Who’s afraid of Attan?

Who’s afraid of Attan?

At some point after dusk, the host announces in his well-mannered voice, “Guests, dinner is ready!” In a huge hujra, all the guests tuck into delicious dishes and the typical roti baked in mud ovens. Later, young men serve qehwa (green tea): for that centuries-old custom is still alive in the less commercialised areas of the country – or in mainstream parlance, the ‘backward’ regions!

It is a wedding ceremony in the Kurram Agency, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the border with Afghanistan. With food having been served, a dhol group emerges from a side of the hujra into the very middle and starts beating their drums in lyrical rhythm – but not until they had duly sought permission from the mashar (elders) of the gathering, in a show of the finest traditional etiquette.

Young Pashtuns expressed their outrage over the violence in Lahore, from Peshawar to Karachi

In fact, arguably, the more ‘religious’ populace from Waziristan are masters of the Attan

Swaying and twirling to the vigorous drum-beats, some 200 men – both young and old – from the village present the famous Attan dance. They perform with a fantastic, almost martial discipline for more than 25 minutes. The iconic Pashtun dance Attan is equally popular amongst people of all ages in the north-western region of Pakistan, particularly in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) and Afghanistan. Attan is one of the most powerful motifs of Pashtun culture: performed everywhere from private hujras to busy streets. And it is performed in some very sacred places too. In fact, arguably, the more ‘religious’ populace from Waziristan are masters of the Attan. This was a fact not lost even on the hardliner Taliban militants: far from clamping down on it, they even made efforts to appropriate the dance.


From the mountains of FATA and Afghanistan, this dance has today found its way into the Pashtun student bodies at academic institutions in the major urban centres of Pakistan: Peshawar, Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore. At the University of Peshawar, just in front of the Agha Khan Auditorium, students from various departments would perform Attan regularly after their classes. After a session of this energetic and highly rhythmic dance, these students would leave campus in very high spirits indeed!

In general, the Agha Khan Auditorium at the University of Peshawar served as a cinema and a centre of other entertainment for the student body. But when the Afghan war erupted after 1979, and the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq started selling a particularly harsh interpretation of religion, whilst cracking down on arts and entertainment systematically, one by one, including this cinema. “Our history teaches us that invaders first attack the cultural instruments because these produce cultural custodians who fight for their people’s identity” Sher Alam tells me. Alam writes for various media outlets on art, literature and music. His comparison of General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime to the impact left by violent invaders is most telling.

Artistic representation of the ecstatic attan dance

A research paper by PhD Scholar Waseem Khattak defines attan as a Pashtun or Afghan dance. We are told that this is not merely a dance of joy, but that it symbolises and communicates “bravery, chivalry, unity and honesty”. These values are the “important vignettes” of Pashtun society, we are told. His paper further elaborates each step in the attan, explaining how it consists of feelings, gestures and motions, originating in the historical and cultural experience of the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Attan consists of essentially eight steps.

The Pashtuns are, after all, a people of the mountains and have often found themselves part of various wars: their own and those of others. It may well be that attan originated at least in part from training for warfare. Some of the hand-clapping and foot movement is reminiscent of skills needed in close combat, when using weapons such as swords – vigorous movements that over time evolved into a means of joy and entertainment.

Even the Taliban did not attempt to move against this ancient dance – in fact they often adopted it themselves

Historically, Pashtun warriors were known to perform attan as a warm-up and an effort to raise morale and adrenaline before a battle. There is equally a history of attan in the context of occasions of happiness – weddings, festivals and victories. According to the Tarikh-i-Sher Shahi (written in 1586) when Sher Khan Sur – an Afghan ruler who drove Mughal emperor Humayun out of India – ascended the throne as Sher Shah Sultan-ul-Adil, the occasion was celebrated with a grand feast for seven days. Afghan youth from all the tribes came and performed a dance “according to the custom of the Afghans” (i.e. Attan) to the music of the kettledrum (Dhol).

Besides recreation, attan represents a blend of rich cultures. Performed in groups and mostly in circles, the dance signifies the continuity of life and progress. So in a sense this Pashtun dance signifies the unity of human beings with the natural elements and spreads a strong message of brotherhood and goodwill, Waseem Khattak’s research notes.

So who could possibly object to all this today, especially now that General Zia has been gone for decades?

Enter the Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) – widespread and well-known student wing of its equally well-known ideological mother-party, the Jamaat-e-Islami.



After General Zia overthrew the elected Bhutto administration, the IJT gradually became something of a darling for the ruling establishment in the country. Over time, as competing student organizations receded, splintered and generally lost ground, the IJT received immense power and developed the ability to dominate life in a number of educational institutions.  But that was not where it all stopped. The IJT proceeded to take control of cultural life on those campuses where it was strong: through a combination of vigorous organising, intimidation of opponents and state backing. Above all, the IJT brought a particular religious narrative with it, one which coincided neatly with the fundamentalist vision of the Zia era.

One consequence of this vision was an assault on many forms of entertainment amongst young people. It is in such a context that the IJT’s hostility to the immensely popular attan must be seen.

On the 21st of March 2017, an organisation called the Pashtun Education Development Movement (PEDM), organized a cultural day at Punjab University in Lahore. People from diverse ethnic back grounds were invited to witness Pashtun students performing attan on the occasion of Jashn-e-Nauruz, the ancient festival of spring and renewal, celebrated at the time of the spring equinox. The PEDM considers itself a non-political student organisation which represents Pashtun culture and traditions in Lahore.

Students allegedly affiliated with the IJT, equipped with hockey sticks, are reported to have attacked the students attending the festival. The attackers also targeted the cultural stalls set up for the occasion. A dozen students, who had been performing the attan, were injured. A beautiful event of flowers, music and dance turned into a violent clash and Punjab University became a battlefield.

Pashtun students perform the Attan dance in Karachi, in solidarity with those attacked at Punjab University – Photo by Ali Arqam

Attan was performed in cities across Pakistan – and abroad – by Pashtun students. This was explicitly billed as a protest

The attack quickly began to be seen as an effort by fundamentalists and extremists to stamp out folk traditions amongst Pashtuns. Traditional electronic media, as represented by various news channels, covered the clash widely, albeit cautiously. Social media spaces populated by Pashtun youth erupted in anger and condemnation. Pashtun nationalist leaders naturally condemned the attack and labeled it an assault on the entire culture of a people belonging to Pakistan.

And then, the reaction to the attack took an unexpected turn: attan was performed in cities across Pakistan – and abroad – by Pashtun students. This was explicitly billed as a protest against fundamentalist violence aimed at symbols of Pashtun culture.


Tariq Afghan is a Peshawar-based lawyer and outspoken peace activist. He, along with other student leaders, has planned a mega attan dance, as a reaction to what he considers an instance of blatant humiliation of Pashtun culture, as witnessed at Punjab University.

An online petition has launched on social media by attan enthusiasts and Punjab University students. They demand that the 21st of March, the day of the attack, should be declared International Attan Day.

Tariq Afghan tells me: “The recent clash between IJT members and Pashtun students from Punjab University over the cultural dance is not a new one. It is a product of the Islamisation policies from the time of General Zia. There was an effort to turn universities into launching-pads of fundamentalist ideology and militancy. And therefore extremists attack a strong symbol of pluralistic culture, this dance!”

He goes on to provide his view of IJT and its history on campuses. He believes members are notorious for their narrow and particularistic definitions of what is Islamic and what is not. He adds: “Once democratic-minded students would resist them everywhere but with the help of the ruling establishment, the liberals were crushed systematically. From that time on, the beauty of our places of learning as spaces for open debate vanished.”

A senior leader of the IJT agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity. He appears to disagree with such tactics. He tells me:

“This is not the true training of the [political] worker which we had provided to them and I condemn this nonsensical act!”

Then, an acknowledgement of the importance of the wrecked event to Pashtun students: “Attan, Rabab (a musical instrument) and so on: these are vital to Pashtun culture and generally a source of entertainment for many! People with a criminal and extremist mindset don’t deserve any space in the ranks of the IJT!”

Tariq Afghan shares his memory of a brutal incident that happened some years ago at University of Peshawar student hostel. He narrates that an Engineering student by the name of Adnan Khan was listening to music in his hostel room. IJT workers entered his room and started beating him with hockey sticks. “Adnan received multiple blows on his head and due to head injuries he died. And thus they [IJT] brought about a revolution!” he recalls bitterly.


He continues: “During the rule of General Zia, the IJT provided support for his interventionist policies towards Afghanistan. Historically the IJT has attacked dozens of times the openly democratic- and liberal-minded students!”

He is particularly harsh in his characterisation of the ideology of the IJT: “Their thought and that of violent extremist groups are dangerously similar: both consider it valid to target forms of cultural expression that they do not agree with”.

He believes such excessive moral policing by members of the organisation can stop only when the rulers and elite establishment of the country stop treating them as their “favourites”.


“IJT’s fierce and emotional speeches are so vulnerable and superficial when pitted against the elegant Attan”, freelance writer Malik Achakzai says to me. He believes Pashtun students’ vigorous response has punctured the ‘ghairat bubble’ of the IJT leadership, referring to traditional conceptions of ‘honour’ which are often referenced by the organisation and its discourse.

Attan is widely accepted by every segment of the Pashtun society. Even at the time of peak religious militancy it was allowed to be performed – from wedding parties to militant hideouts!” Rasool Dawar observes. Dawar has covered the Waziristan-based Taliban since a decade for mainstream Pakistani media. He tells me that the Taliban are, in fact, quite ‘fantastic’ attan performers. “They [Taliban] were well aware of the battlefield among the most boring spots on Earth when nothing happens for days. Therefore the Taliban would accompany units of fighters with a few entertainers to improve morale”, Dawar tells me.

Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsood was the man behind a particularly destructive wave of Taliban militancy. After the Lal Masjid operation in 2007, he had inspired and mobilised madrassah youth for his war. Later he was killed in a drone strike. On the day of Baitullah’s second marriage, dozens of young long-haired Taliban and lustrous beards, bearing Kalashnikov assault rifles, performed the Attan dance.


A senior leader of the IJT agreed to speak to me on condition of anonymity. He appears to disagree with such tactics


“Pashtun Cultural Day actually challenged the decades-long tight grip of IJT on Punjab University and its politics. Their action was not meant for ‘protection of religion’ or anything of the sort!” Raza Wazir tells me. He is on the advisory committee of the cultural organisation PEDM and a student of Mass Communication at the Punjab University. “Just eight dance steps frightened the IJT. To me it is clear now as to how irrational their stances have been on various matters over the years” he adds.

Punjab University IJT nazim Osama Ejaz categorically rejects such claims of maintaining a tight grip over life at Punjab University. “We were present and are still present on this campus.” The nazim claims that sound systems and music were ‘banned’ on university premises and that this led to the quarrel.

But PEDM representatives deny the IJT nazim’s claim of an official ban by the administration on music and sound systems.

“PEDM was permitted by the university administration for the event and the IJT jumped into the peaceful activity without permission, and thus sabotaged our cultural day celebrations” the Vice Chairman of PEDM, Asfand Khan, says to me. His implication is clear: that the IJT has its own rules which may not be officially recognised by the administration, but which the religion-oriented student organisation has sought to enforce nevertheless. Asfand Khan adds: “IJT has put up its own rate lists in cafeterias, juice shops and even in the campus hairdressers’ shops! The IJT seeks to run university affairs in parallel with the university administration.”

A document detailing the official response of the Punjab University administration to the clash


Meanwhile Asfand Khan asks a most inconvenient question: “If this dance is somehow against the ‘ideology of Pakistan’, then why is it presented on nearly every occasion of national importance?”

Write By: Abdur Rauf Yousafzai

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