Tribes and States

Philip Carl Salzman in Inference:

ScreenHunter_1717 Feb. 25 21.59The men surrounding me, in turbans, beards, long jamag shirts, and baggy shalwar pants, asked, “How big is your tribe?” They thought it must be large and powerful, to provide security for me so far from home. One asked, “Is America farther than Tehran?”

It was just about fifty years ago that I picked up a Land Rover at the factory in England, drove across Europe, Turkey, and Iran, to take up residence in Iranian Baluchistan, on the border with Pakistan.

After much support from Nezar Mahmud, the brother of the chief of the Shah Nawazi (formerly Yarahmadzai) tribe, I set up my baby blue canvas tent at the end of the line of black goat-hair tents of the Dadolzai brother-lineage, or brasrend. Descent-based groups were described by the termrend, literally meaning line, encompassing lineages of all sizes, from small families up to the tribe itself.

In this desertic, treeless land, we were surrounded by stony and sandy plains, and craggy, black volcanic hills, with the active volcano Kuh-e Taftan looming in the background.

When I told the men that we did not have tribes or lineages, they were puzzled.

“But what do you do if someone attacks you?”
“We go to the police.”

They burst out laughing. “Who would defend you against the police?” they wondered out loud. They knew that the police in Iran did not work for them; they worked for the state—and for themselves, of course.

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