POPULATION: 22 million
LANGUAGE: Dari; Pashto; Turkish
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim, 80–90 percent; Shi'ite Muslim, 10–20 percent)
Afghanistan became an independent nation in 1919. In the sixty years that followed, the leaders tried to establish a government based on parliamentary democracy. In April 1978, the government was overthrown in a coup d'état. The Soviet Union (a powerful communist country at the time) sent its army into Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, to support the government established after the coup. The troops stayed for ten years. During that time, thousands of Afghanis became refugees, fleeing their homes to escape the practices of the new government. Many settled in the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Iran. By the late 1990s, at least one out of every four Afghanis was living outside of Afghanistan as a refugee.
Afghanistan is a remote, mountainous, land-locked country in southwestern Asia. It is about the same size as the state of Texas. The mountain ranges known as the Hindu Kush cover most of the country. Afghanistan's climate features little rainfall. To cultivate crops in Afghanistan, farmers must use irrigation systems.
The total population is about 22 million. In the mid-1990s, about 3 million were nomads (people who move frequently, living in dwellings that can be easily transported), and millions were refugees living outside Afghanistan. The five major cities in Afghanistan are Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kunduz. The major ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Pashtun and Hazara. (Until recently, the terms Afghan and Pashtun were interchangeable. Today, however, Afghan denotes all citizens of Afghanistan.)
There are two principal languages spoken in Afghanistan: Dari, a form of Persian; and Pashto (also spelled Pashtu), which is also spoken in some areas of the neighboring country, Pakistan. Both Dari and Pashto are official languages of Afghanistan. Most educated Afghanis can speak both. Most Afghani names are Islamic. Afghanis have only recently begun to use surnames (last names).
Afghanis love to tell stories. Stories for children usually teach about foolish people who get what they deserve, such as "The Smell and the Jingle." According to this story, there was once a beggar who lingered near the property of a wealthy merchant, smelling the wonderful smells from a barbecue the merchant was hosting. Not one of the guests offered the beggar even a morsel to eat. The next day, the merchant accused the beggar of ruining his picnic by lingering nearby. (The merchant felt his guests were offended when the beggar "stole" the wonderful smells of the barbecue.) The merchant took the beggar to court, where the beggar told the Amir (ruler) he was innocent of any crime. The Amir wanted to win favor with the wealthy merchant (and didn't care much about the beggar), so he sentenced the beggar to pay the merchant ten dinars. The beggar had no money to pay the fine, so he went to Abu Khan (a local philosopher) for advice. Abu Khan pondered for a moment, and shook his head knowingly. "Don't worry, my friend. Allah will help you. Meet me at the Amir's court tomorrow, and—God willing—the debt will be settled." The next day, the Amir asked the merchant, "Are you ready to receive payment of the fine?" The merchant replied impatiently, "Yes, I am waiting." Abu Khan handed the ten dinars to the beggar and said, "Now throw them down." The beggar did so, and the coins jingled as they scattered on the marble floor. "Did you hear the jingle?" Abu Khan asked the merchant. "That is the part of the dinars that belongs to you. If a man can spoil a barbecue by merely smelling the wonderful aroma, then a man can well be paid by hearing the jingle of money." The Amir smiled, knowing that he had to agree with Abu Khan. The merchant had received a fair payment.
Afghanistan is one of the most solidly Muslim countries in the world. The majority follow the main branch of Islam, the Sunni tradition. About 10 to 20 percent of Afghanis follow the Shi'ite branch of Islam. There are also sufis (or dervishes), members of the mystical branch of Islam. Religious folk traditions are generally more important to Afghanis than the scholarly study of Islam. Local religious leaders are usually not highly educated. Mostly, they are peasants who do other part-time work.
Probably the most important annual holiday in Afghanistan is the ancient Persian New Year celebration. Called Nawruz , meaning "new day," it occurs at the beginning of spring on March 21. Special foods are eaten, including a dessert called samanak. Fairs and carnivals brighten Nawruz. So does the custom of dyeing farm animals—green chickens and purple sheep abound.
Most major holidays in Afghanistan are Islamic holy days, which are reckoned by a lunar calendar. One of the most important is Ramadan (pronounced Rah-mah-zan in Afghanistan), a month of fasting from dawn to dusk each day.
Secular (nonreligious) holidays in Afghanistan include Revolution Day on April 27; Workers' Day (similar to Labor Day) on May 1; and Jeshn, or Independence Day, on August 18.
Weddings are the most festive occasions in Afghanistan, with ceremonies traditionally spread over a three-day period. The groom's family pays for the wedding, which involves much feasting and dancing. In the official ceremony (nikah-namah), the marriage contract is signed in front of witnesses. The mullah (local religious leader) reads from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam), and sugared almonds and walnuts are tossed onto the bridegroom.
The birth of a first child is the occasion for a day-long celebration, which is most elaborate if the child is a boy. Children are named on the third day after birth. Boys are usually circumcised at about the age of seven. Afterward they begin wearing turbans.
In the year following a death, memorial dinners take place several times.
Most Afghanis only use their given (first) names in public. Within the privacy of the home, they call each other by nicknames, or laqubs. All nicknames consist of the same few words—including "candy," "flower," "lion," "uncle," and "dear"—in combinations such as "Lion Uncle" or "Flower Dear."
Afghanis are very physically expressive. They use exaggerated gestures and facial expressions to communicate. Physical affection is openly expressed between members of the same sex. However, the laws of Islam forbid members of the opposite sex who are not close relations to touch each other.
Afghani men greet friends and acquaintances by clasping both hands in a firm handshake, hugging, and kissing each other on the cheeks. They often walk together, arm in arm. Business contracts are sealed with a nod of the head.
Interpersonal relations among Afghanis are largely ruled by Pashtunwalli , a set of unwritten laws and codes. Pashtunwalli includes such concepts as milmastia, being a good and generous host; and nanawati, providing shelter to anyone who needs it.
Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Constant warfare has prevented the Afghanis from developing effective irrigation systems, which are required for farming. Most of the few major roadways in the country have been destroyed in the wars. Afghanistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.
Afghanistan is one of the few countries of the world that still has a sizable number of nomads. Nomadic Afghanis, called kochis, live in tents. There are about two million nomads in Afghanistan. They move from place to place to find grazing grounds for their herds of camel and sheep. Settled Afghanis mostly live in small villages of a few hundred to a few thousand people. Some wealthier Afghanis live in qalas, or country forts, with other farmers working their land.
Village houses are made of bricks plastered with a mixture of mud and straw. Most are flat-roofed, but in some regions domed roofs are preferred. Households have the bare minimum of furniture, with mattresses spread on the floor at night for beds. The mattresses are then stacked in a corner during the day.
High-rise brick buildings are found in cities to house the ever-growing urban population. Though the standard of living is better than in rural areas, modern comforts such as plumbing are not always available.
Most marriages are arranged by the parents and relatives, often when children are still very young. Men generally marry between the ages of eighteen and twenty, and women between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Marriage between cousins, especially paternal ones, is preferred.
Afghani life revolves around the family, including the extended family. Extended families often live together in the same household, or in separate households clustered together. Even large cities are made up of small "villages" of extended family units. The women of the family households form a single work group, and care for and discipline the children. The senior male member, usually the grandfather, controls all spending. The grandmother organizes all domestic chores.
Women have a great deal of power in the home, but little authority in public. Islamic tradition requires that they be veiled and kept separate from men in public.
Divorce is fairly simple in Islamic law. To divorce his wife, a man merely has to say "I divorce you" three times in front of witnesses. A woman has to appear before a judge with reasons for divorcing her husband. However, few Afghanis end their marriages.
Children are cherished in Afghani society, especially boys. Girls are not mistreated, but their brothers' needs always come first. Children are expected to grow up quickly and learn to take care of themselves.
The ordinary clothing of Afghani men is a rather baggy pair of trousers with a draw-string at the waist, and a loose, long-sleeved shirt reaching about to the knees. When it is cool, a vest is also worn. Brightly striped, quilted coats are worn in rural areas. Afghanis' turbans were traditionally white but are now any color.
Women generally wear pleated trousers under a long dress, and cover their heads with a shawl. Some urban women continue to wear the chadri, a traditional ankle-length cloth covering, which was officially banned in 1959. It is like a sack over the whole body, with a mesh insert over the eyes and nose.
In large cities, especially Kabul, Western-style clothing is becoming increasingly popular with both men and women.
Afghani cuisine has been influenced by the peoples who have occupied their country throughout history. The strongest influences are India and Iran. Staple foods are rice, a flatbread known as naan, and dairy products. A variety of fruits and vegetables are also available. The main feature of a big meal is a rice pilau, which is rice cooked with meats or vegetables.
Bread is eaten at every meal. It often serves as a utensil for scooping up food, since Afghanis generally eat with their fingers. The typical beverage is tea, usually drunk without milk. Alcohol and pork are forbidden by Islam. In rural Afghanistan, regular meals are not eaten between breakfast and supper, but people carry nuts and dried fruit to eat during the day for energy.
A special soup served only on Nawruz, the Persian New Year, is haft miwa. This soup is made of seven fruits and nuts to symbolize spring. In the recipe that follows, peaches are substituted for a locally grown Afghani fruit known as sanje.
Adapted from Ansary, Mir Tamim. Afghanistan: Fighting for Freedom. New York: Dillon Press, 1991.
Western-style education has never been widely accepted in Afghanistan. Relatively few people are literate (can read and write). With the constant warfare, formal education has not always been available. Before the communist takeover in 1978, there were 3,404 schools with 83,500 teachers. Two decades later, there were only 350 schools left, with 2,000 teachers—and nearly 400,000 children. That means there are two hundred students per teacher.
The educational system of Afghanistan consists of six years of primary school, and six years of lycee, or high school. When the University of Kabul was founded in 1946, there were separate programs for men and women. By 1960, its curriculum had become coeducational (including men and women together).
Nearly constant warfare since the seventeenth century has prevented the Afghanis from giving their attention to the arts. There has been little original art, literature, or architecture produced in Afghanistan.
Afghanis write little fiction or other prose. The Islamic reverence for poetry, however, continues to inspire poetry recitals. The most popular theme in Afghani poetry is war, followed by love, jealousy, and religion.
Most painting is in the form of calligraphy (decorative lettering) and other functional decoration. Graceful Muslim architecture can be seen in the design of mosques and other buildings.
Most Afghanis (about 70 percent) are farmers and herders. The army and government administration are the only major types of employment other than agriculture. Only the few large cities, including the capital, Kabul, have modern businesses.
Afghanis are very competitive and take their sports seriously. Winning is a question of personal and family honor. Afghani sports also tend to be violent, although injuries are rare. A favorite Afghani sport is called buzkashi, or "goat pulling." Two teams compete for possession of a headless animal carcass (usually a calf). Teams have been known to number up to 1,000 players.
Another popular Afghani sport is wrestling, or pahlwani. Modern sports introduced in the twentieth century include tennis, golf, cricket, basketball, soccer, and field hockey.
In war-torn Afghanistan, families do not have money to buy toys, and few are available. Children play simple games with basic toys made from natural objects, such as slingshots. Buzul-bazi is a game like marbles or dice, played with sheep's knucklebones. Girls play a game very similar to hopscotch.
Boys enjoy kite-fighting (gudi-paran jungi) with kites made from tissue paper stretched over bamboo sticks. The point of the game is to cross strings with another kite-flyer and saw your string back and forth against his to cut the string and set his kite loose. To make their strings sharper, boys "glass" them by soaking them in a mixture of ground glass and paste.
Adults love to sing and dance, and do so often. Afghanis do not dance with partners; instead, they either dance alone or in circles. Men spend time in teahouses listening to music, drinking tea, and talking. They also indulge in a more violent entertainment—animal-fighting, usually with cocks (roosters). The two animals fight to the death, and men bet on the outcome.
The main folk art is carpet-weaving. The weaving is done mostly by young girls and women. Patterns are passed down from generation to generation and are considered family secrets. For the finest work, it takes four weavers three months to finish a rug that measures six square meters (about seven squares yards).
Embroidery is widely practiced. Skullcaps, shirts, vests, and coats may be embroidered—especially ones worn on special occasions. Metalworking has produced silver jewelry and elaborately designed dagger handles, as well as trays and bowls. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of the stone lapis lazuli, which is made into jewelry.
Continual warfare is the biggest social problem facing the Afghanis. The fighting has severely disrupted education, health care, employment opportunities, and even the provision of basic needs such as food and shelter.
Ali, Sharifah Enayat. Cultures of the World: Afghanistan. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1995.
Ansary, Mir Tamim. Afghanistan: Fighting for Freedom. New York: Dillon Press, 1991.
Clifford, Mary Louise. The Land and People of Afghanistan. Portraits of the Nations. New York: Lippincott, 1989.