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The Pushtuns
By Cassandra Nelson

Seated with the General (first row, fourth from the right) are the headmasters of Khewa. All are Pushtuns and are wearing the traditional pukul hat. (Photo: Cassandra Nelson)
Little is known about the Pushtun people before the 15th century, except that these Afghans were tough and fierce people by nature. They were greatly feared and respected in the region. Today, their undying loyalty to their tribe and independence defines them as a people.

"I am a Pushtun first, a Muslim second, and an Afghan third," states General Sayed Agha, a village elder of Khewa, a typical Pushtun village in eastern Afghanistan. "I live by my tribe's code, my children live by this code, and so will my grandchildren and future generations."

The Pushtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising at least 40 percent of the country's population. The Pushtun heartland extends along the eastern and southern Afghanistan border, from Nuristan in the north down to the southern provinces around Qandahar. The Tajiks, who live mainly in northern Afghanistan, make up the second-largest ethnic group with about 25 percent of the population. The Hazara, a tribe of mixed Mongol origin, makeup 18 percent of the population. They are followed by the Uzbeks (6 percent); the Turkmen (2.5 percent); the Qizilbash (one percent); and other small tribes.

Tensions between the groups—from petty squabbles to feuds—can last for generations. These conflicts are typically over issues concerning competition for property and natural resources.

General Sayed Agha is an imposing figure. He is tall, heavyset, and wears a pukul (a flat, round wool cap that is characteristic of the Pushtuns) and a white shalwar kameez (loose fitting pants and a long shirt falling below the knees). His full beard is beginning to turn white, a sign of respect.

The General explains with great pride that Pushtuns are different from other tribes. Pushtuns can be identified by three major traits: their language (Pashto); their lineage (they consider themselves descended from one founding ancestor); and their code of honor, called pushtunwali. It is a legal and moral code covering issues of honor (namuz), solidarity (nang), hospitality (melmastai), and shame and revenge (badal). "For a Pushtun, the defense of namuz, even unto death, is required," says the General.

This fierce loyalty to their tribe and the pushtunwali often conflicts with the rules set forth in Islam, but whenever the two disagree, tradition of the tribe wins. Thus, they remain Pushtuns above all else.