The events of that summer had instilled a passion for the region in Grima Santry. By the end of her two years in Paris at the Institut des Langues Orientales, she had earned four language-certification degrees, one each in Persian, Pashto, Urdu, and Arabic.

While the French language system had a more intensive and holistic approach to teaching languages, there was nothing in France that compared to the doctoral studies in folklore at Penn, where there is a focus on oral narratives rather than just classical texts. In 1979 Grima Santry enrolled in Penn’s folklore department, and 10 years later—after making several extended stays in the NWFP and one trip into Afghanistan —she received her Ph.D.

Studying Pashto oral and folk literature, Grima Santry began formulating her own research interest: how Pashtun women express emotions, especially in such a controlling, segregated society. All previous scholarship on the Pashtuns dealt only with men’s experience. Both her books—The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women and Secrets from the Field—are intimate accounts of Pashtun society and especially of women’s stories and experience. Where The Performance of Emotion is an academic study, Secrets is intended for a general readership and offers a first-hand account of life among the Pashtuns.

One of the key concepts for anyone living and working among Pashtuns is pashtunwali. In Secrets, Grima Santry elaborates: “Pashtunwali is language, culture, and law bound into a tight recipe for life and self-pride. It is the root belief that drives Pashtuns in everyday actions and decisions. Although Muslim, Pashtuns experience the clash between pashtunwali and Islam on a number of issues. Pashto takes precedence in these instances, although they do not consider themselves any less Muslim for it.”

Pashtunwali is at the core of the Pashtuns’ way of life—specifying and controlling men’s and women’s honor and shame, behavior and hopes—and it reveals the workings of one of the world’s most socially conservative people. While pashtunwali might seem rigid and unchanging, its very strength has given the Pashtuns a means to survive in their rugged physical and social terrain.

It also offers control in extreme circumstances, in a land where violent upheaval is the norm. After a decade of precarious power in Kabul, for example, the Soviet-backed government collapsed, and the resulting power vacuum left Afghanistan open to competing warlords, whose popularity was greatly enhanced by their resistance to the foreign occupiers. In 1996, the Pashtun Taliban gained the upper hand, promising order in exchange for adherence to a more conservative cultural code based in pashtunwali.

But even among Pashtuns, the Saudis who had come to live among them seemed more religiously conservative. They encouraged some of the same stringent behavior as Pashtuns, and provided immediate support, and voice, for the Pashtun Taliban, which took an existing law and felt empowered to impose it on the rest of the country. Yet even though the Pashtuns comprise the largest group (42 percent) in Afghanistan (which also hosts Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Turkmen, Baluch, and smaller numbers of other groups), they are not a majority. Support for their policies was less than rock-solid.

Still, what drew Grima Santry to this rugged, difficult region was always the people, especially their “conversations, attitudes, and openness.”

“It was also about the impression that they were so different [from my culture] and I felt very comfortable there,” she adds. “I was also always piqued by something that I felt was being withheld; that also made being there very intriguing.”

Of course, she is much stronger than she lets on. When preparing for her role as Mimi in a production of La Bohème, she lifted weights to strengthen her ability to belt out her final, dying aria while lying on her back. And when traveling alone in the NWFP she positioned—and used—a sharp knife hidden under her veil, ready to jab at any inappropriately groping hands on buses and in crowds. And yet, she says: “I also felt protected. I never felt threatened or unsafe. I felt there was always someone there to help me get what needed to be done. And while my status shifted the more proficient I became at reading the culture, it was my effort to read it in the first place, to understand, that gave me respect, that invited people to help me.”

It was this shifting status, from novice to expert, that defined her many years among Pashtuns. “Early on, when I was just learning, I could arrive at a place and sit with the men. It was okay. But later, as I was known and knew the cultural rules better, sitting with the men became taboo. As soon as I arrived at a home, I had to go right to where the women were gathered.”

Asked if it was difficult to be a woman in the NWFP, Grima Santry shrugs and tells a story about an Iranian man she had met who had arrived in Peshawar on a Fulbright scholarship to study at the university: “He was excluded from family life; he had no social life; and he was always on trial as a Muslim man. After a few months, he left.”

As a female outsider, Grima Santra was less of a threat; she would not endanger a family’s honor the way an outsider male could. And yet as an outsider, and a culturally aware one at that, she was often sought out by both men and women, who would tell her their worries. This was especially poignant for a folklorist who was there to understand women’s emotional lives, a theme she says was practically dictated to her.

Grima Santry’s original impetus was to study the popular storytelling genres of the time, ones she had been exposed to through chapbooks and cassettes. But as she inquired into popular oral tales, people directed her to their women kin.

“The more I asked about [storytelling], the more people said, ‘Oh, go see my grandmother. Go see my mother. Go sit with them, they know all about it,’” she relates. “So I became more sensitive to what was important in their world, and that was visits—that was what life centered around. And visits were centered around emotions.”

It was not acceptable for a woman to complain about her husband. What was acceptable to talk about was personal loss. And storytelling was the best way to express loss. It was a part of a woman’s catharsis, to tell a complete tale, one where she is the protagonist; to offer a beginning, middle, and end; and have it as a vehicle for other women to comment and sigh over.

It's a balmy, Indian Summer day in suburban Philadelphia. A nearby fire department sounds its siren as Grima Santry sits near the vegetable garden she and her family have planted in their backyard, talking about the possibilities of a life in Kabul.

Given the scarcity of specialists in Pashto and Urdu and Arabic and Persian, it’s not surprising to learn that private consulting companies that recruit for the government have approached Grima Santry with lucrative offers to work out of Kabul. She has seriously considered them, but to relocate her family has tough issues attached. First and foremost is safety. Then there is the matter of schools for her children and the question of what her husband would do.

Her son, the younger of her two children, was quite excited by the prospect. “When he learned that the Afghan diet is mostly grilled meats and not many vegetables,” she recalls, “he said, ‘Oh, that’s great!’ He was thrilled.” But even he was only interested in going for a summer, not a school year. Her daughter, older and on the edge of a promising athletic career as a runner and swimmer, was concerned enough to write her mother a letter detailing her misgivings.

Were she by herself, Grima Santry would go. After all, “I probably shouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan in 1990.”

But in the end, safety issues and the potential for disrupting the whole family outweighed the amazing international experience and professional satisfaction such a position could offer. Though she hopes one day to return and see how the people are and how things have changed, for now, Grima Santry’s passion is channeled into conveying the linguistic and cultural issues to the next generation, ones so desperately needed by anyone venturing into the far-reaching issues concerning Afghanistan.

“My interest now is limited to keeping the Pashto program vibrant, encouraging students to apply their language and culture skills to broadening research or diplomatic ties,” she says. “As our administration pours increasing funds into learning critical languages, it’s equally important to increase the understanding of cultures, and to encourage more researchers to get involved.

“Afghanistan is currently slipping quietly back into chaos, which is what allowed the Taliban to surface in the first place,” she adds. “Why the chaos, and who emerges at such times? That answer lies in the currently existing situation of people in their everyday lives. And hence the value in understanding those lives.”

Beebe Bahrami Gr’95 is a freelance writer and cultural anthropologist who writes for the Gazette, Archaeology magazine, Expedition magazine, and other publications.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/08/06

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FEATURE: Understanding Pashto
By Beebe Bahrami

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