“They will shoot us”G
Having traveled to more than 60 countries around the world at the age of 21, I thought I had seen it all. Nothing could no longer surprise me and after having spent nearly a year and a half of my life in Pakistan, culture shocks seemed to be a thing of the past for me – at least that’s what I thought until I stepped foot onto the mysterious tribal areas of Punjab, Pakistan.
The tribal areas of Punjab turned out to be nothing like anything I have ever experienced before. Forgotten or ignored by most, the tribal areas are completely different from the rest of Punjab. Its people still adhere to centuries-old traditions, show utmost obedience to their tribal chiefs, and value nothing more than respect, loyalty, and bravery.
It is no surprise that most Pakistanis would be afraid to step foot on this mysterious land characterized by a hostile climate, limited state control, unconditionally brave tribesmen, and thousands of guns. However, it is these tribal areas where you will find the most pure-hearted men and the best preserved aspects of traditional Baloch tribal culture.
While it is not possible to express my true feelings through words, I decided to write down my experience of visiting the tribal areas of Punjab in the hope you may get a sense of the immense culture shock I experienced in this secluded land.
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What Are The Tribal Areas of Pakistan?
In essence, the meaning of ‘tribal areas’ in Pakistan is a semi-autonomous region in majority Baloch or Pashtun* areas that follows the ancient Tumandari System (tribal system). In the Tumandari System, the Tumandar (chief of a Baloch or Pashtun tribe, addressed with the honorific ‘Sardar‘) privately rules over an area of land in a feudalist manner. Farmers and other common people work on this land as serfs, meaning they can use the land to support themselves but like all tribal men they are subject to the Tumandar’s authority. Other than taking care of his land and tribe, it is the Tumandar’s job to manage relations with the government as well as other tribes and participate in the politics of the region. Tribal matters such as elections or criminal cases are handled by the convention of a Jirga, an assembly of tribal leaders that makes decisions based on traditional Baloch or Pashtun cultural values instead of Pakistani law.
Officially, the Tumandari System has been abolished in recent decades and the tribal areas, used as a cultural rather than legal term, are now fully integrated into their respective provinces’ jurisdictions and adhere to the Pakistani penal code. In practice, however, jirgas are still commonplace in many tribal areas and tumandars still have full control over their serfs. Most tumandars cooperate with the Pakistani government and their land serves as a buffer zone to protect the provinces from anti-state activities.
*Baloch and Pashtun are ethnic groups that live mainly in the western half of Pakistan, as well as parts of Afghanistan and Iran.
Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) V.s. Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA)
Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) is still a well-known term among most Pakistanis. Until 2018, FATA was used to describe an area of seven Pashtun tribal agencies and six frontier regions between the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan Provinces as well as Afghanistan. The region was under direct control of the Pakistani federal government in a special mandate and not part of any province. Following an amendment to the constitution, FATA eventually integrated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province and the term is no longer used today.
Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), on the other hand, is used to describe tribal land that is controlled by a special mandate of the province’s governor instead of a provincial assembly. Like FATA, the PATA were officially integrated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Punjab Provinces, respectively, and officially the term is no longer used.
Where In Pakistan Are Tribal Areas Found?
Pakistan’s tribal areas are located in the western half of the country where a majority of Baloch or Pashtun live. They are found in the northeast of Balochistan Province (+Dalbandin in the west), west and north of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, as well as a small strip in the southwestern-most corner of Punjab Province, starting at the foothills of the Koh e Sulaiman mountain range. The region around the Koh e Sulaiman is especially characterized by tribal culture.
About The Tribal Areas of Punjab, Pakistan
While nearly every Pakistani has heard of the tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, few people know about the tribal areas of Punjab Province. The tribal areas of Punjab make up a stretch of 10,350 square-kilometers along the border of Punjab Province with Balochistan Province. They are exclusively found in the southwestern districts of Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur, in the desert and mountains west of the Indus River.
The tribal areas of Punjab are inhabited by approximately 200,000 members of various Sulaimani Baloch tribes. The clans present in the area include Tuman Qaisrani, Tuman Khetran, Tuman Buzdar, Tuman Lund, Tuman Khosa, Tuman Leghari, Tuman Gurchani, Tuman Dareshak, and Tuman Mazari. While the land is officially part of Punjab Province, the culture is the exact same as in the neighboring Balochistan, which is why I oftentimes unofficially refer to this region as ‘Balochistan’. The main languages spoken in this region are Saraiki and Balochi and the region is dominated by traditional Baloch tribal culture.
The tribal areas of Punjab are an important buffer zone that needs to be tightly controlled to keep the rest of Punjab safe. While some areas to the west offer refuge to anti-state groups, the chiefs of Punjab’s tribal areas cooperate closely with the government to ensure that no opponents enter the mainland. Therefore, while some tribal areas like Tuman Laghari (Fort Munro) are open for visitors, others are highly restricted and no outsider can enter without permission.
My Astonishing Visit To The Tribal Areas of Punjab
After this brief introduction to the concept, I will now share my own story about my visit to the tribal areas of Punjab. Out of personal preference, I decided to change the names of all people involved in this story.
Welcome To Rajanpur
I briefly visited Rajanpur in transit last year and to be very honest, this small town in southwestern Punjab did not leave the most exciting impression in my mind. Rajanpur appeared to be a small sleepy town surrounded by nothing but green fields, goats, and men who stare a lot. Yet even back then, I noticed there was something different about this area. Perhaps it was the local women’s dress – a cone-shaped, white, face fully covering burqa that closely resembles a Badminton shuttlecock – or the white turbans which every single one of the elderly men in town wore with pride, something in this area convinced me that the desert and mountains east of the river were hiding some great mysteries.
When a new Rajanpuri friend named G invited me to spend a few days in his hometown this summer, I felt conflicted at first. On the one hand, Rajanpur appeared to be nothing but a small hamlet in the middle of nowhere, located in an obscure part of the country that most Pakistanis have either never heard of or have zero plans of visiting. On the other hand, I remembered the mysterious vibe I experienced when I passed through the area and thought there might be more to it. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give Rajanpur another try.
The next couple of days were filled with lots of fun and adventure as my friend and I traveled on bike to all the famous places in South Punjab and spent quality time with his friends and family. Yet in between all jokes and lightheartedness, there were some moments that felt strange, mysterious, or downright disturbing to me…
Not So Sweet Revenge
I experienced my first major culture shock when I joined a group of men on a trip to Fort Munro, a relatively well-known hill station in a tribal area in the Mountains of Sulaiman west of Dera Ghazi Khan City. The men, named F, N, and K, were all about my age, 19 to 20 years old, either studying at some local university or running their own businesses. They were driving a nice, big car, taking lots of photos, and overall pleasant to be around.
We spent the day sightseeing and fooling around like all the other tourists in Fort Munro. Just as we got back into the car at the end of our tour, three local men on a motorcycle started circling around us and staring intensively, then they quickly drove off. My companions started discussing in Saraiki, then F turned around to me and explained:
“Those men were keeping an eye on us because they are our enemies. Then they saw you in the car, so they left.”
With a puzzled look on my face, I asked him to provide more context, so he clarified:
“They are our enemies because N’s younger brother shot someone from their tribe.”
As my jaw visibly dropped in disbelief, F quickly added:
“The murder was justified, though. Someone from that tribe violated N’s friend, so they killed another person from their tribe in revenge.”
That’s when I realized we were dealing with blood revenge. This ancient tradition that until recently has been practiced in various tribal societies across Eurasia was still alive in the Mountains of Sulaiman. Blood revenge is a practice of seeking retaliation from another tribe that has done injustice to one’s own tribe through the killing of one of their tribal men, regardless of whether the person himself had committed the injustice or not. This practice only applies to adult men whereas women and children must not be harmed.
“They didn’t do anything to us because they saw that we were with a woman. If you hadn’t been there, perhaps there would have been a fight,” F said nonchalantly while wiping dust off of his Kalashnikov.
It wasn’t the fact that I was hanging out with people who had committed homicide that disturbed me. What really disturbed me was the fact that the men were talking about the deliberate loss of life as if it was the most normal thing in the world! Tribal men appear to be merely pawns in a game of chess between tribes, their lives could end at any moment yet they do not fear as death by bullet would automatically make them heroes.
(Actually, take that back. What disturbed me the most was that the men just cheerfully went on to laugh and joke after this incident as if nothing had happened. There was not the slightest hint of fear in their voices after nearly getting into an armed fight with their enemies that might have costed them their lives.)
Happily Ever After?
Another major culture shock occurred when I first met the chieftain of my friend G’s tribe, Sardar S. A big, bubbly man with a bright smile on his face, Sardar S seemed like the type of person who would never let you stop laughing while you’re around him. As the chief of his tribe, there is no doubt that Sardar S is a highly respected and influential man but his warm attitude immediately drew me in and made me feel comfortable enough to be my giggly, foolish self in his presence.
During our first meeting with the tumandar, G and I were joking about a handsome man named M whom we met during one of our trips. He was from a different tribe from a different area but he was the same age as me and incredibly popular with the city girls. G and I kept mentioning his name and giggling, which caught the chief’s attention, so he turned around and said to me:
“If you like M this much then I can get you married to him. Just tell me yes or no.”
As G translated his chief’s words for me, I kept on laughing at what appeared to be an obvious joke. However, Sardar S returned an unusually serious look to me and said in a stern voice:
“You haven’t answered my question yet. Just tell me, yes or no.”
It was this moment when I felt the tumandar’s true powerful aura for the first time. Behind his bright smile, Sardar S was hiding unchallenged authority. He has two faces that he can swap from one instance to the other depending on the situation.
“You haven’t answered his question yet,” G nudgingly reminded me. “Our chief is waiting for your answer!”
I couldn’t believe Sardar S had just made a serious offer to me. In a state of utter confusion, I asked G:
“What if M doesn’t like me? How do you know if he actually wants to marry me? And what if his family is against this marriage?”
“It doesn’t matter,” G assured me. “Sardar S is so powerful, nobody dares to disobey him. Whatever he says will be done.”
I politely told Sardar S I needed more time to think about his offer, while deep inside I was in a profound state of shock. The destiny of thousands of people lies in the hands of this big, bubbly man with a bright smile on his face and whenever he wants, he can turn their lives upside down like a house of cards.
There are many more culture shocks I’ve experienced during my visit to the tribal areas of Punjab, these are just two noteworthy examples.
A Trip To The Mountains
I ended up spending nearly two weeks living with G’s family in Rajanpur. After visiting many more places than originally planned, I was in a hurry to continue my onward journey. After all, I was planning to make it to Iran before my visa expired. However, there was one thing I didn’t want to miss out on while in Rajanpur: a visit to G’s tribal land, a.k.a. a “trip to the mountains”.
Traveling to the mountains in summer turned out to be no easy feat due to the scorching temperatures in the mountains. Unlike Fort Munro, the mountains on G’s tribal land are very shallow and arid peaks that trap the heat of the surrounding desert rather than relieving it. The resulting daytime temperatures of over 50°C are not only a threat to human life but also to car machinery, including air conditioning. The locals completely avoid traveling to their land in summer, but they eventually decided to make an exception for me because visiting the tribal areas of Punjab was a must.
I was overjoyed when G told me we were going on a “trip to the mountains” but perhaps I was a little unprepared as well. Expecting just some fun time out hunting and enjoying the scenery, I had no idea this trip would be a Tribal Culture 101 crash course for me. Innocently, I watched Sardar S’s servants as they were loading drinks, snacks, and dozens of guns into his huge Land Rover. I admired the beautiful sunset from the comfort of the air-conditioned car as we left the small dust road west of town and continued off-road into the middle of the desert.
Throughout the journey, I was exchanging laughs and jokes with G and his family, while villagers appeared out of the darkness to greet Sardar S. They were all his serfs; farmers who live on this private land with their families and sustain themselves by hunting, livestock farming, and whatever limited agriculture is possible on this barren land. In exchange for using his land, the serfs show unlimited respect to Sardar S, who returns the sentiment to his people. Nonetheless, his authority is unchallenged on this land.
Two hours later, we reached a small hut in the middle of nowhere. Some serfs welcomed us and promptly prepared milk tea on a fire fueled by dry twigs. They arranged a couple of charpai* outside of the hut, around which we all gathered. While Sardar S was conversing with his serfs in Saraiki, G showed me around the facilities, which included a water filtration plant, a large swimming pool, and solar panels that provided electricity. There was no cellular signal available anywhere in the tribal area, so the men spent all evening talking, laughing, and stargazing, with their guns close to their bodies at all times. As for myself, I was very tired, so I just made myself comfortable on my charpai, covered up with a scarf, and fell asleep under a million stars.
*charpai: traditional Pakistani bed consisting of a wooden frame with strings woven between the top frame to create a soft surface
The next morning, I woke up to the first, soft sunrays of the day and distant donkey squeaks. It was mere 40°C at the time. Sardar S was already fully dressed with his gun full of fresh bullets and rushed us all to get ready quickly so we could head to the mountains before midday when the temperature cross the 50°C mark. He warned us the day before two local children had died from heatstroke, a common occurrence in a remote desert area without access to any sort of medical care whatsoever. Although unlike the serfs we had air-conditioning in our car, modern technology fails easily in this scorching heat. As we drove by a large graveyard in the middle of the desert, I was once again reminded that survival is not a given in a place as unforgiving as the tribal areas of Punjab.
Not far from the tumandar’s hut, the Mountains of Sulaiman began to arise from the desert. To my surprise, the peaks were indeed very shallow and extremely arid. As we got out of the car, hot, dry air hit my face like an oven. No wonder the women of this area all wear full-face covers. We only spent a few minutes at a viewpoint in the mountains taking photos and firing some air shots until we got back into the car and drove down to the desert and back towards Rajanpur.
I honestly felt a little disappointed. Really, is this it,? I was wondering. Was this our “trip to the mountains”?
“Why didn’t we go any further into the mountains?” I eventually asked.
“Because after that point our enemy’s territory starts,” G dryly replied.
Confused, I asked him to elaborate, to which G explained that after that point, his tribe’s territory ends and a different tribe’s territory begins. G’s tribe has had a long feud with its neighbors and fought bloody wars to defend their land. The last battle occurred about a decade ago, after one of the enemies entered G’s tribal land. Attacks can happen unprovoked at any time, which is why tribal men like G and Sardar S carry fully loaded guns at all times, even to bed.
“What happens if you enter the enemy territory?” I curiously asked G.
“We never go there,” he firmly said.
“I mean, what happens if you did?” I kept pushing for an answer.
Without a thought, he replied: “They will shoot us.”
This is when I realized that visiting the tribal areas of Punjab is no joke. Not because of the heat, the lack of infrastructure, or venomous snakes, but because the tribal areas of Punjab are as tribal as it can get. I learned that if it wasn’t for Sardar S, I would have never been able to set foot on this land since outsiders are not allowed to enter this remote land – after all, how can the tribal men assure you are not an enemy?
Once again, I was very shocked and unsettled. However, no negative sensation stays for long when surrounded by Sardar S and his entertaining family. I may have been the only woman in the middle of a hot desert surrounded by men with fully loaded guns, under the constant threat of enemies, yet I didn’t feel any fear. I knew that I was in good hands because tribal men are the most honorable and noble-spirited men. In a world that gets more corrupted with each day, Baloch tribal men still adhere to their ancient cultural values. The inhospitable climate of Koh e Sulaiman shelters their land from all outside influences, making the tribal areas of Punjab, or Balochistan, one of the most pristine places on earth.
Conclusion: My Thoughts After Visiting The Tribal Areas of Punjab
Many thoughts went through my mind after visiting the tribal areas of Punjab. Throughout my entire lifetime, I had never encountered a culture as different as the tribal culture of Koh e Sulaiman. I saw many things that would be considered controversial in the culture I was raised in. Why are there no women outside? Why does every man carry a gun? Why don’t the tribal people value life and promote violence?
While I believe travelers have every right to be shocked, we must not judge. After all, who are we to decide what’s wrong or right? Life in the tribal areas of Punjab isn’t easy by any means, yet there are hundreds of thousands of people who live it every day. They know their origins, their land, their culture, their values better than anyone else. They respect the outside world and honor their guests. They will never harm a soul without a reason. What happens amongst them is dictated by their culture and all we should do is respect it.
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