The Pakhtuns of Lahore

From Tuesday to Sunday, for the past 40 years, a group of footballers have played at Bagh-e-Jinnah, Lahore.

Among the current crop of players is Tariq Bhatti, who resides near Data Darbar. He is a deep-lying forward who likes to receive the ball on the turn and attempt to zig-zag his way through the middle of the pitch and have a pot-shot at the goal.

He gets a goal every few games from his numerous attempts per game. I have suggested for years that he pass the ball back into midfield. But that isn’t the way he plays.

It also isn’t how Bahu or Khurram play, both bullish defenders from Gawalmandi who like to push attackers off the ball by leaning into them with their shoulders and clearing the ball in any direction they can. They are formidable in the air and their positioning is wise and effective.

I stand in the middle of the pitch, watching as they hoof the ball from the defence, and dribble it away from the attackers. I hope one day the defence will finally pass the ball into midfield, and the attackers may too, slow down the tempo and eventually lay the ball back into midfield.

The Pakhtun as wild and violent is a colonial construct that continues to serve the post-colonial state among others

My hopes partially came true a year ago when Dost Mohammad and Saleem started playing with us. Dost’s family came to Lahore more than a 100 years ago from Mohmand Agency, while Saleem arrived recently from Mardan and works in the clothing industry.

Saleem, a young inside-forward, moves elegantly, with the ball glued to his feet. Pushing him off or running him into a cul-de-sac are the best ways to stop him. But when he is in midfield, he passes the ball to me and we play a one-two to set each other off on attacking runs.

Dost is a deep-lying midfielder, broad shouldered and robust, with thighs like the ancient trunks of the trees of Bagh-e-Jinnah. He plays in midfield with me, where he often passes the ball short before moving into space to receive it again.

Sometimes he can go on a dribble and have a shot – often, it goes flying wide. He scores less than Tariq but when he shoots and I shout at him to calm down and keep passing, I hear a refrain from others, ‘he is Pathan, he won’t listen’.

For all the love and happiness I share with my football friends, this racism – which I challenge – nonetheless persists. Its root and function are related to power and geopolitics.

The Pakhtun as wild and violent is a colonial construct that continues to serve the post-colonial state among others. The construct hides the lives of Pakthuns as they actually are. They, as a group or individual, are always overdetermined by this construct.

Here, partly to challenge this construct and partly in homage to my Pakhtun friends, I want to try and show the lives of Pakthuns of Lahore as I have come to see and experience them.

Medicine for the heartbroken

In late 2008, I lost my first cat. For days and nights, like Sassi searching for Punnu, maddened, in a trance, I wandered the streets putting up posters and calling out his name in every nook and corner. I circled all the spaces he might have covered.

Without my beloved Yuyu, life made no sense and still doesn’t.

After two days in this state, the owners of the dogs that had killed Yuyu took pity and returned his body to me, which they had been scared to do fearing retribution. The pain of the separation never goes away. And it never will.

Afzal Khan, from Quetta, a student of Forman Christian College perceived from my choked voice and reddened eyes, the helplessness of my situation. He had a remedy in mind.

He invited me to join him and his friends for dinner at Khan Baba Chapli Kebab and Fish Corner, located in the backstreets of Main Market in Gulberg.

We sat down on plastic chairs and, in Pashto, Afzal Khan called over waiter Javed Khan and ordered two kilos of fish, ten nans and two pots of Peshawari kahwah.

The moon and chill of the night lit the evening and as we sat, the students inquired my opinion on Plato’s philosophy of love. I talked for hours. They gave me the stage and let me play the role of an ‘intellectual’ that I had coveted.

Treated with this kindness, with a full belly and kahwah running through my body, I walked home a little soothed.

That was ten years ago. Since then I have been a regular at Khan Baba’s and spent many hours sitting in the back street on plastic chairs with kahwah and my notebooks. I have sat there alone, in the company of students, intellectuals and activists.

When short of money, I have walked there in rain or in the dry or humid heat of the summer nights and, on credit, got fish and nan for myself as well as for Gugu Guevara (Yuyu’s sister).

A decade on, something of that healing magic of that first night still remains.


What makes Khan Baba work magic are the people who put their labour into it.


Amir Khan, 25, from Mardan, and Javed Khan, 55, from Dir, are two such workers.

Amir has worked at Khan Baba since he was 14 and Javed since he was 12. Along with the 15 other workers – cooks, waiters, dishwashers, and cashiers – they wake up for fajr prayer. Then, following breakfast, they gossip and after some time spent on the phone, they start work at around 9 am.

First, they clean the seating and cooking areas, the chairs are wiped and the cooking utensils washed. Then, they move on to preparing the base ingredients for the day: Cutting onions, potatoes, chillies, preparing the sauce, and getting the oil heated and ready.

At 11 am, they are ready to serve customers and remain open till 1am.

During peak months, Javed and the others serve 500 to 700 customers a day. On average, the workers make Rs 400 per day.

They all hail from either Dir or Mardan and most of them return home every few months – taking their hard earned income to their family.

The shop also has a resident cat – CiCi, a beautiful Calico female that lives in an apartment above the shop.

As CiCi gets older, she tends to stay indoors in the apartment. Yet, I have seen her make quick guest appearances to check on everyone before running up the stairs and back to her cozy bed.

Javed has spent 43 years serving customers of Lahore at Khan Baba. If we take a conservative estimate of 200 customers per day for a year, and we multiply that by the number of years Javed has worked at Khan Baba, it means he has possibly served around 3 million people.

Khan Baba – with Imran, Javed, and CiCi – has kept me going when heartbroken and/or broke. Khan Baba will never heal the pain of separation, but having its fish and kahwah in the company of friends, soothsayers and those who fight for people’s rights, is the closest I have come to forgetting, momentarily, my pain.

Two seasonal cogs in Lahore’s machinery

Habibullah sells sunglasses and other eyewear from his stand in Anarkali bazar. He first came to Lahore from Bajaur six years ago. It was then that I first met him. I needed sunglasses to protect me from the heat of the Old City. He offered a brown pair of replica Ray-Ban for Rs 500. We have stayed in touch ever since.

He is married and has two children, who live in Bajaur with his extended family. He started coming to Lahore when his father fell ill and the family needed extra income. He comes to Lahore to work for three months and returns to Bajaur for three months. There, he works his family’s land and looks after his goats, two cattle, and attends to his ailing father.

In Lahore, he earns a profit of around Rs 250- 400 per day. Out of this sum, Rs 60-120 goes toward his tea and food. He often skips meals to save money.

“I am here to work for my family. I try and save money as quickly as possible so that I can return to my village,” he told me.

Habibullah lives in a hostel, in Janazgah area near Lytton Road, in a room that he shares with five others who have also come to work in Lahore from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The room is 16 feet by 12 feet. All six cannot sleep in the room at the same time so they take turns. The monthly cost for the room is Rs 4000, which they divide among themselves.

Life in Lahore for Habibullah is far from rosey. He told me, “I am here for my children and my family. If there were opportunities closer to home, I would stay but there aren’t, so we come here to work. I have faced a lot of discrimination and also support, but it doesn’t matter – we have to put up with our conditions for the sake of our children.”

Jahanzeb, too, comes to work in Lahore from FATA. In 2009, I bought a wooden cart from him with which one can roast and then sell corn cobs. I had the idea of using it one day outside a cafe I ran with friends. It never happened and, in 2011, I gifted it back to him.

Sometimes, he sells roasted peanuts and corn from his cart and sometimes he sets up a shoe polishing stand on the back streets near FCC kachi abadi. He works 10 to 12 hours a day and can earn between Rs 200 and 400 per day.

Like Habibullah, every three to six months he heads back to his village for a few months. When he goes, either his brother or cousins come to take over the business.

Habibullah and Jahanzeb are two of hundreds of thousands of lumpen workers who come seasonally to Lahore to work before returning to their homes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They live in cramped accommodation, take on tasks others are not willing to do, and better our city with their labour.

A treasury of wisdom

Dr Anila doesn’t live in Lahore anymore but she visits. For a while, she chose it as her home.

After completing her PhD in the United States and fieldwork in Kabul, she decided to teach at a university in Lahore.

Her family is from Kohat and many of her extended family live in Peshawar. She could have gone to teach anywhere, but she chose Lahore.

As fellow academics, we sit around in bourgeois cafes, grading papers, all the while carrying on with our debates. The key debate centres around the role of violence in resistance.

I argue that the violent acts by the oppressed cannot be dismissed politically or ethically. Anila disagrees; she supports non-violent approaches.

I cite Malcolm X and Fanon. She cites them too but adds Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and the history of the Khudai Khidmatgar – a history she has come to know from her father and his teachings.

I am yet to convince her of any of my positions, which is not surprising, because Anila is a far superior academic and intellectual to me.

This, not only because of her academic publications, but because she has thought things out more, lived her ideas out more and, simply put: she has worked harder.

As such, though a friend, she is also my teacher. She has taught me two things.

Firstly, humility: cultural capital and capital do not give us the right to treat people without it as inferior. Anila keeps reminding me that before I give lectures at prestigious universities abroad, I should “remember to be humble, always humble.” I don’t always follow this advice but it keeps me grounded.

Secondly, she argues that our “knowledge, as academics and activists, has to be grounded in the experiences of people”.

And, therefore, this article is a footnote to her method.

Anila breezes across Lahore, picking up fabrics from Saleem Fabric, getting them stitched at tailors of Liberty Market, and today she wears them at Ivy League universities.

As a teacher and an example, she imbues Lahore and its people with her greetings of love and light, message of non-violence and injunction to humility above all.


They say Lahore Lahore hay. Of course it is, and it is my home. But in an important way, Lahore is Lahore because of the Pakthuns of Lahore.


Lahore is Lahore because Dost Mohammad and Saleem decided to live and play football here.

Because Imran Khan and Javed Khan put their labour into Khan Baba.

Because Habibullah and Jahanzeb put up with cramped accommodation and the discrimination so they can earn their living here.

Because Anila embroiders the city with her example and shares her hard-earned knowledge with Lahore’s students.

Each one of them has been violently over-determined by colonial constructs about Pakthuns – and often by state institutions. Yet, as with all discourses, at least, at the level of the street, it is us, the public, that has the power to rework and challenge these preconceived ideas.

It simply isn’t acceptable to joke, to make an aside comment, to jump to conclusions based on racist, colonial and postcolonial state-formed notions.

It is time we acknowledge the labour and efforts of the Pakthuns of Lahore and show them the same solidarity and humility that they have shown us. Let me be clear, it is time we learnt from them.

Article Source: Dawn

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