Sajida Haider Vandal
Executive Director, Trust for History, Art & Architecture of Pakistan

Among the many ethnic and linguist groups spread throughout Pakistan is the Pakhtun tribe of the Yousafzais, who live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and across the Durand Line in Afghanistan. The Yousafzais are further divided into various khels (clans) and families. One is the Khawja Markhel in the village of Sumbatchan in the picturesque valley of Upper Swat, an idyllic place in the foothills of the Hindu Kush Range. The fiercely patriarchal society is organized under Pakhtunwali, an ancient tribal honor code; the ancient social institutions of the Hujra and Gudoor, men’s and women’s social spaces; Jirga system, a council of elders; and ashar, collective reciprocal labor.

When the schools were forcibly shut by the Taliban, even pleasurable traditional games of the children were banned. The young boys of Sumbatchan, nevertheless, improvised, making some acceptable to the Taliban. One such game was called chor-sepahi, a tagging game similar to cops and robbers, which became Taliban-Fauji (army man). The Taliban team would hide their faces in swaths of turban cloth while the Faujis would tuck their shirts in their shalwars (traditional trousers). The two sides would run around the village streets shouting ‘Taliban’ and ‘Fauji’. Imtiaz, a Sumbatchan Khawja Markhel, remembers that the Taliban smiled and encouraged the children to play the game and, of course, to cheer for the Taliban. Other games could not be played during those years because the children could not find ways to make them acceptable to the Taliban. The local community reminisces “Those were the days when even the mynah had gone quiet”.

Since 2011, the situation has changed dramatically, and life is returning to normal, and the children are once again playing. One Sumbatchan Khawja Markhel game making a comeback is lewishtenak, a game played by young boys and girls. It allows for improvisation, and it can be shortened or lengthened. The game develops dexterity, motor skills, math skills, improvisation creativity and imagination. It is played in the following steps:

  • Two children are chosen as leaders for setting the targets for the other children. The rest of the children form a queue and take turns playing the game.
  • The two leaders sit on the ground with their hands vertically placed on top of each other, either as closed fists or open, and invite the other children to jump over the closed or open fists. When the fists are closed they call out ‘bund gobi’ (closed cabbage), and when open, ‘khuli gobi’ (open cabbage).
  • At each stage of the game, the two leaders use their hands, arms, legs, and feet to increase the jumping height or to create more intricate shapes for the players to jump over.
  • If a player touches either of the two leaders, then that player is declared out. The players must be constantly deciding on how to cross over the shapes created by the two leaders. The two leaders also name the shape by calling out “ghunta wala” (big canal), “lakhtey” (drain), or another shape name.
  • At the end of the game, there is a little role-playing session. One girl joins her hands, palms outwards, and the other players will pretend this is a mirror and look into it to do their make-up. Once all the children are dressed up and ready, they sit in a circle and partake of make-believe fruits and food. Through this step, melmastia (hospitality)—one of the fundamental values of the Pakhtunwali—is communicated

The Hujra and Gudoor, the traditional support systems for transferring ICH knowledge, have again been activated and schools are being rehabilitated. International agencies, donors, NGOs, the government, and the army have joined the effort. The army has developed parks and promotes sports, such as cricket and football, which did not exist in this village before. While this is important, what is equally necessary is safeguarding the traditional games and the many forms of ICH that comprise the oral knowledge and traditional wisdom of Khaawja Markhels.

Local people have put together the Sumbatcham CBO with one of its objectives as safeguarding ICH. In its effort to keep culture at the forefront of development, the UNESCO Islamabad Office is developing a resource kit on ICH, which includes a chapter on traditional games. Building teachers’ and educators’ capacities, including Sumbatcham, is planned, and with local people, other measures for safeguarding the immensely rich ICH of the Khawja Markhel community are being enacted.