This blog was originally posted on the Hubert Humphrey Fellows’ blog at the University of Maryland.
You might have heard of the old-fashioned and traditional Amish community in the United States, but not of Maidanwall in tribal areas of Pakistan. The Amish and the Maidanwall have many things in common. Like the Amish, the Maidanwall strongly believe in family, community, tradition and religion and they both live under a set of certain rules that dictate all aspects of their life.
Maidanwall are the people who live in Maidan, the far-flung region of the picturesque Tirah Valley in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency bordering Afghanistan. For centuries Maidanwall rejected the use of modern facilities including electricity, roads, the internet, mobile phones, television, etc. Maidan looked like an ancient small Greek state which was totally different and disconnected from the rest of Pakistan. It has long been governed by local tribes through unwritten traditions and customs.
These tribes have always resisted the construction of roads by the government to connect the Maidan valley with the rest of Khyber Agency and different parts of the country. They didn’t want outsiders—meaning the federal government of Pakistan, to enter and rule the area. They feared that the extension of the government will end their self-governing system, independence, culture and tradition. Maidanwall are the people who live in Maidan, the far-flung region of the picturesque Tirah Valley in the semi-autonomous Khyber Agency bordering Afghanistan. For centuries Maidanwall rejected the use of modern facilities including electricity, roads, the internet, mobile phones, television, etc. Maidan looked like an ancient small Greek state which was totally different and disconnected from the rest of Pakistan. It has long been governed by local tribes through unwritten traditions and customs.
Both my parents were born and raised in Maidan, but due to lack of job opportunities some five decades earlier they moved to Plain Bara, a few miles away from Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province.
I remember when I was at school, I used to go to Maidan during our summer vacations to avoid the sizzling heat in Plain Bara. The distance between the two areas is around 48 miles, but due to the absence of roads we had to travel in buses and vans for five hours to reach the valley and walk for four hours via hilly routes.
In the absence of roads in Maidan, the main sources of transportation are mules, horses, donkeys and camels. Recently one of my distant relatives who came to Bara for medical treatment was taken by my brother to the hospital. While coming out from the car, he tried to get out through the window of the vehicle because he had never travelled in a car before.
The Maidanwall have opposed government efforts to install electricity lines and poles in their area. For decades they used lanterns and gas lamps as the main source of light, but now they started using solar power and power generators. In the absence of roads in Maidan, the main sources of transportation are mules, horses, donkeys and camels. Recently one of my distant relatives who came to Bara for medical treatment was taken by my brother to the hospital. While coming out from the car, he tried to get out through the window of the vehicle because he had never travelled in a car before.
When the radio was introduced for the first time to Maidan in 1960, the local tribesmen rejected it and called it a source of vice. The local tribesmen arrested the owner and shot the radio in the presence of a huge gathering in Bagh, a central place of assembly in Maidan. They have changed their minds since and radio is the most popular—and only—source of information in the area.
The tribal council of elders, or Jirga, banned the use of TV in the valley and would fine those in violation. The elders say that watching TV poses great threat to the very existence of their culture and say it is against the teachings of Islam. (Interestingly, a few years back one of my aunts came to our house in Bara and, while watching a drama on TV, suddenly covered her face with a scarf, saying that the man in the play was staring at her.)
Likewise, taking photos and making films is also banned. Whenever I visit Maidan, I am cautioned by my relatives against taking photos in public places, because it’s a violation of local traditions.
Wearing a cap is a traditional requirement for male teenagers and adults living in Maidan. Before entering the area, outsiders like me used to buy a new cap at the entrance points. If someone was found not wearing a cap, he would not only be fined but also laughed at by locals. It happened to me quite a few times and it was hurtful.
The Maidanwall have always encouraged intra-community and intra-tribe marriages. Getting married to an outside girl was difficult for a Maidanwall man, but it was almost impossible for a local girl to marry a non-local man. John Butt, a British Muslim convert, stayed in Maidan for three years during the 1970s. A local tribesman promised to give Butt his daughter’s hand. After finding out about this, the tribe burned his house for agreeing to marry his daughter to a non-local.
Both the Amish and the Maidanwall value family over an individual and community over a family. But unlike the Amish, under tribal traditions a whole family can be punished for a crime committed by one of its members.
Similarly, common Maindanwall and Amish can read their holy books, the Quran and the Bible, but they do not understand them because they are written in Arabic and old German dialect respectively. They blindly follow their religious leaders without questioning their authority, thinking that disagreeing with their opinions is equal to opposing the religion. People who come with a different interpretation of religion or who violate the code of life are excommunicated or shunned.
In Maidan each and every village has a mosque where men offer congregational prayers five times a day, led by a clergyman or imam. The children of the village go to the mosque in the evening and morning to learn the Holy Quran from the imam who lives in the mosque. Each family in the village is responsible for feeding the cleric in their turn, and each pays a nominal amount of money to him every month.
Like the Amish, the Maidanwall physically help their neighbors in the construction of houses and in sowing and reaping the crops. The Maidanwall plow the fields with oxen instead of tractors.
Wearing plain clothes is equally common among men and women of the Maiden valley. Men tend to sport beards and long hair, but unlike the Amish, Maidenwall tribesmen do not like to shave their mustache. The women bare their faces, but strictly cover their bodies and put scarves on their heads, just like the Amish women.
Typically, the wife in both cultures is submissive to her husband, who is the head of the family. He is responsible for buying food, clothes and meeting other financial needs of the family. Women are given the task of raising children and doing all the housekeeping. Sometimes women support their men in farming and take care of livestock.
They don’t believe in family planning, which they think is against their religion and believe that producing more children is equal to pleasing of God and supporting their families. As opposed to the Amish, the Maidanwall prefer boys over girls in a male-dominated tribal society where family strength is measured by the number of male members.
Tribal women living in the hilly green Maidan areas fetch drinking and washing water in pots on their heads from the nearby springs. Women in both communities wash clothes with their hands and hang them on a clothesline in the yard to get dry. In both Amish and Maidanwall communities, the family members have meals together and pray to God for blessing before or after the meal.
Another common thing between the two cultures is the level of formal education. In the absence of government schools, the Maidanwall have established their own schools where male students are taught till eight grade. The parents think that studying until grade eight is enough education for their male children, who are supposed to assist their family in farming and other small businesses. However, they do not send their daughters to school, because of the lack of trained female teachers and the fact that such public role for women is not accepted.
Since 2001, the global war on terror has drastically changed the lives of the Maidanwall and they are no longer able to protect their culture and values. I hope that despite all these changes, like the Amish, Maidanwall will persevere and that some of the traditions will continue with the new generations.