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Introduction: Pashto Proverbs in English

Pashtuns (Pashto, Pushtuns, Pakhtuns, Pukhtuns), also called Pathans, are ethnic Afghans in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. The Pashtuns have played an important role in the regions of South and Central Asia, including the Middle East. They appear to have eastern Iranian ethnic origins for most part, share a common language, culture and history, live quite close to each other geographically speaking, and acknowledge each other as kinsmen. (Map below).

The Pashtuns are typically marked by using the Pashto language and living by old patriarchal codes of conduct that have been preserved till our times. There are about sixty major Pashtun tribes and more than four hundred sub-clans. One Pashtun branch tribe is the Marwat. Most of them live in and around Lakki Marwat, that is, in the southern North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, informs Wikipedia (s.v. "Pashtun people" and "Marwat").

The first collection that the following modified proverbs are taken from, is the first English translation of Pashto proverbs, gathered by Septimus S. Thorburn between 1872 and 1874. His collection contains Pathan opinions on social topics and other topics. Under "Miscellaneous" seventeen proverbs are added from Major Raherty's Pushto Manual (see book list). Also, the references of a third book, by Major Cecil A. Boyle, has been added (2013). The book contains 323 proverbs with English translation, and notes in some cases.

Through the prevailing proverbs we may get insights into a people - by studying them from their expressed thoughts, for many proverbs consist of criticism that shows regulating sentiments about honour and shame and much else.

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Predominant Pashtun area marked in blue with lines (From Wikipedia)

The translator notes that higher-toned proverbs of a people - proverbs that seem ahead of their moral condition and that tell how the good and ideal may be - do not reflect what is fully realised by the many or the base. Thus, "Where antagonistic proverbs on the same subject are found, some refined and ennobling, others coarse and debasing, the latter will, in most cases, more truly represent popular opinion - that is, the opinion of the masses - than the former," he writes.

Thorburn also notes that finer proverbs "have a subtle knowledge of the finer workings of the human heart," and thus "may be the productions of educated minds."

Many proverbs of the West are parallelled. I have by and large dropped such "old friends in new dresses" and kept Thorburn's thematic arrangement. His explanations of many of the proverbs are put right after the ones in question, after a long hyphen. The language of the selection has been slightly updated.

- Tormod Kinnes

Proverbs of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Warming Up

A rich house makes its foolish inhabitants wise.

Be beautiful yourself, and you will find the world full of beauty.

Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you're a vegetarian.

Money doesn't change people, it mainly exposes them.

If [some] one speaks the truth, his words are better than his silence, but he who invents falsifications, his silence is better than his speech.

People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.

Boasting

Though I am but a straw, I am as good as you. — Pathans act on the principle that "Jack is as good as his master," each believing himself as good as any other man.

A fly's hostility will be known on the scald-headed man. — Said in derision of boastful cowards.

What is a small hare, what is its load? — Said in rebuff to men who promise what they cannot perform.

Is a dog or a soldier the better? — Confound the soldier who praises himself, for the unclean dog never boasts.

A great sound is given forth from the empty vessel. — Cf. the English, "Empty vessels make the loudest sounds."

Bravery

On his forehead is light, whose sword tip is red (with blood). — That is, he who has killed his man is a fine fellow. Good looks and brave deeds accompany each other.

One is equal to one hundred, and one hundred to (so much) earth. — One brave man is equal to one hundred cowards.

When the wolf gets red, he becomes an ugly customer. — A bad man, whom one has punished or injured, becomes all the more dangerous.

Shoes are tested on the feet; a man in a row.

Look at a man's deeds, not whether he is tall or short.

To a true man his sickle is an Afghan knife.

The load which the donkey won't carry, you yourself will carry.

When a brave man can't get assistance readily, he sets to work and does without it.

Who has the power to fight lays conference aside.

Class and local

Who marries not an Isakki woman, deserves a donkey for a spouse. — The Isakki women are said to be very pretty.

What is in deposit with a Hindu, is in a grain-safe. — This proverb in praise of Hindus is well deserved, comments the translator.

Though pleasures become many, none will equal milk. — A Marwat saying.

Though the army be one's father's, it is bad. — A number of men, wherever they stop, are a nuisance, as they eat up everything and do a lot of damage. There is a similar proverb in Hindi.

Cooperation

If you and I agree, what is the lawyer wanted for?

Though a month be a unit, its days are many. — Said to remind a man that some of his greatness may depend on the support his friends give him.

You cannot clap with one hand alone. — Many great results cannot be obtained without cooperation.

Cowardice

He had burnt his mouth with the porridge, and was making death gasps. — Said of one who makes a fuss about nothing, or thinks himself, wheu slightly indisposed, at death's door.

Cowards cause harm to brave men. — Thus a coward in a village may, through some wrong deed, bring down a fine on the whole community.

Custom

Most Pathans are liberal-minded, and will discard an old practice for a new when convinced they will gain by so doing.

One camp's migration draws another. — When one Pathan clan seeks a new home, temporary or permanent, others are sure to follow it.

Death

Though the grave be a jail, it is unavoidable for the corpse. — From the Persian.

Death is certain, but a grave and a shroud are doubtful. — From the Persian too.

Everyone thinks his own grave too narrow. — Refers to man never being contented.

Death on a full belly is better than a life of hunger.

My father died and his fever ended.

The earth says, "If you are not a criminal don't fear me." — That is, a good man should not fear death.

Should you live one hundred years, at last you must die, my love.

If you do not die of poverty, at last you will of old age.

Enmity

The author writes by way of introducing the topic: "Were a Pathan not a good hater and an unscrupulous partisan, he would fail in . . . the luxury of having a blood feud. Still, two cousins, being necessarily rivals, are always at enmity, for a house not divided against itself is a thing unknown."

Speak good words to an enemy very softly; gradually destroy him root and branch. — This is the precept that still guides Pathans in working out revenge, or destroying an enemy. The Italians say, "Wait time and place to act your revenge, for it is never well done in a hurry."

Keep a cousin poor, but use him.

Family

If you do not marry a gentle woman, she will not bear you a gentle son.

At last the wolf's cub becomes a wolf.

Fate

Destiny is a saddled donkey, he goes wherever you lead him. — He must have been a bold man who first asserted it.

Though you go to Kabul, your appointed lot will follow you there.

Friendship

The medicine for asking is giving. — A Spanish proverb runs, "When a friend asks, there is no tomorrow."

The friend appears in hard times, not at big dinners. — In most languages there are similar proverbs: thus in English we have "A friend in need is a friend indeed."

A friend will cause you to weep, an enemy to laugh. — That is, a true friend will tell you your faults, an enemy will flatter you.

Friendship is good with the noble, not with the base. — From the Persian.

Brotherly love is all very well, but let there be some sort of account kept.

God

God will remain, friends will not.

The little one goes in trust on the big one, and the big one in trust on God. — That is, however much man may look to fellow-man for assistance, still, in the end, it is God who is the helper.

Good looks

A Pathan's idea of personal beauty is much the same as our own.

A thin beard is fit for the razor.

Good and bad luck

One man may equal another (in all respects), except in good luck.

Goodness and wickedness

If you do wrong you will sooner or later repent it; "Honesty is the best policy" after all.

Turn your face to virtue, and your back to vice.

Who desires loss to his tribe, will make it his own.

May you not eat that lark which will rise up in your throat (i.e. make you sick). — That is, be careful of speech, so that you may never have occasion to eat your words.

What is white shines best amidst black. — A good man shows best amongst the bad, a candle in darkness, like "a good deed in a naughty world."

Home

Every native is strongly attached to his birthplace, and Pathans are particularly so.

A journey is a dire calamity.

Honour and shame

To make yourself equal to your kinsman wear white clothes. — That is, regardless of the expense, spend as much as he does, and keep up the honour of your side of the house.

Someone asked the sweeper of whom he was afraid, and he said, "Of my fellow-sweeper."

Husbandry, weather, and health

Gain is from offspring, or from the plough. — This is a very old saying, but has lost much of its force now, as it does not follow that a man rich in sons should be rich in land. Formerly all land was held in common, and periodically divided, each living member of a community receiving a share. Consequently the man with the largest family received most land.

Thai [wetland] cultivation is (like) a Hindu's beard. — That is, uncertain; for a Hindu shaves his beard, except one patch on the crown, whenever a near relation dies.

One sows it (grain), one hundred eat it. — Meaning the wealth acquired by one is enjoyed by many.

What is the use to you of that Spring in which neither your calves nor your lambs graze? — This is addressed to the ruined or unlucky farmer. When he cannot derive any benefit from it, a good or a bad season makes very little difference to him.

Sowing is easy, keeping is difficult.

Ignorance and foolishness

Though I have not pastured flocks, yet I have heard the patter of their feet. — It does not require a man to be, say, a farmer to know something of agricultural matters.

The donkey does not know how to laugh. — There are many sorts of laughter. Granted that, he most likely does not appreciate a good joke either.

If a donkey goes to Mecca, when he returns he is the same donkey.

When the talk is silly and thoughtless, I am better asleep than in such waking.

Who may not have tasted Kabul fruits thinks wild sloes very fine.

The donkey ate the stick, the potter's jaw swelled. — "To eat stick" is to be beaten. The meaning is the fool was punished and the clever man took warning thereby.

Joy and sorrow

An orphan is strong in crying.

Lamentation is not with the drum. — The drum is a sign of merry-making. The meaning is that if a man be in sorrow, he will show signs of sorrow.

Another's misery is half enjoyment.

In the world two things afford delight - riding on horseback and sleeping on maiden's breast.

Whether a man has or has not (wealth) he has cares.

Parents say, "Our boy is growing up." They forget his life is shortening. — Refers to the short-sightedness of man.

Knowledge

The ordinary Pathan admires in his fellow-man a good understanding and the fruit of making a good use of it.

A good understanding is rubies and jewels, it is not (acquirable) by force or gold.

The goldsmith it is who knows the value of gold. — Somewhat similar is our "Every man to his trade."

Labour

To do work may be easy; to be master may be difficult.

Aim at much, lay by a little.

Though you be a guest, you are not a dead man. — Said in order to give an idle guest a hint to assist in the kitchen or elsewhere.

Lying

Ordinarily natives do not lie among themselves and trust implicitly each other's simple word. "We find the Marwats are a truthful people," writes Thorburn against other peoples in the area. Some of them even believe that well-told lies are very creditable: "As a rule no Bannuchi is ashamed of himself for telling a lie, but only when he tells it so clumsily that he is found out." I don't know how true it is.

The liar tells lies, the truthful man tests them. — Someone with a renown for lying, should take care to prove his assertions.

Though truth-telling is proper, it [can be] bitter.

Liberality and parsimony

Among Pathans the easiest and quickest road to a good name is by hospitality. The chief who keeps open house and gives every hungry wayfarer who passes the night at his village a good meal, knows that his money has been well laid out. As a race Pathans are very hospitable.

An untimely guest is the house's plunder. — Such a guest is like the unbidden one, "Welcomest when he is gone."

Strange food is on loan. — You must invite your host to dinner in return.

Whoever is (too) open-handed makes for himself loincloths of black blankets. — That is, beggars himself. This is a Marwat saying. It is not uncommon for an old family to plunge irretrievably into debt in order to keep up for a time its ancient fame for hospitably.

As a man grows old, his avarice increases.

The fatter a hen grows, the tighter her anus becomes. — Generally applied to niggardly rich men who accumulate more wealth and become greater misers.

The bird sees the grain, but not the snare.

Man's justice

The larks ruined the country, and the crows were blamed for it. — Larks are very numerous in the region earlier, and ate up much grain. Often applied to the lazy landlord, or superior official, who allows his people to commit acts of oppression, and, though he may be a mild, just man, is, owing to his indifference, himself accused of being the tyrant.

Old age

The tender deference shown by youth to age is one of the most pleasing traits in Pathan character. A long experience can be useful. So a white beard entitles a man to respect.

Though you have a white beard and toothless gums, you have not ceased attending to worldly affairs.

When a man grows old, every illness is ready for him.

Poverty

The bald-headed man has not a single hair on his head, nor does he require any one (to dress his hair). — That is, a poor man is his own master; no one interferes with him, nor he with any one.

The camel is for sale at one farthing; true, but as I don't possess a farthing, what can I do? — A bargain is no bargain to a man who cannot afford to buy it.

Pride, self-conceit, and lame excuses

No one feels the smell of his own breath. — That is, every one is blind to his own faults.

Strength

Do not tyrannize over anyone, else it will happen with you too.

Wealth

The road is open for the moneyed man.

To the moneyed man a mistress comes from Kabul.

Some die in its pursuit, some from it. — Wealth is spoken of.

Women

Were an old woman anything of a seer, she would ruin many families. — That is, she would know how to ply her trade successfully; for intrigues in India are conducted as a rule by old women.

Though a mother is meat, it is not lawful (to the son to eat it). — Though a son may not marry his mother, other men may. What is lawful for one may not be so for all.

See the mother, comprehend her daughter [better]. — Suggests "Like mother like daughter."

Who likes squabbles at home contracts two marriages. — Two wives never pull well together. Shakespeare says, "Two women placed together make bold weather."

What will her mother's or grandmother's beauty avail the bride who is not herself beautiful? — Our proverb, "Every tub must stand on its own bottom," is of similar meaning,

Let a widow re-marry, so that she may not be badly named. — Though the Prophet held it highly commendable that a widow should not re-marry, yet he preferred her doing so, like Saint Paul, rather than giving rise to scandal.

What the mother ate her child sucked.

Miscellaneous

Acquire knowledge, for it is glory in religion and the world.

Before reaching the water doff not the sandals.

Example is more than advice. *

Facts speak plainer than words.

Guard yourself from ignorance, for it is dishonour both in religion and the world.

He who places any hope upon the fabric of this world,
Embarks on a tour of the ocean in a paper boat.

It is a great art to do the right thing at the right season.

It is too late to whet the sword when the trumpet sounds to draw it.

One good turn deserves another.

Retribution, though late, comes at last.

Slow and steady wins the race.

Stretch thy arm no farther than thy sleeve will reach.

One date is presumably more than two raisins. *

The kid lies down by its mother's side.

The sport of a donkey is either wind from behind or a kick.

They who neglect their old friends for the sake of new, are rightly served if they lose both.

When our neighbour's house is on fire, it is time to look to our own.

Though the cock crow not, morning will dawn.

Stretch your feet only as far as your covering.

The country dog catches the country hare. — Somewhat akin to the English proverb, "Set a thief to catch a thief."

Though my house has been burnt, my house of sun-baked bricks walls have become much stronger and better by being firebaked. [Ampl.]

Who lives with a blacksmith will at last carry away burnt clothes.

Don't cram all five fingers into your mouth at once. — In eating, only the tips of two or at most three fingers are ordinarily put into the mouth.

Through too many butchers, the sheep becomes unfit for food. — "Too many cooks spoil the broth."

Don't put your fingers into every hole. Or you will get stung some day. — Said to meddlesome people.

Be it but an onion, let it be (given) graciously. — That is, show courtesy in small matters as well as great.

Though the cow be black, its milk is white. — So don't always judge from outward appearances. Cf. the French, "A black hen lays a white egg."

That part burns which has caught fire. — That is, each man must bear his own burdens. When a man's child dies, the father suffers grief, not his friend.

What are you doing where you have neither sheep nor lambs? — Said to a meddlesome person as a hint to him to mind his own business.

As mother so daughters: as the mill so the flour. — So, "Like mother like daughter," and so on.

As you sow, so will you reap.

A hint for a gentleman, a club for a clown. — In English it is, "A nod for a wise man, and a rod for a fool."

If the silk be old, you won't make even an donkey's pack-saddle from it. — Meaning that all things, whether good or bad, come to an end alike.

First know yourself, then betroth yourself. — Meaning, don't rush blindly into matrimony; see you can afford it, then marry. Marwats act upon it.

Good soup is made from good meat.

Don't look at the cock on his dunghill, but on your plate. — Judge of a man by his real worth, not by his outward appearance. Compare, "Do not look upon the vessel, but on what it contains."

Go twice on a road, but not twice with a statement. — That is, go as often as you like on a road; but when you speak, speak once and stick to what you say.

A closed mouth is better than talking nonsense.

Keep yourself ready, watch your opportunity.

If porridge were good, it would sell in the Bazaar. — Meaning if a man or article be really good, he or it will be duly appreciated.

Who shaves off his beard won't take long about his moustache. — That is, who gets through the more difficult part of his work, won't delay long at the rest.

A drowning man catches at a bush. — Substitute "straw "for "bush," and it becomes a familiar English proverb.

Great works are wrought by great hands; for if they (the hands) are small, they are stayed. — Without the necessary materials a work cannot be done.

Be not so sweet that men will eat you, nor so bitter that they will spit you out. — Show some moderation somewhere. [TK]

Were the knife of gold even, no one should plunge it into his own belly.

If you don't mind bother, buy a goat.

When there is no wind, bushes don't shake. — That is, there is no result without a cause. "There is no smoke without fire."

Don't dance without the drum. — That is, without a cause.

The world is a traveller's Sarai. — A Sarai is a rest house for traders and other travellers and caravans with horses, camels, and so on.

Who does wrong has bad dreams.

What tree is there that the wind has not shaken?

From the full vessel something [easily] spills over.

Though the night be dark, the hand does not miss the mouth.

From hearts to hearts are ways. — The meaning is, "Where there is a will there is a way."

Though silk be old, it is better than cotton thread. — Chinese parallel, "Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without one."

Who knows the benefit of good advice will begin no work without taking [fair] counsel.

Use language with everyone according to the measure of his understanding. — A very old proverb in Arabic.

Don't throw pearls into the cowshed. — Equivalent to our "Don't cast pearls before swine."

When a stick is stirred in filth, the stench from it increases.

Although the cloud is black, white water falls from it. — This is more 'forcible than our "Every cloud has a silver lining."

It was a calamity, but it did not increase. — When an accident has befallen a man, let him be thankful it was no worse.

Ask the sheep about the thorn-hodge. — Ask of those acquainted with misfortune what it is.

The lamb follows the sheep, the kid the goat.

The naked man leaves the road, the hungry man does not. — That is, so long as a man can keep up appearances, he does not show that he is ashamed of his poverty.

As the rock, so its chameleon; as the mountain, so its goat.

Of the broken bow two persons are in fear. — That is, the archer, that the bow will break in two altogether, and the one the arrow is aimed at, and who does not know the state of the bow. Often applied to cases where neither the plaintiff nor the defendant can forecast the upshot.

You keep on "cluck-clucking" here, and lay your eggs in another village. — Addressed to a hen. Is applied to a man who promises a favour to one and bestows it on another.

If a man say to you, "A dog has carried off your ear," would you go after the dog or put your hand to your ear? — That is, judge for yourself in all matters, don't readily believe what you hear.

Though arms are a load, sometimes they are useful.

When the time arrives for the snake to die, it goes on to the road. — Snakes like basking in the sun in open places, and therefore are often found on roads; and if seen, are sure to be killed.

Cecil A. Boyle's Collection

The collector, Cecil Boyle, informs in his foreword that most of his informants were illiterate villagers. To them, splendid proverbs represent accumulated wisdom of generations of wise men, and when aptly quoted during a conversation, they appeal to the keen sense of humour among them.

The proverb in English and Pashtu are found on the pages as shown. - TK

Examples

Every rose has a thorn as its friend. [4]

One stone is enough to drive away a hundred birds. [4]

Strong men and fools dare to tell the truth. [7]

If you are not his equal in strength, don't sit beside him off your guard. [7]

A cock makes a great to-do whether you catch hold of it tightly or gently. [9]

One can't get currants without stalks. (cf. No rose without a thorn.) [8]

A mountain is no place for a thief. [10]

Your head is like a rose but the rest of you is like an onion. (I.e. Good looks don't make up for a bad heart.) [10]

Common sense is not in one's head nor does age bring it. It is the result of considered thought. [11]

A hundred blows of a goldsmith are equal to one of a smith. [12]

A jackal at bay fights like a tiger. [16]

There is no tree which has not felt the force of the wind. [17]

A lucky man never grieves. [19]

However much you cook tripe it will still taste horrible. [23]

A horse shows itself off under a good rider. [25]

Charity begins with ones near and dear ones. [27]

What you spit out will not come back into your mouth. (I.e. You cannot retract what has once been said.) [29]

The grey dog is the wolf's brother. [30]

Donkey foals are loaded according to their size. [33]

A man who has been bitten by a snake is afraid of a bit of rope lying on the ground. [35]

When the wedding is over what is the use of putting on henna? [36]

This refers to the well-known story of a villager who asked a friend who was going to town to buy him some henna, as a wedding was to be held in the village, and on such occasions they don their best clothes and anoint their fingers with' henna. The many was delayed in the town and returned two or three days later, and said to his friend. "I have done your commission, here is the henna." His friend's reply has become proverbial and is used as a retort to one who does anything too late to be of any use. The expression is so well known that frequently only the first half of the sentence is used, i.e. "Wada na pas ta."

The hungry know nothing of the joys of repletion and the replete know not the pangs of hunger. [39]

A fool would not have made such a fool of himself as a clever fellow (like you) has done. [40]

Death comes alike to the miser and the generous man. [43]

A lamb goes with the sheep and a kid with the goats. (Cf. Birds of a feather flock together.) [45]

If you fashion a cat of wood it will not mew. [48]

Water overflows where the banks are weak. [49]

A small man relies on a big, but a big man relies on God. [52]

If a hare be made a beast of burden what sort of a load will it carry? [53]

People laugh at fools, but fools laugh at all and sundry. [55]

He is so proud that an elephant could not carry his pride. [55]

The more you stir up filth the more it smells. [58]

The cat ate the curds and the house-wife got the blame for it. [Mod. 58]

As are the mothers so are the daughters. [64]

If you deal in camels, make the doors high. [65]

If the truth comes out the land of lies will be burnt up. [68]

What do donkeys know of eating green wheat? [69]

Camels slip in their own urine. [70]

Brotherhood is all very well, but my bow has a definite price. (I.e. If you want me to fight for you I want something more solid than the ties of relationship.) [73]

Don't teach ducklings how to dive. (Also used in the sense of "Don't be such an obvious fraud.") [73]

Don't lay yourself out over old men, they die, and young ones forget. [76]

Even the bears on the hills have their flirtations. [Said of an unexpected match.] [77]

Don't go in front of the brave or behind a mule. [80]

Some horses were being shod and a frog also lifted up its feet. [80]

If you hit a watch with a stone or a stone with a watch it comes to the same in the end. [81]

There are lots of stones but only those of a seer's weight are the ones that are needed. [81]

A tiger is a tiger, even inside a cage. [82]

Stretch your feet according to the length of your sheet. [87]

Some ask what they will eat; some ask what they will eat with. (I.e. Rich and poor each have their troubles.) [88]

It is a hundred times more difficult to make a thing than to break it. [89]

The tree said. "If the axe handle were not made of my wood no one would be able to fell me." [90]

With the arrival of a stepmother the father becomes a step-father. [92]

Contents


Proverbs of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Literature  

Boyle, Cecil Alexander. "Naqluna": Some Pushtu Proverbs and Sayings. Allababab: The Pioneer Press, 1926.

Raverty, Henry George. The Pushto Manual: Comprising a Concise Grammar; Exercises and Dialogues; Familiar Phrases, Proverbs, and Vocabulary. 2nd Impression. London: Crosby Lockwood and Son, 1917, p. 172-76. (also: W. H. Allen and Co. 1880; BiblioBazaar, 2010.)

Thorburn, Septimus Smet. Bannú; or Our Afghan Frontier. London: Trübner and Co. 1876.

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