Book review: Jürgen Wasim Frembgen on Kohistan

With the wild men of Kohistan

Very few foreigners have ever ventured into Kohistan in the north of Pakistan, where the locals have a reputation of being barbarians. In his book "Das verschlossene Tal" (The Sealed Valley), the German ethnologist Jürgen Wasim Frembgen paints an exhilarating portrait of this mountain region. By Marian Brehmer

Jürgen Wasim Frembgen (born 1955) is one of those scholars who pursue deep passions in their subject area and for whom research is also a journey of self-discovery. An ethnologist with a great enthusiasm for Sufism, he writes: "In Harban, I stopped suppressing my sentiments and subjectivity in my empirical research and eliminating them during the later writing process, and began to see them as part of the research process itself."

The Harban valley in the north Pakistan region of Kohistan (meaning "land of mountains") is an isolated stretch of land hardly ever visited by outsiders. Frembgen describes his experiences in this inhospitable place in his book "Das verschlossene Tal".

It is the third volume in a series of publications on Pakistan by the ethnology professor and head of the Oriental department at Munich's Ethnology Museum. "Am Schrein des Roten Sufi" (At the Shrine of the Red Sufi, 2008) was a voyage of discovery to the cradle of Indo-Islamic mysticism, while "Nachtmusik im Land der Sufis" (Night Music in the Land of the Sufis, 2010) elaborated on musical cultures in Pakistani Sufism.

Pakistan as a second home

Cover of Jürgen Wasim Frembgen's book about Kohistan
"He does not gloss over unpleasant facts, but his clear analysis also warns the reader against making far-fetched inferences to Islam or the whole of Pakistan," writes Marian Brehmer

Pakistan has become a second home for Frembgen. He has visited for research trips every year since 1981 and now speaks fluent Urdu. Kohistan, however, was a blank spot on his map for many years. The remote region is on the northern course of the Indus, 200 kilometres from Islamabad as the crow flies. Many parts of the area are difficult to access, some of them still unexplored by scholars. That is a tempting prospect for an ethnologist. Even Frembgen's doctoral supervisor whetted his appetite for Kohistan.

Many Pakistanis consider the inhabitants of the Harban valley to be unpredictable, backward, vengeful and cruel. With a mixture of scepticism and caution, Frembgen sets out on his journey into the unknown. Equipped with a letter of recommendation from a judge, he treks along dirt tracks to reach the village where he hopes to start his studies. Frembgen gives a memorable description of the distrustful reception he gains there as a foreigner, and how vulnerable he feels as a new arrival in this strange universe.

Then he finds the local maulvi, who gives him a welcoming sermon and a bed for a few days. The village preacher's son instantly begins massaging the guest's legs. Frembgen writes about the discomfort he felt in this odd situation: "He works his way up to my knees and then even my thighs." But then: "I realise that this massage is a friendly gesture towards a tired wanderer who has walked a long way."

Culture shock in Kohistan

After the first night, the next challenge arises: the search for a spot for his morning ablutions. Only later does Frembgen learn that the woods on the edge of the village are used as a toilet. They are, however, segregated: the women take their turn under cover of darkness, while the men visit the woods at dawn.

It is fascinating to follow this process of settling-in. The ice gradually breaks, and Frembgen gains more and more access to the Harbanis. His hosts show him unexpected hospitality and affection. At an exuberant all-male gathering, the village boys put flowers in their hats and dance to folk songs in the smoke of the water pipes. Here, the last remnants of a local culture are acted out, a culture that has been all but suppressed by missionary Islamic reform of customs over the past few decades.

Jürgen Wasim Frembgen (photo: Aly Bossin)
Jürgen Wasim Frembgen is head of the Orient Department at Munich's Ethnology Museum and Professor for Islamic History and Culture at the University of Munich. Frembgen studied Ethnology, Comparative Religious Studies, and Oriental Art History in Bonn and Heidelberg. He has also been a guest professor in Islamabad and Lahore.

It is clear that Frembgen has a wealth of background knowledge on his subject. His narrative focuses on the people he meets, using insightful descriptions that are full of respect. At regular intervals, he takes a critical look at his own viewpoint: "While I perceive the world of these mountain people as 'untouched', I have to revise the notion in the same breath as it reveals my own romanticising, exoticising gaze, my yearning for a lost primitiveness (...)."

With this open attitude, Frembgen even manages to track down a Sufi who shares his own love of Islamic mysticism. The Sufi Qayyum is an exotic figure in a region where religion is generally interpreted in a more conventional, law-abiding sense.

A closed society

During his time in Kohistan, Frembgen barely sets eyes on women. When he does come across a farmer's wife working in the fields, he lowers his head and takes a step aside. One false look could be fatal.

The strong sense of tradition in Harban is most clearly reflected in the subject of honour. Frembgen himself witnesses shots fired in a bloody tribal feud. As in many cases, the feud is triggered by an extra-marital relationship.

In Harban's closed society, affairs are a risk-laden outbreak from the close moral confines of everyday life. The logic of revenge takes its course as if automatically, for the men here define honour primarily via their daughters and wives. If they don't react to a violation of honour by someone outside the family, they risk ruining their reputation and that of the family for good.

The lasting impression is thus an ambivalent one. Frembgen does not meet the barbarians he was warned about. It is not the diabolical and evil that come to the fore, Frembgen concludes, but an "archaic, merciless code of honour and morals, to which every man and every woman is bound."

He does not gloss over unpleasant facts, but his clear analysis also warns the reader against making far-fetched inferences to Islam or the whole of Pakistan. Last but not least, he shows us how fascinating and critical an ethnologist's work can be.

Marian Brehmer

© 2014

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

Jürgen Wasim Frembgen: "Das verschlossene Tal. Bei wehrhaften Freunden im pakistanischen Himalaja" (The Sealed Valley. Visiting defensive friends in the Pakistani Himalayas), published by Waldgut Verlag, Frauenfeld 2013, 144 pages, ISBN 978-3-03740-080-7

More on this topic