formal gatherings, make critical decisions and claim their place in the society. Pakhtunwali is the code of conduct of the Pakhtuns. It defines the norms of honour, courage, hospitality, asylum and respect. The spirit of Pakhtunwali can be infused among the young only through the institution of the hujra.

A hujra is a place where everybody, even enemies are protected and respected. Writer Ali Gohar quotes a former jirga member, Zardad Khan as saying: “Before the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when Hindus and Muslims were living together here in Maneri (a village in Swabi district), they regularly attended gatherings at the hujra. There was no electricity. When we were collecting donations of wheat for buying kerosene oil for the lamp kept in the hujra, the Hindus would offer their share without any hesitation.”

There is a common belief that one is not a Pakhtun without a hujra. Pakhtun intellectuals call it “a university for Pakhtuns“. There is a famous saying, that “a Pakhtun university graduate is no good if he has graduated from a hujra “. Poet Muqaddam Shah writes:

Hujra mi zandagi da zama university da

Baghar da dy Pakhtun na yam da sa Pakhtunwali da

(Hujra is my way of life and seat of learning;

it’s my identity that embodies my social yearning.)

Pakhtun culture and hujra are inseparable. The tradition is as old as Pakhtun history. In various parts of the Middle East, Pakhtun labourers have established their hujras, where they follow their traditions and customs.

Due to the strict adherence to purdah, a hujra serves only the male population in a neighbourhood. It has always been a centre of social and political activities. People meet here to exchange views on social, political and religious affairs. Wedding celebrations, mournings, banquets and traditional music shows are all held at the hujras. Most Pakhtuns passionately love rabab and sitar. Sipping qahwa (green tea) and enjoying the traditional music at a hujra were the great entertainment of the past that brought the young and the old together.

Pakhtun culture and the hujra go together. The tradition is as old as Pakhtun history. In many parts of the Middle East, Pakhtun labourers have established their hujras, where they continue to follow their traditions and customs.  

About 15 years ago, a female US diplomat, visiting Swabi district met with journalists at then special assistant to Balochistan chief minister on climate change and inter-provincial coordination Sitara Ayaz’s family’s hujra in Jhanda village. She asked a few questions about hujra. I told her, “only males sit and gather here.” After learning about the importance of hujra in the Pakhtun society, she remarked: “I wish to build a hujra for the local women.” I said: “Madam, you need to be aware of the Pakhtun culture. It is not possible to include females in a hujra gathering.“ She nodded her head to indicate that she understood.

When a visitor arrives at a hujra, he is served with free food and tea. He is also shown respect and offered accommodation. Pakhtuns take pride in their tradition of hospitality. They prefer to go hungry themselves as long as they can serve their guests. They are always willing to spend more than they can easily afford. If a dispute arises among some families, groups or tribes, Pakhtun elders assemble at the hujra to resolve it. Some of the elders might be illiterate but they have extraordinary skill in resolving thorny issues.

Hujra has long been a vehicle for peacebuilding and peacemaking. It adopts an indigenous mechanism to resolve issues of various nature through elders who provide free service. A Pakhtun does not feel so honoured in erecting a superb house for himself as he does in the construction of a conventional hujra.

The disappearance of the traditional hujra from some Pakhtun regions, including Peshawar, has led to the vanishing of the venue where jirga members used to gather and negotiate peaceful settlement of rivalries, saving precious lives, money and time.

Faiz Mohammad Kaka, 85, a jirga member in Swabi district has grown so frail that he cannot walk unassisted. He says, “diminishing of the hujra tradition is a sign of the decline of Pakhtun culture. Abandoning their traditions, values and culture for an alien culture cannot make them comfortable. Remember, a Pakhtun never feels comfortable in another culture. With the adaptation of foreign cultures, a Pakhtun’s life cycle becomes a futile exercise. He will face a culture shock.”

And yet, the hujra has already disappeared from several Pakhtun areas and is on the verge of collapse in others. Efforts by some Pakhtun intellectuals to revive the hujra have come to a dead-end. The few hujras that remain no longer command the strength, position and prestige they one did. Nevertheless, they hold some value among Pakhtuns as a part of their cultural legacy passed on from generation to generation.

The decline of hujra is due to three main reasons. First, it is no longer the main source of information and entertainment. Several sources of information and entertainment are now readily available to people of all ages. A mere click can get them whatever they desire. Families, therefore, no longer assign the importance to hujra they did in the past.

Second, people are now more inclined towards individualism. They prefer to remain aloof as materialism dominates most people’s approach to life. This has damaged the fabric of the traditional society. It has harmed not only the hujra culture but also relationships and brotherhood.

The third reason is militancy. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, 2,496 people were killed in KP and merged districts from 2007 to 2009. The displacement of Pakhtuns from their ancestral villages, rising violence, military operations and increasing incidents of extremism in KP have also affected the hujra culture. Terrorism has changed the landscape, infrastructure, culture and traditions. Migration to major cities and settling down in metropolises for acquiring contemporary education have also taken away from the hujra.

There is an urgent need for the Directorate of Culture to take extraordinarily practical steps for the revival of the hujra culture. The Pakhtun elites and politicians should play their role in this regard. The very survival and revival of the hujra is at stake.

The writer is a KP-based freelance journalist. His areas of interest are South Asian affairs and Afghanistan

Losing a cultural institution