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Afghanistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

Afghanistan - Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

by Nazes Afroz, Moska Najib
Afghanistan is situated at the crossroads of Asia, a strategically important location that connects the Middle East with Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Down the ages it has been subjected to continuous foreign invasion and intervention—from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, and as a pawn in the struggle between the British and Russian


Afghanistan is situated at the crossroads of Asia, a strategically important location that connects the Middle East with Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Down the ages it has been subjected to continuous foreign invasion and intervention—from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan, and as a pawn in the struggle between the British and Russian Empires—making its people wary of outsiders. That history is being repeated in the twenty-first century.   Afghanistan has always been seen from the outside as a realm of much intrigue and many myths. The Afghans tried to keep their distance from the outside world—especially from the Europeans who, whether in pursuit of imperial goals or simply as explorer–travelers, attempted to enter and traverse the land. Their very elusiveness attracted Westerners to this landlocked country of high mountains and breathtaking beauty, where age-old customs and traditions were zealously guarded, sometimes at the cost of many lives.   The Afghan people are a tapestry of ethnicities woven over time—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and many smaller ones. Society is organized mainly along ethnic and tribal lines, but ethnic identity becomes irrelevant when a common enemy threatens to take control of the country. There are also many shared values and unwritten codes of conduct that govern interpersonal relations, which are not taken lightly. Visitors are struck by the simplicity, hospitability, dignity, and generosity of the Afghan people, and often confounded by customs that they find hard to understand.   Culture Smart! Afghanistan is a unique introduction to the background, habits, traditions, idiosyncrasies, suspicions about foreigners, and patterns of behavior of the Afghan people. It offers visitors invaluable information and insights that will help them to interact with Afghans, to interpret their behavior, and to behave appropriately in their company, whether in personal or business exchanges. Once the ice is broken, the rewards will be great.

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By Moska Najib, Nazes Afroz

Bravo Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85733-680-1


Land & People


Afghanistan's geography has for centuries been its curse. Strategically located at the crossroads of major trade routes, the country has long been fought over as the seat of expanding empires. Its rugged and forbidding terrain is sandwiched between three major regions: the Indian Subcontinent to the southeast, Central Asia to the north, and the Iranian plateau to the west.

Almost as large as the state of Texas, this landlocked nation shares boundaries with six neighboring countries. Its longest border is with Pakistan, accounting for the entire southern and eastern frontier. Approximately 1,640 miles (2,640 km) long, the border is named after Sir Mortimer Durand, the British diplomat who arbitrarily drew a pencil line along a map in 1893, dividing British Indian territory from a fiercely independent Afghanistan.

To the west is Iran, a neighbor with an overlapping history and deep ties of language, ethnicity, and culture. The provinces of Herat, Farah, and Nimruz, bordering Iran, are a favorite transit corridor for drug traffickers, who smuggle their cargoes to dealers in Europe and beyond.

In the north are the Republics of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Afghanistan found that the number of its northern neighbors had tripled. Sharing the shortest border in the extreme northeast is China. Only 47 miles (76 km) long, it is located in the remote and largely inaccessible Pamir Mountain range that was once part of the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Without a doubt, Afghanistan's history and politics have largely been determined by its extraordinary geographic location. Migrating groups have passed through this country and left behind a blend of ethnic, linguistic, and cultural influences. Afghanistan's borders and boundaries on the Silk Road, the great caravan route that once linked the markets of Asia to those of the Western world, have today become flashpoints in the geopolitics of the region.


A land of great variety and contrast, two-thirds of Afghanistan is mountainous terrain with barely any vegetation, and half of the remaining part is desert. The towering peaks of the Hindu Kush separate the northern provinces from the rest of the country. Running northeast to southwest through the entire length of central Afghanistan, this rugged mountain range divides the country into three distinct geographic zones: the central highlands, the northern plains, and the southern plateau.

Forming part of the Himalayas, the central highlands include the main Hindu Kush range. This is a region of deep, narrow valleys and lofty mountains with numerous peaks over 20,000 feet (6,096 m) high. In the extreme eastern part of the country, the highest peaks of the Hindu Kush tower at almost 24,000 feet (7,315 m) above sea level. The mountains descend in altitude as they stretch westward to Iran. The areas in and around the Hindu Kush are prone to earthquakes, in particular in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

Midway in the Hindu Kush, in the central part of the country, is the Koh-e-Baba range that feeds Afghanistan's three most important rivers — the Kabul, which flows east to join the Indus River in Attok, in Pakistan; the Helmand-Arghandab, which waters the Kandahar, Lashkar Gah, and Sistan areas of the south before disappearing into the marshy lakes of the Hamun-i-Helmand, mainly in Iran; and the Hari Rud, or Herat, River, which flows west past the city of Herat and meanders north to Turkmenistan, where it disappears in the Kara-Kum Desert. Most of the water in Afghanistan comes from these river systems, which carry the snowmelt from the mountains into the lower areas of the country.

The fertile land of Afghanistan lies in the northern plains, which extend from the Iranian border to the foothills of the Pamirs near Tajikistan. Nomads graze sheep and goats on the grasslands of this region, which is also rich in mineral deposits and natural gas. Its fertile foothills slope gently toward the Amu Darya, or Oxus, River. The northern plains region is heavily populated, and the abundance of the agricultural land makes it the breadbasket of the country.

Sandy deserts and semi-desert plains are a key feature of the south, with the Rigestan Desert making up about a quarter of the area. The high, arid plateau extends into Iran and Pakistan. To the west of Rigestan lies the Dasht-e-Margoh ("Desert of Death"), covered with salt flats. Summer dust storms and sandstorms are common in the deserts, particularly in the southwestern parts of this region.

Afghanistan has several famous lakes. Hidden in the Koh-e-Baba range, at an altitude of 9,514 feet (2,900 m), is the Band-e-Amir — a series of six stunning lakes separated by natural dams of travertine. Nothing prepares one for the sudden blaze of sapphire blue and turquoise waters, which are often as smooth as glass, perfectly reflecting the mountains that surround them.


The climate in Afghanistan is as varied as its landscape. While the mountains of the northeast have dry, cold winters, the areas bordering Pakistan are influenced by the Indian monsoons that usually arrive between July and September, bringing rains and humidity.

There are four distinct seasons. The winter days, from December through February, are generally sunny and crisp, with several heavy snowfalls in the mountains. Barring the extreme southern parts of Afghanistan, temperatures plummet below zero as soon as the sun sets — so thick, warm clothing is a must during this time of year. Spring, on the other hand, is one of the most pleasant times to explore the country. From April to May the dusty mountains and arid deserts burst into life, studded with blooms of wild flowers and fruit blossoms. Afghanistan is then at its loveliest; but the spring melt can bring trouble of its own, with heavy rains and floods making many roads impassable or extremely difficult to use.

Summers are cool and comfortable in the mountains throughout the months of June, July, and August, but it gets very hot and dusty in the north and south of the country. Cities like Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Jalalabad swelter in the heat, with the temperature rising to 104°F (40°C).

However, the ideal season to travel and visit Afghanistan is fall. A riot of colors brightens the days from September through November. This is harvest time, and it brings the best of Afghan fruits — sweet melons, fresh grapes, and ruby-red pomegranates known to be the best in the world.


Afghanistan has never been inhabited by one single ethnic group. Its people form a diverse and complex mosaic of ethnicities — a reflection of its geographic location and its historical significance as the crossroads of Asia, where conquerors and occupiers settled or passed through.

According to the latest census, Afghanistan's population of thirty million people is divided into seven major ethnic groups — Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmen, and Baluch — and many smaller ones.

Society is organized mainly along ethnic and tribal lines. Most Afghans can recognize what part of the country someone hails from based on his tribe, and identify more with those who share their local language and culture. However, while their loyalty is to their tribe, being identified as an "Afghan" takes precedence. This patchwork of ethnic identities becomes irrelevant when Afghans feel threatened by a common enemy who seeks to control their country — the land of the Afghans.


Pashtuns (also known as Pakhtuns or Pathans) — Caucasians with tall figures and distinctive dark eyes — form the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, constituting about two-fifths of the country's population. The oldest continuous inhabitants of the region, they are Sunni Muslims who were traditionally farmers and semi-nomads, their homeland extending along the eastern and southern borders of the country. Claiming a common ancestor, language (Pashto), and religion, the Pashtuns are egalitarian, and rule themselves within their separate clans (quam) and subclans (khel) through councils composed of the leading men of each family. The two dominant tribal groups are the Ghilzai and the Durrani. The Ghilzai live predominantly in the eastern mountainous region of the country and are regarded as a conservative tribe. The Durrani are the educated and more liberal clan, living mainly in the southern areas.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, the Pashtuns have dominated the country's politics. Known as strong and hardy fighters ("the men of the sword"), they are an honor-bound people who will fight to maintain or recover their pride under Pashtunwali, the traditional code of ethics that has governed tribal affairs for thousands of years (see this page).


The second-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks live in the northeastern corner of the country, bordering Tajikistan. Believed to be of Iranian origin, they are tall, slender, fair-skinned Caucasians with blue or green eyes. They share the looks of the Iranian peoples, as well as their Persian language.

The Tajik community is not as tribal as the Pashtuns. When asked what people they are, most Tajiks will identify themselves with the particular valley, town, or region where they live. The term "Tajik" is mainly associated with those who do not belong to a tribal society, who speak Dari, and who are mostly Sunni Muslims.

Comprising more than a quarter of the country's population, the Tajiks of Afghanistan form the largest Tajik population outside their homeland in Tajikistan. Large numbers of Tajiks can be found in the cities of Herat, Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Ghazni. They are mainly agricultural, except in those towns and cities where many are artisans who engage in commercial activities. Conscious of their cultural tradition, the Tajiks have often been referred to as "the men of the pen."


In an isolated region in the country's central ranges, known as Hazarajat, is the second Dari-speaking group, the Hazaras. They form Afghanistan's largest Shiite minority, who have long been branded outsiders within the dominant Sunni Muslim population. Believed to be descendants of Genghis Khan's soldiers, their Mongoloid features — flat noses, broad cheeks, and narrow eyes — set them apart from other Afghans.

Traditionally on the bottom rung of Afghan society, Hazaras were exploited and considered a servant class. They have been discriminated against on religious grounds throughout the history of modern Afghanistan. Today, however, Hazaras run some of the country's leading press and media organizations.


Afghanistan's fourth-largest ethnic group, the Uzbeks are descendants of the Turkic invaders of the fifteenth century. They live in the agricultural regions north of the Hindu Kush, across the border from Uzbekistan. They speak their own Turkic dialect, Uzbeki, and identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.

While many practice agriculture, those living in towns are known as skillful artisans. Uzbeks have influenced Afghan culture, particularly in sport. They are thought to have introduced the national sport of Afghanistan, buzkashi (see Chapter 6).

Uzbeks have some different eating habits. Pasta, unusual in most Afghan dishes, is common in Uzbek cuisine, as are mantoo, which are steamed dumplings filled with onion and minced beef, and the noodle soup called aush. Uzbeki dress also differs, in that the men wear a long, striped chapan (a loose, cotton coat worn over a shirt and trousers), a small turban, and soft leather boots that fit tightly over woolen stockings and reach to the knees.


A number of other ethnic groups live in small pockets within Afghanistan. The Aimaqs are a mixed tribe composed of various ethnic groups, including Hazara, Baluch, and Tajik. Mainly farmers and herders, they live in the western areas of the provinces of Ghor, Badghis, and Herat. They are Sunni Muslims, and speak a dialect similar to Dari, mixed with Mongolian and Turkic words.

Although the Turkmen are one of Central Asia's major groups, they are a minority in Afghanistan. Mostly herders and craftspeople, they live across the border from Turkmenistan. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, a large number fled to Afghanistan and settled in the area. The Turkmen have contributed greatly to the economy as breeders of Karakul sheep and weavers of Turkmen carpets.

The Kirghiz are in the Pamir Mountains, in the northeastern arm of Afghanistan. Most are herders who live in yurts (tents) that are easily moved from place to place. They measure their wealth in sheep, goats, and yaks.

In the southern deserts of Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan and Iran, are the Baluchis. Mainly desert dwellers and herders, they are Sunnis.

As one of the groups with the longest ties to the region, the Nuristanis have lived in the eastern mountains ever since Alexander the Great traveled through Afghanistan. A linguistically distinct people, they speak several languages and dialects of Indo-Iranian origin. Under the reign of Amir Abdur Rahman, they were forcibly converted to Islam in the late nineteenth century. The Nuristanis have physical features similar to Europeans: they have fair skin, blond hair, and blue or green eyes, giving rise to the myth that they were the descendants of the Greeks from Alexander's time.

Other smaller groups consist of the Brahuis, Hindus, Sikhs, and Gujars, who originate from the Indian Subcontinent. The indigenous Jewish community is totally depleted in Afghanistan; currently, only one man remains to care for the synagogue in Kabul and keep the country's Jewish history alive.


Historians have called Afghanistan the "roundabout of the ancient world," and its history cannot be viewed in isolation. Over the centuries, it has been part of a series of empires, and subject to successions of migrations and invasions, at times making it a bloody testing ground.

Early History

While there has been some archaeological research carried out over the years, very little has covered Afghanistan's prehistory. Artifacts indicate that small farmers and herders inhabited the region some ten thousand years ago.

From very early times the region seems to have been connected by trade and commercial links stretching both east and west. Around 1500 BCE, tribes known as the Aryans, speaking an Indo-European language, began migrating into the northern plains.

The Achaemenid Empire (c. 550–33 BCE)

It was not until the sixth century BCE, however, that the region first appeared in recorded history, at the time of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.

Cyrus the Great of Persia extended the boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire into the region. Under his son-in-law, Darius I, the empire reached its greatest extent. Darius was a good statesman and an able administrator who organized the empire into satrapies, or provinces, and instituted a form of taxes to be collected by the satrap, or governor, of each province. The area of present-day Afghanistan formed several Achaemenid satrapies, among them Aria or Ariana (Herat), Bactria (Balkh), Arachosia (Ghazni and Kandahar), and Gandhara (the Kabul valley). Bactria, which later became known as Balkh, was reputedly the home of Zoroaster, who founded the religion that bears his name. The Persians embraced Zoroastrianism, and were instrumental in spreading it as far eastward as China.

Alexander of Macedon

Though the Achaemenid Empire was the largest the world had seen, in the fourth century BCE it began to disintegrate and gave way to the Greeks. Alexander III of Macedonia, known as "the Great," destroyed Persian power and overthrew the last Achaemenid emperor, Darius III, in 330 BCE.

After conquering the remaining Persian provinces, Alexander invaded Afghanistan. He launched two years of hard campaigning, pressing as far north as the Amu Darya (Oxus) River, but his army faced serious resistance in the Afghan tribal belt. The young conqueror, still in his twenties, realized that Afghanistan was a land "easy to march into, hard to march out of."


Excerpted from Afghanistan by Moska Najib, Nazes Afroz. Copyright © 2016 Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nazes Afroz is from India. He was a newspaper journalist based in Calcutta for seventeen years before moving to London to work for the BBC World Service, most recently as a senior executive. He has traveled extensively in India, reporting on politics, social conflicts, the environment, and human rights, and has undertaken assignments to South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Nazes has been visiting Afghanistan regularly for the last ten years for the BBC and has come to know the country and its people, history, and culture. An experienced photographer, documenting communities and people during his travels, his work has appeared in various publications and on BBC Web sites. The authors are currently working together on photography and research projects involving Afghanistan and India. Moska Najib was born in Afghanistan and educated in India and Switzerland, where she graduated in International Communications with distinction. A journalist by profession, she joined the BBC Bureau in Delhi as a researcher and went on to become a producer and reporter. In the past five years her work with the BBC has taken her all over India to produce, and sometimes report on, news and social features for BBC television channels and World Service radio. She is a keen traveler and photographer and her photo-features have appeared on the BBC News Web site. Although Moska has lived most of her life outside Afghanistan, she is deeply rooted in Afghan history, culture, and traditions.

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