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Reflecting on a changing world with the help of the Attan

As the world experiences a particularly intense period of political, economic, and social change with the rapid movement of people and ideas, there are of course a lot of questions about our identities that many (if not all) of us are looking for answers to.

For example, what does increased diversity of all kinds, brought with waves of migration over the last several decades, mean for personal and societal cultural identity? How do we reconcile old traditions with emerging traditions? Can we belong to a nation, or any community for that matter, if we live outside of its physical borders?

Given the current atmosphere of global cultural upheaval, I couldn’t help but think about conversations I’ve had over the last years about Afghan dances, especially the Attan. This dance in particular has always struck me because of the diversity of perspectives about Afghan identity that it inspires. In speaking with Afghan community members based in Afghanistan, Germany, the US and Cambodia, I have been amazed by the range of experiences people recount concerning the Attan and how it has reflected larger cultural and social changes that have unfolded over the last centuries.

In many ways, the Attan seems a helpful lens through which to understand our contemporary identity questions – the impact of migration on our traditions; the contentious topics and conversations surrounding ideas of gender, age, ethnicity, and religion that emerge with economic, social, and political change; and the importance of communicating to help us through changes to our world and identities.

What follows is an excerpt from a paper about the Attan that I worked on a couple of years ago in hopes that it might provide food for thought and perhaps discussion about your own perspectives as we move through profound changes to our world. Disagreement is welcome.

Note that some images have been excluded due to copyright issues that prohibit their publication outside of academic forums.

What the Attan Looks Like

The Attan is a group dance. Though the name, Attan, sounds like it describes a single dance, it actually describes a wide range of variations on a core set of movement practices. Dancers’ and musicians’ geographical origin, tribal origin, ethnic origin, gender, and age define these variations (Interview 2G; Interview 6G; Interview 11G). Though it is difficult to render a single highly specific description of the Attan, almost all variations of the Attan adhere to a common 11/8 rhythm and corresponding footwork. Each measure of 11/8 rhythm is musically denoted by the dhol – a type of drum – according to the image description below.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Each number accounts for one eighth note, eleven of which make up the entire measure. The numbers noted in heavier weight account for a heavier beat of the drum, whereas the numbers noted in a thinner line weight indicate a lighter beat of the drum. The numbers denoted in superscript represent silences. Two measures of notes are represented in the image above with each set of numbers one through eleven representing one measure.

[Image excluded due to copyright]

Figure 3.06: "Ata Mohammed mit Dhol, Gurbandtal, Prov. Parwan" (Hoerburger, 30)

The dhol player maintains this underlying rhythm throughout the dance, beginning at a slow pace and finishing at a rapid pace. The dancers’ feet step in time to this rhythm, with the greatest emphasis on heaviest beats (the first, fifth, and eleventh) denoted by a slight bounce in the dancer’s step. Many variations include additional emphasis on the eleventh beat with a strong and unified clap, or in some instances, the clapping together of sticks.

Also notable is the strong relationship between the dancers and the musician playing the dhol. Several interviewees emphasized the importance of the dhol player standing in the center of the circle that the dancers make, and his or her responsibility for following the dancers’ rhythm, specifically the lead dancer. The lead dancer guides all other dancers in movement pattern changes in the dance and is also responsible for remaining engaged in non-verbal communication with the musician to keep everyone working together. The lead dancer rotates throughout the dance (Interview 4G; Interview 12G).

Paired with this strong rhythmic imperative in the lower body is a fairly improvisational upper body often characterized by spins, head tosses, and bounces. Where men tend to make more angular shapes with their bodies and engage in heavily athletic movements, women tend to make more curved shapes with their arms and hands and engage in less jumping. In variations practiced among the US-based interviewees, women’s variations demonstrated more heavily athletic movements than women’s variations described by Germany- and Afghanistan-based interviewees. The Attan can last for at least seven minutes, but generally longer or for as long as the musicians and dancers decide.

[Image excluded due to copyright]

Figure 3.07: Men dancing the Attan in Afghanistan. Location unknown. (Robertson 78)

Origin of the Attan

Given divergent accounts, it is difficult to know precisely where, when, or how the Attan was born.

Some accounts hold that the Attan has its origins in Pyrrhic dance, or a type of dance used in Ancient Greece in military training practices and that many suggest was practiced in honor of the Greek goddess, Athena. These accounts suggest that when Alexander the Great made his conquest east and established small Greek communities on his way, those communities, some of which were in Afghanistan, continued practicing this Pyrrhic dance (Suleman, Khan, Interview 1U).

Another version of Alexander the Great’s conquest suggests that as Alexander trekked through the Afghan mountains and approached his Afghan opponents, he heard the thundering and terrifying roar of the dhol echoing in among the mountainous peaks around him. As he slowly approached the sound that threatened to turn his entire army around, he saw his opponents dancing a wild frenzied dance that would later be known as the Attan (Interview 12G).

A third story describing the origin of the Attan cites a monster entering predominantly Pashtun Pakhtika and Pakhtia provinces as the impetus for the dance’s development. The giant monster was said to have tried to kill everybody in the area. Suddenly, a hero arrived to help. Encouraged by the hero, some local community members circled around the monster and began attacking it with swords. They communally defeated the monster and began waving their swords about and spinning in happiness. The Pashto word for hero is “atal.” It is thought that the happy dance of victory became known as the “Attan” in honor of the atal (Interview 1A).

Other accounts suggest that the dance was born in modern day southeast Afghanistan (Interview 6G). Still others suggest the dance has its origins in Zoroastrianism, used to achieve a trance-like state (Khan, Interview 1U). A simpler explanation suggests that the dance was originally practiced for amusement around a fire centuries ago (Interview 5G).

Common to all of these accounts is the notion of the Attan as an ancient dance still practiced heavily in southern, eastern, and a few northern provinces of Afghanistan in a number of variations. Variations of the dance also appear in neighboring Pashtun territories of Pakistan, sometimes called Ludhi, as well as in diaspora communities around the world (Raza).

Roles of the Attan

The Attan and its multiple variations have come to fulfill a number of roles among Afghan community members. The dance has suggested importance to Pashtun Afghans in preparation of warfare. Some describe that during the rule of the Mughal Dynasty the dance took on religious significance and was used to achieve spiritual proximity to the divine prior to engaging in war (Suleman). Local and central Afghan government officials have been known to call on their constituents to perform the dance in welcome and celebration of visiting high-level officials or foreign dignitaries (Interview 4G). Recently, the Attan was practiced in Khost province to welcome the former Afghan king from exile back to Afghanistan in 2002. A spokesman for information and culture suggested, "This meeting [between Afghans and the former king] was accompanied by the national dance [Attan], young men dancing and shaking their hair and singing village songs" (“Eastern Afghan Town Supports Ex-King”). The Attan has also recently been danced in honor of a Pakistani electoral candidate in an area neighboring the Afghan border, and has been used to resolve inter-tribal disputes on occasion (Ali; Interview 3G). In addition to these religious and political uses, the Attan has come to be practiced in celebration of marriages, a number of holidays – national, religious, and local – and in protest (Khan; St. John 51-54, 237; Afghanan; Suleman; Interview 3G; Interview 1U).

For diaspora communities in Germany and the US, the Attan plays an important role in preservation of Afghan identity. One US-based interviewee commented, “Being away from Afghanistan I feel a sense of needing to preserve my Afghan culture. Dance can help me do that” (Interview 1U). Another US-based interviewee suggested that, “a lot of Attan songs are patriotic. They’re helping us [Afghans] to get in touch with our roots when we’re away from our country. My mother said, ‘When I was in Afghanistan, I didn’t even like Attan.’ But now she does” (Interview 4U).

Where in Afghanistan, the Attan would not typically be formally performed, in the US and Germany, the Attan is practiced both as a social dance and as a performance dance. In the US, Ballet Afsaneh in San Fransisco and George Mason University’s Afghan Student Union (GMU ASU) have played a significant role in defining and popularizing the Attan as a performance dance (see Figures 3.08 and 3.09). Former GMU ASU president and described the process of choreographing an Attan for a competition or performance:

“Based on the main provinces of Afghanistan, we'll put like a Qata Ghani move in, or a Tajiki or a Loghari move, obviously we'll have Pashto moves. We try to kind of hit every kind of dance that I could possible think of that I know how to dance, in Afghanistan. And incorporate those moves with a few modern day moves to make it flow. For instance this past year at Mason we had kind of like a technoish Afghan song, and we literally did modern dance with an Afghan twist…it can be how we move our hips or hands.” (Interview 6U)

Figure 3.08: Ballet Afsaneh performing the Attan (Parwaz – Fly Free 2010).

Figure 3.09: George Mason University’s Afghan Student Union performing the Attan (International Week Dance).

This approach to performing Attan was echoed by other interviewees’ experiences of either watching or performing the dance. Several interviewees cited the strong influence of Bollywood and Classical Indian dance movements on Attan choreography.

Who Practices the Attan?

The Dari word for dancer (“raqas”) can often be used derogatorily to suggest, “prostitute” (Interview 1U). One interviewee suggested that there is a very fine line between vulgar dance and decent dance. “For example,” she said, “a woman can wear very sexy clothes, but still dance decently. On the other hand, a woman can be very covered, but move sexily or in a vulgar way. It’s how you move your eyes and head, your hands, everything” (Interview 5U).

Though only men predominantly practiced the Attan in the past in the context of preparing for war and many other Afghan dances are considered inappropriate for women to dance, both men and women practice the Attan today, either separately or together (Cultural Attaché, Interview 5G). Notably, where hijabi women (women who wear a headdress called hijab and ascribe to certain cultural values) may not dance other dances and would never perform, many women suggest that the Attan can be an exception for hijabis (Interview 4U). Many Afghan women and men understand the Attan to be a socially acceptable dance for women to practice because the clothes and movements are understood not to be sexual or promiscuous, whereas other dances may be associated with ideas of excessive sexuality and inappropriateness (Interview 5U). A German-based Afghan interviewee who was also an Imam helpfully elaborated on this topic, suggesting that in non-Attan dances, dancers bring personal feelings to the dance, which can be sexual, or simply desiring of the spotlight. The interviewee further suggested that Ulema and Imams would agree that since non-Attan dances are egotistically motivated, Ulema and Imams cannot watch or condone those dances because they are shameful. In contrast, the Attan, as a symbol of unity, collective freedom, and collective pride inspires national feelings that foster a sense of community, an idea that the interviewee suggested Imams condone (Interview 3G). A second interviewee confirmed that Islam needs culture and because Attan fosters a collective Afghan culture, it is not in conflict with Islam unlike other dances that are considered sexual and devoid of culture (Interview 5G).

[Image excluded due to copyright]

Figure 3.10: “A girl in a typical Attan outfit sings for the Attan" (Afghan Folk Dances Brochure).

[Image excluded due to copyright]

Figure 3.11: Taliban members dancing at a celebratory event (Bucherer-Dietschi 1990-2000).

A few interviewees suggested that the Attan is exclusive to certain populations, for example Pashtun men with long hair, as long hair is important to the fullness of many spinning movements of the Attan (Interview 10G). However, the majority of intierviewes and secondary sources suggest that the Attan can include dancers of all generations including children, youth, middle aged, and older groups with each playing a specific role in the dance as musician, dancer, leader, among other roles (St. John 51).

Attan dances vary according to geographical region. Today, the Attan is practiced by at least forty-four different geographical sub-groups, many also ethnically defined, across Afghanistan (see Appendix A), with each practicing its own variation on a basic common structure characterized by an 11/8 rhythm and movement in a circle formation (St. John 50-51; Khan; Afghanan; Interview 11G). Attan can also extend to include a dance called “Chopbazi” according to some interviewees. Chopbazi is, like Attan, a circle dance but involves the use of sticks that are hit against fellow dancers’ sticks. This dance is thought to feature Pakistani and Indian influences and is typically practiced close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Diaspora community members also practice the Attan in a number of variations.

Some debate does exist concerning who practices the Attan. Where only 20 percent of Afghanistan-based interviewees commented that they felt the Attan is a national dance, 66 percent of US-based Afghans and 60 percent of Germany-based Afghans commented that they considered the Attan to be a national dance. All groups recognized the Attan as originally a Pashtun dance, but where non-Pashtuns still living in Afghanistan predominantly stated that the Attan is a Pashtun dance and that it is not universally practiced as a common Afghan dance across ethnic groups, the majority of diasporic non-Pashtuns living in the US and Germany stated that they think of the Attan as a national dance that all Afghans practiced regardless of ethnic group. Two Germany-based respondents suggested a different dance of Panjshiri origin, Qarsak, to be the non-Pashtun equivalent to the Attan as a national dance. Figure 3.12 further describes perspectives on the Attan as a national dance by interview group.

Figure 3.13 identifies locations in which the Attan is practiced according to interviewee comments and several secondary sources. A red circle marks each location the Attan is reportedly practiced. Some circles have been marked according to descriptions of those ethnic groups that practice the Attan, and thus are approximations of their populations’ centers. Each circle marks a different, or multiple different, variation(s) of the Attan (Interview 6U; Interview 1A; Interview 2G; Interview 4G; Interview 10G; Interview 11G; Khan; St. John 237; Bucherer-Dietschi 1987; “Map of Afghanistan”).

Figure 3.12: Perspectives on Whether or Not the Attan is a National Dance by Interview Group

Figure 3.13: Locations Where the Attan in Practiced in Afghanistan and Surrounding Countries

How Do People Learn the Attan?

Afghans interviewed indicated that they learned the Attan through a variety of sources. I have described these sources according to general categories in Figure 3.14. “Travel.” in this case, indicates traveling to another international location to either teach or learn a dance from another person. Most travel described was between the US, Germany, and Afghanistan.

Figure 3.14: Transmission of Dance Knowledge by Percent Respondents per Interview Group

Interesting to note about “Travel” is that this did not include travel between Afghan community members in-country, for example to a nearby family member, but specifically referred to international travel. Travel was cited by 38.5 percent of all respondents, the greatest percentage of any other method of learning. TV, videos, and YouTube come in just behind with 34.6 percent of all respondents citing them as learning methods.

With the development of communication technology infrastructure, planes flying on a regular schedule to Kabul, more than 18 million mobile phones in use, and a nearly complete fiber optic ring in Afghanistan, diaspora communities experience a higher rate of communication with relatives and friends living in Afghanistan, making for a strong feedback loop between diaspora and non-diaspora Afghans (McGowan; Stevers; United States 10; Afghan Diaspora Community Member). One German-Afghan interviewee noted in that she was able to visit her relatives by plane in Afghanistan for the first time in February of 2013. She commented that she was looking forward to dancing with her cousins. However, on arriving and showing her cousins the Attan movements she had learned, her cousins were baffled and indicated that they didn’t know those steps, but wished to learn. The interviewee’s relatives in Afghanistan did not know how to dance traditional Afghan dances. The interviewee thus suggested that she taught her cousins to dance Afghan dances and her cousins taught her about other aspects of Afghan culture (Interview 8G.). Here, communication facilitated by technologies between diaspora and non-diaspora Afghans directly addressed questions concerning Afghan identity through dance.

Having now noted that there are indeed differences among the three study groups concerning the role and value of dance to each community, it is interesting to consider why these differences exist and what this might imply for Afghan identity more broadly. Given that differences in importance of gender separation are most significant across all three groups, it is possible that responses are influenced by the greater culture of the country interviewees live in. This is valuable information, but perhaps less relevant to the diaspora, non-diaspora dichotomy that characterizes contemporary Afghan identity puzzles, as the differences do not seem to be directly correlated to these qualifiers. However, the fact that both diaspora groups considered the Attan to be the national dance of Afghanistan where Afghans still living in Afghanistan did not, presents a clearer difference along diaspora and non-diaspora lines. This data is more relevant to helping us understand the diaspora non-diaspora question in relation to Afghan identity in a contemporary context.

It is helpful to observe that all groups recognized the Attan as originally a Pashtun dance. It is the degree of relevance that each group attributed to this fact that differed. Where non- Pashtuns still living in Afghanistan clearly stated that the Attan is still a Pashtun dance and that it is not universally practiced as a common Afghan dance across ethnic groups, diaspora community non-Pashtuns living in both the US and Germany stated that they think of the Attan as a national dance that all Afghans practiced regardless of ethnic group.

Through the lens of dance, this means that with the emigrations of the last four decades, a community exists outside of Afghanistan’s territorial borders that still identifies as Afghan, but that defines what “Afghan” means in a different way. This difference in perception of the value of dance thus describes a tension between diaspora and non-diaspora Afghans.

Afghanistan is a country emerging from nearly forty years of conflict with a large percentage of its population scattered across the globe facing the challenge of finding a new sense of national identity following a range of international and domestic influences. The discussion of communication technologies working in conjunction with dance to address this identity tension consequently presents an helpful way through which to consider how Afghans around the world can work to build a new identity together.

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