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LOCATION: Afghanistan
POPULATION: 31.9 million (2007)
LANGUAGE: Dari; Pashto (Pushto); Turkish
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni, 80–90%; Shia, 10–20%)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Hazaras; Kafirs; Vol. 4: Pashtuns


Throughout history, the territory that is now Afghanistan has been a crossroads for conquering armies and a jumping-off point for invasions of India. This pattern seems to have begun when the Indo-European-speaking Aryans first began to penetrate the Indus Valley in about 1800 BC. The Persian Empire of Cyrus was established in 545 BC. Persian rule lasted for the next two centuries. From 330 BC to 327 BC, Alexander the Great campaigned in Afghanistan. In 307 BC, Seleucus, one of Alexander's successors, traded Alexander's conquest in India and eastern Afghanistan to an Indian ruler named Chandragupta for 500 war elephants. This deal introduced a millennium during which Afghanistan was divided along often-shifting frontiers between a part ruled from the East, with an Indic culture, and a part ruled from the West, with a Hellenic and later Persian culture.

The armies of the Islamic invasion of the 7th century AD conquered Afghanistan in AD 699. In 1220, Genghis Khan brought his hordes into Afghanistan. For the next century and a half, parts of Afghanistan were under the control of various descendents of Genghis Khan. Then, after a time of rule by other conquerors, a central Asian ruler named Babur established a base in Kabul in 1504. From there he marched into India in 1525 and founded the Moghul Empire that dominated India for nearly 200 years. Until 1739, the moghuls controlled parts of Eastern Afghanistan, although they were often resisted by indigenous tribal groups. Western Afghanistan came under the control of the Persian dynasty. For 150 years, Afghanistan was divided between two empires.

The Afghan Empire took shape when Ahmed Khan, a young Pashtun (or Pushtun) cavalry leader, led his 4,000 troops to Kandahar where he was elected leader of a group now renamed Durrani. The Durranis set out on a campaign of conquest and brought much of Afghanistan under control by 1750. At its height, the empire of Ahmed Shah Durrani covered modern Pakistan and Kashmir, Afghanistan, and the northeastern province of Iran. Modern Afghanistan can be considered the part of this empire that was not subsequently whittled away.

The existence of a national entity that we can recognize as Afghanistan dates from the reign of Amir Adbur Rahman in 1880–1901. The country came to have its present boundaries during this period. However, Afghanistan was still under the heavy influence of various foreign powers. It was not until 1919 that the Afghan government succeeded in gaining independence in conducting its foreign affairs. In 1964 a new constitution was adopted that looked toward development of a parliamentary democracy. In a coup in 1973, the king was ousted by his first cousin, Daoud, who declared the country a republic, with himself as president. Five years later, Daoud was killed in a leftist coup in April 1978. Within a year, the widespread perception of the new regime as anti-Islamic and pro-Russian led to uprisings in most parts of the country. At least 400,000 refugees crossed over into Pakistan, and another 600,000 fled to Iran. Soviet military aid for the suppression of insurgency was not succeeding, so in December 1979 the Soviet army marched into Kabul. Thousands more Afghanis fled across the border. By late 1981, there were about 3 million Afghanis in Pakistan, and 250,000 in Iran. Ten years later, the number of refugees had climbed to 5 million.

The Soviet army left Afghanistan in 1989 and fighting among tribal and ethnic groups intensified. In the mid-1990s a Pakistan-supported mercenary army of Islamic fundamentalists called the Taliban (Arabic for "students") began taking control of large swathes of the country. Many Taliban fighters were Arabs who had come to Afghanistan in the 1980s to repel the Soviet occupation of a Muslim land. Their deeply traditional brand of Islam was welcomed in many parts of the country, particularly in the southern provinces around Kandahar. They were less successful in the Hazara lands to the east and the Tajik part of the north. By 1996 the Taliban had taken control of most of the country. A tiny pocket of Afghanistan was still ruled by a coalition of Uzbek, Hazara, and Tajik forces called the Northern Alliance.

After the al Qaeda-led attacks on Washington D.C. and New York on 11 September 2001, the United States and the United Kingdom began a bombing campaign of Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and to capture leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network who were being protected by the government. The Taliban forces fell quickly and an interim government was established and backed militarily by a large contingent of American and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces. Partial peace returned to regions of the country held by NATO and the United States, and a democratic government, headed by Hamid Karzai, was established in 2004. The Taliban, however, were never fully defeated and beginning in 2005 they began a counter-offensive in the south, attacking from the mountainous border areas with Pakistan. By 2007 and 2008, suicide bombings were becoming common throughout the country, even in Kabul, by that time a heavily fortified and militarized city.


Afghanistan is a relatively inaccessible, mountainous, land-locked country of southwestern Asia. It is bounded by Pakistan; Iran; the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan; and, for less than 65 km (40 mi), China. Afghanistan is about the same size as the U.S. state of Texas. The mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush cover most of the country, with elevations rising to 7,300 m (24,000 ft). In the northeast, the mountains are perpetually covered with snow, while in the southwest there are rocky or sandy deserts. Most of Afghanistan's water supply comes from the snow that falls on the mountains between December and April, which only amounts to the equivalent of 38 cm (15 in) of rain. Without irrigation, little of Afghanistan's land can be cultivated. The climate varies widely according to altitude and regional weather patterns. The range between high summer and low winter is large. Almost all places have some freezing weather, and those below actual mountain zones have temperatures above 32°C (90°F). In some areas, temperatures can go above 38°C (100°F). A wide day-to-night range of temperature is also typical. The area along both sides of the Afghanistan-Iran border is very windy—a south wind blows continuously from June through September, at speeds of up to 160 kph (100 mph). Wheat is harvested during the windy period and is ground with the aid of windmills with vertical vanes and a vertical shaft, an ancient invention of this region.

The 2007 population of Afghanistan was estimated to be 31.9 million. Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban regime, many of the estimated population of 6 million Afghanis have returned home from years as refugees in, primarily, Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Aid agencies differ as to how many Afghanis have returned home.

Ethnically, Afghanis are very mixed. Racially, there are Caucasians, Mongoloids, and Australoids. Pashtuns (or Pushtuns) make up about half the Afghani population and consider themselves the true Afghanis. Of Aryan stock, they appear to have lived in Afghanistan since the earliest recorded history. Pashtuns are tall and fair-skinned, with black or brown hair and brown eyes (hazel or blue eyes are also common). Tajiks are Persian, of Mediterranean stock. They are tall with fair skin and black hair (though some have red or blond hair). Afghanis of Mongoloid descent include Hazaras, Turkmen, and Kirghiz. Mongoloid races have Asian features. The Uzbeks, along with several small nomadic tribes, are of Turkish origin and have Turkish features and fairer skin than other Afghanis. There are also many groups of Afghanis who claim to be of Arab descent. They call themselves sayyid and speak a form of Arabic. Through centuries of intermarriage, most Afghanis are a blend of these different races. One more isolated group is the Nuristanis, about whom little is known. They seem to be of Mediterranean descent, with light-brown skin, thin straight noses, and black to brown or even blond, hair.


The principal languages of Afghanis are Dari, a variety of Persian; and Pashto (or Pushto), a language shared with the residents of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Both are official languages of the country, and most educated Afghanis can use both. Schools use whichever is most common in the area and teach the other as a second language. The languages are related, though they probably split into two distinct languages millennia ago, before the Christian era. Speakers of Pashto, called Pashtuns (or Pushtuns), have been the ruling group in Afghanistan and have tended to set the tone for the entire nation. The Pashtuns constitute a single ethnic group, while the Dari-speakers are more diverse. Geographically, Dari is the predominant language of the Kabul area and the regions to the northwest of the Hindu Kush Mountains; while Pashto is principally located to the southeast of the mountains. Dari is a much more urban language, and is the language in which business is most frequently conducted. Both Dari and Pashto are written using adaptations of the Arabic alphabet. Dari adds four extra consonants for sounds not occurring in classical Arabic, and Pashto adds those four plus eight more letters. In written form, Dari and Pashto are closer than when spoken.

There are many other languages spoken by the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. After Dari and Pashto, the major language family is Turkish. Turkic languages are spoken mostly in the northern regions of Afghanistan. Ancient Indo-European languages are also spoken, by small groups living in isolated areas. Each language may have only a few thousand speakers.

Afghani names are for the most part Islamic. The Pashtun population uses non-Arabic names frequently. The father's oldest brother is usually the person to pick a child's name. The name is then officially conferred by a religious leader on the third day after birth. Surnames are a recent innovation in Afghanistan. Where they have been adopted, they usually have a geographic reference, or a connection with the professional interests of those using them. Since the choice of a surname is personal, close relatives (even brothers) may opt for different names. Pashtuns normally identify themselves by the tribal lineage-division to which they belong. Most Afghanis only use their given names in public. Within the privacy of the home, they call each other by nicknames, or laqubs. All nicknames are made up of combinations of the same few words—candy, flower, lion, uncle, dear, etc.—like "Lion Uncle," or "Flower Dear."


Afghanis love to tell stories, and they all have quite a repertoire that they know by heart to tell at a gathering. Stories for children are usually teaching stories about foolish people who get what they deserve, such as the Three Sons of Mah'madyar, or Bachey Kul (the "Bald Boy"). Another favorite character for Afghani stories is Mullah Nasruddin. Mullahs are respected Islamic religious teachers or leaders, but they are not sacred like the Quran, so people often poke fun at them in a friendly way. The Mullah frequently figures as a "wise fool" in Afghani stories, appearing foolish but turning out to be very smart.

Adult Afghanis enjoy stories of love and/or heroism. The most popular love story is that of Leilah and Majnun, two doomed lovers who are separated when young and then cannot reconnect when old. They both die of grief and unfulfillment. Many hero-tales come from the Shahnama, the Book of Kings, written in Afghanistan for a Turkish emperor about the rise of the Iranian people. Other tales are about real-life heroes, such as the warrior Habibullah Ghazi who overthrew the Pashtun government in 1929 and ruled for nine months. The Pashtuns, on the other hand, call him Bachey Saqao, "the Water Carrier's Boy," and paint him as a fool.

Afghanis believe in jinns, spirits who can change shape and be either visible or invisible. Jinns are usually evil, or at least out to do no good. Many Afghanis wear amulets around their necks to protect them from jinns. Stories of jinns are often told at night, like ghost stories around a campfire.


Afghanistan is one of the most solidly Muslim countries in the world. The overwhelming majority follow the mainstream branch of Islam, the Sunni tradition. About 10–20% of Afghanis are Shia Muslims, of both the Imami and Ismaili sects. There are also sufis (or dervishes), members of the mystical branch of Islam. Afghani Sufis generally belong to the Qadiri order or "path," the most ancient and widespread of sufipaths. For the most part it is the folk level of Islam that is important to Afghanistan. The local religious leaders are not usually well-instructed. They are mostly peasants with other part-time work. In upper valleys of the tributaries that run into the Kabul River from the north between Kabul and the Pakistan border, there used to be a pocket of paganism. It was called Kariristan ("land of the heathen") until 1896 when Abdur Rahman invaded it and forcibly converted the inhabitants to Islam. He then renamed these valleys Nuristan ("land of light"). The Nuristanis of today are a very distinct ethnic group in Afghanistan.


Probably the most important annual observance in Afghanistan is the ancient Persian New Year celebration, Nawruz (or Now Ruz), meaning "new day," at the beginning of spring on March 21. It is marked by special foods, including samanak, a dessert made of wheat and sugar, and haft miwa, a mixture of seven fruits and nuts symbolizing spring; sporting events; and attempts to secure good fortune for the following year. The ceremonial raising of the flag at the tomb of Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, occurs on Nawruz at Mazar-e-Sharif. The standard of Ali, a staff, is raised in the courtyard there. For 40 days, pilgrims flock to touch it and gain merit or be cured of disease and injury. On the fortieth day after Nawruz, the staff is lowered and a particular red species of tulip blooms, disappearing soon after. Fairs and carnivals brighten Nawruz, as does the custom of dyeing farm animals—green chickens and purple sheep abound.

Most major holidays in Afghanistan are religious, following the Islamic lunar calendar (causing the dates to vary on the standard Gregorian calendar). The main Muslim holidays are Ramadan (or Ramazan in Afghani pronunciation), the month of fasting (called ruzah by Afghanis) from dawn to dusk; Ayd Al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Ayd Al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Hajj); the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nawabi, the prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Ayd Al-Isra wa Al-Miraj, a feast celebrating the nocturnal visit of Muhammad to heaven. Ashura is celebrated by Shia Muslims, after the first 10 days of the new year that are spent in mourning to commemorate the killing of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad on 10 October 680. Ashura is an optional fast day.

Nonreligious holidays in Afghanistan include Jeshn, or Independence Day, on August 18, a week-long festival celebrating Afghanistan's independence from Britain in 1919; Workers' Day, or Labor Day, on May 1; and Revolution Day on April 27, the date in 1978 when President Daoud was overthrown by the leftist regime.


Weddings are the greatest occasions for celebration in Afghanistan. After several preliminary observances, the ceremonies connected with the actual wedding are spread over a three-day period, except in cities, where they are all condensed into one day. The most popular time for weddings is late summer or early fall. Most marriages are arranged by the parents and relatives, often when children are still very young. Men generally marry between the ages of 18 and 20; and women, between the ages of 16 and 18. Marriage between cousins, especially paternal ones, is preferred. A bride-price is paid by the groom's family to pay for the loss of a valuable family member. A dowry of household goods, etc., is paid by the bride's family to help with the initial setting up of a home. The groom's family pays for the wedding, which involves much feasting and dancing. The official ceremony is called nikah-namah and consists of the signing of the marriage contract before witnesses, readings from the Quran by the mullah (local religious leader), and the tossing of sugared almonds and walnuts onto the bridegroom.

The birth of a first child is the occasion for a day-long celebration; most elaborate if the child is a boy. Children are named on the third day after birth. The name is chosen by a paternal uncle who then becomes the child's guardian, responsible for the child if the father dies. The sixth night after a birth is observed with an "open house" for friends of the family, who bring small gifts. Boys are usually circumcised at about the age of seven (after which they begin wearing turbans). The circumcision is the occasion for a feast, likely to involve wrestling contests and other demonstrations of manliness.

Large-scale food distributions connected with funerals were made illegal in the 1950s. Now, commemorative meals take place several times in the year following a death.


Interpersonal relations among Afghanis are largely ruled by Pashtunwalli (or Pushtunwalli), unwritten laws and codes belonging to the Pashtuns but followed by almost all Afghanis. The laws and codes deal mostly with honor and self-pride. Hospitality is required for honor's sake, so travelers and guests never go without food or shelter. Pashtunwalli involves melmatia, being a good and generous host; ghayrat, upholding personal and family honor; namus, defending women's honor; nanawati, providing shelter to anyone who needs it; sabat, or loyalty; and badal, avenging blood with blood. Other requirements of Pashtunwalli are never to kill a woman, a minstrel, a Hindu, or an uncircumcised boy; to pardon any wrong—except for murder—when asked to by a woman, the wrongdoer's family, a sayyid (an Afghan who claims Arab descent), or a mullah (local religious teacher or leader); to punish adultery with death; and to spare the life of anyone who takes refuge in a mosque or shrine, or anyone in battle who begs for mercy.

Afghanis are very expressive with their bodies, using extravagant gestures and facial expressions to communicate. There is also a lot of physical affection expressed between members of the same sex. It is forbidden in Islam to touch members of the opposite sex who are not intimately related. 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.


Nomadic Afghanis, called kochis, live in tents and move from place to place to find grazing grounds for their herds of camel and sheep. In the north, the Turkoman nomads have red dome-shaped tents. In the south, the Pashtun or Balūchī nomads live in black tents that look like huge bats. The Pashtun or Balūchī nomads keep large dogs with heavy shoulders and big heads; they are known as kochi dogs. Afghanistan is one of the few places left in the world with a sizable number of nomads. There are about 2 million nomads in Afghanistan.

Settled Afghanis mostly live in small villages with a few hundred to a few thousand people. They generally make their living as farmers. Some wealthier Afghanis live in qalas, or country forts, with other farmers working their land. Some 70% of Afghanis are farmers, even though the country is very dry, and only a tenth or less of the land is arable. Constant warring has prevented the Afghanis from developing and maintaining effective irrigation systems, so most of them barely scratch a living out of the soil. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. With the harsh terrain and destruction from the continual conflicts, Afghanis have not been able to move very far beyond a medieval world of poverty and hardship. Many of the few major roadways in the country have been destroyed in the wars. Hydroelectric power is only readily available in the springs when the mountain streams swell with melting snow. During the dry summers, dams and reservoirs must provide this power.

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. An enclosed compound holds the livestock and storage sheds, as well as the cooking area and the general living area. Women carry water from nearby streams or pools (some wealthier Afghanis have artificial streams or pools called juy). Bathing and laundry are also done in these streams and pools. 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. In summer, Afghanis sleep on their flat roofs where it is cooler. Dung patties—made by the women and children, who collect the manure, shape it into patties, and slap them on the walls to dry—are used for fuel. Two uniquely Afghani ways to keep warm are tawkhanah and sandali. Tawkhanah are hot-air tunnels built under the floor with a fire at one end. The heat from the fire travels through the tunnels and warms the whole floor. These tawkhanah are used mostly in villages south of the Hindu Kush mountains. In other places, a small, low table with a blanket over it is placed above a charcoal brazier. The blanket holds in the heat, and the family then sits around the table to keep warm. This is known as the sandali system.

Villages in Afghanistan are circled around larger towns that act as commercial, communication, and administrative centers. Farm goods, crafts, and raw materials are brought to the towns from the villages. The goods are then sent to the cities. Horse-carts are used for transportation in the towns. From the towns to the cities, trucks are used. The trucks are often brightly painted with elaborate designs. Caravanserais, or inns, are located in the towns, as well as teahouses where men gather to smoke water-pipes, talk, and drink strong tea. The teahouses are known as chaykhanas. Markets, or bazaars, are located on the main street of the town. Most shop-owners live above their shops.

Where major routes intersect, cities have sprung up. The five major cities in Afghanistan are Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kunduz. The first four all have populations of over 100,000 people, and Kabul has some 2 million residents. Kabul has become almost a separate nation, with a very different lifestyle and flavor than the rest of the country. High-rise buildings with bricks are found in cities to house their ever-growing populations. Though the standard of living is somewhat better than in villages and towns, it is still not modernized or consistently comfortable. Plumbing and water-supply are particularly iffy. Afghanistan has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.


Afghani life revolves around the family, and "family" includes all extended relations. Traditionally, Afghani society was tribal, and tribal affiliation is still the most significant organizing principle in parts of rural Afghanistan. Tribal units have a strong patrilineal organization, which is supported by Islam. "Modern" extended family units are still patrilineal, consisting of men related through their fathers, the men's wives, and unmarried female relatives. 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 households form a single work group and care for and discipline the children. The senior active male member, typically the grandfather, controls all expenditures, and the grandmother controls all domestic work assignments.

Women have a great deal of say in the home, but little authority in public. Strong, courageous, and hard-working, women are primary members of the Afghani household. But Islamic tradition requires that they be veiled and kept separate in public, so they play little part in society outside the home. In Kabul, some women are leaving behind the traditions of Islam and venturing out to take jobs, serve in government (though very few women have gained prominence politically), and attend higher education classes alongside men.

Divorce is fairly simple in Islamic law—a man merely has to say "I divorce you" three times in front of witnesses to divorce his wife. A woman has to appear before a judge with reasons for divorcing her husband. Despite the ease of divorce, however, few Afghanis end their marriages. Polygamy is also allowed but rarely practiced. Adultery is punishable by death.

Children are cherished in Afghani society, particularly boys. Girls are not openly abused, but often the needs of their brothers' come first, to the point where some girls may seem to be neglected. All children are raised in the women's quarters, and a baby is nursed until the next child is born or the child becomes too old. Children are expected to grow up quickly and learn to take care of themselves. They are toilet-trained and taught to feed themselves at a very early age. After a boy is circumcised, usually at age seven, he is treated like a man and is expected to behave like one. Girls have no rite of passage into adulthood, but by the time they are 9 or 10 years old they know all the skills necessary to be a wife and mother. They can grind wheat and corn, fetch water, cook, clean, and sew, and make dung patties for fuel.

Marriages are almost always arranged by the families, often when the couple are still young children. A match between paternal cousins is preferred. Boys usually marry at age 18–20, and girls at 16–18.


The ordinary clothing of Afghani men is a rather baggy pair of trousers with a drawstring at the waist, and a loose, long-sleeved shirt reaching about to the knees. Over this (when it is cool), a vest is worn. Coats worn in rural areas are often brightly striped, and they are quilted for winter warmth. Turbans—traditionally white, but now of any color—are wound around the locally favored type of turban caps. Pashtuns (or Pushtuns), and others who imitate them, leave some of the turban cloth hanging down, while most of those in the rest of the country tuck the end in. Pashtun men customarily have their hair cut off square at earlobe length. Other groups have their heads shaved about once a month. In villages and rural areas, men follow the Islamic custom of wearing beards and moustaches. In Kabul, many men are clean-shaven. The pakol hat has become popular recently. Originally a Nuristani hat, it was adopted as a sign of the Mujahideen resistance to the government. However, now even the president that the Mujahideen are fighting sometimes wears the pakol.

Women often wear pleated trousers under a long dress and cover their heads with a shawl. Urban women traditionally wore a chadri, an ankle-length cloth covering, like a sack over the whole body, with a mesh insert over the eyes and nose. Though the chadri was officially banned in 1959, some women continue to wear them. In the countryside, hard-working village and tribal women could not go about so encumbered, so they have never worn chadris.

In large cities, particularly Kabul, Western-style clothing is becoming increasingly popular, for both men and women.


Afghani cuisine is a blend of all the different cuisines of the peoples who have occupied their country over the millennia. The strongest influences are from India and Iran. Staple foods are rice, a flatbread known as naan, and dairy products. A variety of fruits and vegetables are also available.

Afghan bread, leavened or unleavened, is baked thin on a very hot fired-clay surface. Typically, a round pottery vessel whose sides come in toward the bottom is buried in the earth and heated by coals in the middle of the bottom. The dough is formed and slapped onto the hot concave sides where it bakes rapidly. Bread is eaten at every meal, often serving as a utensil for scooping up the food, since Afghanis generally eat with their fingers.

The main feature of a major meal is a rice pilau, which is rice cooked with meats or vegetables. There are as many kinds of pilaus as there are cooks, though certain combinations are common. For example, an honored guest would be served qabli—rice with raisins, shredded carrot, almonds, and pistachios. Kala-pacheh is rice with the head (including the eyeballs) and feet of a sheep. 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.

The usual beverage is tea, usually drunk without milk. Black tea is generally preferred south of the Hindu Kush mountains, while green tea is preferred in the north. Sugar is expensive in Afghanistan, but many Afghanis will pay the extra price to soak a sugar cube in their tea and then either eat the cube or hold it between their teeth while they drink the tea. Alcohol is forbidden by Islam (as is pork).

Meals are spread on a cloth placed on the floor. The family and any guests sit on the floor around the cloth. A bowl is carried to each guest with fresh water poured into it for each person to wash their hands before and after eating. Most families have a special pot and bowl for this purpose, called an aftawalagan. Women and girls do the cooking.

A special soup served only on Nawruz, or 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.

Haft Miwa
(Seven Fruits)

1 cup skinned almonds (unsalted)
1 cup skinned walnuts (unsalted)
1 cup skinned pistachios (unsalted)
1 cup dried peaches
1 cup red raisins
1 cup green raisins
1 cup dried apricots
6 cups water

If you only have salted nuts, rinse off the salt with water. Put the nuts in one bowl and the fruits in another. Add 3 cups of cold water to each bowl. Stir, cover the bowls, and put them in the refrigerator. After two days, combine the ingredients from the two bowls into one large bowl. Stir, cover the bowl, and put it in the refrigerator for two or three more days. Serve cold.

(Adapted from Ansary, p. 59)


Western-style education has never been widely accepted in Afghanistan, and the literacy rate is still very low. Literacy in Dari is much more prevalent than literacy in Pashto (or Pushto).

Before 1903, the only education available was in mosque schools taught by the local mullah (religious leader or teacher). The mosque schools, or madrassas, were just for boys. Girls were taught at home by elderly women. At the madrassa, boys learned Islamic subjects and were taught to read and write using the Quran. The first modern school was established in 1903 in Kabul by King Habibullah. Both religious and secular subjects were taught there, and foreign teachers were brought on the staff by World War II (1939–45). King Habibullah also founded a military training academy and a teachers' college. Under King Amanullah in the 1920s, more schools were opened in both urban and rural areas. The first high school class graduated in 1923. The first school for girls was founded in 1924 in Kabul. The 1931 constitution made primary education mandatory and free for all children, but this aim was not realized for decades. With the constant warring, formal education has been erratic. The University of Kabul was founded in 1946, with separate faculties for men and women. By 1960, all faculties had become coeducational.

Before the Communist takeover in 1978, there were 3,404 schools with 83,500 teachers. After two decades of civil war, however, the number of schools and teachers had both been slashed dramatically. After the Taliban came to power, education of girls was banned and virtually all non-religious education was forbidden. After the Western allied powers installed the Karzai government, education was reformed (the 2004 constitution guarantees education to all Afghans) and by 2007 the government reported that there were 5.4 million children enrolled in schools, 35% of whom were girls.

Education in Afghanistan is conducted strictly, with few frills. Students sit in rigid rows of desks, with a blackboard and perhaps a map or two on the walls. There is no playground equipment—at recess, if there is no shooting or bombing going on, students play simple games, or sit and talk with each other. Learning is by rote; the students repeat lessons back to the teacher. There are no group projects or "learning centers," etc. Grades are based solely on oral and written exams given several times a year in each subject. Exam grades are added up at the end of the year, and students who pass move on to the next grade. Failing students repeat the grade, which is not uncommon. The educational system of Afghanistan consists of six years of primary school, and six years of lycee, or high school. Refugee students may receive no formal education at all.


Persian is a language with a vast cultural and literary tradition (Dari is a form of Persian). The first shoots of classical Persian literature began to appear in the 9th century ad. During the late medieval period, a Persian civilization developed that embraced Iran, Afghanistan, and the Muslim-ruled parts of India. It also included much of Central Asia. Throughout this region, Persian became the language of administration. The small world of the literate also made it their principal medium of expression, whatever their native language, much as Latin dominated Western Europe. It was presumably during this period that Persian replaced other Iranian languages as the common speech in much of northern Afghanistan. Contemporary prose and poetry are most often written in Dari and often imitate classical Persian style and form.

Pashto (or Pushto) literature was essentially created by Khushal Khan Khattak, who lived from 1613 to 1690. He was a brilliant warrior who opposed the Moghul emperor. He was also a poet of wide-ranging interests. Pashto literature has not been cultivated since then to the extent that Dari literature has been. There has been little new or original art, literature, or architecture of any sort produced since the 17th century, when the rivalry between the Persians and Moghuls began. Almost constant warring, with no significant periods of peace, has prevented the Afghanis from giving their attention to the arts.

The Islamic reverence for poetry continues to inspire poetic recitals and some original writing. The greatest modern Afghani poet, Khalilullah Khalili, died recently. Mujahideen resistance fighters often quote his poems. The most popular theme in Afghani poetry is war, followed by love and jealousy, then religion and folklore (though almost all poems have some religious sentiment in them). There is also some nature poetry. Traditionally, Afghanis have not been known for writing fiction or other prose. After the 2001 war and its violent aftermath brought the world's attention to the country, a few notable books were produced by the Afghani Disapora, as well as internationally renowned films. The Kite Runner, written by the Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini and published in 2003, was an international best seller. The Siddiq Barmak film of 2003, Osama, was the first film shot in Afghanistan since the Taliban had taken power. The film, which won several international awards, is a rather bleak assessment of life in modern Afghanistan.

Visual arts reached their peak in the 15th century AD. Since then, no exceptional painters or sculptors have emerged, and no new styles or content have been developed. Most painting is done in the form of calligraphy, illumination, or functional decoration. Muslim architecture continues to be beautifully realized, particularly in the design of mosques. Tall minarets with bulbous domes and colorful, intricate tile-work make for one of the most graceful and elegant architectures in the world.


Most Afghanis (about 80%) are farmers and herders. Even those who engage in crafts such as pottery, weaving, shoemaking, and housebuilding are also part-time agriculturalists. The army and government administration are the only large-scale employers outside the agricultural sector. Wheat is the principal crop. For trade purposes, grapes and orchard fruit (dried or fresh), together with walnuts and almonds, are important. Cotton is also a commercial crop. Perhaps the most profitable crop in Afghanistan is opium derived from poppies grown in the northwest provinces near the Pakistani border. Opium is the base for morphine and heroin. Efforts have been made from time to time to curtail the illegal drug trade, but political instability, the power of local warlords, and continuing Taliban insurgency make it difficult to supervise people's activities effectively. By 2006 Afghanistan was the world's largest producer of opium.

Sheep are raised in most parts of the country. Some 14% of Afghanis are still nomads, traveling from grazing ground to grazing ground. Goats are often herded together with the sheep. The skins of the Karakul sheep ("Persian lamb") of northern Afghanistan are the country's most profitable product. Wool is also exported.

In towns there are traders and full-time craft specialists, teahouses, and schools, but only about 300 such communities exist in Afghanistan. Only the few large cities, and particularly the capital, Kabul, have a modernized economic sector. Besides these, there are a very small number of factories and mining centers in other locations. Some small industries begun by the government include tanneries; machine-repair shops; cotton-ginning mills; bakeries; fruit-processing plants; and oil, soap, shoe, and ceramics factories. Larger government industries include cotton, rayon, and wool mills; the production of domestic construction materials and chemical fertilizers; and mining, especially for natural gas and lapis lazuli. Afghanistan is the leading producer of the precious stone lapis lazuli. Some Afghanis also find jobs as truck drivers, transporting goods from towns to cities and vice versa.

In 2008 more than 50% of the population lived below the official poverty line. The country's economy was growing, but was largely dependent on foreign aid.


Afghanis are very competitive and take their sports very seriously. Winning is a question of personal, family, and tribal honor. Afghani sports also tend to be violent, although injuries are rare. A favorite Afghani sport is called buzkashi, or "goat pulling," though these days a calf is usually used. In this contest, a headless calf carcass is placed in the center of a circle formed by two teams of horsemen (known as chapandaz). Only men participate. Teams have been known to number up to 1,000 players A signal is given and all the chapandaz move to the center to try to lift the carcass onto their horse. Once someone captures the carcass, he rides to a point 1.5 km to 5 km (1–3 mi) away, then returns to the starting point and drops the carcass where he picked it up. During all this, the other chapandaz are trying to grab the carcass away from him. The Afghan Olympic Federation laid down rules to buzkashi, limiting teams to no more than 10 players and games to 1 hour, with a 10-minute break at halftime. Two declared fouls are intentionally hitting an opponent with a whip, and forcing an opponent off his horse. Horses must be trained for the sport for at least five years. These rules are only used at official games. Buzkashi is to Afghanis what baseball is to Americans.

Another popular Afghani sport is wrestling, or pahlwani, where the only rule is that one cannot grab one's opponent's legs. Some modern sports were introduced in the 20th century, including tennis, golf, cricket, basketball, soccer, and field hockey.


Afghani children do not have much time for play, nor do their families have the money to buy manufactured toys (which are not widely available in their war-torn country). So children play simple games with basic toys, such as dolls made from natural objects, or slingshots. Buzul-bazi is a game like marbles or dice, played with sheep's knucklebones. Girls play a game very similar to hopscotch or amuse themselves for days with mara-yadast-tura-furamosh ("I remembered, you forgot"). When a family cooks a chicken, the girls take the wishbone and break it in half, giving one half to each girl. Then they try to trick each other into looking at their half of the wishbone, for example by tying it up in a bandage on their finger and asking the other one to look at the injury. When one succeeds in tricking the other into looking at her wishbone, she shouts, "Mara yadast, tura furamosh!" One sighting does not end the game; rather, a game can continue for days with repeated successes.

Boys enjoy kite-fighting, or gudi-paran jungi (literally, "flying-doll fighting"). Each boy makes his own kite from tissue paper stretched over bamboo sticks, decorated with other tissue-paper cutouts glued on the surface (often to give the appearance of a face). The point of the game is to cross strings with another kite-flyer and saw your string back and forth on his to cut the string and set his kite loose. To make their strings more lethal, boys "glass" them by soaking them in a mixture of ground glass and paste. Each boy has his own jealously guarded method of "glassing."

Adults love to sing and dance, and do both often. Afghanis do not dance with partners; instead, they either dance alone or in circles. Once a party gets going, Afghanis can dance outside for hours. Men spend time in teahouses listening to music, drinking tea, and talking. They also indulge in a more violent entertainment—animal-fighting. Cocks (roosters) are used most often, but partridges, dogs, goats, and even camels are sometimes pitted against each other as well. The two animals fight to the death, and men bet on the outcome.

What movie theaters there are in the cities usually show movies from India and Pakistan.


The main folk art, and the most profitable one, is carpet-weaving. The weaving is done by young girls and women (except in Turkoman, where men weave, too). Patterns are passed down from generation to generation. Carpet patterns, like recipes elsewhere, are considered "family secrets." The best carpets are from Meymaneh, woven from Karakul wool. These carpets have as many as 55 knots per sq cm (355 per sq in), whereas coarser ones have only 20–30 knots per sq cm (129–194 per sq in). The finest work takes four weavers three months to finish a 6-sq-m (6.6-sq-yd) rug.

Embroidery is widely practiced. Indeed, Afghani women have raised embroidery to an art form, embroidering nearly everything around them. The skullcaps around which men's turbans are wound are usually decorated according to designs that are characteristic of the region. Shirts, vests, and coats may be embroidered—particularly ones for wear on special occasions.

Metalworking has produced silver jewelry and elaborately designed dagger handles, as well as trays and bowls. Lapis lazuli, which Afghanistan has produced for millennia, is made into jewelry. Folk artists paint colorful scenes on the body-panels of trucks. Herat is noted for glassware, and Istalif (in the mountains not far from Kabul) produces a special blue-glazed type of pottery.


Continual warfare is the biggest social problem facing the Afghanis. It is hard to talk of any social problems that are not related to the fighting that has been going on for centuries. A country made up of separate tribes of people who are historically warriors seems almost doomed to drown in conflict. The Communists hoped to end that conflict by creating a unified state, but the devoutly Islamic Afghanis rebelled against an "atheistic" government. Without a significant period of peace, there has been no time for Afghanis to give their attentions to improving their standard of living. In Kabul, the only extensively modernized city in Afghanistan, the more-Westernized lifestyle has led to a disintegration of traditional family and tribal values. The elderly, who are respected and revered in villages, are neglected in the cities and turn to drugs for comfort, becoming heroin and opium addicts. Education, health care, employment opportunities, and even the basic food and shelter needs for survival have been severely disrupted by the fighting.

Even the relative peace that was imposed on the north of Afghanistan, in and around Kabul, after the U.S.-led invasion of 2001 has started to unravel. Suicide bombings, unheard of in Afghanistan just a few years prior, had become by 2007 and 2008 nearly commonplace.

Refugee resettlement is also a significant problem. Western countries have been encouraging Afghans to return to their homeland, but as violence has increased, the government has faced delays in finding homes for the returnees.

Opium cultivation also contributes to the lawlessness of Afghanistan. International agencies estimate that Afghanistan's crop, by far the world's largest, has the potential to create more than 500 metric tons of processed heroin annually. Money from the trade is used to arm local warlords and Taliban fighters. The Kabul administration has tried for years to eradicate opium crops, but simply doesn't have the resources, even with United States and NATO support, to make a significant dent in the trade.


Women in Afghanistan face great difficulties at nearly every stage of their lives. By nearly every internationally used measure of quality of life Afghani women rank near the bottom. Their life expectancy in 2007 was 46 years, 1,600 women die in childbirth for every 100,000 births (it is reported that an Afghan woman dies in childbirth every 30 minutes), and only 12% of women over 15 years are literate. Although the constitution guarantees equality between the sexes, this has made few dents into centuries of traditional oppression. Women in much of the country must still cover themselves in a burqa to appear in public and can rarely go anywhere without a male relative accompanying them.

Violence against women is widespread. Most estimates suggest 30–50% of women experience physical, psychological, or sexual violence. It is estimated that between 70–80% of Afghan women are forced into marriage, often at a very young age. The 2004 constitution sets the legal age of marriage at 16 for girls and 18 for boys, but the laws are widely ignored. In villages, it is not uncommon for girls to be married at 11 or 12, often to men in their 40s, 50s, or even older.


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.

Crews, Robert D. and Amin Tarzi. The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Ewins, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of its People and Politics. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

Stewart, Rory. The Places in Between. Washington, PA: Harvest Books, 2006.

—revised by J. Henry