The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan:
Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War

M. Nazif Shahrani

University of Washington Press 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2004
Originally published in 1979, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan is a study of the peoples of the Wakhan Corridor, the long, narrow portion of Afghanistan that reaches out to touch China.

Shahrani begins with the ecology of the Wakhan Corridor. There is a small area under 3500 metres along the Oxus and Sarhad rivers that is suitable for agriculture and a larger area on the Pamir and Sarhad rivers and their flanks usable as pasture; these areas are surrounded by the mountains and glaciers of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs. Shahrani also provides a brief history of the area and its exploration. The Wakhan corridor was created to prevent British India and Russia sharing a common border; more recently the Kirghiz have sought refuge there after fleeing first the Russian and then the Chinese Pamirs.

Shahrani devotes one chapter to the Shiite Wakhi, to their social structure, settlement patterns, and agropastoral subsistence. Three chapters describe the way of life of the Kirghiz. The first covers their pastoral subsistence system: their herd animals, flocks, patterns of land use, and non-pastoral food and goods. The second looks at their adaptations to high altitude, their demographics, and their organisation by oey (household or yurt) and qorow (camp). And the third covers the Kirghiz sociocultural system — lineages, marriages, and kinship.

The Kirghiz have adapted to the closing of the frontiers with China and Russia. They have intensified land use in a kind of "pastoral involution", moving with the seasons so as to use land only available briefly in summer and making some use of irrigation. Fixed land ownership has brought increasing concentration of wealth, but the leasing of animals to poorer Kirghiz (a kind of pastoral sharecropping) has allowed them to remain a full part of the community. And the interdependence of the Kirghiz and Wakhi has increased, alongside trade with the rest of Afghanistan.

Shahrani also looks at adaptations to high-altitude and the danger of hypoxia (this material is dated, as there has been much work in this area over the last quarter-century). And his conclusion sets the Kirghiz in the context of theories of nomadism and relations between nomads and states: their nomadism is part of a "defensive" political strategy.

This 2002 edition adds a foreword and an epilogue. The obvious motivation for the reissue is the involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, and the foreword focuses on terrorism, the Taliban, and recent Afghan history. The Wakhi and Kirghiz have been rather peripheral to Afghan politics, however, and anyone buying this book solely from an interest in those topics will be disappointed.

The forty page epilogue is more interesting. It describes how most of the Kirghiz fled Afghanistan immediately following the communist coup in 1978, even before its consequences were clear; they went to Pakistan and were resettled in eastern Turkey in 1982. Shahrani describes a refugee community which has undergone dramatic changes but which has managed to maintain its cohesion and identity.

I was only expecting to read parts of The Kirghiz and Wakhi — my interest stems from having visited a Wakhi hamlet in Boroghil Pass on a visit to northern Pakistan — but I ended up reading it cover to cover. It offers all the pleasures of a well-written ethnography, along with plenty of connections to broader history and anthropology.

September 2004

External links:
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Related reviews:
- Sabine Felmy - The Voice of the Nightingale: A Personal Account of Wakhi Culture in Hunza
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- more ethnography
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%T The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan
%S Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War
%A Shahrani, M. Nazif
%I University of Washington Press
%D 2002
%O paperback, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0295982624
%P 302pp