Spotlight on the Asia Society: Introducing the World to Afghanistan

The Asia Society is the world’s leading educational organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding, respect, and partnership between Western and Asian countries, including Afghanistan and other countries of the Greater Middle East. Read on to learn more about the Asia Society, and how it’s helping the world get to know Afghanistan.

What is the Asia Society?

Asia Society logoThe Asia Society is a non-profit, non-partisan institution with a broad mission to prepare Asians and Americans for a shared future in a global context. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III, the Asia Society has grown over the years to become an international, cross-disciplinary organization, working across the fields of arts, culture, education, business, and policy to generate ideas and insight, address present challenges, and prepare for a collaborative future. Today, the Asia Society’s focus covers more than 50 countries and territories—the Society has major centers and offices in cities ranging from Houston and Los Angeles to Manila and Mumbai—making it one of the most important contributors to the ongoing conversation about Asian-American relations.

What does the Asia Society do?

The Asia Society’s scope of activity is extremely broad. A sampling of the Society’s work and initiatives includes: the Center for Global Education, which brings world leaders and institutions together to tackle the urgent question of how to educate today’s students for employability in a global era; the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that addresses major policy challenges for the Asia-Pacific region by working with top experts and policymakers; the Asia Arts Awards, a signature event that honors transformative figures in Asia’s contemporary art world; and the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, an ongoing collaborative dialogue aiming to foster the development and sharing of urban sustainability strategies among Asia-Pacific communities.

How is the Asia Society helping the world get to know Afghanistan?

As one of the Asia Society’s focus countries, Afghanistan is an important presence in much of the Society’s work. Some specific ways that the Asia Society is bringing Afghanistan to the world’s attention and building awareness about how Afghanistan is developing include:

Creative Voices of Islam in AsiaCreative Voices of Muslim Asia—The Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Muslim Asia is an innovative multidisciplinary program that works to build understanding of the diversity of Islam through the arts. The initiative incorporates Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a collaborative festival and the first festival of Muslim arts to be held in New York City. There’s also a youth media exchange program that helps connect young people with digital storytelling opportunities that allow them to participate in critical dialogue around important issues like globalization and immigration. Creative Voices of Muslim Asia also sponsors a regular series of online publications and features that showcase important artistic voices and perspectives from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and regions.

The Arts & Museum Summit—First launched in 2015, this summit is a valuable opportunity for museum and arts leaders from across Asia and the Middle East, the US, and Europe to connect, explore challenges, and share knowledge. At the inaugural summit in 2015, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was a key panel member in a discussion on threats and risks to the arts in contemporary Asia.

The Asia Game Changer Awards—Launched by the Asia Society in 2014, the Asia Game Changer Awards aim to fill a critical gap by identifying and celebrating leaders in all fields who are making profound and positive contributions to the future of Asia. In 2016, Afghanistan’s Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was honored for his commitment to bringing music back to Afghanistan in the face of extreme violence and threats. Read more about Dr. Sarmast’s remarkable work and legacy here.

Does the Asia Society organize initiatives within Afghanistan?

While much of the Asia Society’s work involving Afghanistan is intended to help the rest of the world learn about the country, the Society does support some initiatives taking place in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative (AYLI), a program designed to build and nurture the next generation of Afghan leaders. Operating under the broader umbrella of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, AYLI annually selects a number of promising Afghan citizens under the age of 40 to become a “young Afghan leader” for a one-year term.

As part of their term, AYLI members participate in monthly meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s main challenges and how the next generation of leaders can help solve them; develop a next-generation curriculum for leadership development workshops that can be delivered to Afghan university students; and work with a media consultant to develop a media outreach strategy highlighting the work of young Afghan leaders. In addition, participants attend the Afghan Young Leaders in Action Youth Summit, an annual forum that helps AYLI members make key connections and assess their progress as a group.

What You Need to Know about Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

The creative arts have long served as an important tool for empowerment and social development all around the world. In Afghanistan today, the not-for-profit NGO Bond Street Theatre is harnessing the transformational power of the arts to bring hope and change to Afghans seeking to rebuild their lives and their communities after decades of conflict. Read on to learn more about Bond Street Theatre and its role in Afghanistan’s development.

What is Bond Street Theatre?

bondstreettheatrelogoFor more than 40 years, Bond Street Theatre has been using the uplifting powers of the arts to respond to global humanitarian crises. Founded in 1976 with a mission to promote peace and understanding through the arts, the New York-based organization operates around the world, working with local artists and civilians to develop creative programming and performances that illustrate and address important social issues.

Through its theater and theater-based programs, Bond Street Theatre helps inspire and educate youth, promote human rights, give space to marginalized voices, and provide peacebuilding and healing tools for communities recovering from conflict. The organization has worked in more than 40 countries around the world in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, refugee camps, remote communities, and urban centers.

A history of Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

2003—Bond Street Theatre’s first project in Afghanistan—a healing program targeting the thousands of refugee families pouring back into the country—is undertaken in collaboration with Exile Theatre, a local company composed of professional theater artists who were formerly living in exile. In addition, Bond Street Theatre works with Afghanistan-Schulen, a German nonprofit dedicated to education in Afghanistan, to support educational initiatives reaching an estimated 25,000 children in the rural regions of the northern part of the country.

2005—Bond Street Theatre spends two semesters in residence at Kabul University, teaching students and developing Beyond The Mirror, a collaborative production devised with Exile Theater. Beyond The Mirror marks the first-ever theatrical collaboration between Afghan and American companies. The production enjoys its world premiere in Kabul and later tours the US and Japan to resounding critical and public acclaim.

2006-2009—This three-year period sees the launch of the US-Afghan Arts Exchange and Conflict Resolution Project, a bold new initiative intended to foster and facilitate artistic exchange and dialogue among artists from Afghanistan, India, and the US. Participating artists work together to create A Kite’s Tale, a play about children’s rights in India, which is presented together with inspirational and education workshops for women in rural communities, street children, and other marginalized groups.

2007—Bond Street Theatre partners with Aschiana, a Kabul-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghan children working on the streets, to deliver workshops on self-expression, self-confidence, and group cooperation. In addition, the company spends time at the Mediothek Center in Kunduz training a local theater group.

2008—Bond Street Theatre’s partnership with Aschiana continues, this time in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the company delivers theater technique-based workshops to build self-confidence and improve education for street children.

2010-2012—The year 2010 marks the launch of the Theatre for Social Development Project, in which Bond Street Theatre works to train and support Afghan theater companies. The project’s broad goals are to use theater to bring new information and ideas to rural areas with very low literacy rates. It also aims to help build the capacity of local theater companies to serve as an educational and inspirational resource for their own communities on an ongoing basis.

Four Afghan theater companies participate in the project: Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat creates two shows that focus on conflict resolution and family issues and are presented in correctional centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and schools and youth centers; Kabul’s White Star Company produces two shows that use audience participation to explore alternative solutions to critical social issues; Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad develops two performances addressing women’s rights and rule-of-law issues; and Kandahar Theatre introduces two shows, one of which is performed directly in family homes for audiences who have never before seen live theater.

2013-2014—Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, Bond Street Theatre launches the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project in the months leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential and run-off elections. Working together with local partner theater companies, Bond Street Theatre’s touring performances help educate more than 150,000 people on voter rights and related issues.

2014-2016—Bond Street Theatre continues its focus on young people with the launch of the Youth-Led Community Improvement Project. In this country-wide initiative, 375 youth from 25 provinces come together to receive intensive training in leadership, community service, and the arts. Theater-based workshops focus on creative problem-solving, improved communication skills, and identification of key issues in the participants’ home communities.

The project culminates with each participant creating a community Action Plan, and then returning to his or her home community to implement those plans. The Youth-Led Community Improvement Project participants are now a vitally important part of Afghanistan’s growing network of young people committed to creating lasting change.

2017—Bond Street Theatre works with youth leaders from eight Afghan provinces to help inform and engage communities across the country on issues and questions around access to justice and legal rights.

What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.