Hujra is considered to be the most important part of the Pukhtoon culture. It can be loosely translated as a social club. From the western mountainous terrains of Pakistan to the heart of Afghanistan and throughout the world, where there are Pukhtoons, there exists the Hujra. Exclusively for the male population, it serves host to all parts of social life of the Pukhtoon society, from resolving internal community disputes to the ceremonies of wedding. Being prospered for centuries, the very existence of Hujra is threatened, due in part to modernization and in part to the Western democracy.
|Our Hujra: built c1939.|
A typical Hujra is a place which is owned and run by a tribe. The more affluent members of the tribe contribute more to the funds. Any time, any day of the year, anyone can enter the Hujra and he (as no females are allowed) can be sure of safety, food and shelter. No questions are asked from the guest until he is served with the best food and taken care of. Then the members present ask the guest how they can help him and assure him that he can stay as long as he wishes. This is evident from the fact that there are no hotels, motels or inns throughout the area. Hospitality is considered the pride of a Pukhtoon, and for this reason, everyone in the tribe tries to serve the guests in the Hujra. It is considered a shame if a guest leaves a Hujra without being served with food.
The bare essentials of a hujra include cots or charpoys, each having one or two pillows, instruments of folk music of which Rabab is a must. Huqqa or Cheelam (hubble-bubble) is found in almost every Hujra. Many of the bachelors of the tribe permanently stay at the Hujra. Every night, after dinner, when all members are together, the Tang Takor (music) starts. Among the members of the tribe, there are specialists for every musical instrument as well as singers. They sing folk songs, mostly about love or bravadoes in the battlefield and praising the martyrs. Interestingly, the music profession is considered a stigma among Pukhtoons. As Ghani Khan, the great pashto poet and philosopher, puts it, “Pukhtoon loves music but has contempt for the musician".
Before I shifted to hostels for studies, I had been a regular to such a setting. The one in which I used to sit has a building which was erected in the pre-partition days. Every evening after the Maghrib prayers, our elders would ask about everybody and why was someone absent. We wouldn’t dine until each and everyone was present. We would sit on a dastarkhwan (table-spread) on the floor and everybody present would join. There was no distinction if somebody was a peon or a professor. And nobody left until everyone was finished with the meal. After that, qahwa (green tea) would be served and then everybody would start telling how their day went. They would discuss any topic under the sun, from global politics to village life or how to treat your ailing pigeon. About 2 hours after sunset, we the little ones would be told to go home and sleep while the rest would continue their gossips. After sometime, the elders would also leave. The bachelors would start their music and singing and continue well into the early hours of the morning. It is said that no matter how much formal education one gets but if one is not a regular to a Hujra, he is not social.
Some historians suggest that Pukhtoons descended from the Greeks and nothing supports this argument more than the institution of Hujra. Just like the Athenian democracy, Pukhtoons have a system of democratic decisions. Hujra serves as a state council for the tribe. Whenever there is a dispute, the Masharan (council of elders) convene a meeting of the Jirga (Jury) members. All and sundry are invited to attend the proceedings of the council. Apart from the crime of eloping with, or kidnapping of, a girl, all other disputes are usually resolved through this council. At the end of the proceedings, a banquet is held to commemorate the event. If a dispute is not resolved with some other tribe or if the crime is unpardonable, then all members of tribe get together and declare war on the opposing tribe.
Another tradition of the Pukhtoons has a close similarity with the Aristotelian Lyceum. Hujra serves as a school of worldly as well as unworldly knowledge. As different members of the tribe have different occupations and different life experiences, they share these with the rest. The body of knowledge is transferred from generation to generation in this form. It is not surprising if one goes to a Hujra one day and finds that people, who have never been to school in their lives, are discussing medicines with a striking accuracy. And the next day the very same people discuss secrets of doing business and even predicting the patterns of weather. Once my grandfather, who has never been to school, asked me about my research on medicinal plants. I gave a vague reply as I was not sure myself. Then he narrated a detail account of how they would make herbal medicines for cure of diseases like malaria. When I got back to my hostel and read my books, I was astonished at the accuracy of ingredients and dosage told by him.
Times have changed and like everything, the institution of Hujra is severely affected by this tide. The implementation of the Western democracy and the judicial system have eliminated the role of the Hujra as a council and court. Although scattered, hotels and restaurants have emerged and are proliferating in the area, taking away the hospitality factor from the Hujra. With the advent of cable television, people usually stay at their homes. And even if they go to Hujra, they are glued to the television, hence no transfer of knowledge. As the young ones go to bigger cities for better education, they are deprived of sitting in the Hujra. The community-run Hujras are very rare these days. The ones mostly found today are owned and run by the affluent people, mostly politicians. The people found in these kind of Hujras are those who are there for some monetary reward or to get the favor of the owner as the poor needs the blessings of the rich and influential people if they want their kids to get any job.
The institution which survived all kind of strains and stresses during its life is now on the verge of extinction. In Pakistan, these are now only restricted to the tribal belt of FATA and some parts of Baluchistan. Only the future will tell whether we gained or lost by the abolition of this system. But we can be sure that an essential part of Pukhtoon culture is going into oblivion forever.
(P.S. I posted this again as a few people requested it. )
(P.S. I posted this again as a few people requested it. )