7 Fun Facts about the Most Popular Beverage in Afghanistan

Few experiences are more quintessentially Afghan than the simple act of drinking tea. Black or green, plain or sweet, tea is widely (though unofficially) recognized as the national beverage of Afghanistan due to the important role it plays in daily life all over the country.

Feeling thirsty yet? Read on to learn some fascinating facts about Afghanistan’s most popular drink.

Afghans drink a lot of tea.

Believe it or not, Afghans drink more tea than anyone else in the world! According to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Afghanistan imported 299 million pounds of tea in 2012. This makes Afghanistan the world’s third largest importer of tea, surpassed only by Russia (close to 400 million pounds) and the UK (319 million pounds).

However, when you look at how many pounds of tea were imported per capita, Afghanistan takes the lead by an impressive margin, having imported nearly 10 pounds of tea per person, which is enough to brew over 1,500 cups of tea (by comparison, the UK imported just over five pounds per person). In other words, Afghanistan imports enough tea for every Afghan to drink four or five cups daily all year round!

Tea is strongly linked with Afghan hospitality.

One of the reasons why so much tea is consumed in Afghanistan is that the beverage is an essential element of Afghan hospitality. Afghans are an extremely hospitable people, and treating guests with generosity and honor is considered to be a reflection of personal reputation. Offering tea is one of the most important ways that this hospitality is demonstrated.

If you are ever a guest in an Afghan home, you will always be offered tea: this is a sign of the host’s respect for you, just as your acceptance of the offer is a sign of your respect for your host. You can then expect to have your cup constantly refilled throughout your visit. To politely signal to your host that you have had enough, you can turn your cup upside down, or you can cover it with your hand and thank them.

Tea can be made and served in a variety of vessels.

In many businesses and households, tea is brewed in large traditional kettles or urns known as samovars: these vessels keep a large supply of tea hot and ready all day. As for serving, different types of cups may be used depending on where you are.

If you are in an urban household, such as a home in Kabul, your tea may be served in Western style teacups. In other places, vessels used to serve tea include small, short glasses called istakhan, or porcelain bowls without handles, known as piala, that are similar to Chinese tea bowls.

Tea can be sweetened or unsweetened.

In Afghanistan, tea is drunk with and without sugar, and you will usually be served both sweetened and unsweetened tea as a guest in an Afghan home. For example, it is a typical Afghan custom for the first cup of tea offered to a guest to be heavily sweetened: this sweet tea is known as chai shireen, and the more sugar the cup contains, the greater the honor shown to the guest.

It’s then usual for the next cup of tea to be served without sugar; this plain tea is called chai talkh. When having tea in their own homes or in cafes, Afghans often dip lumps of sugar called qand in their tea, and then hold these lumps in their mouths as they sip rather than placing them directly in the cup.

Tea is often served with particular foods.

In addition to being offered tea in an Afghan home, you will also be offered food, usually the best that the household has to offer. Some typical foods that are served with tea when entertaining guests include shirnee, which are sweet candies that are similar to toffee; noql, which are sugar-coated almonds, pistachios, or chickpeas; and kulcha, which are biscuits or pastries that may be made at home or purchased from local bakeries.

A special kind of tea is prepared for formal occasions.

While ordinary green and black tea is consumed on a daily basis in Afghanistan, formal occasions often involve the preparation of a special kind of tea known as qymaq chai. To make this tea, green tea is brewed, and then bicarbonate of soda is added, which turns the tea a dark red color. To finish the tea, milk and sugar are added, and the beverage becomes purple-pink in color. Qymaq chai has a strong, rich taste, and is often prepared for events such as engagements and weddings.

You can make one of the most popular kinds of Afghan tea at home (kahwah tea).

The most popular kind of everyday tea consumed in Afghanistan is known as kahwah tea, and it’s easy to make at home, wherever you are. It’s a traditional combination of green tea, cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron, and every family will usually have their own version of the recipe. To make it yourself, add the spices to water and bring to a boil; then add the green tea and let steep. To serve, sweeten with either sugar or honey.

8 Facts about One of the Most Amazing Art Forms in Afghanistan

From music to woodworking, traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan are currently enjoying a much-needed revival. During Afghanistan’s conflict years, many of these traditions were discouraged or actively suppressed, and some came close to being lost altogether. Fortunately, increased local and international interest in traditional art forms, along with the support of organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, have led to a recent resurgence of these arts and crafts and a renewed respect for their practitioners.

While many of these traditional art forms hold an almost legendary status in Afghan culture and history, few are more fabled than carpet weaving. Beautiful rugs have been handmade in Afghanistan using the same patterns and techniques for thousands of years. With such a history, it’s little wonder that Afghan carpets are viewed as the heart and soul of Afghan art and craftsmanship. Read on to learn more fascinating facts about the amazing art of Afghan carpet weaving.

1. There are two main categories of Afghan carpets.

Stunning in their diversity, Afghan carpets come in a huge range of patterns, designs, and colors. However, most Afghan carpets fall into one of two broad categories: the Turkoman (or Turkmen) carpet and the Beloutch (or Baluchi) carpet. Turkoman carpets are woven in Northern Afghanistan using wool that is renowned for its luster and hard-wearing qualities. Beloutch carpets come from Western Afghanistan and feature a variety of weaves, designs, and types of wool.

2. Afghan carpets were originally made by nomadic tribes.

Afghan carpets are so diverse because they were originally made by Afghanistan’s many nomadic tribes. Each tribe had patterns and designs that were unique to their group and had been passed down from generation to generation. Up until around the 19th century, it was possible to tell where a carpet originated simply by looking at its design and how it was produced.

3. Afghan tribal rugs are not woven for sale.

Another intriguing fact about the carpets made by Afghanistan’s nomadic tribes is that, historically, they were never produced specifically to be sold. Rather, they were made for use within the community—as coverings for the floors and walls of tents to provide warmth and decoration, as prayer rugs, as seating for mealtimes, and as wedding gifts for a bride’s dowry. Carpets were only taken to market when an older rug fulfilling one of these functions was replaced with a newer rug; the older one would then be sold or traded.

4. Making an Afghan carpet takes time.

Traditional Afghan carpets are made by hand, with weavers meticulously knotting wool threads on horizontal looms. As you can imagine, such a detail-oriented process takes time—a single weaver can usually produce about 1 square meter (roughly 10 square feet) of carpet every month. At this rate, many Afghan carpets can take anywhere from six to nine months to complete, even longer for larger or more specialized pieces.

5. Traditional Afghan carpets are made of all-natural materials.

Wool is the primary material used to make Afghan carpets. Traditionally, nomadic tribes would use the wool of their own sheep, with activities such as shearing the sheep and brushing and spinning the wool considered part of the process of making the carpets.

Silk and cotton may sometimes be used, but most carpet connoisseurs hold that true Afghan carpets are made entirely of wool. Also, in traditional Afghan carpet-making, the dyes used to color the wool come from natural sources such as flowers, fruits, vegetables, and minerals. Many say that the colors provided by these natural pigments only get better with time.

6. Afghan carpet weavers work from memory.

Incredibly, traditional Afghan carpet weavers don’t use diagrams or drawings to create their pieces. Instead, they work from memory, replicating centuries-old patterns that they have learned from previous generations of artisans.

7. Afghanistan’s conflict years inspired artisans to create “war rugs.”

Beginning in the 1980s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a new type of Afghan carpet began to appear. These rugs were woven in the traditional Afghan style, but instead of geometric designs and patterns, they featured images of war such as weapons, maps, and soldiers. Today, these fascinating carpets are considered important art objects that offer a glimpse of a profound time in history through the eyes of the artisans who lived it.

8. The carpet-weaving industry in Afghanistan is changing.

In this age of globalization, it’s difficult for traditional forms of arts and crafts to compete with their mass-produced counterparts. Today, many Afghan carpets are produced not by weavers in their traditional villages but at factories where weavers may simply knot carpets without playing any role in the design. However, some organizations are working to find a balance between traditional craftsmanship and contemporary demands. Turquoise Mountain, for example, not only helps operate several weaving centers that offer stable employment and good working conditions to carpet artisans, but it also works to find international partners and buyers for the finished carpets.

A Look at the New Program Helping Boost Literacy in Afghanistan

According to 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 12 million people in Afghanistan—roughly one-third of the country’s entire population—lack basic literacy skills. This figure has been dropping over the last decade thanks to considerable efforts by government entities and NGOs. However, it’s clear that there is still a great deal of work to be done when it comes to improving literacy rates in Afghanistan.

One new initiative determined to tackle this challenge head-on is the Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future (BESAF) project. A basic general literacy program geared towards some of Afghanistan’s most marginalized groups and communities, the BESAF project hopes to boost literacy levels for thousands of Afghans. Read on to learn more.

What is the BESAF project?

The Better Education System for Afghanistan’s Future project is a two-year program that will provide some 15,000 youth and adult learners around the country with courses in basic general literacy.

Taking place in 2021 and 2022, these courses have the immediate objective of increasing fundamental literacy skills among some of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people, including youth and adults in remote communities.

A broader goal of the BESAF project is to increase demand for and facilitate access to adult education, in order to better support Afghans who were unable to receive formal education during Afghanistan’s conflict years.

What is unique about the BESAF project?

One element that distinguishes the BESAF project from other literacy-building initiatives is that is places as much emphasis on teaching the teachers as it does on teaching the learners. One of the biggest challenges faced by education in general in Afghanistan is a lack of qualified teachers. In far too many learning situations, teachers are barely more educated or experienced than their students. The organizers of the BESAF project therefore made it a priority to ensure that their literacy courses would be taught by qualified, competent trainers.

To this end, the BESAF project began in late 2020 with a 10-day “training of trainers” workshop. A total of 124 master trainers—including program implementation managers, monitors, and district literacy managers —participated in the workshop.

They learned pragmatic tools and strategies for helping train and guide facilitators to effectively deliver literacy classes. The next step will, in turn, involve these master trainers providing further training to the hundreds of literacy facilitators who will be directly teaching and supporting BESAF learners.

Who is involved in the BESAF project?

Partners collaborating on the BESAF project include:

The UNESCO Office in Kabul

Re-opened in 2002, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has been working for nearly two decades to help the government of Afghanistan build and grow its educational, cultural, informational, and scientific capacity. The Office’s broad range of programs are frequently operated in collaboration with a diverse array of local and international partners and stakeholders.

The goal is to enrich the lives of Afghan citizens, create a stronger future for the country, and build peace within and beyond Afghanistan’s borders. The UNESCO Office in Kabul, together with the Afghan Ministry of Education, is responsible for implementing the BESAF project.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida)

The primary funder of the BESAF project, Sida is the Swedish government’s agency for development cooperation. It works with a wide range of societal partners, including public and private sector agencies, civil society organizations, and research institutions.

Sida supports and carries out sustainable development initiatives in dozens of countries around the world. The agency’s broad goal is to help create conditions that will allow people experiencing poverty and oppression to improve their lives and livelihoods.

Why is the BESAF project important?

As the UNESCO Office in Kabul explains, education is the tool with which people can build the knowledge, skills, and competencies they need to cope with the many complex challenges of contemporary life. Literacy is the cornerstone of education.

In other words, before people can better themselves and their communities, before they can benefit from more specialized education, they must first become literate. Programs like the BESAF project are therefore critically important in that they help create the foundation on which all future learning and personal development can rest.

What other educational initiatives does UNESCO support in Afghanistan?

The BESAF project is just one way in which UNESCO supports education in Afghanistan. In recent years, the UNESCO Office in Kabul has worked closely with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education to develop plans, policies, and tools for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). This program helps provide unemployed or underemployed adults with targeted training.

UNESCO has also played an instrumental role in helping Afghanistan create its third National Education Strategic Plan. The ambitious policy document lays out a comprehensive and cohesive vision for improving the state of education throughout the country.