The Voice of the Nightingale:
A Personal Account of Wakhi Culture in Hunza

Sabine Felmy

Oxford University Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1999
From the Wakhan Corridor, the long extension of Afghanistan reaching eastwards to touch China, the Wakhi have migrated into China, Pakistan, and Tajikstan: some 30 000 are split fairly evenly between the four countries. Felmy's The Voice of the Nightingale is a brief sketch of aspects of Wakhi culture, based on visits over more than two decades, mostly to Ghujal (in northern Hunza, in Pakistan) but also to the Yarkhun and Ishkoman valleys and to Xinjiang. Combining personal experiences, the life stories of informants, and some research, it is broad rather than deep: lacking any kind of theoretical or comparative perspective, it will primarily appeal to those with a prior interest in the region.

Felmy begins with a sketch of the history of the Wakhi and the relationships of the Wakhi community in Ghujal with surrounding states, as well as of early European encounters with Wakhi culture and language and modern attempts to protect and preserve them. An account of domestic life and the layout and contents of a typical Wakhi household is followed by a glance at elements of religious and spiritual belief: the traditions surrounding a local shrine, the role of the village khalifa or religious leader (the Wakhi are predominantly Ismaili Muslims), and meetings with a shaman or fortune-teller and local healers. Also covered are agriculture and its link with the village calendar and celebrations (including an account of polo and its significance in northern Pakistan generally) and education. As a result of encouragement by the third Aga Khan (the Ismaili spiritual leader) education is highly valued and in Ghujal (relatively) accessible at both primary and secondary level: there is even a "mini-diaspora" created by Wakhi students travelling to the lowlands for higher education. In a final chapter Felmy gives some examples of Wakhi bulbulik (triplets sung by female shepherds), quatrains, lullabies, proverbs, and riddles.

December 1999

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Related reviews:
- M. Nazif Shahrani - The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers and War
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
- books about Pakistan + Pakistan history
- more ethnography
- books published by Oxford University Press
%T The Voice of the Nightingale
%S A Personal Account of Wakhi Culture in Hunza
%A Felmy, Sabine
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, bibliography
%G ISBN 0195775996
%P x,109pp,17pp colour photos