The family of farmers had left their destroyed village in Paktya and crossed over into the tribal Khattak region of Pakistan, where they established themselves as tenant farmers for a local wealthy landlord of Teri village. I had just arrived and was to stay with them as a guest, fulfilling my participant observation of Pashtun women’s life. I spent the afternoon talking with women while watching them fill gut skin sacks with fresh cow’s milk and churning it for cream. Evening was approaching, and one of them told me the men of the community wanted to meet me. A man came, wrapped in his blanket and turban, and the women motioned me to follow him.
We entered the low-roofed dried mud brick hut, and I froze, speechless, utterly thrown off by what I saw. As in Afghan fashion, the men sat on the floor lining the walls of the room, each one wrapped in his blanket. They were moving their hand up and down underneath their blanket, so that I could only see the blanket moving. I had never been frightened or felt threatened by men in the Middle East, mostly because I had learned over the years how to behave to earn respect. But this scene completely stunned me. What was I supposed to do, say, think? I stood, frozen, unknowing where to look.
One by one, they removed their blanket to reveal the small bird they were holding, making it bounce on its legs to strengthen them. They were all professional bird catchers and trainers for the Friday fair fights, and every moment of leisure time such as this was spent training their birds’ legs. I melted to the floor to begin answering the multitude of questions launched at me in usual manner at a first introduction.
(Excerpt from Secrets From The Field, finalist for the 2019 Eric Hoffer Award)