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Afghanistan is a country much in the news and rich in history. Very little is widely known about this culture. What the average person does know is not the most flattering aspects and how much of those “facts” are true is sometimes debatable. It is a very interesting culture full of surprises and beauty. Discover a little bit of Afghanistan that is not on the news networks.
The Land of the Afghan
Its official name is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It means literally “the Land of the Afghan”. It is about 250,000 square miles which is almost the size of the state of Texas and holds about 31 million people. The capital is Kabul and the terrain of the country is mainly mountains and desert. The winters are cold and the summers are hot and dry.
Historically Afghanistan was a popular trading route, “Crossroads of Central Asia”. Because of that there are about 9 main ethnic groups that make up the population. The main language is Dari, an Afghan Persian, and Pasto. Within these groups there are 2 main religious groups that make up about 99% of the population. Both are the two main sects of Islam: Sunni (80%) and Shi’a (19%).
The Turbulent History
In 328 B.C. Alexander the Great arrived on the scene when the land currently known as Afghanistan was part of the vast Persian (Iranian) Empire. He created the area of Bactria, known today as Balkh. As it usually happens when a new nation is created, invasions began to come in one after other from the Huns, Turks, and many others over the next several centuries. It was in 642 that the Arabs invaded and brought in the Islamic religion which is the main one still today. The Arabs did not manage to keep the land too long until the Persian decided to take it back. That lasted until around 998 when the Turks arrived back on the scene. Peace could not come with all the power struggles from within the country. Genghis Khan decided to end all the turmoil by taking over in 1219. He ruled until his death in 1227 and opened the door for the power struggles to return. It took one of Genghis Khan’s descendants, Tamerlane, to settle things in the late 1300’s. Several hundred years went by in relative peace as part of the Asian Empire.
It was in 1747 that the current area of Afghanistan was established under Ahmad Shah Durrani. In the 1800’s Afghanistan became the prize in “The Great Game” between the British Empire and Russia. It was in 1919 that a compromise was struck and Britain relinquished control. A series of successions, abdications, and assassinations occurred over the next several decades as tension rose. Much of the tension was created when various rulers attempted to change many age old traditions such as abolishing the traditional veil, establishing co-ed schools, and dipping their toes in democracy. Enough was enough in 1973 when a coup occurred by the fundamentalists. This period started out with many imprisonments and murders as a “cleansing” began. Revolts became numerous and power struggles were still present.
The Soviet Union could not pass this up and began to take advantage of the chaos within the country. By the end of 1979 Soviet forces were landing in Kabul, the prime minister was killed, and a new one was established. Eventually the Soviet’s withdrew, but as with any withdrawal confusion and “abandonment” developed. It was during the mid 90’s as this was occurring that the infamous Taliban arose and took power.
The Taliban is known the world over today. They are mainly a group that wants to take the country to a very hard-lined version of Islam. In a show of their intended purpose, the Taliban government had centuries old Buddha statues demolished in 2001 near Bamiyan. They are also known for harboring terrorist, Osama bin Ladin. After the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Afghanistan once again appeared on the world scene in the middle of wars. The intent by the U.S. and other countries was to flush out bin Ladin and remove any resources that other extreme terrorist groups had. The capital of Kabul fell on November 13, 2001. Since that time, the country has been in a period of “minor” wars and developing a new and stable government. Tensions still run high in this country.
Afghan Agriculture and Natural Resources
Though Afghanistan is a relatively dry desert area, quite a bit of agriculture can be grown there when there is no fear of wars and revolts. The main agriculture items are corn, rice, tobacco, wheat, nuts, fruits, cotton, and sugar beets. Less than 12% of the land is usable due to the terrain and climate and less than 6% of it cultivated. That is smart agriculture. Unfortunately, wars and drought have prevented much of these crops to be raised and much has had to imported.
Another major cash crop that soared in the 1990’s is opium. In 2007 a record crop was produced from Afghanistan meeting 93% of all the world’s opium production in that year. Anti-narcotic programs have been developed and 2008 showed a decrease of 20% in the production. This is not an agricultural product that the Afghan’s are proud to have in their encyclopedia next to their country.
Afghanistan has many natural resources including natural gas, coal, zinc, cooper, petroleum, salt, and precious stones. Much of the mining has ceased over the last several decades as fighting has ensued internally and externally.
The Afghan culture is beautiful and comes through their music, poetry, and cooking.
A few of the traditional proverbs are:
- He ran out from under the leaky roof and sat under the rain.
- Vinegar that is free, is as sweet as honey.
- There is blessing in action.
- One who calls himself Khan is not Khan.
The poetry of the Afghan people is beautiful and unique as well as their music.
Oh' Great Mountain, reaching far into the sky!
How long will you find satisfaction in self love? Though just a tiny butterfly, I am yet free, To dance on a flower head while you remain shackled.
Ustad Khalilullah Khalili
By blood, we are immersed in love of you.
The youth lose their heads for your sake. I come to you and my heart finds rest. Away from you, grief clings to my heart like a snake. I forget the throne of Delhi when I remember the mountain tops of my Afghan land. If I must choose between the world and you, I shall not hesitate to claim your barren deserts as my own.
Ahmad Shah Durrani
The food of the Afghan people is a blend of many of the cultures around them and of those that have invaded over the centuries. Food is a very important aspect of the Afghan culture and guests are always welcome and get their fill of the wonderful food offered.
You can foods such as
Like all nations, Afghanistan has its very own national holidays. They follow the Muslim holidays as well as two very important days in their own personal history. There is Jeshen on August 19th to celebrate independence from the British (though never a colony it was the complete removal of British influence) and Remembrance day for Martyrs and Disabled on May 4th.
As with any culture, you also want to make sure that you practice acceptable etiquette of their country especially if you are the one visiting there. Here are a few of their traditions that you need to know about to avoid insulting your host.
- Always inquire about the person’s health and personal life.
- Co-ed social gatherings only happen within the family.
- Eye contact between men and women are prohibited.
- Always remove your shoes at the door when visiting.
Learning More - Yourself and Kids
This article doesn't even begin to scrape the top layer of Afghan culture. Go explore and discover more about Afghanistan. Here are a few ideas for you to look into.
- Have kids find Afghanistan on a map and draw it showing all the major cities and terrain.
- Research the native dress and have a dress up day to see how it feels to wear traditional Afghan clothes
- Check out books at your local library on Afghanistan.
- Find movies about Afghanistan including documentaries.
- Have an Afghan feast day and make all the dishes that you can find. Invite your family and friends to learn more.