A suspected pakol on a Macedonian soldier in a fresco from Villa Boscoreale, Pompei - photo: Fabrizio Foschini
The flat, woollen, rolled-up hat called a pakol is nowadays one of the undisputed symbols of Afghanistan. But how such a humble garment, stemming from the remotest corners of the Hindu Kush mountains, made it to international appreciation on par with lavish silky chapans and majestic four-meter-long lungis, remains somewhat of a mystery. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini has tried to pull together the threads, retracing this notable development in the Afghan history of couture.
Ages ago – it must have been early 2002 – I was taking part in one of the countless manifestazioni (demonstrations) for peace in Palestine held in the university town of Bologna, when a middle-aged lady recognised the pakol on my head and exclaimed: “Cool, you have the Tajik hat!” Flattered and amazed that somebody had not only acknowledged my Afghan headgear, but linked it in a reasonable way to a specific group of the country’s population, I nodded and smiled. I didn’t want to dampen her enthusiasm by correcting her.
The pakol owes its global celebrity to the Tajik-majority members of the Jamiat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, and in particular to the Shura-e Nezar group with its core Panjshiri mujahedin who, following their leader Ahmad Shah Massud, first adopted it as a standard item of their outfit. Because of this, several authors, some even deeply acquainted with Afghanistan, have sometimes condoned definitions like “Tajik hat” or “Panjshiri hat”. Actually, it could be termed by the same right, “Eastern Pashtun hat” or “Pashai hat”, while labels like “Nuristani hat” or even better, “Chitrali hat”, would come closer to the historical truth. In any case, pakols are now donned by countless tribes and ethnic groups: Hazara, Uzbek, Turkmen, Pamiri, Aimaq – and French, among the rest.
The origins of this extraordinary garment are in fact quite complex, and multiple are the reasons for its lasting fortunes. Therefore, it deserves a proper treatment; at least that’s what we at AAN thought. (1)
As noted, the image indissolubly linked to this flat, round, rolled-up, woolen hat is that of late Commander Massud. His portraits, still ubiquitous in many parts of Afghanistan, are a strong reminder of the lifelong bond between the soldier and his hat, together turned into an icon of the early 1980s thanks to the work of foreign (mainly French) photographers and documentary film makers (see here a short gallery of photos). However, the pakol caught the eye of foreigners long before, although to mixed reviews. If cultivated travelers like Bruce Chatwin and Peter Levi compared it to “the hats of Italian Renaissance men”, other more pedestrian farers of the 1960s and 1970s called it squarely a “pie crust” or “pancake” hat.
But where did they find pakols to admire back then? And whence does the pakol come originally? Let’s try and put together some facts.
Looking at Hellenistic coins, statues or frescoes found from Italy to India, hats similar to pakols were a relatively common sight on the heads of Macedonians. Pictures of the ancient headgear (also see our illustration for this dispatch) called kausia bear in fact a striking resemblance to the modern pakol, most likely rendering the pakol a legacy of that crazy ride to the East that Alexander the Great undertook out of ambition or boredom in the 4th century BC.
Conversely, the kausia represents by far the most persuasive claim that Nuristanis can make to be the actual descendants of Alexander’s Macedonian troops – a claim stronger than local folklore tales about the Macedonian monarch, or Nuristanis’ fair complexion and often light hair and eyes (both features being common to many other communities of the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram), or their impressive sculptures, explainable by their late Islamisation, or even the fact that they used to produce wine–as if wine-making had first been developed in Europe! (2)
However, if Nuristan is reputed by many to be the birthplace of the pakol, the original source for the production and spread of this type of hat seems to have been neighboring Chitral, in today’s Pakistan.
According to the first proto-ethnographic accounts, the Kafirs – as the Nuristanis were known before their conversion to Islam in 1895-96 – used to go about with their heads generally uncovered. John Biddulph, in 1878, has them avoiding any headgear at all (at least the men).
Twelve years later, George Scott Robertson found what he termed the Chitrali cap (not so significant a term in itself because the British encountered the Chitralis first) to be a favorite among the Kafirs. However, he specified that only those of Bashgal, the easternmost valley of Kafiristan proper and the one with more intercourse with Chitral, acquired the hat through trade. By the end of the 19th century, in fact, pakols, together with most other clothing goods, had begun to constitute a major import item for the Kafirs. Cotton cloth as well as woolen items were most likely produced outside Nuristan, on whose steep and forested slopes goats rather than sheep were usually kept; goatskins had long provided the traditional clothing for the famous Siaposh (“black-clad”) Kafirs.
However, pakols must have spread at a quick pace among the locals, now renamed Nuristanis, after and partially as a consequence of the conquest of Kafiristan by Abdul Rahman Khan of Afghanistan. The opening up of the valleys to increased contact and trade, and the population’s conversion to Islam, might have provided incentives for the residents to abandon their previously distinctive hairstyle and cover their heads with hats. It seems logical that the men adopted one with which they were already acquainted, and that was readily available locally. The adoption of specific items of clothing to mark a new identity, especially a religious one, is well-established in history. (3)
Finally, Chitral’s claim to the original ownership of the pakol is also supported by the fact that the place used to be at the center of the pakol‘s early “range of distribution”, which at the beginning of the 20th century encompassed mainly Northern Swat, Gilgit, Hunza and Nuristan.
It is possible to follow, at least approximately, the shifting boundaries of this area, using the pictorial material left by travelers and tourists over the following decades. Wilfred Thesiger has left a valuable collection of photographs from his 1956 trip (see some here), which shows the pakol firmly established in the whole of Nuristan, although the westernmost valley of Ramgal still shows a mix of pakols and small white turbans similar to those then used by the inhabitants of neighboring Panjshir. Also, among other ethnic groups bordering Nuristan, the Pashais do not appear to have used the pakol at that time, while some of Thesiger’s porters from the Safi Pashtun tribe of upper Kunar did. In the neighbouring Munjan valley of Badakhshan, even the Munjanis, who had previously produced and exported a simpler type of woolen hat with a single fold and no brim (similar to that still produced by their fellow Ismailis in Shughnan of Badakhshan), seem to have fallen for the Chitrali fashion. (4)
Thanks to excursions in the summer of 1960 by western diplomats based in Kabul, including Barrington, Kendrick and Schlagintweit, we know that by that year, the Safis were increasingly adopting the hat, while villagers of the lower Kunar valley still used other types of headgear. Over the following two decades, the sturdy mountain hat made its way as far as Jalalabad, but failed to make an impression on the locals who were very fond of the turban and its religiously dignified status. Indeed, in that largely non-globalised world that was the Hindu Kush before jihad and Facebook, pakols made only limited progress.
However, according to many Panjshiris and some foreigners, the so-called “butter trail” had brought the first pakols to Panjshir, at least to the higher valley around Parian, whose people engaged in petty trade with Nuristani valleys like Mandol/Ramgal. The Panjshir valley was to be, during ten years of war, the strategic redoubt from where the pakols would make their bid for world domination (meaning, of course, the world of male headgear).
Massud wearing the pakol looked like a cross between Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. I realised this as a teenager, and the impression remains with me. While making his way from Chitral to Panjshir in late 1978, the future “Lion of Panjshir” stopped for a while in Nuristan, joining the local mujahedin there. It was most likely then that he and his Panjshiris got themselves some fine pakols. Some pictures from that time show a young Massud still pakol-less, but already surrounded by mujahedin wearing the hat (see here).
The Panjshiris took well to the pakols; they liked (and still like) theirs very thick with chubby rolls, kind of like helmets, recalling the military purpose for which they were first meant. Massud developed a very carefree and cocky way of sporting the pakol, aslant on his head (even in the midst of the battle, judging by pictorial evidence), or as we say in Italy, “sulle ventitré” (“on the eleventh hour”, referring to the quadrant of a watch).
Thus, one of the catchiest icons of the mujahedin insurgency was created. Soon, the hat became the trademark of the mujahedin in many other areas of the country, and pakols found their way to the heads of mujahedin in most of the Southeast and Northeast of Afghanistan, from Logar to Badakhshan, and from Nangarhar to Kunduz.
One of the first areas to witness the adoption of the pakol, at least from the early 1980s, was Paktia (in its modern sense, without Khost and Paktika, formerly part of the same province, where turbans still hold sway). The Paktian pakol became easily recognisable as particularly broad-brimmed with a tight and thin roll, features that make the hat very rigid and lend to the human figure a “mushroom” effect.
Notwithstanding the fact that in due time many other commanders from a variety of mujahedin factions and in most provinces of Afghanistan started wearing the pakol, the hat remained closely associated with Massud’s faction, in particular during the conflict between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance. The Taleban themselves attached a strong political significance to clothing, and identified with the turban, which had a partly religious, partly regional rationale.
But beyond all ethnic or political identifications, there are other reasons for the rise of the pakol: the pakol is really one of the loftiest human achievements in the art of covering the head. It is warm, practical, pocketable; it doesn’t make you sweat and (supposedly) lends you a tough guerrilla look. You can even tuck flowers, pheasant feathers or porcupine quills found on the road in its fold, together with pre-rolled cigarettes and talkhan (dried mulberry powder) stored there for the journey to come. (Not least, the pakol can passably substitute for a frisbee at close-medium range – but only if properly rolled). Above all, with its earthy colors and practicality, it is particularly well-suited to the needs of guerrillas fighting in hilly terrain.
To be fair, we can say that since Massud, with his charisma and camera-friendliness, launched the pakol on the visual world stage, this humble hat has done a lot to help establish the myth of the commander and his icon, among friends and foes alike. In fact, with the demise of Massud in September 2001, many imitators have tried to derive some visual charisma by use of the pakol, with various degrees of success.
We’re not talking here about some inept Western users and their despicable idea of unrolling a pakol to make it look like a luna park hat (why don’t you buy a luna park hat, instead?). Other regional militant leaders, Afghan or not, took up the pakol when seeking a particularly guerrillero look. Among them were even such fierce enemies of the late Massud as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Osama Bin Laden, who, after the NATO attacks of 2001, wanted to appear to be leading their men like mujahedin guerrillas did against the Soviets. Neither tried to imitate Massud’s bold slant, though.
The Afghan Taleban, obviously, did not adopt the pakol; even new insurgents seem to retain a deep affection for the turban, while only occasionally and locally using the pakol. It is the members of the Tehrik-e Taleban-e Pakistan (TTP) who, despicable as they may be for their ruthless strategy of targeting civilians and soft targets, have recently made serious attempts to develop a personal style of wearing pakols, and not just for the camera like Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. The Mehsud faction of the TTP in particular has recently popularised a way of sporting long hair under broad and flat Paktiawali pakols worn horizontally. It seems to be catching on quite quickly. It might even be possible in the near future to evaluate the cohesiveness among TTP factions following the recent death of Hakimullah Mehsud and the resulting change in leadership, based on the readiness of the new head, Maulana Fazlullah, to discard his black turban and don the pakol.
That would not cost the new TTP leader much, as his home province Swat is one of the main producers of pakols. Actually, although most pakols are now worn in Afghanistan, they are still mainly produced in Pakistan.
Probe the Kabul bazaars and you will find that most of the pakols available are produced in Peshawar, some even in Lahore, and only a tiny fraction of the products are the superior specimens made in Swat, or the even better ones from Chitral. Until recently, many Peshawari pakols were actually sewn by Afghan refugees in the nearby camps, but the production seems to have relocated to the Qissa Khwahani bazaar of Peshawar city. Some Kabuli shopkeepers may claim to sell Afghan pakols, but check the interior of the hat: in most cases you will spot small holes in the lining fabric, evidence that a Pakistani producer’s label was removed in a fit of patriotism or as a marketing strategy. Only a handful of real Afghan pakols, made in Kunar or Jalalabad, may be found among countless permutations (including some made in Badakhshan, available only locally), but at much higher prices. An average Peshawari pakol costs traders around one dollar in Pakistan, and they are able to sell it for three-four times that amount in Kabul, but Afghan pakols command a much higher and decisively non-competitive price of around 15 to 20 dollar.
The fact that the market for turbans faces a similar situation, with the once flourishing production centres of Mazar-e Sharif and Herat reduced to insignificance, and the vast majority of turbans now coming from Peshawar and Multan, could give food for thought to Afghan businessmen, customers and politicians, in the face of the sometimes high anti-Pakistani sentiment in the political domain.
But that’s too serious an ending for such a light-hearted dispatch. Let’s instead close by asking a question to trigger further research. What were the Afghans most commonly wearing before the pakol rocked the stage? Qaraquli lambskin hats and simple white prayer skullcaps? Round headgear with kilim-like colorful designs or golden araqchin embroidery? Or that sort of nameless, close-fitting, single fold, bi-color cap common in pictures taken in Kunar in the 1950s and in drawings of Kandaharis from the time of Mountstuart Elphinstone? Photographic archives and travelers’ accounts lie waiting …
(1) The only study on the pakol of which the author is aware is by one of the most distinguished historians of Afghanistan and scholars of Central Asian textiles, Willem Vogelsang: The Pakol. A Distinctive, but Apparently not so Very Old Headgear from the Indo-Iranian Borderlands, Khil’a, vol.2 (2006), pp 149-155. The essay has been kindly forwarded to AAN by Prof. Vogelsang, although by then this dispatch was being published; of note here that its conclusions as to the origin of the pakol differ, putting them further to the east (or northeast) of Chitral in Hunza. In fact, Albert Herrlich, a German traveler who visited Nuristan in 1935 called the cap “Kashgari”, after the town in Chinese Turkestan (Albert Herrlich, Land des Lichts, Knorr & Hirth: Munich 1938, p 55).
(2) Babur, who gives us a full list of the wine terroirs of Eastern Afghanistan in the early 16th century, rated the enological skills of the Pashais of Darra-e Nur above that of the Nuristanis (then still Kafirs). To further dispel the myth of European wine origin, note that the Pashais are a Dardic-speaking people to which Indian “brown” features are often arbitrarily attributed (here of interest only for the equally stereotyped “white” European phenotypes called in for their Nuristani neighbors).
(3) However, pakols did not necessarily follow the victorious armies of Islam. A 1929 picture taken by the great Norwegian linguist Georg Morgenstierne (see it here) shows two Kafir elders with pakols in Chitral, where some Kafir die-hards had fled as refugees in 1896 to avoid conversion to Islam. They had been allowed by the ruler of Chitral to settle in the three valleys already inhabited by the Kalasha, a group once client to them and following similar religious practices. The uprooted Kafirs however had mainly converted to Islam in the span of few decades, and some had gone back to Afghanistan. The two men, although respectively a headman and a singing priest, and thus likely to have remained more attached to their original culture and, judging by their non-Muslim names, their original faith, had notwithstanding adopted the Chitrali cap in their exile.
(4) This could be easily explained by the stable trade relations existing between Kafiristan/Nuristan and Munjan, the southernmost valley of Badakhshan, and also by the fact that a colony of Kafirs/Nuristanis had long been settled in the village of Naw, in upper Munjan valley.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020