Field Studies

Anthropology of Wakhan: Fieldwork Report 2007 (Summer Trip)

June 27, 2018

By Fazal Amin Beg
1. Background
I visited Afghanistan in 2007 and lived in Kabul for nearly a month in two trips but the focus of my academic mission was on Wakhan valley of Badakhshan province. For the first time, I visited Afghanistan in Spring 2007 (March-May).The important parts of the report of my Wakhan Mission of Afghanistan (Spring 2007) I published already on this website. This particular report is about my second trip to Afghanistan focused on Wakhan district that I had made in summer-Autum (August and September).
In more than a decade’s period, changes must have occurred in Afghan Wakhan. The reports of my Wakhan mission 2007 may provide an opportunity for the related stakeholders to look see it cross on the phenomemon in a comparative context in some ways.
A huge documentation in result of the fieldwork on diferent thematic areas on Wakhi community of Wakhan I had made. Let’s hope for the best that gradual progress comes up in academic terms if I could get an enabling environment as due to the worst disabling environment and intellectual exploitation I have been encountering at various scales. Consequently, I’m restrained and compelled to contribute productively and effectively in the academic and development world out of the massive data collection from different geographical locations at the crossroads of Central and South Asia.
2. Introduction
The Wakhan valley, naturally divided by the Amu and Panj rivers, is located in the extreme northeast of Afghanistan and in south of Tajikistan. More than a century ago, the natural boundary of the rives, was made a permanent the political boundary between the two state systems now called Afghan Wakhan and Tajik Wakhan. The Afghan Wakhan is at present is a Wuluswoli (district) within the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. To the east of Wakhan is the Tashkurhan Tajik Autonomous County of China, while to its south lie the frontier valleys of Hunza, Ishkoman (Qarumbar) and Brughel (Yarkhun) within the Northern Pakistan.
Wakhan district, having the population of almost 15,000 peoples, is spread over an area of more or less 220 km in its length. The demographic composition of the district comprises on the predominant Wakhi Pamiri ethno-linguistic group. This ethno-linguistic community in Wakhan are basically agro-pastoral and they belong to the Shia Ismaili faith in Islam. Side by side with the Wakhis, to the east in the Pamirs also live a sizable number of Kirghiz Turks—basically nomadic/pastoral community— belonging to the Sunni faith in Islam. In addition, at present (September 2007), around 25 households (in families) of Badakhshi, Afghan (i.e., Pashtun) and Uzbek communities (all affiliated with the Sunni faith) also live in Wakhan on permanent basis, especially in Khandud (originally as K̃hũndũt), the headquarters of Wakhan.
After the Russian invasion in Afghanistan, the strategic Wakhan district became accessible by vehicles that was linked to its west and south within Afghanistan and to the north with Tajikistan. Wakhan has, like the entire Badakhshan, non-carpeted road infrastructure up to the Sarhad-e Brughel, the last Wakhi settlement before ascending towards the Pamirs. It was disheartening to note that, like the Pamirs, there are three settlements (two village &a hamlet) so far , called Vust, Rurung and Morabar, which haven’t got yet road accesss for vehicles linked with the main Wakhan Road.
In spring 2007 (March-April), for the first time, I made a field visit up to the last settlement of the Wakhan Wuluswoli in order to have a cultural exchange and provide conservation education, which remained very successful indeed. After three months interval, along with my physical assistant, I had the second field trip/visit (August-September) in order to have a follow up of the cultural study made in spring. This brief report, therefore, focuses on the summer-Autumn field visit, although some initial findings have also been imparted in it.
1.1 Objectives of the Field Trip
The summer trip/visit had the following key objectives:

i) Have a cultural exchange in Wakhan and share views and experiences with the community on societal change & development;
ii) Explore the kinship relationships of the Wakhi community and see/trace the kinship relationships with the respective community members living in Tajikistan, Pakistan and China;
iii) Collect different accounts on the heritages such as archaeological sites and raise awareness on conservation education in line with cultural expressions, wildlife and the like,
1.2 Methodology
Around the above specified objectives, I collected the data from the field through key informant interviews (KIIs), focus group discussions (FGDs), general discussions and also collected some records from the related offices.
For the purpose of developing friendly and effective relationships with the respondents and other related people, the following methods and techniques I brought in use.
(i) Book presents were given to the key informants / respondents and responsible personalities that indicated to them my academic background, pursuits and mission in Wakhan.
(ii) More open-ended questions were asked around the objectives than close ended questions in order to get more information on the subject.
(iii) Questions deemed more important were repeated from different angles in the middle of the interview in order to verify that from himself and see the nature of answer supporting his/her own description. This also provided an opportunity to the respondents to recover information, if s/he had forgotten anything.
(iv) Important questions/points were crosschecked from different respondents.
(v) Respondents & their children’s photographs were taken soon after getting each other introduced. Being a Wakhi, this led to build a nice rapport also.
(vi) As a Wakhi from Pakistan, taking interest in genealogies of the families was itself an effective tool for getting information.
(vii) Responsible persons’ accompanying me in the field was also a good tool as well.
In order to ensure capturing information adequately around the specified objectives, the following effective tools were brought into exercise:
i) The flexible checklists/interview guides I had prepared.
ii) Digital Voice Recorder (DVR). The respective DVR records for maximum 5 hours on extra high quality range.
iii) Acer Laptop. After filled up with the data, DVR was made empty by transferring the data on the laptop; and the works resumed.
iv) Digital Still Camera (DSC). Besides DVR, the DSC was also taken along in order to capture the attractive scenes and photogrphas of the respondents.
v) Flush disks/Data Traveler/Thumb Drive. After transfer of the data from the DVR to the laptop, the data was also copied on the flush disk (1 GB). It is noteworthy that problems came up with two of the flush disks(80 GB & 8 GB): one became defunct and the other lost somewhere in Lower Wakhan.
vi) Compact Disks (CDs (Recordable and Rewritable). After getting the data transferred on my laptop, the data were also recorded/copied on the compact disks.
vii) Non-Digital Cassette Recorder and Cassettes. The Wakhan district rather the entire Badakhshan has no electricity. Instead, some of the well-off community members, at the individual capacity, have either constructed/installed hydro-electric power stations or bought fuel consumption generators almost in all villages. However, the power/electricity is uncertain and cannot be trusted. Therefore, as an alternative, the non-digital cassette recorders and cassettes/tapes were also bought and carried along so that to reduce the risks of getting trouble in data collection. But fortunately, the need was not felt to record the data on this type of tool of data collection.
viii) Non-Digital Video Camera provided to me officially but this camera did not work properly. There was some problem with the battery that worked hardly for only five or ten minutes after getting it charged. Therefore, this was not used except for hardly half and hours’ program.
1.3 Modes of Travel during the Visit to Study Locale
For the purpose of reaching in the study locale, the following modes were taken in travel from Pakistan to Afghanistan and back:

i) Flew from Gilgit to Islamabad by the PIA.
ii) Drove from Islamabad to Turkhum Pass by a rented car and from there onward to Kabul another car was hired.
iii) Flew from Kabul to Faizabad by Ariana Airlines, though the planes are very exhaustive and great risks involve to travel with.
iv) Drove the same day from Faizabad to Wakhan by hiring a land-cruiser. It is significant to note the within the same day, we arrived from Kabul to Wakhan at evening, despite the fact that the road condition was very bad.
v) Drove from Khandud to the Sarhad-e Burughel in the car of the Tourism Department, Aga Khan Development Networks (AKDN). Thanks to Mahbub Aziz , head of the Toourism Departmen tfor his kind arrangement.
vi) After end of the festival in Chilkand, from the last villages we started our tasks, collecting data against the specified objectives, cited above, by hiring a vehicle, Toyota Surf of Wali Jon of Zudkhun. This vehicle brought us down to Khandud in five days, and its destination ended.
vii) We came down from Khandud to Ishkoshim in the ambulance of the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS), Afghanistan. Thanks to the kind Shughnani doctor of AKHS for his kidn favor, indeed.
viii) The next day, another car (Parado) I hired from Ishkoshim and restarted my mission from Pũter (distorted in Farsi/official record as Futur), the first village towards Wakhan after crossing Ishkoshim district. Then we drove up to Khandud and Yishmurgh. This vehicle remained with us for four days.
ix) From Ishkoshim down to Kabul, we drove in the vehicle of the Aga Khan Health Services, Afghanistan (AKHSA) because of the kind offer of Dr Nayamat Shah, the Country Director who was coming back from his visit to Wakhan.
x) From Kabul onward to Turkhum, we hired a taxi and from Turkhum to Islamabad in another taxi.
xi) From Islamabad to Gilgit, we flew by the PIA flight.

3. Cultural Exchange: Strengthening Linkages & Documenting the Descent Groups of Wakhan
Soon after arrival in Wakhan, we met peoples from different walks of life. Linkages established during the previous visit got strengthened in addition with creating new linkages. Experiences on societal development in Hunza valley & Wakhan valley were shared and compared mutually.
3.1. Participation in the cultural festival
As mentioned above that after two days of our arrival in Wakhan (Khandud), we went to Chilkand, one of the border villages and participated in the first ever initiative for the cultural festival arranged by the Tourism Section of the AKDN, Afghanistan. It should be noted that during my spring visit, I used to raise awareness among on the conservation of culture and language, besides other facets of societal conservation. Methods and mechanisms of conservation and promotion of the cultural facets were shown to the community, esp. the leaders & teachers, such as arrangement of festivals & poetical contests by sharing the Hunza Wakhi’s experiences and showing the people the film (in my laptop) of the cultural festivals organized and managed by the Wakhi Tajik Cultural Association (WTCA). In this way, many people in different walks of life (including teachers, community leaders, youth) were sensitized and encouraged towards such initiatives.
I was happy to know that after managing the Pamir Festival in the Pamir-e Khurd by the Tourism Department of AKDN, the Wakhi community of other parts has also shown their interest to organise such event in Wakhan among the Wakhi community. I was thus asked emphatically by some community leaders to participate in the festival and I needed to go there by honoring their suggestion.
3.2. Tracing the Kinship relationship among the Wakhi Community
This visit/trip also focused on one of the previous objectives in tracing the kinship relationships among the Wakhi community. But the nature of this time slightly differed. Previously, the main focus was on the kinship relationships within Wakhan. But his time, kinship, both patrilineal and matrilineal , was explored within Wakhan among different descent groups as well as their relationships, consanguine & affine, was also traced with the neighboring states: Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.
It was interesting to note that besides the linguistic affinity, the community of Wakhan have interwoven kinship relationships found in the four adjacent countries that make an internationally mountainous human-web. But unfortunately, the political boundaries among them have paralyzed this web for more than a century and champions of the human rights are silent spectators so far.
2.2.1 Tracing lineages & clans
From Pũtr to Chilkand & Sarhad-e Burughel, lineages & clan information were traced. Different category of persons know their lineage up to four or five generations back. One thing was noteworthy that the clan/lineage members know their kinspersons, particularly clan/lineage members, paternal & maternal, in the entire Wakhan wherever they could be. In addition, many know their immediate & distant kinspersons in Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. This indicates us one of the strongest bondage in kinship particularly in the paternal side, although maternal side is also valued in the same way. This can also be endorsed during the mate-selection preferences and processes for marriage.
In the social structure, I found more than forty clans in Wakhan. The most prominent, as Shirani notes but conservatively, are the Miron, Sayyed, Khũja, S̃hana, Khybari and K̃hiks). The native terms for the clan I found in varying degree among the community, that are kũtor (in Wakhi), guru (from Farsi), toyifa (from Arabic), and khel (from Pashtu).
However, when I asked about and verified their Kũtor/guru/toyifa/khel, they generally categorize themselves with the following names: Miron, Sayidon, Khujagon, S̃hana, Khaybari and Faqiron; but didn’t identify themselves with K̃hiks.
Miron are those who belong to the family of the ruling class, Sayidon are those whose lineages are directly connected with either the Prophet Muhammad or Hazrat Ali. Khũjagon are those who lineage reaches to Syayed Surob Wali, one of the Ismaili preachers (da’i/pir). S̃hana are those whose family have paternal relationship with the Mirs at a distant degrees of generations.
Khabari are descendants of Khaybar (apical ancestor of this clan group) came from a place called Khaybar (but the informants are not certain which part of Khyber) at the borders of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan, or in Arabia. But Khaybari also signifies that they are from the Wazir (ministerial) families of the Mir. Finally, Faqiron are those that were subjects of Mirs.
Even though, the above cited names are being narrated as clans in Wakhan, what I could understand that they aren’t in its actual essence as common clans or lineage groups. The above names represent more the social class than the clans itself.
Within these classes, there are certain amount of descent groups: clans or lineages. For example, Faqir has been the lower class community members, but not necessarily all Faqirs descend from one apical ancestor rather they are composed of enormous apical or referential ancestors coming from different areas or some as the aboriginals. Same also holds true for the S̃hana. We cannot lump all S̃hana together representing one descent group. Rather, they are interestingly coming down from different apical ancestors.
A point is also significant to note that in Wakhan there is a custom of honoring the bilateral kinship relationship. Reasons vary however for this interesting approach. One of the reasons could be elevating one’s status through tracing his or her lineages from both sides: paternal and maternal. This provides us also an insight into their balanced approach within the social structure and relationships whereby social harmonization could be anticipated and/or evidenced.
4. Narratives on Archaeological Sites
Although, during the previous visit, some narratives were collected from different categories of respondents; but this time again it was necessary to further consolidate the previous accounts and search out for newer ones.

In this regard, accounts were collected within the short span of time on some archeological sites such as the forts (e.g., Qaqa-e Qalha, shrines in different villages (e.g., that of Nosir-e Khusraw’s miracle place in Yimit), old graveyards (e.g., that of Rus Malek in K̃hũndũt), and the like. All the accounts I would bring forward preferentially.
3.1 Raising Awareness on Conservation of Culture and Nature
Apart from getting enormous interviews and collecting data, like the previous visit, awareness campaign was also raised specifically on conservation of culture and nature and the intimate relationship between both of them and their link with ecotourism development of the Wakhan valley. Furthermore, the significance of conservation of nature and culture vis-à-vis the peoples sustained lifestyles and their important for the coming generations.
3.2 Documentation of the Wakhi Folksongs
The spring visit paved the way in delving further in the Wakhan society. Around 25 folksongs were collected from the native speakers, and some singers were new, of course. Among these singers, 2 were old-men, called Mastek (89 years old)from Avgarch and Loghar (72) from Wũzed.
It is also significant that I was privileged to record the Bũlbũlik , for the first time, from the women singers themselves in Wakhan (Kipkut village): two women and two girls that remained very much impressive though hard to distinguish the wordings at first glance. However, it should be noted that Bũlbũlik is women’s creativity and composition which is also is sung by male-folk singers.
3.3 Session on Wakhi Language
Even though, it was planned to take different sessions on Wakhi language orthography due to shortage of time, it became impossible. Despite the fact, the principals of Higher Secondary Schools (Lisa) of Khandud and Qozideh as well as the head-teacher of the Middle School Pũtr requested that trainings on the Wakhi language should be given to the teachers on priority next time when I will be in Wakhan again.
The progress on and Latino-Greek orthography of Wakhi language I shared with them in a session in the Lisa of Khandud and the teachers took keen interest in it.
5. Conclusions & Recommendations
5.1. Conclusions
En route to development, the Wuluswoli of Wakhan is in transitional phase. Different international organizations including agencies of the AKDN, UN’s agencies, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and others seem active in their development interventions with regard to their missions and purposes. Focus of the NGOs has come up, of course, though focused on socioeconomic development.
Besides, intensified detoxification campaign against and remedy to the opium addicts are underway, on the one hand. The opium traffickers, on the one hand, are proactive in their campaign to spread the products by marketing them among the community. Thus, there seems a race and wrestling between the detoxification and intoxicating groups.
Development in the cultural sector has now started with the initiative in documenting different facets of the Wakhan culture, as our own works reflect. Under the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), inventory work of some of the archaeological sites has been started now after looting of the sites. The tourism department under the AKDN took initiative in organizing the festival in the Pamir and on the demand of the Wakhi community a two-day festival was also organized in the upper Wakhan valley. Wakhan has the potentials and fertility in performing arts such as singing, music and dance, but they have not adequately explored yet and ignored.

Although, such progresses are taking place in the valley, more efforts need to be made keeping in view the holistic approach. The weak segments of Wakhan with special emphasis on people with disabilities and women are totally marginalized.
Bringing all positive facets (strengths) of Wakhan would create and turn into a great opportunity for the community in terms of their practical devilment, indeed.
5.2. Recommendations
The recommendations hereunder came up on the basis of the summer visit experiences and also suggestions made by the respondents.
1. On the demand of the teachers of the Higher Secondary Schools in Wakhan, at least five days session on the Wakhi language orthography would be imperative so that to give them training on the Wakhi language software (Keyman 6.2) also, which is now compatible on Windows XP. Last time, the teachers in Khandud school took keen interest in the software.
2. The schools in Wakhan, especially the three Higher Secondary Schools, need to be provided some computers. This would enable the teachers and students to learn and comprehend computer on the one hand, and learning the Wakhi orthography as part of the mother tongue literary program on the other.
3. Apart from the elders or community leaders and workers, there should also be cultural exchange visits/exposure trips of the Wakhi intellectuals, artistes community such as singers/folk-singers, musicians, dancers as well as the artisans to Pakistan, Tajikistan, China and vice versa.
4. The brilliant students from Wakhan needs to be supported financially and be provided scholarships to study abroad at least in their neighboring states such as Pakistan & Tajikistan.
5. Legal means and ways must be sought to facilitate the kinspersons from Afghan Wakhan and Tajik Wakhan so that they should see other who have been cut-off from each other for more than a century, and the nostalgia are found among them.
6. One way to facilitate the cut-off families and linguistic group of the Wakhan valley and to restore their kinship relationship can be to establish the common market/bazaar between the Afghan Wakhan and Tajik Wakhan probably in Pinja or other places on the Amu River just like Ishkoshim, Shughnon and Darwoz who meet each other weekly during the bozor-e Mushtarak (common bazaar).

I’m indebted to Dr. John Mock of University of California (Santa Cruze), The Christensen Fund (TCF) and CAT Foundation for their kind facilitation of my Summer trip 2007 to Afghanistan with special academic mission to Wakhan Valley within Badakhshan Province.
My special gratitude goes to Mr. Sayyid Shah Nasir Nadiri (then an Advisor of President Karzai and Wazir of His Highness the Aga Khan for Afghanistan for a productive meeting and sharing of thoughts in addition to his offer of lunch for us while in Kabul).
I’m so thankful to my Ghoroni friend Mr. Dolat Muhmmad Joshan for his kind company in Kabul and sharing his scholarly views and sweet poetry with me. I must acknowledge him again that it was Joshan who facilitated the meeting of mine with Sayyid Nasir Nadiri in Kabul.

I owe indebtedness to my young friend, Sayyid Talabuddin of Wakhan who kindly facilitated us in Kabul and accompined us via land route from Kabul to Faizabad, the Capital of Badakhshan Province.
I’d like to pay my sincere appreciation and gratitude to all my respected respondents and key informants for sharing their invaluable information with me during my fieldwork. Without their participation in the study, the fielwork would never have become successful.

I could never forget my friends, relatives, elders and all well-wishers within the Afghan homeland in or related with the fieldwork. My special thanks go to Mir Ali Wakhani, his great father Muhmmad Wali and entire family, Pir Shoh Langar and family, Pir Shoh Ismo’il and family, Wali Muhmmad and family, my late friend Tozagul Sozgor and his entire family (especially Jumagul Sozgor) Juma Kuhizod of Qozideh, Mu’owin Yaqubjon, Kamissar Juma of Khandud, Wahid khon, Wuloswol of Wakhan,my relativs within the Mir’s families, Qoziyon families, Khaybari families, Choqon Boy and family, Qach Big and family, Arbob Toshi Boy and family, and many other friends, relatives and colleagues for extending their helping hands towards me.
I cannot forget the kind help and facilitation of Dr. Nayamat Shah of AKHS Afghanistan, Mahbub Aziz of Tourism Department of AKDN, Inayat Ali of WCS Wakhan, Engineer Shukron of Government Culture Department of Badakhshan, and many other friends and officials within the Interior Ministery in Kabul, Afghan Tourism Organization (Kabul) and others.
I’m thankful to my friend, Muhammad Yar Baig of Gulmit, for his craze to go to Afghanistan to attend me as my “Physical Assistant” )keeping in view my visual impairment) who replaced my concerned friend Haydar Murad of Chipursan. It was this trip that proved a good omen for Yar Baig to get a job with the MicroFinance Bank (within AKDN)in Kabul and where he served for couples of years .

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1 Comment

  • Reply Gul Baig Wakhani March 15, 2019 at 12:29 am

    Nice sir we proud of you

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