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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home

New Americans

Refugees from other areas of the world

The Afghan people

Cultural Profile of their country of origin- Afghanistan

Afghan rugs are one of Afghanistan's main exports

Culture and Social Customs

Afghans are very proud of their land, religion and ancestry. They value their independence due to a consistent foreign invasion throughout their history. Their loyalty is first to their local leaders and their tribe, so their identification with an abstract Afghan nation has always been fragile. Until 1978, Afghanistan avoided fragmentation through a shared religion and the relative autonomy of local communities even though the government favored Pashtun culture and folklore. Most inhabitants felt they belonged primarily to a local community and secondarily to a supranational Islamic community. National identity was weak, but the state was not considered disruptive. This fragile equilibrium was destroyed after the coup of 1978, when the symbols on which it was based (political independence, historical continuity, and respect of Islam) disappeared.


Afghanistan has never been inhabited by only one ethnic group, but various ethnic groups like the Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other Iranian and Altaic groups. While these ethnic groups differ in language and culture, their religion is the common thread that binds all these people. Islam is followed by almost all Afghans and it dominates much of their personal, political, economic and legal lives. Their loyalty towards their clan or tribe, and their courage, are other common facets of Afghan people. Hospitality and honor are defining characteristics for all of them as well. They are very hospitable and loyal people, who value personal honor and responsibility as the fundamentals of social structure. They will do their best to uphold their honor and extend hospitality towards their guests.


The geographical location of this country has made it a perpetual battleground, both for invading armies and conquerors, for centuries. This recurring aspect has made the Afghan people quite unique in certain customs and traditions that they adhere to. For example, they are firm believers in the omnipresent God and follow the principles of Islam. They believe that Islamic law permits every believer to maintain arms when directed by their ruler. This sentiment probably comes from their particular geographical situation, and the difficult living conditions the mountains provide.


Afghan society is kinship based, and the traditional customs and practices vary slightly from one region to the other. They are quite resilient, and basically non-interfering. This uncomplicated lifestyle has worked both for and against the people. Several times in their history, this friendly nature has been mistaken for a compromising attitude. The events tied to that assumption might have even led to their current political conditions.


Afghans prize wit and cleverness in speech. "Zarbul Masalha" (pronounced zar-bull mah-sal-HAA) means "proverbs" in Dari. There is a book with 151 of these proverbs, illustrated by Afghan high school students in Kabul and collected and translated in Afghanistan by U.S. Navy Captain and Dari speaker Edward Zellem. You can find it here.


Poetry

The region we now call Afghanistan has been noted for its poetic language even before the Islamic conquest in the 7th through 11th centuries. The Pata Khazana, if authentic, contains Pashto poetry written as far back as the 8th Century.

Persian poetry is a very important part of Afghan culture. It has long been a cultural tradition and passion, and it is mainly in Persian/Dari and Pashto languages, although in modern times it is also becoming more recognized in Afghanistan's other languages. Classic Persian and Pashto poetry play an important role in their overall culture, and has always been one of the major educational pillars in the region and it has integrated itself into their culture. Mushaeras (or Mushairas) are poetry competitions that are a common indulgence for ordinary people. Most homes have collections of poetry.

They have given to the world poets like Rabi’a Balkhi – the first poetess of Persian poetry, Farrukhi Sistani – the Ghaznavid royal poet, Jami of Herat and Ali Sher Nava’i. Some other notable poets include Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Massoud Nawabi, Nazo Tokhi, Ahmad Shah Durrani, and Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi.

Due to political unrest and wars in the country, many women poets have remained hidden. Today, there are very few established young women poets like Afghan American Sajia Alaha Ahrar, who wrote a poem in 2010 entitled "Desire for World's Peace".

For more information on their poetry and their culture, visit this website.

Languages

Dari and Pashto are both the official languages of Afghanistan.

Dari (Afghan Persian) serves as the language for the majority. People in the northern and central areas of the country usually speak Persian/Dari, while those living in the south and east speak Pashto. Afghans living in the western regions of Afghanistan speak both languages. Most people are fluent in both languages, especially those living in major cities where the population is multi-ethnic. Several other languages are spoken in their own regions, which includes Uzbek, Turkmen and Balochi. English is gradually becoming popular among the young generation. There are smaller number of Afghans who can understand Russian, mainly among the northern Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen groups.


Daily life in Afghanistan

Rural populations live in homes made of sun-dried mud bricks, and city dwellers live in homes and apartments made with baked bricks. Some of the people are semi-nomadic and roam the grasslands in the summer with their herds of livestock, and spend the rest of the year farming. They live in tents traditionally made with goat pelts and hair.

Family is extremely important for them, as their culture is very collectivistic, and people generally put their family’s interests before their own. Family responsibilities tend to hold a greater importance than personal needs. Loyalty to one’s family also generally supersedes any obligations to one’s tribe or ethnicity. For more information on their family structure, gender roles and other dynamics within families, visit this page.

Most Afghans live outside of cities, in a structure best described as a peasant tribal society where religion plays a very important role. Almost every community or village has a religious leader (or Mullah) that has great influence in it. Their job is to interpret Islamic law and help educate the young. As in other fundamentalist Islamic countries, women have a secondary role.


Because a big portion of the population can't read or write, folklore- such as folk songs and dances- plays and important part in their life, as it enables people to pass on their values and traditions from one generation to the next.


Information on basic etiquette can be found on this page, how to greet someone like an Afghani can be seen here; and more information on the verbal and non-verbal ways they communicate, here. A list of acceptable and unacceptable ways to address people from their culture can also be found here.


This one hour video talks in detail about the music and dance of Afghanistan. It is a live panel discussion with Lauren Braithwaite (Zohra Orchestra, Conductor), Zarifa Adiba (Zohra Orchestra, Conductor), Professor John Baily (Goldsmiths, Afghanistan Music Unit) and Ziba Tabrizi (Professional Dancer).


Stay tuned for more information on Afghanistan, and more places and their people in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.