A Look at Afghanistan’s Rich Tradition of Dance

It is easy to forget that, after decades of war and conflict that have battered Afghanistan’s landscape, part of the country’s rebuilding efforts is a return to normalcy. The people of Afghanistan are not only struggling to rebuild their physical infrastructure, housing, and farms, they are also attempting to rebuild culturally as well. An entire generation of Afghans has had little opportunity to discover and explore their rich heritage and ancient customs. To preserve a sense of national identity, parents are again teaching their children the importance of culture. One aspect of Afghan heritage that has been obscured during the long conflict is dance.

Dance has been an integral part of Afghan life for centuries—it is an art form practiced by all of the ethnic groups in the country. The largest of these groups include the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Traditional dances can vary in style, music, and costume across different ethnic groups and geographic regions.

Traditional Attitudes Toward Dance

Traditionally, women do not participate in dances, unless the dance is being conducted within a private home or as part of a family celebration with other women. In traditional Afghan culture, it is considered unacceptable for a woman to perform as a dancer in public, so professional dancers were traditionally men until recently. Influences from nearby India have begun to change the perception of women as dancers, and within the Kabul region, it is becoming more acceptable for women to perform.

The Atan

Considered by many to be the national dance of Afghanistan, the Atan is a circle dance that includes ten or more people. Accompanied by drums, the dancers form a circle and begin a slow turn around the dance floor. As the drum beat builds, the dancers move more quickly, snapping, singing, and clapping as they whirl around the circle. This dance can last for hours, and is characterized by the quick spinning and movements of the body. Men may carry handkerchiefs, scarves, swords, or guns to use during the dance. On rare occasions, the dance may be performed by a mixed group of men and women, during which the dance is accompanied by singing. The men sing love songs, which are answered by the women. The actions of the dancers help to define the dialogue, making this a fun, energetic dance for all.

Herati Atan

Another form of the Atan dance is known as the Herati Atan. Performed by groups of men, this processional style dance is performed with a leader, who guides the dancers through the motions while being accompanied by several musical instruments. The men line up and face each other, performing mimicking actions to the beat of the music. Dancers make small, concentric circles, while clapping their hands over their heads and waving scarves. The leaders instruct the dancers in the number of claps, the direction to turn, or the speed of the dance. The dance is fascinating to watch, as the dancers move in and out, resembling the opening and closing of a flower.


The shalangi dance is primarily a dance of two women, although on some occasions, two men may perform it. The dancers start in opposite corners of the room, facing each other. As the music begins to play, they begin to move toward each other, clapping in a rhythmic beat over their heads. They approach each other, using a shuffling step, “squaring off” in the center of the dance floor. During the dance, the two women may mimic each other’s movements, but may also make alternate movements in an attempt to confuse the other dancer. Other dance techniques, such as facial movements, the use of scarves, or the accompaniment of lyrics make this a fun dance to observe.


The traditional dance of Logar, a province south of Kabul, is generally performed by skilled performers. The musicians try to “trick” the performers by suddenly stopping during the dance, forcing the dancers to freeze in position until the music starts again. The pause may last as long as a minute in a good-natured attempt to defeat the dancers. This “stop dance” can be exciting and noisy, as the musicians play quickly and loudly, and the dancers call out to each other and the musicians as they banter back and forth.


Ozbaki dance styles are predominantly performed by people in the northern regions of Afghanistan. With a focus on footwork, the dancers move in a series of motions that mimic running, stepping, and hopping. As the music shifts in tempo, from fast to slow, the dancers move in time, shifting their bodies left and right. Dancers generally keep their hands at their sides, to call the audience’s attention to their quick steps and footwork instead. Musicians playing along with these dances are talented and inventive, often changing the style of music quickly to keep the dance interesting.

The Afghan people’s celebration of their cultural roots is an important part of the rebuilding process, as well as a way to strengthen their heritage. As people celebrate holidays and mark the seasons and events with dance, communities share these rituals with younger generations.

Featured Image by Presidio of Monterey | Flickr

Restoring Afghanistan’s Heritage, One Artifact at a Time

Of the news coming out of Afghanistan in recent years, the rediscovery of national treasures once thought to be destroyed is some of the most exciting. During decades of war, and even in the aftermath, looters and pillagers stole antiquities and treasures from ancient sites, museums, and other places of note. These rarities have either been destroyed, smuggled out of the country, or sold to black market dealers.

Thankfully, the diligent work of archaeologists, historians, and police to recover key pieces of Afghanistan’s history has restored a sense of national pride and awareness to the Afghan people.

Afghanistan’s Heritage


Image by Ninara | Flickr

As a key point in the famed Silk Road, Afghanistan has a long, rich heritage of cultural and historical significance. Along the international roadway, ancient cultures and religions crisscrossed the Middle East, leaving artifacts and traditions behind. Influences from Greece, Rome, Egypt, India, and China can be seen in the artifacts found within the nation, providing a tangible history that demonstrates both the importance and the longevity of Afghanistan’s culture.

The Bactrian Hoard

More than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient nation of Bactria, once located along the Silk Road, were thought lost during the years of war and turmoil following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In late 2003, however, Afghan officials discovered the entire collection hidden in boxes below the Presidential Palace in Kabul. The restoration of these pieces to the Afghan people was one of the first glimmers of hope for the eventual rebuilding of the nation.

The Heathrow Collection

Over the years, priceless artifacts from the oft-looted National Museum of Afghanistan have been slowly accumulating at Heathrow Airport, evidence of the booming black market for antiquities. Fortunately, airport and museum officials have worked together to return the items to the National Museum, recovering 3.4 tons of antiquities over six years. Arranging the delivery took nearly a year and required the cooperation of dozens of people around the world. Officials catalogued more than 1,500 pieces, some dating back 8,000 years.

The Recovery

Much of the museum’s extensive collection was hidden from looters during the years of war, but nearly 70,000 pieces were stolen from the reserve inventory. The museum director, Omara Khan Masoudi, began a recovery mission that spanned the globe and at many times resembled an adventure story brought to life.

British diplomats flying in to Kabul notified Masoudi of the pile-up of confiscated artifacts at Heathrow. Using museum catalogs, he compared the recovered pieces to the lists of stolen items and discovered that none of them were a match. After much research, it was discovered that the Heathrow collection was comprised of pieces that had been illegally excavated and were being exported without permits. Due to the illegal excavation, most of the recovered pieces lost their identity markers, making them unverifiable for museum display.

Continued Recovery

The recovery effort and multi-national network of cooperation persists even today. Artifacts continue to be recovered at Heathrow Airport, a heavily used gateway for objects being smuggled out of the Middle East. Working with antiquities experts from Afghanistan, custom officials at the airport have compiled a “Red List” detailing thousands of artifacts that have been lost or stolen during the decades of war. Officials perform random searches of passengers, finding artifacts tucked into hidden compartments or checked into carryon luggage. They also find objects on customs forms incorrectly declared or valued in an effort to downplay their importance.

Continued Looting

Even as the nation rebuilds, individuals continue to pillage ancient sites and smuggle artifacts out of the country. Due to the nation’s economic instability, villagers are forced to loot and resell these objects as a source of income. Archaeologists and historians, working in conjunction with law enforcement officials, are establishing protocols to quell the tide of artifacts leaving the country, but they have been unsuccessful thus far.

More Than Artifacts

While the recovery of artifacts and historical objects is important to the cultural history of Afghanistan, it is important on another level that may not be immediately obvious. To people that have been traumatized by war, fighting, and oppressive rule, the re-emergence of pieces of their history restores a sense of identity and pride. An entire generation of Afghans can learn about the country’s rich heritage, which had been feared forever lost. Combined efforts of government officials, non-governmental organizations, and determined citizens are helping to rebuild Afghanistan, preparing for a future beyond the years of war.

How NGOs are Providing Help and Hope to Afghanistan

Within the nation of Afghanistan, the total number of people who have been affected by conflict and war is difficult to ascertain. It is evident, however, that there are an increasing number of needs that must be met in order for the nation to move forward.

Many citizens are members of at-risk demographics. Some are among the poorest in the world and are facing uncertain futures unless they receive assistance from outside sources.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Some of the issues surrounding the rebuilding and redevelopment of Afghanistan stem from citizens’ distrust of government and daily insecurity. In these situations, the complexity of delivering needed services while attempting to build infrastructure and community is fraught with difficulty.

To bridge the gap between the government and populations that are at-risk, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often provide both short- and long-term relief. In Afghanistan, the government has partnered with local grassroots organizations to handle reconstruction and redevelopment, as well as reaching some of the world’s most vulnerable groups.

Afghanistan National Solidarity Program

One of Afghanistan’s most successful programs has been the Community Development Council (CDC). Throughout the nation, there have been 35,000 new community councils established under the direction of the Afghanistan National Solidarity Program. In addition, it has funded nearly 90,000 projects within the country.

Not surprisingly, the National Solidarity Program is one of the largest of its kind in the world. The strength of this program is seen in the way that citizens are empowered to make decisions and participate in their own governance.

Rather than view the individuals being served as beneficiaries, the NSP considers them participants.

Another strength of the program is the sense of ownership that participants feel. While thousands of schools have been burned down across the nation, only one school located where a community development program exists was destroyed. According to the NSP, this points to the success of the program and the power of community.

NSP Projects

A sampling of some of the projects undertaken by NSP within Afghanistan are an indicator of the scope of its dealings with the people. Its projects are dual-purposed, designed to give both immediate and long-term assistance in core areas of life.

  1. Road repairs in the Kabul district provide safe, reliable transportation for locals and travelers.
  1. A hydropower station has been built in the district of Kama, providing jobs and a reliable power supply for the villagers. A local villager was so supportive of this project that he donated the land for the hydropower station to be built on.
  1. Disease in the Nangarhar province was the side effect of an inefficient and polluted water supply. An innovative system was developed and implemented to provide clean, safe drinking water.
  1. To combat a pervasive lack of safe drinking water, the Parwan Province built and maintains a water tower, providing water for over 700 families.
  1. The Jafarak Village overcame environmental issues to establish a fish farm, providing both jobs and resources for the surrounding community.
  1. A health clinic that will service 25 villages is being built in the Tontonzar Orati village. Constructed and supported by the residents of this village, it is a much needed source of medical care.
  1. Construction of roads that connect villages not only makes travel safer, but also provides reliable access to other services. Within many regions in Afghanistan, roads are being constructed and maintained using funding from the NSP.
  1. Schools servicing over 1,000 students have been built in local communities. They often run in two shifts to accommodate the number of students, and they are vitally important to encourage the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
  1. Community meeting halls are being built, giving residents a location for meeting and working together to improve the conditions of their districts.

These projects are simply a highlight of the work being done by NSP in Afghanistan. By working with the nation’s residents, it is able to provide training and direction that will sustain the nation in the future.

Not only does this NGO provide education, healthcare and jobs, it also provides a new way of life for many in Afghanistan. It has established a proven method of reaching people who are at-risk and helping them not only survive, but thrive. Much remains to be done, but because of groups such as these, the future is bright.

Astonishing Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World

cell phoneAs the number of at-risk people in Afghanistan continues to climb, so too does the need for aid from relief organizations. Despite the challenges of working in a war-torn nation, many non-government organizations (NGOs) have managed to maintain their presence within Afghanistan, finding innovative ways to meet the rapidly changing needs of the people. Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization that began in 1979, has responded to almost every global emergency in the last 20 years. They have been working within Afghanistan to provide resources and aid to underserved and at-risk groups. Through their efforts, they have provided emergency relief to thousands of women and children. They promote community-based initiatives such as vocational training, small business support, and infrastructure development. Perhaps most compelling, however, is their use of technology to bring stability and support to the people.

Technology’s Impact

The global acceptance of smartphone technology is astounding. To put it into perspective, it took over 100 years for the number of landline telephone users to exceed 1 billion, but the number of mobile users exceeded 1 billion in just 20. According to a recent study, one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones is Northeast Africa and the Middle East. The introduction of cellphones to developing countries has revolutionized their communication. There is no need to run telephone lines because users are not dependent on fixed lines, which reduces costs and eliminates the need to provide maintenance and security for the equipment. Basic cellphones are available for less than $20, making one affordable enough for nearly every family. Particularly important for people living in Afghanistan, cell phones can offer a means of communication from anywhere, regardless of one’s physical location.

Refugees with Cell Phones

Technology has become one of the most important tools in the continuing struggle for the security and safety of the displaced people within Afghanistan. Historically, individuals and families that had been forced from their homes would find themselves alone, with no means of contacting family members. In contrast, today’s refugees are using cellphone technology to stay connected, stay safe, and stay informed. Among refugees seeking asylum in surrounding nations, humanitarian workers report that nearly every group has at least one smartphone. After reaching safety, one of the first requests refugees have is for Wi-Fi access. In contrast to parts of the world where cellphones are used for shopping and chatting, in Afghanistan and places like it, cellphones are used to save lives.

Refugees and other displaced persons use cellphones to access GPS services such as directions and guidance to safety. They can easily send coordinates to rescuers and other humanitarian groups for assistance. Users can take pictures of important phone numbers, provide information on safe routes, and give updates about dangerous conditions or where to find aid. For many in Afghanistan, a cellphone provides a lifeline they desperately need.

NGOs and Cellphones

Humanitarian organizations are finding new ways to connect their services with people in need through cellphone technology. Free apps such as Facebook, MAPS.ME, and WhatsApp offer a ways for users to stay in contact with friends, family members, and aid organizations. Developers are currently working on apps that provide navigation routes as well as real-time information about the safety of roads, the presence of dangerous individuals, and the location of secure buildings.

Working in collaboration with other humanitarian organizations, Google and Mercy Corps developed a multilingual website designed specifically for refugees. The site is filled with information such as currency details, where to find lodging, current asylum process, and emergency information. By hosting hotspots throughout Afghanistan and other regions, displaced people can quickly and easily connect to the refugee site and access the information they need. Using GPS location services, the site can detect the user’s location and provide real-time information about shifting conditions, movement restrictions, and other updates.

Many NGOs are adopting a cashless system, where recipients are provided a debit card loaded with funds that can be used to secure food, lodging, and supplies. Refillable cards make it easy to provide tangible assistance without having to worry about currency, loss, or theft.

Translation apps make it possible for aid workers to speak to individuals in their native tongue, quickly finding out critical information and offering support. Weather apps help farmers with updates and market information. Internet access is also vital for individuals who need to access financial information. For instance, mobile banking helps families start savings accounts and access emergency funds. Social media and video technology allows families to stay in touch, providing comfort and stability during a crisis.

Offering mobile technology to at-risk groups is a meaningful, low-cost way to reach individuals with the help they need. For many Afghans, wireless technology and cellphones are some of the most important tools being used today.

How One NGO is Making a Difference in Afghanistan

By focusing on the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) working within Afghanistan, one gets an idea of both how much is being done within the country and how much work there still is to do. ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) was formed in 1993 as a not-for-profit, private, and independent organization. Their mission is to address the specific needs of populations that have been affected by catastrophes, social crises, and war. Their vision is to ensure that all humans can live with dignity. ACTED invests in the potential of people and works for immediate change in the lives of people facing urgent needs. Specifically in Afghanistan, the organization operates in seven provinces and has expanded its influence and programs within the last few years in response to the growing needs of the population.

Emergency Assistance

displaced Afghans

Image by IOM | Flickr

Violence continues to affect communities in many areas of Afghanistan, and has led to the displacement of nearly 200,000 individuals. In addition, recurring natural disasters have increased the number of at-risk people within the country. Communities that are faced with urgent need for food, water, and shelter have been assisted by ACTED. The organization has provided money and vouchers, sanitation services, clean water, and shelter to people in need across seven Afghan provinces. The organization is currently involved in a 16-month project to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure in many Northern Afghan provinces. This work includes constructing wells and latrines, as well as providing emergency hygiene kits to displaced families.

Natural Disaster Recovery

According to recent studies by the United Nations, over 250,000 persons are affected by natural disasters within Afghanistan, such as floods, droughts, and earthquakes. Food and non-food items, cash, and vouchers have been distributed to offer support as part of ACTED’s mission. In conjunction with meeting urgent needs, the organization is also committed to long-term plans to rebuild infrastructure, repair water systems, and replace temporary shelters. In April 2016, the organization responded to severe flooding in Baghlan and Balkh provinces by offering basic hygiene supplies.

Marginalized Populations

Women, youth, and farmers are among the most marginalized people in Afghanistan. ACTED works to support these groups through both formal and informal education programs. They provide literacy classes, small business development training, vocational education, and support groups to help people develop the skills they need to provide for themselves and their families. By facilitating access to training in agricultural techniques and working to develop sustainable economic opportunities, ACTED helps marginalized individuals become better able to support their family and communities.

Gender-based Violence Reduction

In cooperation with local women’s organizations, ACTED is addressing gender-based violence, focusing on women and young girls. They provide crisis shelters, counseling, case management, and more to women who have been victims of gender-based violence. In addition, women and girls are receiving holistic education that can include literacy, job training, and other vital services.

The Link between Emergency and Rehabilitation

ACTED has been working in Afghanistan to help people deal with the after-effects of war and break the cycle of poverty. According to ACTED, interventions that take place as a response to a crisis or natural disaster must have long-term, sustainable support in order to be effective. Rather than focusing on short-term needs, ACTED brings together local community organizations to provide ongoing support once the crisis has passed. These organizations are led by local people who have a deep understanding of the needs of their communities and the most culturally appropriate ways to provide assistance.

The Developmental Approach

Through a multidisciplinary approach, ACTED can offer both developmental and humanitarian support. Their adaptive approach is helping to break the cycle of poverty and encourage sustainable development. ACTED’s assistance involves a multi-phase process:

Phase 1 offers household-level support that promotes self-reliance, helps families generate an income, and increases food security. When people receive this kind of support for their family unit, they are more able to help meet broader community needs.

Phase 2 expands the household support into an “ecosystem approach” to agriculture. By utilizing sustainable, climate-friendly agricultural techniques, communities can obtain a more reliable source of food and economic growth opportunities.

Phase 3 continues the expansion into private sector development through small business enterprise support. Urban development and rebuilding can sustain the growth of new businesses, which in turn provide jobs and income.

This three-phase process represents a gradual approach to rebuilding that emphasizes self-sufficiency. This approach also helps ensure that any changes that have been implemented don’t simply vanish when the immediate crisis is over and the aid organization leaves.

Focusing on long-term solutions rather than what appears to be a “quick fix” does not negate the need for emergency responsiveness. Particularly in countries that have experienced war or other crisis situations, the need for both is stark. Fortunately, ACTED and other international and Afghan NGOs stand ready to assist.