Negotiations in Performance: The Storytelling Performance of Two Adolescent Afghan Narrators

Negotiations in Performance: The Storytelling Performances of Two Adolescent Afghan Narrators

Benjamin Gatling
The Ohio State University


This paper examines the storytelling performance of two adolescent male Afghan narrators.  In the summer of 1976, the two narrators, Jalaludin and Mohammed Asef, sat down with Margaret Mills and her tape recorder in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Their performance encompassed items across the spectrum of oral, Persian fictive genres, from conventional stories similar to those found across the Islamic world to obscene märchen.   During the performance, the narrators repeatedly parsed notions of identity, ethnic, linguistic, and otherwise, within in a joke cycle.  This paper illustrates how their ambiguous handling of issues of identity in the performance is reflective of the boys’ ambiguous relationship to the categories named in real life.


This paper analyzes the dueling repertoires of two Afghan adolescent storytellers, Jalaludin and Mohammed Asef.  The texts analyzed for this paper were recorded by Dr. Margaret Mills on June 3 and June 10, 1976 at her apartment in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Here, I discuss discourses of identity that happen within a joke cycle spread out over two separate performances.  The two storytelling sessions largely consisted of different varieties of joking discourse, including long humorous tales, comedic personal experience narratives, and other shorter kinds of jokes.  Indeed, the first storytelling event stays almost exclusively inside the wide generic boundaries of what could be considered humor.  Apart from one longer non-humorous tale which Jalaludin used to conclude the storytelling event, all the individual performance units from the first storytelling session were intended to elicit some kind of humorous response from the narrators’ assembled audience.  Likewise, during the second session, Jalaludin – this time without the added impetus of his friend and opponent Asef – continued his joking performance interspersed with other fictive genres both humorous and not.

According to his own narrated biographical sketch, Jalaludin’s family lived almost 50 kilometers outside the center of Herat province in a Turkish-speaking village of almost 1000 persons.  According to their own narrative of origin and the perception of the population at-large, they were perceived as immigrants from Merv, in present-day Turkmenistan.  In contrast, Asef’s home was inside the municipal boundaries of the provincial capital, and he belonged to the majority Persian-speaking population.  Though they both were to some extent outsiders in that at the time of Mills’ recordings they both lived in dormitories while they finished their secondary education in Kabul, but Jalaludin, as a member of an ethnic minority and on account of his more humble village origins, already occupied a lower position on the social hierarchy.  Throughout the speech event, the narrators both implicitly and explicitly comment and deride ethnic “others.”  Specifically, the jokes center on a common motif from oral parlance in Afghanistan: that of the city boy and the bumbling provincial (shahrī o dehī).

Unlike proverbs and other kinds of folkloric speech genres in which a given text’s performance is formulated with a certain situation or object in mind, jokes oftentimes are not employed to comment on specific, concurrent social situations.  But while jokes can be performed for their own sake, as humor theorist Elliot Oring and others have argued (Oring 2003, 146), my investigation here maintains that joking discourse still has extra-textual meanings.  Jokes and other humorous discourse serve a function in both conversation and interaction.  Here, in addition to its other functions, the performance of one cycle of jokes works as a kind of gloss on the relationship of the performers to each other. Some of the humor helps position Jalaludin, especially, outside of his rural origins and locate him in a more urban, educated center.  Thus, the joke cycle acts as a commentary on “otherness” from both the perspectives of Asef and Jalaludin.  But because they both hailed from the provinces and lived as students in cosmopolitan Kabul, the meanings of the bumbling provincial in their narratives are all the more ambiguous.  Their relationship to the Afghan social hierarchy is articulated through the verbal, folkloric competition or “play” of the two narrators and helps to constitute it.  Even more, Jalaludin’s subsequent narrations on the second day of performance demonstrate that the earlier competitive dynamics have a real social impact and Jalaludin reintroduces and revives the theme of the bumbling provincial during his next storytelling performance precisely because the competition acts to question his social position.


The chief impetus for the joking performance was likely the presence of Asef.  While Jalaludin had been recommended to Mills as a teller of afsāneh or märchen, his friend did not share his proclivity for such longer, detailed discourse.1 Instead, Asef’s repertoire as performed on June 3, 1976 included exclusively shorter items of off-color humor.  In addition, Asef was not specifically invited to the storytelling event.  While Jalaludin had been recommended to Mills, Asef seemingly came along as his support.  Interestingly, one could argue that the genre of afsāneh, of which Jalaludin is an active bearer, by this point in time is now at least partially subsumed to the dehī category of culture.  Asef is likely no more than a passive bearer of the tradition.  It is, thus, outmoded values, e.g. afsāneh narration, that is partially being derided in Asef and Jalaludin’s joke cycle.

Thus situated, the boys’ beginning salvos of narration remain strikingly similar, that is, they perform the same type of material. They both interject into the other’s performance to “correct” and “clarify” that which is being said to such an extent that on several occasions it is difficult to delineate the individual provenance of a given narrative because they both elaborate on the same theme.  But this elaboration is not the same as collaboration.  The competitive dynamics of the performance exist from the outset.  While they may interject comments, clarifications, and elaborations into each other’s stories, it is not purely for altruistic purposes.  Instead, each storyteller at times seems to subvert and take over the narrative stream.

The almost duel-like qualities of the first storytelling session highlight the competitive nature of the boys’ performance.  This verbal competition can also fall into the category that Gregory Bateson has termed “play” (1972, 177-193). The competitors work to outdo their fellow narrator in theme, delivery, and style.  Thus when one of the storytellers introduces a theme, the other necessarily elaborates and offers his own related interpretation of the text.  This use of humorous material continued, likely for no other reason than competition’s sake, until Asef introduces a common motif from oral parlance in Afghanistan: that of the city boy and the bumbling provincial.  While no doubt, there were other influences on the context of the joke texts, it is at this point that the joke texts move more closely to the role of a gloss on the relative social positions of the two tellers.  Here, the use of the character of the bumbling provincial acts as a commentary on the ongoing relationship between Jalaludin, Asef, and their place in the Afghan urban/rural hierarchy.  Furthermore, it is at this juncture that the competitive play perhaps becomes more directed aggression and a deflection of perceived difference.  In addition, their use of humor acts as a kind of social grease.  Humor is often a vehicle with which to negotiate unfamiliar situations.  The event was an unprecedented social event for the boys, and they, no doubt, encountered a certain level of uncertainty in the performance setting.  Though humor is often a general resource to help resolve insecurities and a tool adolescents use to deal with the different social issues they face as they transition into adulthood, here, it is also a device the boys use to create a discourse on “otherness.”

Interestingly, it is Asef, as a Persian speaker and the more urban of the two, who introduces the shahrī/dehī theme with a story about an ignorant villager and his wife.  He quickly follows up with two short jokes about men from Wardak, a rural province not far from Kabul inhabited chiefly by ethnic Pashtuns, which was frequently the butt of rural stereotype humor in Kabul.  In this first introduction to the shahrī/dehī theme (Appendix, Story A), Asef does not portray the dehī in a completely negative light.  Instead, he repeatedly refers to the female protagonist as kharāb, or bad.  While he highlights the promiscuous fiancée’s moral shortcomings and that of her trickster mother, the dehī’s chief failing is his ignorance.  He fails to recognize that the attractive girl he married is not a virgin and is duped by a trick suggested by the girl’s mother.  Even more, the punch line of the tale has nothing to do with the dehī, but rather, in parallel to the initial frame of the story, it refers to an even greater moral deficiency on the part of the girl’s mother and the even greater stupidity of her now deceased father.  The text belongs more closely to the literature of female tricksters than to that of shahrī/dehī humor.  However, with Asef’s narrative about a dehī, the character of an ignorant villager has been introduced.

Asef, himself a sort of striving provincial, quickly revives the shahrī/dehī motif with two quick jokes about people from Wardak province in Afghanistan (Appendix Story B).  To urban Kabulis, Wardak humor functions as a blason populaire.  Oring argues that such humor is often not “about” the category named.  As he says in relation to blond jokes, “The blond is merely a ‘placeholder’ for joking about a particular set of values for which the blond is regarded as a symbolically appropriate – though not a sociologically accurate – representation” (Oring 2003, 66). So too, Wardak jokes are not necessarily about Wardak.  They, instead, critique a set of rural values and stereotypes out of current in the more urban, educated centers of Afghanistan.  What becomes interesting, then, is how Wardak is ridiculed in Asef and Jalaludin’s jokes.

In the modernizing Afghanistan of the 1970s, ignorance about the means and methods of modernity are ridiculed in Wardak jokes.  Social backwardness is derided and people are encouraged to throw off past traditions and embrace the tools of modernity.  Here, the Wardaki protagonist of Asef’s jokes cannot properly utilize two objects common in urban Afghanistan – a mirror and a car.  When he picks up the mirror and sees his reflection, because he has never seen his own reflection, he confuses the image for that of another person.  Likewise, being more accustomed to conveyance via pack animals, he misunderstands the proper functioning of an automobile.  If Oring’s theory holds true for Afghanistan, the Wardaki can be a placeholder for rural backwardness and an encouragement for rural Afghans to catch up with their urban countrymen.  While the Wardaki stands in for a set of societal values no longer in step with urbanizing Afghanistan, the ethnic dimension should not be underestimated.  In their telling, the joke’s butt becomes conflated with certain understandings of an ethnic other.  Both of the punch lines Asef tells involve a statement in Pashto, though the text of both jokes were told in Persian.  Because both Asef and Jalaludin do not belong to the majority, Pashto-speaking population, their jokes also work as a commentary on Pashtun status.  When told strictly by Pashtuns, the jokes take on the attributes of an attack on rural backwardness. When told among Persian-speaking Afghans, ethnic stereotypes also come to the fore.  So in addition to the values of urban, Persian-speaking Afghanistan being lauded and the ignorance of an ethnic “other” being derided, there also is an ethnic dimension to Asef and Jalaludin’s jokes.  Because this ethnic “other” is also representative of the politically dominant faction and by some accounts the majority linguistic group in the country, issues of dominance also should not be discounted.  Even more, Pashtun nationalists in Afghanistan idealize the very “tribal” form of “Pashtunness” that the jokes deride, and consider them more authentic Pashtuns.2 When told by Asef and Jalaludin, the jokes take on an anti-Pashtun dynamic, and both rural backwardness and Pashtun dominance are simultaneously ridiculed.

Whether intentional or not, Asef’s mention of a dichotomy between the rural and urban inhabitants of Afghanistan, in addition to his mention of the differences between linguistic groups, emphasizes in a playful form a real threat to Jalaludin’s social position.  While Asef’s biography conforms more closely to that of the city dwellers described in his jokes, Jalaludin, on at least some levels, resembles the rural butt.  Jalaludin’s family both lives in rural Afghanistan and belongs to an ethnic and linguistic minority.  In contrast, Asef is a representative of the modern, urban majority.  The historic claims are between the “high culture” and urbanity of the Persian-speaking cities and mostly-Pashtun “tribalness.”  The joke cycle, introduced by Asef, works as a gloss on each of their positions within the Afghan social hierarchy.

Bateson argues that these kinds of threats are an integral part of competitive play (1972, 181). Asef’s verbal, thematic threats, though not open combat towards Jalaludin, work as a map of possible future behavior.  That is, play and actual conflict have a map/territory relationship with each other.  In open conflict, the map and territory are equated, while in play, Bateson argues that the two are both equated and distinguished (1972, 185). It is in this discrimination that the ambivalent intents of Asef’s verbal jabs are negotiated.  In one sense the threats which occur in play are not meant, and on the other, those same threats denote the possibility of real and future combat.  Threatening behavior like that evident here from Asef’s story introduction and while different from other actions still hints at a possible future outcome.  Though Asef’s intentions cannot be fully parsed, the shahrī/dehī theme, which he introduces, is at some level a gloss on Jalaludin’s social position in relation to Asef’s.  Jalaludin, then, must respond to the threats, both real and imagined.  His subsequent narrations demonstrate that he recognized the challenge implied by Asef’s story and jokes and understands the relationship of the shahrī and dehī differently.

If the shahrī/dehī joke cycle introduced by Asef acts as a gloss on both Jalaludin and Asef’s position in the Afghan social hierarchy, to what extent is Jalaludin complicit in this characterization?  Or rather, how does Jalaludin position himself in relation to the jokes told?  In short, his participation in and reinterpretation of the theme highlights the ambiguity of his relationship to the categories named.  Jalaludin wastes no time in joining in the bashing of ignorant, “backward” villagers.  Though he no doubt recognizes the threat posed by Asef’s narrations, the stories he tells later demonstrate that he imagines himself decidedly different from their dehī protagonists.  He uses several strategies to accomplish this positioning: co-participation in the shahrī/dehī narration, clarification of the “real” dynamics among inhabitants of urban and rural Afghanistan, stressing the common bond between all Afghans, and asserting his own “otherness” in regards to the people of his village.


At the onset of Asef’s verbal aggression towards rural Afghanistan, Jalaludin quickly becomes complicit.  Still in a competitive mode and attempting to outdo Asef’s tales, Jalaludin interjects his own interpretation into Asef’s first Wardak joke (Appendix, Story B).  As clarification he interjects, “They’re stupid.”  His comments have a double valance: both to clarify the meanings of Wardak jokes to the ethnographer Mills and to render his tacit approval to the joke’s theme.  He, no doubt, wanted to ensure Mills understood the humor of Wardak jokes, but by stressing the stupidity of Wardakis, he too becomes complicit in Asef’s folkloric aggression.  If he interpreted the joke as directed at him, he could have interjected to prevent further aggression or he may have retreated into silence, but instead here he becomes an active participant.  His continued participation ensured he could still “top” Asef and win the storytelling duel.  But it also worked to distinguish him from the characters named, whether he at this point recognized the implications of Asef’s threat or not.  His first collaboration in the joke cycle may be evidence of narration for competition’s sake rather than any indication of creative improvisation and consciousness of Asef’s aggression.  Because only later during the second storytelling event does Jalaludin complicate Asef’s characterization of the dehī.

When it is Jalaludin’s turn to narrate, he brings out five Wardak jokes from his own repertoire, whereas Asef narrated two; Jalaludin triumphs in number again.  Jalaludin shows that even when he competes on Asef’s territory, obscene jokes, he can win.  He elaborates on the theme and tells a joke about a Wardaki’s ineptitude in hunting.  Rather than catching his prey, the hunted tricks the hunter.3 Next, the humor turns scatological, as the joke rests on a Wardaki’s nightly urinating habits.  The following Wardaki protagonists attempt to steal fodder for their animals and are outwitted by their intended female victims.  Jalaludin’s Wardaki joke cycle ends when two Wardakis are confused and out-guiled by their own camel.  Jalaludin’s Wardak jokes demonstrate his own superior command of the genre in comparison to Asef and further distances his own situation from the characters they ridicule.

Something thematically interesting happens when Asef is not present.  At the next storytelling event on June 10, 1976 when Jalaludin is the only performer, he revives the shahrī/dehī theme, but with a twist.  This time, instead of picking up where he left off on June 3, he modifies the values derided in his ethnic humor.  He further clarifies and reinterprets the social dynamics of the shahrī/dehī relationship.  Rather than being purely the object of urban scorn, the dehī character is more fully developed and some negative attributes of the shahrī are emphasized.  While in Asef’s story and in the Wardak jokes, the dehī has little agency, in Jalaludin’s narration the dehī has increased power over his situation.

On the second day, the first hint of shahrī/dehī humor comes near the onset of Jalaludin’s narration.4 Similar to Asef’s story narrated on the first day in which a villager unwittingly married a promiscuous girl and never discovered the nature of her infidelity, here, Jalaludin’s village protagonist is also the victim of female nafs or earthly appetites.  However, through his own wiles the dehī is ostensibly able to ascertain the full spectrum of his wife’s perceived sexual deviance (Appendix, Story F). Yet the protagonist still is a dehī and is seemingly derided for his ignorance and all the other encompassing attributes of an Afghan villager.  Even so, here he acts to remedy his own situation and has the wherewithal to outwit his cheating wife.  In Asef’s previous telling with the same theme, the villager is little more than emasculated and is oblivious to his true state.  Jalaludin’s tale uses this same trope but increases the dehī’s agency.  However, Jalaludin does not completely absolve the dehī of all stereotypes; he still is inappropriately jealous.  The fact that the industrious woman of the story spent her day in keeping house demonstrates her fidelity.  In Afghani popular conception, chaste women engage in the duties of housework while their licentious counterparts ignore their domestic responsibilities.5 The villager’s notion of evidence is likewise ludicrous.  His idea that wheat would turn to flour as a result of her promiscuity confirms he still possesses some dehī foolishness.  Though Jalaludin makes a value judgment about the villager’s unfounded paranoia and his absurd notion of appropriate evidence, he no longer is only the ignorant, unwitting victim of women’s tricks.  He still possesses some dehī stereotypes, but his character has become more complex.

Continuing his theme of “otherness,” Jalaludin follows this first shahrī/dehī story with a short joke about the different faculties of Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghans (Appendix, Story E).  Because of his cleverness and implied sexual prowess, the Afghan of the tale triumphs over his Iranian and Pakistani co-laborers.  While working together as day-laborers, the three are asked how many jugs of water they can each carry.  The Iranian replies that he can carry two, one in each hand.  The Pakistani answers three, one on his head and one in each hand.  The clever Afghan says five; he will hold up the Pakistani with his genitalia and hold one in each hand.  Not only does this joke highlight the commonality of all Afghans in contrast to people from neighboring countries and thus level the playing field between the shahrī and dehī that the other jokes emphasized, but here Jalaludin also makes an interesting linguistic move that perhaps demonstrates his own unique understanding of “Afghanness.”  He first says, “They said to the Iranian, ‘How many jugs…’”  He then corrects himself midstream and says, “They said to the Afghan…”  Realizing he made a mistake by introducing the Afghan too soon, Jalaludin quickly returns to his first interpretation and says, “They said to the Iranian, ‘How many jugs can you carry?'” Jalaludin thus hesitates as he describes the first character in the joke.  If it is the Iranian, his point is valid.  If it is the Afghan, then he would have to ascribe cleverness to the Iranian or to the Pakistani.  Jalaludin’s “slip” calls into question how he may have originally heard the joke.  In the first hearing, the teller may have emphasized the cleverness of Iranians, not Afghans.  Jalaludin, then, switches the order of the characters to stress to Mills the point he implicitly makes: “we” (and more importantly, “I”) are (all) Afghans.  Even if this slip does not indicate a shifting characterization of Afghan intelligence and commonality, the jokes’ substantive meaning remains the same; while Asef stressed difference and highlighted “otherness,” Jalaludin’s joke emphasizes commonality and similitude.

He continues narrating on the theme of ethnic difference by telling a joke about Pashtuns and Hazaras, two ethnic groups in Afghanistan (Appendix, Story E).  The intertextual connection between this joke and the story of the Afghan, Iranian, and Pakistani narrated previously, is sexual violence.  However, Jalaludin more strongly emphasizes ethnic identifiers in this joke.  Where in the previous joke in the original Persian of the performance event, the hero was Āfghānistanī, a label wide enough to include all inhabitants of Afghanistan regardless of ethnic or linguistic group, here the verbal violence is perpetrated by an aoghan or a Pashtun.  So, for Jalaludin it would seem that the terms āfghan, aoghan, or āfghānistanī become floating signifiers.  In each story, they take on different attributes and refer to different groups within Afghan society.  In the previous story, Jalaludin celebrates the Afghan’s sexual mastery of his Iranian and Pakistani co-laborers.  This time Jalaludin’s own social position is outside the social constellation commented on in the joke.  Again, his joke recognizes the presence of “otherness,” linguistic, religious, and ethnic, but it is difficult to represent his own relationship to it as the character qualities of the joke’s “victor” are ambiguously evaluated.

Here, Jalaludin again revives obscene symbolism and uses ethnicities as placeholders for certain values.  But interestingly, this time the joke’s butt is the Pashtun, the representative of the dominant linguistic, religious, and ethnic group in Afghanistan.  He portrays the religious minority in an uncharacteristic, positive light.  A Pashtun and Hazara wager on who can create the best statue.  On the appointed day, the two gather to unveil their creations.  The Hazara’s statue is holding a copy of the Qur’an.  The Pashtun’s statue is holding a piece of bread with one hand and holding his penis with the other.  When the Hazara crowd inquires as to the reasons behind the Pashtun’s creation, the Pashtun replies that if a Hazara asked him for a piece of bread, he would instead offer the Hazara his penis.  The sexual violence is the only continuity with the stories narrated to this point in the session; no other generic intertextuality is clear.  The story represents a departure on the theme of “otherness” Jalaludin is developing.  Depending on which group was telling this joke, the butt would be interpreted differently.  If this tale were to be told among Pashtuns, no doubt, the Hazara could be understood as an appropriate victim of Pashtun aggression.  If the narrator were Hazara, the religious piety of the Hazara would be celebrated and the aggression of the Pashtun maligned.  But Jalaludin is neither Pashtun nor Hazara.

To this point, I have maintained that Jalaludin seems to identify more with the oppressed dehī victims in his stories.  But if indeed Jalaludin seems to identify more with the bumbling provincial, one would assume that in Jalaludin’s interpretation, the Hazara would be the more positively portrayed character.  As such, as a Sunni like the Pashtuns, it is unusual that Jalaludin would raise the “heretical” Shi’a above his own co-religionist, except that, as Oring has argued, “When jokes are used to convey a message, they are concerned with more abstract categories of relationship, not with the surface features of the joke text” (2003, 96). That is, for Jalaludin the joke must not be “about” religious difference and the comparative value of different religious practice.  Instead, the abstract category of a minority “other” is potentially approved above that of the majority.  Because of the categories named and the complicated nature of religious, ethnic, and linguistic divisions in Afghanistan, the issue of empathy and identification becomes problematic.  But it is just this rhetorical move that Jalaludin is making in his entire joking discourse about “otherness.”  Here, as in the material before and in the jokes that follow, Jalaludin is clarifying and reinterpreting the data Asef introduced earlier during the first storytelling session and problematizing it.  Thus, again, Jalaludin may imagine the dehī and his own position in relation to the “other” differently than Asef’s texts would indicate.

Much later in the same performance, the roles are reversed again.  Instead of the dehī coming up against the more urban, educated shahrī, Jalaludin narrates a story in which the shahrī is a guest in a dehī’s home.  (Appendix, Story C)  Jalaludin keeps the stereotype of villager ignorance about the objects of modernity, but it is the Kabuli who perhaps transgresses the most.  After the Kabuli has eaten the meal served to him by his dehī host, he inquires as to the location of the bathroom.  But instead of using the common village word for “bathroom,” the Kabuli uses a word related to indoor plumbing, a modern luxury not familiar to village life.  Because all the food prepared has already been consumed and worried that his Kabuli guest was still hungry, the dehī tells his guest that his children have already eaten the “bathroom.”  The Afghan villager is justly ignorant of the modern conveniences present in Kabul, but it is the Kabuli who seems to violate the norms of host/guest relations.  The villager perceives that the Kabuli requested more than he had provided, thus erring in the rules of host/guest relations.  The villager may be ignorant and “backward,” but he retains the manners of good taste which the Kabuli in his modernization has seemingly abandoned.  Jalaludin widens his critique to include not just the “city” or the “country” but also the “modern.”  Here, Jalaludin’s joke maintains the characterization of dehī ignorance introduced by Asef, but refines it to include a valuation of dehī proper behavior.  If here the dehī is a placeholder for values inconsistent with modern Afghan life, similar to the role of the Wardaki in Wardak jokes, then Jalaludin complicates that characterization.  His joke emphasizes the tradeoffs involved in an embrace of modernity.  The Kabuli may possess material goods unfamiliar to the dehī, but the dehī possesses superior manners.

Keeping with the theme of a traveler in an unfamiliar locale, Jalaludin follows the story about a Kabuli from the provinces with a story about an Afghan in Iran.  (Appendix, Story C)  When eating at a hotel, the Afghan is served a questionable meal by an Iranian hotelier.  When he asks why his soup has flies in it, the Iranian replies that flies are the only entertainment you get when you pay for a meal as cheap as his.  If he had paid more, he might have been entitled to dancing girls.  Again here, as in the case of the joke about the three porters, Jalaludin’s joke illustrates Afghan similitude in contrast to a hostile “other,” in this case Iranian.  Differences between Afghans, religious, ethnic, urban/rural, etc. are collapsed and a distinction is drawn between Afghans and the “other.”   In Jalaludin’s telling, the Afghan may be the victim of a hostile other, but he is not stupid.

Following this, Jalaludin tells his own personal experience narrative, equating the experience of the Afghan in Iran to his own while a traveler in Afghanistan. (Appendix, Story C) At a bus stop between Kabul and Herat, a waiter serves Jalaludin rice with a small strand of carpet hidden inside.  When Jalaludin objects, the waiter argues that for the cheap meal he received he was not entitled to an entire rug and should make do with a small piece.  Jalaludin’s recycled punch line illustrates his own identification with the experience of the Afghan in Iran, now in the form of a humorous personal experience narrative.  The values, experiences, and behaviors are his own.  His change of genre from joke to personal experience narrative further clarifies the position of dehī and how he perceives himself in relation to it.

Jalaludin’s next story further complicates his earlier characterization.  (Appendix, Story C)  He narrates a story in which an Afghan is in Iran, keeping with the theme developed earlier.  Yet this time there is a decisive difference: instead of the Afghan triumphing, he is duped by a young Iranian girl.  The Afghan sees a small girl playing with a golden coin.  Thinking she does not know the value of the coin, the Afghan offers to change it for a few paper notes of money.  The girl initially refuses, but she relents on the condition that the Afghan brays like a donkey.  The Afghan complies, but the girl does not fulfill her side of the bargain.  The punch line demonstrates that the girl knew all along the value of the coin and only desired to humiliate the Afghan.  At the onset, Jalaludin questioned Asef’s characterization of the dehī.  He then asserted the commonality of all Afghans and even went as far as portraying them as superior to their neighbors in Iran and Pakistan.  But here, Jalaludin is once again complicit in some kind of folkloric aggression towards Afghans.  Highlighting the ambiguity in his relationship towards the shahrī/dehī dichotomy and his place in the constellation of Afghan society, the story, in some regards, seems to be a step back in his earlier, rhetorical assertions.  He, thus, sometimes sees Afghans as a symbolically appropriate placeholder for ignorance even though he recognizes the nuances of shahrī/dehī interaction which Asef failed to include.

In addition, in this story the Afghan trickster is himself tricked.  In many shahrī/dehī stories in Afghanistan, the shahrī is portrayed as the trickster and is tricked by the wiles of his dehī opponent6. The trickster, then, is often the underdog.  However, here, the roles are reversed.  The urban child outwits the deceits of the rural Afghan.  If the shahrī/dehī dynamic holds, the dehī attempts to trick the shahrī, but is tricked instead by the shahrī.  In the end, the dehī is outwitted at the behest of shahrī deceit.  This is not the first time that Jalaludin or Asef have introduced the female (or male) trickster theme.  Earlier, in Asef’s story of the promiscuous wife, the Afghan villager is the victim of female manipulation and guile.  Later in Jalaludin’s reinterpretation of the same theme, the villager views his wife as a kind of trickster, but in reality she is not.  Mills cautions against a strict misogynist reading of tales which include the topos of women’s tricks and are narrated by male storytellers (2001, 240).  Instead, male narrators can sometimes identify with the female trickster who uses her deceit to out-guile the maneuvering of a socially superior actor and to fight against injustices.  Mills says,

In these stories the victorious trickster is always the one who manages to use the opponent’s own desire against him- or herself so that the loser is entrapped and defeated by his or her own desires. Furthermore, guile is a weapon of the weak: the victor is always inferior in power (Mills 1999, 263).

Rhetorically, then, the trickster frame in Jalaludin’s stories may function again to complicate a simple portrayal of Afghan power dynamics.  If Jalaludin in some stories seems to identify with the socially weak actor, then his trickster portrayal may not altogether be negative.  Like the other storytellers Mills observed, Jalaludin may at times be celebrating the underdog’s victory over the dominant class.  Just as Jalaludin’s stories problematize Asef’s simple notion of shahrī superiority, they too glide between different understandings of female tricks and tricksters.

At the end of his second storytelling performance and following all of his other stories, Jalaludin narrates the text most explicitly clarifying his position in regards to an urban or rural “other” and tells the most complex of all of his stories on this theme. (Appendix, Story D)  This time, again in the form of a personal experience narrative, Jalaludin asserts his own uniqueness from the general non-literacy and ignorance present in his village.  Jalaludin says that a seller of unbreakable glass came to his village to sell his wares.  Because he was literate, Jalaludin recognized the merchant’s deception.  From the outset, he confronted the lying merchant, called his bluff, and forced him out of the village in humiliation.  Jalaludin’s story takes village ignorance as fact.  It is the case that the dehī is often duped by the cleverer shahrī, as substantiated in Jalaludin’s story.  But Jalaludin is not representative of the majority of the village’s inhabitants.  His education, his travels beyond the village milieu, and his exposure to urban Afghanistan seemingly separate him from his extended community.  Even though he is still a dehī, he will not be easily outwitted by the shahrī.


Taken holistically, the entire shahrī/dehī joke cycle narrated by Asef and Jalaludin on June 3 and June 10, 1976 represents a discourse on “otherness.”  Through the lens of humor and in the frame of competitive “play,” Asef’s first narrations on the theme act as a gloss on the storytellers’ positions in the Afghan social hierarchy.  Asef, as a Persian-speaking city dweller, resembles the aggressor in his tales, and Jalaludin, originally from a rural environment and speaking a minority tongue, more closely resembles the jokes’ butt.  Asef’s intentionality is impossible to gauge and irrelevant for the discussion here.  It does not matter whether Asef’s threats in the form of jokes were intended to jockey for his position and/or as a direct assault on Jalaludin, the one more conversant in the genres hoped for by the ethnographer and the one initially invited to perform for the tape recorder.

What matters is that on the second day, Jalaludin evidently felt the need to reinterpret the stories which he and Asef had told earlier.  He no longer remained exclusively complicit in the ethnic aggression.  But just because he altered the implications of the shahrī/dehī theme on the second day, does not mean that his Wardak jokes during the first performance should be interpreted as self-deprecatory.  Because of the ambiguous and complicated nature of his own social position in relation to Asef, his transition from dehī to shahrī-educated, and his understanding of “other,” his narration of Wardak jokes are not necessarily self-degrading.  As Oring argues, “The degree of identification between tellers and tale protagonists needs to be ascertained before terms such as self-degrading, self-defeat, or self-hatred can be profitably employed” (Oring 1992, 129).

Though he undoubtedly saw himself as related to the protagonists of Asef’s stories, as evidenced by his later narrations, Jalaludin also reinterpreted dehī characterization and articulated a more complex relationship.  To this end, he employed several strategies:  co-participation in the shahrī/dehī narration, clarification of the “real” dynamics among inhabitants of urban and rural Afghanistan, stressing the common bond between all Afghans, and asserting his own “otherness” in regards to the people of his village.  Through these verbal “moves,” Jalaludin articulates to Mills a more complex and nuanced world of interaction between the dehī and shahrī and at times identifies with the dehī and at other times categorically denies his common origins.  In sum, Jalaludin’s ambiguous and ambivalent storytelling runs parallel to the highly complicated relationship he has in real life with his village, greater Afghanistan, and his place in it.

In the end, Jalaludin’s purposes and meanings are ambiguous, paralleling his own ambiguous position in relation to the categories named.  He simultaneously derides rural backwardness, complicates rural stereotypes, and both positions himself in opposition to and in concert with his rural protagonists.  So then, what is Jalaludin’s level of identification with the characters he narrates?  Does the storyteller even need a nexus of identification?  Perhaps, Jalaludin’s comparison of self/other is all the more complex because of the vast size of his story repertoire.  Because he has so many texts in his memory from which to choose, they take on multivalent meanings.  Just as his women’s tricks stories may not just be misogynist interpretations at the hands of an inexperienced teenager and instead likely contain vibrant commentaries on desired social action, so too he paints an intricate and conflicting picture of the Afghan social hierarchy and his relation to it.  As Christie Davies has argued, jokes which deride an ethnic (or linguistic, geographical, religious, etc.) other are oftentimes more about the joke teller’s perception of his/her own identity rather than a commentary on the social position of the joke’s butt (1990, 312). Indeed, the variety, texture, and depth of his shahrī/dehī stories seem to reflect the multifaceted negotiations he, no doubt, engaged in daily as a rural, minority student living in urban Kabul.

Where both narrators are today is unknown.  One hopes that both boys survived the political and social upheavals of the past twenty-five years and continue to proffer the kind of verbal art that Mills observed in 1976.


MA – Mohammed Asef

MM – Margaret Mills

J – Jalaludin

Story A Mills Tape CCCXCII 31:21- 32:16 and CCCXCIII 00:00-01:13

MA: Then, a…

There was a, a girl.  She was a very bad girl.

A guy from the country came by.

He liked what he saw.

He said, “I’m going to marry this girl for sure.”

As his own wife, no?

He became the husband of this woman.

MM: Ah.

MA: and the girl was bad.

He came here to propose the terms of marriage.

And he took the girl.

He married her.

MM: yes, yes.

Then, this here girl said to her mother, “If I, he comes to me tonight and sees that,

That my business is open, he’ll get mad.”

MM: yes.

MA: yes, yes.

MM: good, tell it.

MA: Ok, after this, that he husband… had proposed marriage.

She said to her mother, she said,

“I’ve done all these bad things that what can I do?

She replied, “It’s ok, go my child I know a few tricks.”

She said, “When he comes to you, put an apple inside you.”

Do you understand, there?

MM: yes.

She said, “Put an apple inside.”

When the night came and the country boy came to marry her.

Her belt,

He kissed.  He couldn’t break her hymen, we say here.

It was a lot of trouble.

He got it out.

And got up from there.

That apple that she had put inside.

When he turned [his head] she put the apple on the table

He turned (his face) around and [saw] the apple on the table.

He said, “Let’s eat the apple and get a little energy.

I’ll get a little energy so that this time I can give some more work.”

This time that he started to work he said,

“That was the first time it was done. Someone’s touched her hymen.”

It was torn.

That’s good.

After that when morning came

The girl told her mother,

She said, “Mom, what did you do in the end?”

She said, “He ate an unclean thing.” She said, “It was dirty.”

She said, “He ate it.”

She said, “It doesn’t matter.

Your departed father ate a melon.”

That little woman was bad too.

J: The woman and her mother [were] like that.

MA: She put a melon inside (her).


Story B CCCXCIII 17:41-19:01

MA: one day.

MM: what else?

MA: ah?

MM: what else?

MA: There’s an expression we have among ourselves.

MM: yes.

MA: one day

Here, yes, what should I say?

A guy from Wardak, no?

They have a saying.

MM: yes.

A guy from Wardak was going along the road.

He saw a mirror.

The mirror had been thrown on the ground.

He picked up the mirror, looked, and saw his own reflection inside it.

He said, “Ok, it’s yours, Goodbye.”

When he raised it, inside he saw his own reflection and said, “It’s a guy.”

He didn’t know that it was his own reflection.

Ok, this…

This mirror is yours goodbye.

This mirror is yours, the mirror of that guy. It’s his. Goodbye.

Then one day a guy from Wardak came.

MM: Wardak.

MA: a guy from Wardak

People from Wardak.

MA: Wardak is here.

A province.

MM: it’s a place

MA: a place

MM: I’ve seen it.

Those people have a story.

Then one day the guy from Wardak got into a car.

J: They’re stupid.

MA: 10 rupees of money, no?

10 rupees of paper money.

He took in his hand.

The weather was warm.

His hand was sweating.

When he looked he saw that it was sweating,

He thought that it came from this poor guy was afraid of the sweat.

He said, “(in Pashto) Don’t worry! I’ll give my ass before I give you to them”

It’s a little Pashto, do you understand?

MM: no.

Rather, I’ll give my ass blood if I give you.

That’s the meaning of this.

Here ass-giving is a really bad thing

MM: yes.

MA: among the people here.

MM: yes

MA: there’s a lot of this kind of talk.

J: he said, give the money (?) I won’t give it to another person because he’s sweating

MA: By God, it’s my ass if I give you to them.

Story C CCCXCVIII 30:14-31:39 and CCCXCIX 00:00-01:01

J: one time, a Kabuli went to the country.

MM: ah.

J: the Kabuli went to the country.

After he had eaten, he got up and washed his hands.

Like this he stood.

He said, “Is there no bathroom?”

The rural man said, “He probably wants something more to eat.

There wasn’t anything left to eat.

He brought the last bit.  Everything that was prepared he brought and it was eaten.

He said,

“Is there no bathroom?”

“No, by God, the boys have eaten it.”

MM: What kind of thing?

J: he said, “Is there a bathroom? An “abraz” is a bathroom, no? bathroom

MM: oh (laughs)

J: He said, “No the boys have eaten it.”

The man from the country was surprised that he was talking about something to eat.


He said, “No, the boys have eaten it.”

One time another guy went to Iran.

And what did he do.

He wanted to eat shorwa, water and meat he wanted.

There he was eating in the middle of this (soup) there were flies playing.

Two flies.

He wanted the waiter at the hotel [to come over].

He said, “Come here.

Come here boy!”

He came and said, “What are you saying?”

He said, “Nothing.”

He said, “In here flies are dancing.”

He said, “Uncle, you wanted two-rupee shorwa.  For these two rupees you want Khanum Jamila to dance? The flies are enough for two rupees.”

MM: Where’d you here this?

J: I read it in a magazine.

One time I was eating at Kushkenakhod.

I was eating a meal, eating.

One time I was coming to Kabul last year and was eating a meal at Kushkenakhod.  There at a hotel.

I was eating, eating. I saw,

That in there under the dish of rice there was a small piece of carpet.

From the corner of this here carpet/

A little old piece came out.

I told the guy that worked at the hotel, “Come here friend.

He came.  I said, “This piece of carpet that’s under the food.

He said, “O brother, how much did you give for the food?”

I said, “15 rupees, 16 rupees, here 20 rupees.”

He said, “For 20 rupees you want it to come to a whole carpet?”

He said, “A little piece is enough.”

I said, “It’s ok, brother.”

MM: At Koshkenakhud they play a lot of games with travelers.

Every time I stop they try to sell us foreigners a lot of expensive things.

J: Yes, unhunh…

M: They try to do like this to locals too.

J: One other time…

I didn’t say that I was sweating.  I said, “I paid 15 rupees.” He says, “…A whole carpet… this little piece is enough already.”

MM: (Laughs)

One, one time there was an Iranian.

An Afghan was in Iran.

He saw that a little Iranian child from a wedding party was coming out of a house.


She was playing there.

A Pahlavi coin

A golden [coin] was in her hand.

In the hand of a girl.

The Afghan said to the girl,

“Come so that I can change your money

With you.”

He said [to himself], “I’m going to trick this here little girl.”

He said, “Come here so I can change it.”

She said, “No.

I’m not going to change it.”

He said, “Here’s some paper money that I’ll give you, for instance two or more tomans7.”

He pulled out the money.

She said, “No.”

One time the little girly said to the Afghan,

“If you bray like a donkey, then I’ll give you the coin.”

The Afghan looked both ways

Brayed like a donkey.

He said, “Now give me the coin. Give the money.”

She said, “Go on.

Afghan, misbehaving Afghan.”

She said, “You in your donkey-like behavior that you’re a donkey and bray like one, know that this is a gold, but I don’t know?”

Story D CCCXCIX  05:01-05:49

J: One other time.

A seller of unbreakable glass was in my village.

A seller of unbreakable glass.

He said that here’s an unbreakable cup, here’s an unbreakable dish, here, here, this is.

He was calling people.  They were sitting in front of him.

I said, “Friend, uncle, they’re not unbreakable.  Don’t.”

He said, “If they’re not unbreakable, don’t pay me any money.”

Well, I was opposed to him.  He said they’re unbreakable, I said they’re not.

He said, they’re unbreakable, I said they’re not.

They weren’t unbreakable.

He was lying.

He thought that I was illiterate, that I couldn’t read.

At once, he took a cup in one hand and another cup in the other hand.  He threw one in one direction, he said, “If they’re not unbreakable, don’t pay any money.”

He threw one in one direction and the other in another direction.

Both of them broke.

MM: (Laughs)

He said, “They’re good and unbreakable.”

In the place of unbreakable glass he was selling to my people…

MM: (Laughs)

J: Nobody else bought anything [from him]

Story E (CCCXCVI   8:45-10:54)

J: An Iranian and an Afghan and a Pakistani…

Brother, they were working in a place.

MM: yes.

J: They said to the Iranian, “How many jugs…” They said to the Afghan, they said to the Iranian, “How many jugs can you carry?”

He said, “Brother, I can carry two jugs, in these two hands of mine, two jugs of water.”

They said to the Pakistani, “Pakistani, how many jugs can you carry?”

The Pakistani said, “I [can carry] three jugs, I’ll put one my back and take two in my hands.”

MM: the Afghan said two?

J: No, the Iranian said two and the Pakistani said three.

They said to the Afghan, “How many can you carry?”

He said, “I [can carry] five.”

They said, “How?”

He said, “The Pakistani has two in his hands and one on his head.  I’ll take two in my hands and take the Pakistani on top of my apparatus.  That makes five.  In that way I’ll carry them.

MM: (laughs)

J: One other [story]

A Hazara and

A Pashtun

They said, brother, they made a bet that we should go and make a statue.

A statue. The one that makes it well.

Ok, they made it and they said let’s go on such and such a Friday, build it and bring it.

All of us will come and the one who makes the best one will win.

Brother, the Hazara left.

Made a statue

In its hand he put an image of the Holy Qur’an

In the hands of the statue

He gave a Holy Qur’an.

The Pashtun left

And made a statue

In one hand there was bread and he was eating the bread,

In one hand was holding his apparatus.

They brought [the statues] here on Friday.

Brother, the Hazaras were standing on that side

The Pashtuns were standing on this side.

They said, “What did that bastard Pashtun make. Listen.”

Then the Pashtun said,

“Oh, Hazara!”

He said, “If I was eating bread.

And you said to give me some bread.

I would say no.

You took the Qur’an like this to give the bread.

By the Koran, give me some bread (like a beggar)

I would say I’ll give you my prick.


The Pashtun and the Hazara are opposed to each other like this.

Story F CCCCXVI 7:31-8:44

J: Then, there was a guy who was a villager.

He was a villager.  He, brother,

Ok, his heart was against his wife.

He said, “She’s definitely someone who receives anal intercourse.”

One day this brother said that it can’t happen.

He brought to that thing of hers

to the top of the woman’s gear,

That hairy place

He put a kernel of wheat.

He put a kernel of wheat

After that he said,

“I’m coming back tonight.  If the wheat’s there, ok.

It will be there if you’re giving (yourself), if not you’re giving.”

Ok, evening came.

In the evening, he said, “Pull it out and she pulled out the piece.”

(Repairing the sequence) He gave these seeds to the woman.  When her husband had left,

She ran around this way and that.

She swept the house.  Baked bread.

The wheat that was there fell out and

As much as she searched around the house

And searched around the yard

She couldn’t find the wheat.

In the end at the time of evening prayers, she took a bit of flour and put it there.

She put a bit of flour up there.

After that when (her) husband came back.

He said, “Pull out the piece (of wheat)

She pulled it out.

Brother, he didn’t see wheat, but flour.

He said, “Curses on your little father, you had so much sex that the wheat’s turned into flour.


Story G CCCXCII 14:01-14:53

MM: Where did you hear this (story)?

MM: This one…

J: from friends.

MA: from friends.

One other we learned from the English laboratory.

MM: yes.

MA: Didn’t I tell you about this here (unclear)

MM: yes.

MA: This tape from the English language laboratory tells me.

We listen to these English words.

MM: Ok, I understand.

MA: so like this a kind of a tape gets written, it says it in English and then we understand it in Farsi.

It was recorded in Afghanistan

MM: I know.

MA: ok.

MM: Did you hear this one first in Dari or in English?

MM: I heard it first in English.

But in Dari there are a lot of them.

MM: (unintelligible)

MA: I tell them in Dari.

MM: You learned this one about apples that fall in English?

MM: Yes, I heard it in English.

MM: (?)

J: (unintelligible)

MM: yes.

I also have a book in English about Mullah Nasrudin

J: (simultaneously) you have (a book) about Mullah Nasrudin.

MA: These were originally told between Afghans and were translated in English

So that the boys, who are so playful

In one respect they get pleasure from them

And on the other they’ll understand.


1 Margaret A. Mills, Personal Communication 1/2008.

2 Margaret A. Mills, Personal Communication 5/2008.

3 Mills Tape CCCXCIV

4 Mills Tape CCCXCVI

5 Margaret A. Mills, Personal Communication 5/2008.

6 Margaret A. Mills, Personal Communication 5/2008.

7 A toman is a unit of Iranian currency.


Bateson, Gregory. 1972. “A Theory of Play and Fantasy” Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

Davies, Christie. 1990. Ethnic Humor Around the World: A Comparative Analysis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mills, Margaret A. 1999. “Whose Best Tricks? Makr-i zan as a Topos in Persian Oral Literature” Iranian Studies 32(1): 261-270.

Mills, Margaret A. 2001. “The Gender of the Trick: Female Tricksters and Male Narrators” Asian Folklore Studies 60(1): 237-258.

Oring, Elliot. 1992. Jokes and their Relations. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.

Oring, Elliot. 2003. Engaging Humor. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


I would like to thank Professor Margaret Mills for her invaluable assistance and for access to her collection of field recordings and notes.  I would also like to thank Professor Alam Payind for his help in translating the Pashto portions of the joke texts.  Of course, any mistakes remain my own.

Benjamin Gatling is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at The Ohio State University.  He studies narrative performance and Islamic ritual in the Persian-speaking world.


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