Photograph of Abdelhamid Abu Oud, wearing a pakol.Following the horrific attacks in Paris last week Friday, photographs were published in the media of the alleged ring-leader, someone called Abdelhamid Abu Oud, of Belgian/Moroccan origins. He seems to have been killed by the French police, last Wednesday in Saint-Denis. What struck me, when looking at some of the photographs of him taken in Syria or Iraq in the company of his ISIS friends, was his headgear. He is shown wearing a pakol, which is a cap with a rolled brim. It has an interesting history in the Afghanistan/Pakistan borderlands, a background which is not really in line with Abdelhamid's radical beliefs. But I am sure he had no idea.
Because of its likeness to the typical headgear of the ancient Macedonians, the pakol has actually often been Ahmad Shah Massud, wearing a pakol, killed on 9 September 2001 by (apparently) Moroccan followers of Osama bin Laden, carrying Belgian passports.described as a relic of the distant past, which was allegedly brought to the East by the soldiers of Alexander the Great. The idea is not as weird as it sounds, since many leaders in this part of the world used to tell the British conquerors that they descended from the terrible Alexander. Actually, Marco Polo who may have crossed these lands in the late 13th century, mentions the same thing.
But fortunately for the ISIS adherents, the cap does not have a western origin. The pakol was first introduced in Afghanistan among the Nuristanis, in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. Nuristan is a mountainous and very secluded part of Afghanistan, in the extreme east of the country, northeast of the capital Kabul. The pakol cap derived from the mountain valleys in the extreme north of neighbouring Pakistan. It soon became the 'national' dress of the people of Nuristan (who converted to Islam, not entirely voluntarily, after 1896 when they were subdued by the Afghan amir). The pakol, which basically is a tube of wool that is rolled up around the head, was later also adopted by many Westerners working in the 'golden age' of Afghanistan, in the 1960s, and also among the Tajiki people living in the Panjshir valley north of Nuristan.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at Christmas 1979, and a wide-spread revolt broke out all over the country, the people of the Panjshir took a leading role under Ahmad Shah Massud, who became an iconic leader of the Afghan resistance, the so-called Mujahedin. His headgear, the pakol, was subsequently adopted by many of the (young) Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds, all over the country, who were fighting the communist regime and the Red army (I donned it as well when I walked around there with the Mujahedin in the 1980s, so much easier to put on than the turban). Among many of the (young) Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group of Afghanistan, the pakol slowly replaced the turban, as it also did among the Pashtuns living in neighbouring Pakistan.
Now when the ultra-conservative Taliban in Afghanistan, most of whom were Pashtuns, overran the country after 1994, their fiercest Afghan opponents were the non-Pashtuns in the north of the country, among whom the Panjshiris under Ahmad Shah Massud (he was eventually killed two days before 9/11 in a suicide attack by some (apparent) Moroccans with a Belgian passport....). The Panjshiris, who live just north of Nuristan, and many of their allies, were still wearing the pakol; the Taliban thereupon 'adviced' their Pashtun followers to stick to the turban. Actually, in many places, including Kabul, the wearing of a pakol was forbidden when the Taliban were controlling the town between 1996 and 2001. This only changed again when in late 2001 the Taliban were defeated, and people in Kabul in large numbers started wearing a pakol again, discarding the turban (and shaving off their beards).
And now I see an ISIS follower in the Middle East wearing the pakol ! Abdelhamid is unlikely to have had any knowledge of the history of his headgear, but he may not have liked the idea that the Taliban in Afghanistan regarded the pakol as the typical cap worn by their Western-supported opponents. Beware what you wear.
Willem Vogelsang, 19 November 2015