Afghanistan: Customs and Lifestyle
Diet and Eating
Afghan cuisine is influenced by the foods of South and Central Asia, China, and Iran. Among common foods are the many types of palau (rice mixed with meat and/or vegetables), qorma (vegetable sauce), kebab (skewered meat), ashak (leek-filled pasta) or mantu (meat-filled pasta), and nan (leavened bread). Tomatoes, spinach, potatoes, peas, carrots, cucumbers, and aubergine are also popular. Yoghurt and other dairy products are dietary staples. Sugar cane, a variety of fruits (fresh and dried), and nuts are eaten as desserts and snacks. Chai (tea), either green or black, is the most popular drink. Afghans enjoy beef, mutton, chicken, and many types of game, although most cannot afford to buy meat regularly. An urban diet is usually more varied than a rural one, but food shortages have been severe at times. Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol and pork, and most people comply.
Afghans in rural areas commonly eat only breakfast and dinner, but some may have a light lunch. Most have snacks between meals. At meals, Afghans usually sit on the floor around a mat on which food is served in a communal dish. To eat, one uses the fingers of the right hand or a piece of nan. The left hand is never used for handling food, as it is traditionally reserved for cleaning the body. One eats until satisfied, and leftover food is saved for later or for the next day’s breakfast. Families normally eat together, but if a male guest is present, females eat separately. Eating out is not common, but some restaurants have a separate dining area or booths for families.
Afghanistan’s national sport is buzkashi, in which two teams of horsemen, or chapandoz, compete to see who can carry the boz, the headless carcass of a calf, from a circle to a spot a moderate distance away, then return it to the circle. The player in possession of the calf will suffer all manner of abuse to make him drop it—sometimes even from his own team-mates, who may want the game prolonged. It is a highly demanding and sometimes dangerous game that requires superb horsemanship. Afghans also enjoy football, volleyball, and wrestling. Television and radio play a limited role in people’s lives. Most leisure activities occur in the evening and centre around the family. Oral traditions such as storytelling and singing flourish, and music, played on drums, lutes, and a clarinet-like instrument called a surnai, has traditionally been very popular.
Visiting between family, friends, and neighbours is the main social activity. It is mostly segregated by gender. Homes often have a special room (hujra) where male guests are received by the male host. Females socialize elsewhere in the compound. Guests are served tea and, depending on the time of day, perhaps something to eat. Guests are expected to have at least three cups of tea. Any business discussions occur after refreshments. The ability of an Afghan to generously entertain guests is a sign of social status.
At the moment, however, recreational activity is in a state of flux. The Taliban has restricted many forms of recreation. A variety of sports have been banned, as have kite flying and playing music in public. Radio broadcasts were turned over to religious programming and television was banned. Although the Taliban promised that the ban would eventually be lifted, at the end of 2000 there were still no television broadcasts.
Holidays and Celebrations
The secular holidays of Afghanistan include Victory of the Muslim Nation (28 April), Remembrance Day (4 May), and Independence Day (Jashn; 18 August). Jashn, which celebrates liberation from British control in 1919, lasts for a week. Festivities include parades, music and dancing, games, and speeches by leaders. In the past, there have been special ceremonies in Kabul, and the Jashn holiday was often an occasion for leaders to announce major policy decisions.
Islamic holidays, which are more important, are scheduled according to the lunar calendar, and thus vary from year to year. Ramadan is a month-long fast. From sunrise to sundown, people do not eat, drink, or smoke. In the evening, after the sun has set, families and friends gather to eat. The first day of Ramadan is a holiday, and at the end of Ramadan, a three-day feast called ‘Aid-e-fitr takes place.
Nauroz, the Islamic New Year, begins on the first day of spring (around 21 March). In Afghanistan, it is also Farmers’ Day, when farmers decorate their cows in preparation for agricultural fairs at which they may win prizes. One traditional belief is that Ajuzak, an ugly old woman, wanders around the land at this time. If it rains (when the crops will benefit), it is said that she is washing her hair.
Buzkashi is played at this time, with hundreds of horsemen on each team vying for the boz. Special foods eaten in honour of the New Year include samanak, a dessert made of wheat and sugar, and haftmewah, a compote of nuts and fruit.
Other Islamic holidays include ‘Aid-e-ada, honouring Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice his son at Allah’s command; Ashura, a Shiite day to mark the martyrdom of Imam Husayn; and Roze-Maulud, the birthday of the prophet Muhammad.