Big Tribes

There are still many places in the world where tribal leadership still defines government, even on very large scales. Americans have become aware of some of them during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pushtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan constitute the largest group of tribes still in existence. They number in the tens of millions, not governed so much as guided by a loose hierarchy of tribal leaders. The estimated 350-400 tribes consist of many smaller family groups. Their leaders come together in occasional jirgas, gatherings of tribal leaders, to negotiate issues of common concern. In Afghanistan, a “grand assembly” of tribal leaders, a loya jirga, is held as occasion demands to elect national leaders or settle major conflicts. Pakistan sometimes uses loya jirgas to discuss peace in its tribal areas. These gatherings continue today. Each gathering is small enough to be just another small group.

It is priests, not shamans, who look out for the psychology of the population in large tribes. Like other large forms of government, large tribes paid their price for growth. They too jettisoned shamanism when the size of their tribes created mega-leaders. In the areas of the largest extant tribes, the priests of Islam, imams and mullahs, tightly define the in-group and brook little to no dissent.

The Kurdish people are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a country. The group is spread between Western Syria, Southern Turkey, Northern Iraq and Western Iran, in an area sometimes called Kurdistan. The Kurds were victims of the Ottoman Empire and its successors as the map of the Middle East was drawn and redrawn in the 1920s. That map is still being actively redrawn, as anyone who has watched the wars in Iraq and Syria will note. The region’s roughly 30 million Kurds adhere to a variety of religions, speak a variety of dialects, and yet mostly follow a tribal way of life. A Canadian journalist recently said of the current president of the Iraqi Kurds, Massoud Barzani, “Barzani is criticized by his opponents as a tribal man, but that is the important thing: it guarantees survival. The tribal man knows how to keep things together.”

Tribal systems can, like the Pashtun and the Kurds, scale to large numbers of people. Tribal regions invariably become more dangerous places when populations become large. Some scholars have argued that tribal systems work best when people are distributed thinly across large distances of marginal land, much as our ancestors were in the time before agriculture blossomed our population. Pride and honor are inextricably linked with membership in a tribe. Internecine warfare can easily become endemic, as honor is satisfied, revenged, and the revenge revenged. Nevertheless, a certain stability may be reached that can last millennia. Members of modern tribes arguably live in ways more closely aligned with the human condition than we in the “civilized” West.


I had the opportunity to meet a young Pashtun woman a few years ago. Zarah had grown up in a camp for Afghan refugees in Western Pakistan until she was fourteen years old. Her family had returned to Kabul when the Taliban left. She lived with her extended family until being offered a scholarship to attend university in the United States. Zarah was one of five Afghan women funded by the philanthropist Doris Buffett to attend the University of Mary Washington for four-year bachelor’s study in economics.

My wife befriended Zarah and she regularly came to our house for dinner. She ate very little, but raved about the tastiness of the jasmine rice that we served. She ate little meat and refused most vegetables. She was quite thin, and had sunken, hollow cheeks from missing teeth. The aid worker who had introduced her to a toothbrush as a teenager was many years too late to save most of her molars. Her wisdom teeth had plenty of room when they erupted in her early twenties. At 23, she could readily pass for 40.

Zarah generally dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. She did not cover her head when in the US, although she was an observant Muslim. One day she gave a scarf to my daughter for a birthday. My wife and I watched amazed as Zarah demonstrated how “wonderful” it was to wear the hijab. She covered her head and held an end of the scarf in front of her face so that just her eyes were showing. Her eyes sparkled and laughed in a way she had never shown us before. My wife and I were frankly uncomfortable at this lesson being taught to our daughter, but we agreed to discuss it with her in private. It was the first and only time we had seen Zarah so animated. She clearly derived some power from the ability to manipulate men through selectively revealed secrecy.

Zarah’s attempt at feminine manipulation, and the natural way she fell into it, stood in stark contrast to her educational experience. She spoke Urdu, Pashto, Dari, and English. On the surface she had much admirable life experience. She had survived the camps, and managed to get herself to the US for a free tertiary education. Yet everything was not as rosy as it first appeared. Her primary schooling had been abysmal if not absent. It seems naive in retrospect for anyone to think that she could be thrown directly into a US university. She managed to pass most classes but showed an almost profound lack of insight. She was missing basic geography, an understanding of political systems, and had effectively no understanding of mathematics. She was also missing a lot of the grammar she needed to write her assignments. It was not just that she came to English late. She did not understand those concepts in any other language. She spoke something more akin to trade creoles, being functionally illiterate but able to get by in daily activities. Her attempts at translation for the US military had not gone well. The economics degree that she earned could not, in the end, be compared fairly to those earned by her classmates.

Bernadette told a story to change the topic. She named a date that seemed impossibly early to Zarah who, by noticing the ages of our children, presumed us to be in our early thirties. When corrected that we were in our late forties, Zarah’s face registered shock and disbelief. “In my country, you would be dead!” she exclaimed. Indeed, life expectancy in her home country was then a shocking 42 years of age. Zarah’s father was 44 at the time and had been invalided for no obvious reason for some years. Life expectancy has since skyrocketed to around 60 for babies born in 2015, presuming the country manages to maintain some form of peace.

Zarah’s experience resonates with the tradeoffs of modern tribal life. She felt a deep sense of belonging, but suffered greatly from the lack of safety. She felt strongly attached to her relatives, but had few friends. She was in constant contact with her sister, studying in Japan, via Skype. She had no conception of how the Internet worked. The other Afghan girls at the university would not include her in their social circle because she was not from the right family. She had entered a global world and felt very much the fish out of water. In the end, she elected to remain in the United States instead of returning home. The threat of physical violence overcame the lure of the tribe. She is currently undergoing dental reconstructive surgery.

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