John Keats says that “a proverb is no proverb to you until life has illustrated it.” Indeed, excellent proverbs and maxims continue to remain in vogue centuries and millennia after they have been first used because they stand the test of time and life, and often of space. As Keats stated, the appeal of a proverb is its agelessness and relatability to the changing times and to the life of individuals and nations through eras.
As a lifelong connoisseur of proverbs, aphorisms and maxims, I was elated when my dear friend Akbar S Ahmed shared with me his book ‘Mataloona and Mizh – Pukhtun Proverbs and A Frontier Classic’.
As an intellectual Akbar needs no introduction. He is arguably the most influential Pakistani intellectual of our age. He has been recognized by international organizations and has spoken to academic and political crowds across the globe. However, what impresses me most is the fact that, while he addresses issues and questions of global importance, he does so by remaining tied to his roots – and this book is a testament to the same.
Pashto proverbs, like the proverbs of all ancient cultures, reflect the wisdom of the culture and people they represent. The book brings these proverbs to an audience that is often subjected to a view of Pashtuns as a hotheaded and stubborn group of people. The book shares a number of Pashto proverbs or mataloona, translates them in English and explains their intended meanings.
Some of my personal favorite proverbs find place in the books. For instance, the proverb ‘Pa salo mai marr kray, pa yao mai par ma kray’, which Akbar succinctly translates as “(Oh God) kill me by a hundred (men) but let me not be ashamed for one.” The pithy aphorism explains how personal integrity should be a more important concern for a person than the fear of personal or material loss. This also reminds me of one of my favorite Chinese proverbs: “If you do not want anyone to find out, don’t do it.”
Another proverb that I enjoy for its historicity is ‘Khpal khpal di. Pradi Mughul di’, which Akbar has translated as “Comrades are comrades, but outsiders (strangers) are Mughuls [sic].” On the one hand, this proverb makes a reference to the often-violent rivalry of Pashtuns resisting Mughal hegemony with other Pashtuns who occasionally sided with the Mughals and the Mughal empire. On the other hand, it reflects the centrality of kinship and unity to a tribal society.
Similarly, another proverb warns of the perils of passing judgments on others: ‘Ghalbail pasi, kozay ta waee tha kay dwa sori di’, or as translated “the sieve rose and said to the water-pot: ‘you have two holes in you’”.
I find it particularly serendipitous that the book Mataloona comes together with a monograph titled Mizh. Mizh was written by Evelyn Howell who was posted as a political agent in South Waziristan after the death of his predecessor in 1905. Mizh primarily recounts Howell’s dealing with the Mehsud tribe during his tenure.
The foreword to the Mizh is penned by Professor Akbar and he highly recommends reading it. And I will take his word for book recommendations on the erstwhile tribal areas since Akbar himself later served with distinction in the region. However, what I found more intriguing about the monograph is how little I had previously heard about it.
In the Foreword to the book, Akbar explains the relative obscurity of the monograph. He mentions that the remaining 150 copies of the account were mostly stashed away in government offices until they were recently republished with the help of the provincial government of the erstwhile NWFP. It is for this reason that some of the standard academic accounts of the region fail to mention this very important account of the region.
In our last meeting on his previous visit to Pakistan, Akbar S Ahmed spoke of how he feels a level of frustration regarding how the region and its people are understood by outsiders – not only by those living outside of Pakistan but even by the Pakistani state. We agreed that, rather than understanding the complexity of the region and the people that inhabit it, the outside world has somehow decided to agree that the best way to deal with the region is to view it as an ungovernable, lawless space. However, it makes me happy that Akbar, like other great individuals, is able to channel that frustration into productivity.
By bringing to our attention the two volumes, he compels us to ponder deeper about the Pashtun region. For the last many decades, the Pashtun region appears to be in a constant turmoil. However, there is a lot in the region that remains relatively stable. I believe scholars, students and those interested in the region will appreciate the unnoticed and overlooked aspects of the region by reading the two volumes.
The writer has served as thevice-chancellor of the University ofPeshawar, and chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology.Qibla Ayaz, "Mataloona and Mizh," The News. 2021-01-26.
Keywords: Literature , Pushto proverb , Academic accounts , Pakistani intellectual , Academic crowd , Political crowds , Mughal hegemony , Mughal empire