Poetics of Identity: On Entrepreneurial Selves of Afghan Migrants in Pakistan

Manuela Nocker, Muhammad Junaid


In Peshawar, evenings at tea houses in the “market of storytellers” or Qissa Khawani Bazaar are busy. Located at the doorsteps of the famous Khyber Pass, Peshawar has historically acted as the main gateway between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia. Qissa Khawani has always been the major market for traders in this geographical region. Indeed, the British Commissioner to Peshawar, Sir Herbert Benjamin Edwards (1853-1862), called it the Piccadilly of Central Asia (Tikekar, 2004). Every evening, tea houses would be buzzing with traders from all over Asia sipping freshly brewed green tea and relaxing. But the highlight of the evening was the storytellers called Qissa Khawans who would narrate many stories of interest to the traders. They used both prose and poetry to tell stories of traders’ expeditions, their valuable items, and of far-away lands of treasures. 

Today, the same bazaars continue to be full of activity and their small streets have been transformed into a variety of interconnected specialised markets. There is a market for mobile phones, opening into a flower market adjoined by the sweets market, leading to a market for pet birds. One such narrow street is called Jangi Mohallah, ‘the fighters’ neighbourhood’. Until about three decades ago, the gangsters of Peshawar city used to settle scores there. It was a place for duels which were fought with large handmade folding knives. There is no sign of this today as the ever increasing population has taken over that ground. The u-shaped Jangi Mohallah is the hub of the printing and publishing businesses in the North West Frontier Province (Pakistan) –  the home to the Pashtun tribes. In this paper, the stories narrated by the Pashtun traders of Jangi Mohallah provide a window into their entrepreneurial identities. They stem from Afghan Pashtuns of Qissa Khawani speaking the language of Pashtu and upholding the values of the ‘Pashtunwali’- a living and unwritten code of honour that ‘regulates’ everyday life. This paper thus engages with entrepreneurial life history narratives espousing the ways in which the identities of Afghan entrepreneurs adhere to the main Pashtunwali-tenets, if at all. The latter refer to an ideal self that has been orally transmitted through Pashtu poetry since ancient times. Afghan entrepreneurial identities tend to adhere to the core tenets of Pashtunwali. However, there are multiple uses of poetic tropes expressed in entrepreneurial life history narratives that tell us more about the subtle ambiguity and challenges that might be experienced when relating to the dominant influence of this code of honour. Thus, Pashtunwali values are very much lived and enacted in practice. This paper contends that they are inscribed as poetic tropes in main Afghan poetry shaping the moral compass that becomes central to one’s existence and mode of being an entrepreneur. 


Entrepreneurial identities; Afghan migrants; Pakistan; Poetic approach; Ethnography; Life histories

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