Posted by: Christian | March 14, 2008

The People of the Korengal

OK, who hasn’t blogged about the Korengal Valley in the past month? What got the ball rolling was this in-depth NYT article (and to a certain extent the December Vanity Fair article). Kip at Abu Muqawama made some comments from an informed military perspective (twice), Josh at Registan offered his opinion, and Jeff at Peace Like A River gave some great background info for the valley and then commented on the article.

H/T Jeff Kouba for the image below. (Note: North is down)

Korengal Valley

So, what have I got from my academic perspective? Not too much, actually. The people of the Korengal (or Koringal, Korangal, Kurungal) are “ethnic” Pashai (read ‘linguistically’ Pashai) and field work has not been completed among the Pashai (also spelled Pashayi or Pashaï) in about 30 years, let alone any fieldwork among the Korengali Pashai. So basically there is very slim ethnographic info available on the Pashai, of which the Korengalis are just one small component (of maybe 100,000 total population).

The Pashai have been on my radar since the beginning because of the Pashai commander Hazrat Ali who took over much of Jalalabad and Nangarhar in late 2001/early 2002. I believe he is now sitting in Parliament, cooling his heels.

But what about the Pashai in the Korengal Valley of Kunar? Well, they were out of Hazrat Ali’s area of control. In fact, government of any type has historically been weak in not just the Korengal, but in most of Kunar and Nuristan. Antonio Giustozzi, in his new book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop, agrees with these sentiments and goes on to note that due to the combination of this weakness of central government and the “colonization” of these areas by “Salafi preachers,” insurgents were able to operate here (although there is no breakdown of Salafi/Wahhabi/Deobandi influence amongst Nuristanis, Pashtuns and Pashai speakers in these areas).

Korengali elders: Photo by Lynsey Addario.

Korengali Pashai

Giustozzi gives a quick analysis of Kunar province:

Although in Kunar the insurgents seem to have been successful in recruiting a fair number of local former mujahidin of the 1980s and in winning the tolerance or even passive help of many villagers, they did not score great successes in allying with local communities. This was likely the result of a government presence so weak that it was not even able to antoganise local communities, which in most cases appeared keen to maintain their autonomy vis-á-vis both insurgents and government.

Yes, that’s right. Some people want neither the insurgents nor the government in their lives. But most relevant to our discussion, Giustozzi provides an exception:

A rare exception was Koringal Valley in Pech district, where the local population had a strong tradition of hostility towards the central government. The locals were trying to protect their illegal timber trade from government regulation. the already difficult relationship of the government with the Koringalis was probably made worse by the attitude of district governors such as Mohammed Rehman, who first banned supplies of foods to the valley, then refused to issue identity cards to the valley’s residents, and finally threatened to raise a tribal militia to invade the valley and punish the residents.

I won’t go into issues surrounding the illegal trade in timber. That has already been covered by Afghanistanica.

Korengal Valley photo by flickr user moneebafghan:


Now that I may have piqued your interest I will step back and provide some ethnographic information on the Pashai. I will rely on the articles by Jan Ovesen since I have them tucked away in pdf form on my computer. The other sources are in a few select libraries far, far away (including sources en français und Deutsch).

Let’s get straight to Ovesen’s definition of the Pashai people:

There is no ethnic group which uses the name Pashai for itself; Pashai is the name of a language.

I would say that it is safe to assume that in the time since Oveson wrote this the “Pashai” have not developed a uniform macro-identity based on linguistic similarities. The primary identity would be a local one, a phenomenon which is quite common in Afghanistan among many communities. The language itself is a Dardic language and is divided into a western and eastern dialect, separated by the mountains between the Alishing and Alingar valleys. Those speaking the eastern dialect refer to their language as Laghmani or Dehgani. Ovesen’s fieldwork is not in the Korengal Valley, but rather in Nangarhar among the eastern Pashai. So there may be some differences. However, this is as close as you will get.

Map of Kunar (pdf)

Click on the file above and have fun finding Darra-i Nur and the Korengal Valley. By river they are far apart but overland they are relatively close. The Darra-i Nur is on the bottom left and the Korengal Valley is East by Northeast.

The Pashai are not too different from their neighbors in terms of subsistence and have a similar segmentary lineage system of identity (patrilineal, or “through the father”). For example, the Soom Pashai of Darra-i Nur:


Ovesen’s study described a state of historical animosity and conflict between two different patrilineal groups that was, at the time, peaceful. However, the most important social unit is not the lineage group, but rather the village, or a confederacy thereof (but consider that these two may overlap considerably). Ovesen noted that while land can be privately owned, the land around the village is controlled by the village as a unit. The mountains and the surrounding area are divided between the villages for collective grazing and wood-gathering rights. [added later: this is obviously an “ideal” description]

But are these identities and loyalties absolute? Ovesen is quite clear on this point:

In principle the minimal lineage groups are corporate groups; the members cooperate at weddings, funerals and the like, and the water for field irrigation is ideally distributed to kandi [lineage group]. But the ideal corporateness of the minimal lineage is often overshadowed by considerations of practical political loyalties. [my underlining]

This means that these people are just like most humans on this planet who have a complex decision-making process that does not take into consideration just their identity or primary loyalty.

Pashai Pashayi

The leaders of these lineage groups, referred to as maleks, constitute the local council. It is here where “the council decides about various norms and rules pertaining to the wider local community.” (but keep in mind that this is a description of the situation in the late 1970s, before thirty years of conflict and social upheaval occurred).

Ovesen throws another important factor into the analysis with a very important qualification: the system of minimal lineage is relevant only to those people who are considered siyal, or “equals.” The rest of the population is rayat or peishawar. These three categories comprise a caste system: siyal being the landowning farmers, rayat the landless tenants, and peishawar the craftsmen. This system is very similar to the Nuristanis and very dissimilar to the Pashtuns. How does system arrange itself? Check out this paragraph by Ovesen:

Pashai castes

Is this a little too unclear? Let’s add more mud to the water:

ethnic pashai

Ovesen stresses that this system exists among all Pashai speakers, but he notes that the terms used vary among the groupings of Pashai and terms such as kandi, dai and tapa are not “employed in any consistent manner.” Ovesen even provided an anecdote of one group offering a deceptive categorization of themselves to others in order to increase the group’s status in their eyes. Such practices can be seen elsewhere, such as with some Turkic groups offering a tribal identity that ties themselves directly to Ghengis (sic) Khan or Babur, no matter how unlikely that may be.

So how do the various communities interact? Beyond the village or confederacy councils there is an institution termed the marat (at least in Darra-i Nur it is termed that). A marat is essentially a visit by the notable personalities of one group (plus a sizable entourage) to another community. The marat would have the appearance of a relatively lavish feast and would serve the purpose of offering congratulations or, most importantly, resolving community and inter-community disputes or arranging political alliances or appealing to a stronger dispute to arbitrate a dispute with a third party or…..(you get the idea). Ovesen offers up quite a god analysis of this institution. At the end he notes that among the Darra-i Nur Pashai the marat is an institution of the past, and at the time of his writing, had not been used for at least 25 years. Ovesen’s speculation is that the government representatives and authority has taken over the role as arbitrator in this area (which is much cheaper than having a huge lavish feast). One effect of this is a decrease in inter-community marriages, which is an important factor in community relations and political relations. One local said that “the love is gone from the people.”

I’ll leave the conclusion to Ovesen:

Pashai Nangarhar

There is so much more to write about, including Ovesen’s fascinating description of the Pashai’s relationship with their environment, their changing marriage relations, the influence of the Pashtun culture and their historical myth origins. But I’m not going to map that much human terrain today.

I’m not going to go on forever about the Pashai speaking people. I just wanted to provide some ethnographic context to accompany the NY Times article. I’m not going to speculate on the human terrain of the Korengal Valley. I’m not there, the guys below are. Based on what was written in the article, these men seem to be presented with a herculean task in overcoming the early missteps in the Korengal. Good luck to them.

Korengal valley army

If you want more information, you should consult the bibliography below. If you want the Ovesen articles, just send me an email. For other sources, here is some bibliography on the Pashai, via the Afghanistan Analyst Bibliography:

1.8 Pashai

Books and Theses

Keiser, Lincoln R. Social Structure and Control in Two Afghan Mountain Societies. PhD diss. University of Rochester.

Snoy, Peter. 1967. Verlauf und vorlaufige Ergebnisse einer Reise zu Paschai-Gruppen in Afghanistan. Ms., Heidelberg.

Wutt, K. 1981. Pashai: Landschaften – Menschen – Architektur. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt.

Articles, reports, and book chapters

Catu, R. 1995. ‘Le peuple Pashai’, Central Asian Survey, 14(3), pages 449-461.

Emadi, Hafizullah. 2000. ‘Praxis of taqiyya: perseverance of Pashaye Ismaili enclave, Nangarhar, Afghanistan‘, Central Asian Survey, 19(2), pp. 253-264.

Ovesen, J. 1984. ‘On the cultural heritage of the Pashai’, Anthropos, 79, pages 87-98.

Ovesen, J. 1986. ‘The construction of ethnic identities: the Nurestani and Pashai’, in Die ethnischen Gruppen Afghanistans: Fallstudien zu Gruppenidentitat un Intergruppenbeziehungen. E. Orywal (editor). Wiesbaden: Reichert. Pages 239-253.

Ovesen, J. 1983. ‘Environment and history in Pashai world-view’, Folk, 25, pages 167-84.

Ovesen, J. 1982. ‘Marriage and social groupings among the Pashai’, Folk, 24, pages 143-156.

Ovesen, J. 1981. ‘The continuity of Pashai society’, Folk, 23, pages 221-234.

Wutt, K. 1986. ‘The Pashai in Darra-I Mazar and Wamagal’, in Die ethnischen Gruppen Afghanistans: Fallstudien zu Gruppenidentitat un Intergruppenbeziehungen. E. Orywal (editor). Wiesbaden: Reichert. Pages 304-308.

To prevent any confusion with numerous other journals with the same name, Folk and Anthropos as listed here are the ones based in Denmark and Austria/Switzerland/Germany, respectively. Of the authors listed above, Jan Ovesen has moved on to study South-east Asia and Karl Wutt has lectured recently on Afghanistan but not published anything on Afghanistan recently. Keiser is now a prof at Wesleyan.


  1. […] Ghosts of Alexander – The People of the Korengal (Valley). […]

  2. Very niece piece…
    I’ve linked your blog on mine. I’m a French PhD Student in Military History and Defense Studies, currently studying COIN in Iraq…
    Even if my blog is written in French, some are in Englis too.
    Bon courage…
    Stéphane TAILLAT

  3. […] Is Out There. Now Ghosts of Alexander (a blog quickly moving to the top of my reading list) has published an in depth analysis of the population of Korengal. GoA’s post is a great read and put Rubin’s article in […]

  4. […] On The Korengal A superb Afghanistan Blog here, Ghosts of Alexander- People of the Korengal …and a remarkable photo- Most of Kunar and Nuristan have remained so isolated as to be largely […]

  5. I don’t know if you really talking abut Korangal valley or pasha people, because every pashai tribe have deferent culture even they speak pashai but deferent, for example Korangales are do not understand laghmani pashai or kapisai even some part of ningraharar.
    way called you them ghosts of alexander?

  6. Dear Moneeb,

    Thank you for the comment. This description of the people in this article is of the people who speak Pashai and live in Darra-i Nur, not of the Korengalis. I wanted to write about Pashai speaking people and the articles by Jan Oveson were the only ones I could find. And thank you for the additional information on the language differences within Pashai.

    The name “Ghosts of Alexander” is the name of this website. It is not referring to any people in Afghanistan. I got the title from a historian who said that the ghosts of Alexander the Great’s army are still “wandering around” Afghanistan.

    And I really enjoyed looking at your photos on flickr. Thank you for sharing those beautiful photos of Afghanistan.

    — Khoda hafez.

  7. Excellent work. Thank you.

  8. These people are not “descendants of Alexander and his legions”; they are simply the remnants of the much older Aryan culture which established itself from Tajikistan to Kashmir. “Alexander and his legions” were on a military campaign, not a mountaineering expedition where they’d clamber into the region’s most daunting ranges to breed with the local women, and that in what is now three countries. Just another folk rumor, like the origin of the term ‘gringo’, and how every young American woman believes her name, no matter what it is, means something like “Moon Power Star-Child”.

  9. ML,

    Nobody here, of course, has suggested the “Alexander link.” As for the people here being “Aryans,” they speak a Dardic language, not one one that could be called “Aryan.” One could still suggest a biological link, but certainly not a linguistic one.

    [note added]: I assumed the comment was coming from one of those people who center “Aryan” identity on the western Iranian, which is why I said Dardic is not Aryan. Clearly that’s not the case and you’ll read below.

    My comment above is not about all Indo-Iranian languages. Corrections follow below. Or you can read this:

    This confusion is quite common when you mix linguists with people who study ethno-nationalism. Terms used by one mean quite another thing to the other. As for “Dardic,” see ML’c comments below on this term and its continued applicability.

  10. […] The People of the Korengal […]

  11. Hello,
    Thanks for the wonderful piece of information about Pashai community and the name you give your website (GoA) is absolutely astonishing.
    I am one of the native Pashai speakers who am coming from Dari Noor district of Utran Village.
    The information i read in your article is almost correct to what i know.
    I could give you even more inforamtion about many other things that could have added up to your valuable information.
    I am not very good writer to put all these information on your website but incase we make an email contact would make me able to share my views with you.(Only incase you were intersted)
    I would suggest that if you could have added some more photos of the Vally and the life conditions of the people would have made your wesite much beautifull.
    Since you very well know that these pashai communities were left un noticed not from the attention of Afghanistan government in the past but as well as is still in the present by the current government of Mr. Hamid Karzai.
    What i mostly am interested in is that our people need help!!!
    The need to be educated please put your hands togather, to help them.
    If any one who reads my message and wants to help the most un noticed faction of the people in Afghanistan i would suggest that these are the ones. Every faction, every linguistic group in Afghanistan has a leader for himself in the current political situation of the Afghanistan.
    Yes of course Mr. Hazrat Ali is one of the Leader that is said to be the leader but i dont think he can help them, get them out of the current situation of illetracy, poverty and ignorance.
    At the end i would suggest any one who needs any sort of solid information with proofs i will be there to give you with details. As well as I would kindly request all of you who is really interested in helping our community he is welcome to contact me on my official email address (

    Thanks for your attention.

  12. Hello!
    Thanks for the very interesting article. Would you be so kind and send me the Oveson articles?
    I just finished self-publishing a book my brother Craig C. Naumann wrote on the Afghan education system. You might be interested in reading it. The title is “Books, Bullets, and Burqas-Anatomy of a Crisis, Educational Development, Society and the State in Afghanistan” 1-4415-0783-3. It will be available soon.
    My brother was in Asadabad for WFP in 2002 and had some experience with the difficulties to deal with local tribal affiliations etc to be able to imply any program…
    Natascha Naumann

  13. This is a great post. But re. your response to ML, in what way are the Dardic languages not “Aryan”?

  14. Just realized how old this actually was…

  15. “As for the people here being “Aryans,” they speak a Dardic language, not one one that could be called “Aryan.” One could still suggest a biological link, but certainly not a linguistic one.”

    Dardic is a useless misnomer, but the languages so designated are a subfamily of the INDO-ARYAN hemisphere of the Indo-European language family:

    From Korengal to Gurez these isolated tribes speak “Dardic” Aryan languages. They also happen to look more or less alike and still exist in precisely the geographic extent of the historical Vedic Arya. So, I think it’s pretty safe to call these folks Aryans, pace Islam.

    “Nobody here, of course, has suggested the “Alexander link.” As for the people here being “Aryans,” they speak a Dardic language, not one one that could be called “Aryan.” One could still suggest a biological link, but certainly not a linguistic one.”

    Seems to me you do suggest it. The title of this blog refers to Alexander. You said to someone else: “I got the title from a historian who said that the ghosts of Alexander the Great’s army are still “wandering around” Afghanistan.” And finally, “One could still suggest a biological link, but certainly not a linguistic one.”

    Others have already studied the biological link, and it’s been disproved: Kashmiris and Pamiris, along with the Kyrgyz, Altayans, eastern & western Slavs, and Norwegians, exhibit the highest frequency of the R1a Y haplogroup which has been associated with the movements of the ancient Aryans or, if you like, “speakers of Indo-European languages”. Greece falls mid-range in the scale: There may be some similarities of form among inhabitants of the Korengal or whatever valley, and portions of the Greek populace, but it’s obvious the latter is substantially mixed while the Asian populations in question have been isolated throughout their history and so are unlikely to have mixed very much at all. You’d be on safer ground if you studied the linguistic link, but you seem to have no idea of the common origins here, and exhibit the postmodern aversion to mere mention of “Aryan” identity, so you fall back on the myth of the “biological link” — QED: Alexander’s gen’rulz and soldiers left behind in Central Asian satrapies or however it is imagined to have been. The archaeo-genetic history is much much deeper than that and I advise you to drop the romantic notions and reach further back into it.

    Your blog is questionable but I read it anyway. Keep up the ….. uh, questionably good work.

  16. ML,

    This blog is not for linguists or geneticists, and I aspire to neither, not even an amateur.

    So thanks for the criticism and the correction, you are welcome to do so whenever you please.

  17. Alex,

    See comment above. I incorrectly tossed Dardic out of its group, leading even further away from a relevant discussion of identity, in the non-historical-linguistics sense..

  18. Right on. Sorry for being a bit of troll there — hadn’t really explored your blog and had my usual knee-jerk reaction to encroachment on my little niche.

  19. That’s cool. We contemporary Afghanistan and Central Asia people are far worse to people who stay into our niche (think wolverines on meth).


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