I was invited last Saturday i.e. 16th August 2008 by a colleague for dinner who was blessed recently with a second male child. He being a Pukhtoon / Pashtoon, I quickly accepted the invitation since I came to learn that his celebration would include the ‘ATAN’ as well.
The history of ‘ATAN’
Dance has been an important part of most cultures from their earliest times. Throughout the world, as part of celebrations and ceremonies, entertainment, and teaching, dance serves social, spiritual, artistic, and emotional functions. Before the introduction of written languages, dance was one of the primary methods of passing stories and rituals down from generation to generation, of committing knowledge to memory, and of learning precision movements, such as swordsmanship.
While many other art forms—music, painting and poetry—can be traced through human history through physical artifacts, dance is less easily defined, and like oral history and storytelling, relies on the direct communication of the ‘vocabulary’ of movement and stories from person to person. This vocabulary of movement is used by dancers and choreographers to describe or imitate the natural world (both living and inanimate objects), or to express common themes and emotions. Some movements are universal and recognized by people around the world, while others are unique to the region or people to which it belongs.
Pukhtoons possess a rich culture with all the ruggedness on the one hand and all the softness, romance and beauties on the other. The Pukhtoon dances have been defined as a symbol of courage and heroism and present the desire and readiness of a tribe to go into a battle field for Jihad. With heavy and insistent drumming, the dancers who are usually male move with uniform rhythm and steps. They dance usually in circles or columns holding different items of daily life (swords, guns, handkerchiefs, etc.) in their hands and mix the crude sounds of their possessions with the rhythm of drums and surnayi (flutes).
Both sexes dance the ATAN, a national dance in which dancers with arms raised twist from side to side at the waist as they step in a slow, rhythmic pattern around a circle. It is danced in same-sex groups during weddings and other celebrations. I have come to learn that there are about 32 variations of the ATAN.
Back to the story
My love for ‘ATAN’ started when I was pretty young and would see the Pathan dance in ecstasy whenever he would be happy and was celebrating something. This love came close to fruition when I accompanied a second battalion of medical students (mostly Pathans) to Cuba again this time in July 2008. This year round I accompanied them to Jose Maria Aguillar School of medicine in Matanzas city, Cuba.
For all the three nights I was there, the Pukhtoon scholars would gather during Mirianda time and dance their hearts out on the ‘ATAN’. There were about fourteen (14) boys who would do this while two were exceptionally good and would outperform all the others. Their timing was as good as professionals and they would swim their way through the dance and their movements were as smooth as silk and would flow like pure water in lush springs.
(The writer with Mohsin and Kausar, the ATAN Duo in Matanzas, Cuba)
And now I get back to the real story of the invitation that took me down memory lane. Yes, I was too excited to reach the venue where I did around 9:00 p.m. incidentally, it was almost a full moon that night and a few friends of the host were already there sitting on Qaleens (Rugs).
It was a typical all male affair as is seen in any Pukhtoon party or wedding gathering, women being the fairer sex remain indoors. They hailed from far and wide Northern borders of Pakistan including Zhob, Chaman, Muslim Bagh, Quetta, Loralai, Peshawar, Waziristan, Bannu, Hangu, Kohat, Malakand, Darra Adam Khel, Charsadda to name a few. They belonged to the Afridi, Kakar, Achakzai, Wazir, Dawar, Bangash and Khattak tribes. Soon after, typical Pukhtoon music started and a few of the boys got up and indulged in the ‘ATAN’. This was followed by clapping by the rest of the crowd and slowly and gradually more and more boys took part in the dance.
It was as if they were all born with it. The movements came natural to them and they danced with compassion and serenity. Surprisingly, the Pukhtoons being classified as a warrior race but none was found to be aggressive and they all were as civilized as they could be. Or was it because most of them were M. Phil or PhD students at the university?
Dinner was served around 12:15 a.m. which of course comprised of a goat sacrificed earlier and Nan (Pakistani bread baked in tandoor) and about 40 of us sat down and ate in harmony. As soon as the dinner was over, they all rose and were ready to dance again. It was already 12:45 a.m. when I had to beg leave with a question in my mind that I happened to be the only non-Pukhtoon among these fierce yet extremely hospitable people who can even die while defending the honor of their guests.
I was just wondering if the western world is right in condemning these people who hailed from the tribal areas and associating them with Al-Qaeda and the likes or is it just hog wash while all I saw was a happy bunch who knew how to enjoy life and enjoy they did.
- The lonely planet, Pakistan, John King, Bradley Mayhew, David St. Vincent, 5th edition, July 1998.
Shaikh Muhammad Ali