My article titled “Aornos” (November 5) elicited an email from Canada. Its gist: that there were no Pakhtuns at the time of Alexander; that Yusufzais moved into Mardan and Swat in the 16th century (that is, they did not exist prior to that time!); that the people defeated by Alexander were not Pakhtuns but Buddhists. The mind boggles at the idiocy of a nation brought up on manufactured history.
First of all, the title Pathan. Pakhtun pseudo-historians claim that the word derives from bataan, which in Arabic denotes rudder and was given to the (fictitious) Qais Abdur Rashid when he converted to Islam. Be it known that the Pakhtuns never called themselves Pathans; that this was a Punjabi and central Indian mispronunciation of Pakhtana, the singular for Pakhtun. That having been decided, we can now reach back into history.
Herodotus (mid-5th century BCE) wrote in The Histories of a people called the Paktyike who lived northward of the ‘other Indians’. Only in our national state of delusion and denial can we reject the word as being a Grecian mispronunciation of Pakhtun in its classical form. The word comes down to us as the name for the Afghan provinces of Paktiya and Paktika, bordering on our Kurram and Waziristan areas.
The second fiction that Pakhtuns love to believe concerns the ancestor called Afghana who gave his name to a country. The word Afghan comes from the Sanskrit root of ashv meaning ‘horse’, which becomes asp in ancient Persian. The genetic term for these horsemen was Ashvaka in Sanskrit and Aspagan in Persian. Their country was where the usual mode of transportation was the horse, perhaps more so than in ancient India, thus the ancient land of the Paktyike became Aspaganistan in Persian. And thence to Afghanistan.
Now, there was one tribe that was perhaps more attached to the horse than anyone else; a tribe that took pride in its horsemanship and which was famous as horse dealers. They became Aspzai — Tribe (or son) of the Horse. Having conquered Bajaur and moving northwest, Alexander came up against the Aspasioi guarding their fort of Masaga. A hard battle was fought, the chief was slain and Alexander wedded his widow. She later bore him a son when Alexander was in Sindh but we do not know what became of this child.
Again, one has to be either tone-deaf or stupid to not see the connection between Aspzai, Aspasioi and Yusufzai. Aspasioi, incidentally, is the tribe most frequently mentioned by Alexander’s historians, which leads me to believe that this was at that time the major Pakhtun tribal classification in the region. That may mean that most other tribal names have simply split off from the main Aspzai.
The asp became Yusuf (pronounced Esop by Pakhtuns) only after conversion to Islam and the need to invent a Muslim sire. The Aspzai thus became Esopzai — Yusufzai for the educated classes.
From the geographer Strabo (1st century CE) we hear of two other startlingly long-lived names. He mentions Apratai and Shattagadai. His translator, John McCrindle, reminds us that Afridis, and indeed other Pakhtuns as well, have difficulty in pronouncing ‘f’ sounds, turning them forever into ‘p’. Apratai is, therefore, Strabo’s rendering of Afridi exact to a turn. As for Shattagadai, McCrindle says this is the southern pronunciation of Kattak where the ‘kh’ of the northern dialect becomes ‘sh’.
The email also noted that the tribes defeated in Bajaur and Swat were not Pakhtuns, but Buddhists. I have to live many more years to hear anything as foolish as this. Buddhism is a religion that was followed by all sorts of people in the subcontinent and beyond. It was not an ethnic group.
The Pakhtuns have lived in the submontane lands of Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than two and a half millenniums. They have classified themselves under at least three tribal names that were preserved by Greek writers of antiquity. However, like all other Muslims of the subcontinent, they too, and sadly, have invented fictitious histories for themselves. The most pernicious among this body of lies is the fiction of Arab/Jewish origin. The truth is that they are an Indo-Aryan people with a language that derives from Avestan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2011.