Afghan malangs: Keeping the country’s mystic roots alive

Published: April 20, 2014
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The malang was a friendly old man who took my hand and looked at it for a few minutes. He then told me that I would have a bright future.

The malang was a friendly old man who took my hand and looked at it for a few minutes. He then told me that I would have a bright future. The malang was a friendly old man who took my hand and looked at it for a few minutes. He then told me that I would have a bright future. PHOTO: FILE

In Afghanistan, there is a special group of people called the malangs. This is an Afghan word which describes men who live a very austere and dangerous life and who are happy with the hardships they endure.

malang is somewhat like the Afghan version of a shaman.

They have been part of the Afghan society for centuries and have been forced to live an extremely hard life. These harsh circumstances are not just because of the wars; these people are neither accepted nor respected in the Afghan society.

The main reason behind such ill treatment is that in mainstream Islam, shamanism (or anything like it) is not considered an acceptable practice. Since a majority of Afghans are Muslim, the unpopularity of malangan is understandable. However, the Afghan people have not entirely shunned them. They live by a system where they do not bother these malangan as long as the malangan don’t interfere with their lifestyles.

Shamanism came to Central Asia with the Turkic people. When the Turks invaded the Central Asian steppes in the sixth century, they brought their shamanistic beliefs and ancestral cults to the mountains of Central Asia and hence, to Afghanistan. Most of these shamans claim Islamic titles for themselves but since they are not part of the religion directly and never had anything to do with Islam, giving them such a title has never even been considered.

Shamans or malangan are neither a vibrant stratum of society nor do they make a tangible part of the population. One way of explaining their existence could be that they are at the edge of the Afghan society – secluded, isolated and left alone to their own situations.

However, I think that it is important to know about them since despite all the turmoil of the war, they still exist in Afghanistan.

And that is something worth exploring.

I have met two malangan so far. I found the first one sitting in front of the Shah-Do Shamshira mosque in Kabul. He was a friendly old man who took my hand and looked at it for a few minutes. He then told me that I would have a bright future. This prediction, although a positive one, made me wonder whether the malang really had some hidden, inner talent to see my future by analysing the lines on my palm.

I met the second malang near Qargha, a lake in Afghanistan. He was walking barefoot on the street. I stopped him and asked if he would like to talk to me and he agreed.

He looked deep into my eyes and told me that I would have a big journey in the future.

I don’t believe in predictions and hence, I didn’t think that the malangan’s prophecies would be of any consequence. I still don’t believe that these people have any special ability. However, the fact that such people can live their way of life in such a war-torn country like Afghanistan is absolutely amazing in my view.

Millions of Afghans have died in the past while defending their religion and values. The existence of malangan, albeit filled with hardships, shows that Afghans are not intolerant people; they are not against different lifestyles. But they just don’t like it if someone tries to take over and implements or forces an idea upon them which clashes with their own belief system.

So, what do these malangan actually do? Well, usually they give advice about day-to-day matters.

People come to these malangan and tell them their dilemmas after which the malangan observe them, look at their palms or facial features and then give advice. If a person has a headache for example, the malang tells him which medication would be the best cure. If someone wants to know what will happen in the future, the malang will give his view about it which is usually his own opinion. However, many believe this advice to be a prediction which will soon come true.

A crucial point in this is that a malang asserts that he can read the future and this can, at times, be misleading. Those who believe this are even willing to pay money to the malang although this is usually not a big amount.

How the malangan have survived in the Afghani society, without jobs or any other source of income, is a big mystery.

Many Afghans say that the malangan are crazy. And this is why many people don’t take them seriously.

It seems to me that the malangan have no problem with this point of view because it is probably due to this very perception that they have survived in such a hostile environment. If the Afghans were to see the malangan as serious religious scholars or people who could bring a change and influence people, then they would probably be considered a threat and this would most certainly not be beneficial for their survival.

Whatever may be their secret, one thing is for certain – the malangan represent an ancient part of the war-struck Afghan land and being with them, one can feel the mystic roots which Afghanistan used to have.

Khaled Waziri

Khaled Waziri

The author is an Afghan-German journalist and blogger. He is currently reporting about the elections in Afghanistan,the withdrawal of the Nato/Isaf-troops and social issues in Afghanistan. He tweets @KhaledWaziri (twitter.com/KhaledWaziri)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.