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So I was talking with another Afghan coworker of mine the other day and discovered that he’s a member of the Zadran tribe. I had a terrible flashback moment because the Zadrans were the biggest tribe in the area where I worked in Afghanistan. One of my worst projects was when the Commander told me to “go study the Zadran Tribe.”

What does that even mean? Study what about the tribe? How they wear their hair? What their favorite cuisine is? How they like to vote in elections? And by the way, the Zadrans are the predominant people in 12 different districts across three provinces, so it’s not like I could just pop into a village and have a couple cups of tea to”figure them out.” I never did get any more clarification than that, so I just made up my own job for a while.

Anyway, so Zadrans are a tribe. That means they have a chief or grand poobah or someone who can tell them what to do, right? Or at least a council of elders or something? Leaders who solve problems, declare war, tell you who to vote for, etc? Not so much, as it turns out. See, even if you’re from the same “tribe” as the next village over, when there’s a mountain between you and that village, you don’t see a whole lot of each other, so you really do your own thing. In fact, you may even have a feud with the next guys over, even though you have the same last name (well, names aren’t quite that simple in Afghanistan, but you get the idea). Oh, there might be a couple famous people from your tribe that everyone knows (when I bring up Pacha Khan Zadran, who deserves a post in his own right, all my Afghan colleagues start grinning), but they don’t have any real authority to tell people what to do.

Alright, so if they’re not an organized political or social unit, do they have anything in common? From what I’ve seen, and my coworker agrees, they’re stubborn, hard (mountain folk everywhere are hard), and seriously, seriously proud to be a Zadran. But if you ask them what it means to be a Zadran, they shrug and say, “It’s just a name.” But a name they’re intensely proud of. Right. Even if they don’t like each other.

And they get especially proud and loud about their name if there’s another tribe involved that they don’t get along with–then it’s Zadran vs. Other Tribe all the way (though that doesn’t mean other Zadrans will come help fight, just that they’ll cheer from the sidelines). And that’s not even adding the confusion of sub-tribes and higher level tribal confederations.

My best analogy is college alumni, which is particularly relevant as we move into football season. I am a Penn State grad, as is a significant portion of my family, my father in particular. I am intensely proud of that fact, as are most of my fellow alumni, even with everything that has happened. In fact, like the Zadrans, there are some individuals within my Penn State tribe that I would happily declare a blood feud on. Well, it probably wouldn’t be much of a feud since I don’t think said individuals would have many allies. More like old-school tribal justice.

But before all this, as a youngster, I internalized my father’s tribal identity and grew up hating other tribes like Notre Dame and Pitt, though I couldn’t even tell you why aside from the fact that that’s what Penn Staters do. And we don’t really have a chief. Sure, people will say it was JoePa, but while I’d definitely have stopped to listen if he was giving a speech, if he’d told me to pick up my pitchfork and go to battle or vote for the Tories, I’d have rolled my eyes and disregarded it (and reminded him that I’m not British). He had prestige not authority (ditto, Pacha Khan Zadran). The same would be true if I met a grad running for political office–I wouldn’t vote for him just because we’re from the same tribe. Well, I might consider it, but if he’s a Tory, he’s right out regardless.

And we most definitely have our tribal confederations. I once wore a Penn State t-shirt to an Ohio State/Toledo game. The looks I got were all sorts of angry until I said, “At least it’s Big Ten,” at which point the crowd nodded and took to defending me themselves. But that degree of solidarity will only last until the next Penn State/Ohio State game and then it’s on.

The SEC, you ask? They’re a different species.

So tribes. It might not really mean anything, but it means something.