Spotlight on the Unique Traditional Instruments of Afghanistan

New York City might not be the first place you’d think of in connection with Afghan music, but surprisingly enough, the city’s famous Metropolitan Museum of Art is home to one of the finest collections of traditional Afghan instruments in the world. Comprised of 29 different instruments, the collection was donated to the Met in 2015 by Mark Slobin, a former professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University.

Slobin gathered the instruments between 1967 and 1972. During this five-year period, he traveled repeatedly to northern Afghanistan in order to conduct extensive research into Afghan music, culture, language, and general society. This fieldwork, along with the instruments themselves, would eventually prove to be more valuable than anyone anticipated.

Just a few short years later, the Soviet invasion of 1979 initiated a decades-long period of civil conflict in Afghanistan. During these challenging years, music became widely banned. Many musicians (and their instruments) either fled the country or were driven underground, and Afghanistan’s rich musical heritage fell into decline.

Slobin’s instrument collection—along with his in-depth research, which includes folk music recordings, films, and hundreds of music-related images—therefore stands as an important and rare glimpse into an aspect of Afghanistan’s culture that has been all but lost. As a result of Slobin’s work, the fascinating traditional Afghan instruments that visitors to the Met can see and learn about include:

The Qobuz

A type of fiddle widely used in northern Afghanistan, the qobuz is an ancient instrument of Turkic origin. The instrument is mentioned in the first comprehensive dictionary of Turkic languages, which was compiled in the 11th century. Shaped like a deep, curved ladle, the qobuz has a belly covered with camel or goat skin and two horsehair strings; a horsehair bow is used for playing, which generates a sound rich in overtones.

Believed to be a sacred instrument traditionally owned by shamans, the qobuz was popular during the 15th and 16th centuries for musical entertainment at Afghanistan’s royal courts. The qobuz featured in the Slobin collection at the Met was custom made for the popular Afghan folk musician Baba Naim.

The Dambura

Another traditional Afghan instrument of Turkic origin is the dambura (sometimes known as the dombra or dombyra). A type of lute typically made from a single block of wood, the dambura features a long, thin neck; a deep, oblong bowl; and two playing strings.

It is played either by plucking or strumming the strings. In some regions, musicians will also bang or strike the instrument while playing in order to produce a strong percussive sound.

The Waj

More formally known as a Kafir harp, the waj is a traditional arched harp, typically with either four or five strings, used by the Kafir people of northeastern Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. Interestingly, although similar harps were historically widespread throughout Central Asia and India, the waj is not found anywhere else in Afghanistan today.

The instrument features two main components: the soundbox, made from a hollow piece of wood covered with a thick, stretched animal skin; and the stringholder, which is a curved branch positioned on top of the soundbox. Traditionally, the waj is played at social gatherings, usually as an accompaniment to epic storytelling or heroic songs.

The Nai

One of the few wind instruments used in Afghan music, the nai (or ney) is an end-blown flute of Persian origin. The instrument is little more than a hollow tube, usually made from a piece of hollow cane or a large reed, with five or six finger holes and one thumb hole (some nai also feature decorative painting or carving). Given the nai’s basic, simple design, it’s hardly surprising to learn that the instrument is one of the oldest still in use. It has been played continually for roughly 5,000 years.

The Ghichak

A very popular instrument in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions, the ghichak is a type of two-stringed fiddle that is played with a kaman (a horsehair bow). Distinct from many other traditional Afghan instruments which are made of wood or natural materials, the body of the ghichak is made from a large metal tin, which gives the instrument its characteristic sound.

Looking Ahead: The Future of Afghan Music.

Happily, although Afghanistan’s musical heritage suffered greatly during the country’s conflict years, traditional music is once again on the rise in Afghanistan. In recent years, a number of local and international organizations have launched programs aimed at reviving Afghanistan’s musical traditions and bringing back the use of traditional instruments.

For example, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s Master-Apprentice Music Training Program sees hundreds of students learning to play traditional instruments under the tutelage of master musicians in Kabul and Herat. Likewise, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, founded in 2010 by musicologist Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, provides children and young teens with training in general academics and music, with a particular focus on traditional Afghan music.

Featured Image courtesy US Embassy Kabul Afghanistan

Everything You Need to Know about Traditional Afghan Cuisine

Largely based on seasonal produce, dry goods such as wheat, rice, barley, and maize, and dairy products such as milk, whey, and yogurt, Afghan cuisine is often described as a fusion between Indian and Middle Eastern cookery. In this article, we look at a selection of revered Afghan dishes and their place in Afghan history.

Rice Dishes

Rice is the most important cultural component of most Afghan meals, and a great deal of time and effort is expended in creating rice dishes. Wealthy Afghan families typically consume one rice dish each day. In times gone by, royal Afghan households committed much time to the invention and preparation of elaborate rice dishes, as evidenced by the plethora available in Afghanistan today. Family gatherings such as weddings and holiday celebrations typically incorporate several rice dishes, with the reputations of Afghan cooks made and broken by their skill with rice preparation.

There are several different types of Afghan rice recipes. Challow rice, for instance, is traditionally served with qormah, casseroles, and stews. Challow is white rice that is boiled in saltwater before being drained and baked in an oven.

rice

Kabuli palaw, Afghanistan’s national dish, is cooked in the same way as challow, but it is prepared with meat and stock and infused with herbs and spices before being baked. This result is an elaborate dish comprising a variety of flavors, colors, and aromas. Caramelized sugar is often incorporated into the rice, lending the dish a rich brown color. Created for upper-class families of Kabul, Kabuli palaw is topped with carrots, almonds, and raisins before serving.

To make zamarod palaw, spinach is added before the dish is baked, resulting in a rich emerald hue. Meanwhile, narenj palaw is a sweet, elaborate dish, made with chicken, saffron, almonds, pistachios, and orange peel.

Shola is a traditional Afghan dish that calls for sticky, short-grain rice. It is prepared in both sweet and savory versions, with the latter becoming increasingly popular in recent years. Savory shola often features split peas or mashed mung beans, as well as meats such as lamb or beef. The dish is particularly popular during the Afghan wintertime, when it is often served with quroot (a type of dried curd), a glass of plain yogurt, and a fresh vegetable salad. There are many different versions of shola available across Afghanistan today, and the dish is also popular throughout the Middle East, particularly in Iran, where various other ingredients are commonly incorporated in its preparation.

Mastawa, another rice dish traditionally prepared in the winter, incorporates short-grain rice and sun-dried mutton simmered in an aromatic broth infused with onions, garlic, mint, turmeric, and cilantro. Bitter orange peel and hot peppers are added near the end of cooking to make this sticky rice dish fragrant, hearty, and spicy.

Meat Dishes

Qormah is a popular dish throughout Afghanistan, with more than 100 different variations, including:

  • Qormah e nadroo: A lamb or veal dish served in an onion-based sauce, incorporating lotus roots, cilantro, and yogurt.
  • Qormah e lawand: A traditional dish prepared with lamb, chicken, or beef, and cooked with onions, turmeric, yogurt, and cilantro.
  • Qormah e gosht: Translated as “meat qormah,” this dish is a commonly served accompaniment to the palaw rice that is popular at gatherings.
  • Qormah e alou-bokhara wa dalnakhod: A fruitier take on qormah featuring chicken or veal and prepared with onions, lentils, cardamom, and sour plums.
  • Qormah e sabzi: A fusion of lamb and sautéed spinach and greens.
  • Qormah e shalgham: A sweet and sour recipe prepared with lamb, turnips, onions, and sugar.

Mantu is a highly popular native dumpling dish. Since it is time consuming to prepare, it is often reserved for special occasions and large gatherings such as weddings. Dumplings are filled with onions and ground beef or lamb before being steamed. The dish is sometimes served in a tomato sauce topped with a mixture of yogurt, split chickpeas, and garlic. Ashak is another traditional dumpling dish. Originating in Kabul, it is made with leeks, sautéed tomatoes, ground meat, a garlic-yogurt sauce, and red kidney beans.

Kebabs are popular from Europe to the Middle East to India. In Afghanistan, they are served by restaurants as well as street vendors. Every Afghan restaurant has its own unique take on the dish. Traditionally made of lamb, kebabs are often served with naan bread, or sometimes rice, and customers often sprinkle sumac on the dish. The quality of a kebab is said to hinge on the quality of meat it was made from, with pieces of fat from the tail of the sheep often added to lamb skewers to improve the flavor.

Afghan Desserts

Believed to have originated in India, firnee is a traditional dish that is made from cornstarch, milk, and sugar and flavored with rosewater and aromatic spices like cardamom and saffron.

Haft mewa is sweet Afghan soup made from dried fruit and nuts that is traditionally eaten during the Afghan New Year celebrations, when it is often enjoyed at breakfast time.

Spotlight on the National Parks of Afghanistan

National parks protect some of the world’s most important wildlife habitats and rare species that dwell in them. In this article, we look at a selection of protected areas in Afghanistan and endemic wildlife such as snow leopards, jackals, wolves, and bears.

Wakhan National Park

Encompassing alpine grasslands, soaring mountains, and a unique selection of wildlife, Wakhan National Park is located in northeastern Afghanistan. The region is inhabited by several tribes who seek to preserve its culture and traditional way of life.

Wakhan National Park
Image courtesy USAID | Flickr

Recognized as one of the last truly wild regions in the world by Prince Mostapha Zaher, the director general of Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency, Wakhan National Park lies in a narrow corner of Afghanistan and is bordered by Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and China to the east.

The Amu Darya River, which begins in Wakhan National Park, is also the point where the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains converge.

The wildlife in Wakhan National Park are incredibly diverse and encompass an array of snow leopards, lynx, wolves, brown bears, ibex, and red foxes, as well as the elusive Pallas’s cat. Wakhan National Park is also home to the famous Marco Polo sheep, which are characterized by their distinctive long horns that stretch almost 2 meters from tip to tip.

Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary

Ab-i Istada, which translates as “standing water,” is located in the Nawa District, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. This endorheic salt lake lies within a large depression in the southern foothills of the Hindu Kush that was formed by the Chaman Fault System.

With a surface area of around 130 square kilometers, Ab-i Istada is relatively shallow, at around 3.7 meters deep. The lake encompasses two small islands near its southeastern shore: Kuchney ghundai and Loya ghundai.

The Nahara and Sardeh Rivers also drain into Ab-i Istada from the northeast. When the lake reaches a high level, the overflow drains into the Lora River, a tributary of the Arghistan River.

Outside of visits from nomads from Kandahar who pass through the region each summer, the area has remained unpopulated until relatively recently. At the start of the 21st century, the Tarakai tribe began settling near the lake, establishing eight villages within a 10-kilometer region housing a total population of approximately 5,000. Today, local communities engage in a variety of activities such as agriculture; timber collection; and the trapping of peregrine and saker, which are both highly prized falcon species.

The Ab-i Istada National Waterfowl and Flamingo Sanctuary is visited by more than 120 migratory species, including vast flocks of greater flamingos and Siberian cranes.

Bamyan Plateau Protected Area

The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan created this 4,200-square-kilometer national park in November 2019. Located in the Hindu Kush Mountain Range, the Bamyan Plateau Protected Area represents Afghanistan’s second largest protected area after Wakhan National Park.

Image by Hadi Zaher | Flickr

Bamyan Plateau is geographically diverse and features high-altitude grasslands, jagged rock formations, and deep gorges. Its pristine rangeland and gigantic, deep canyons are home to a plethora of flora and fauna, including the rare Persian leopard, Himalayan ibex, lynx, foxes, pikas, and marmots.

The Bamyan Plateau is the only known area of Afghanistan to be inhabited by boreal owls and Asian badgers.

Nuristan Nature Reserve               

Starting to the west of Kabul and ending at Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, the Nuristan Forest encompasses multiple communities, including Nilaw, Arandu, Sao, Kunar, Pasenta, Nangalam, Kamdesh, and Naray, as well as the region’s capital city, Parun. Cities, towns, and villages in the Nuristan region are home to approximately 140,000 people, with settlers first populating the area about two centuries ago.

The Nuristan Forest is world famous for its outstanding natural beauty. The region is believed to be Afghanistan’s most biologically diverse due to the regional humidity created by Indian Ocean monsoons.

Recent biological surveys carried out in Nuristan Nature Reserve reveal that several species, including gray wolves, leopards, and Asiatic black bears continue to thrive throughout the region. Species commonly observed in the area include Indian crested porcupines, red foxes, rhesus macaques, yellow-throated martens, and golden jackals.

Band-e Amir National Park

Translating as the “Commander’s Dam,” which is believed to be a reference to the Muslim Caliph Ali, Band-e Amir National Park is home to the Hazaras people, who constitute approximately 10% of the total population of Afghanistan.

Recognized as a World Heritage site in 2004, Band-e Amir became a national park in 2009. By 2013, 6,000 tourists were visiting the region annually. Protected by park rangers, Band-e Amir features six separate lakes, the largest of which is Band-e Haibat, or the “Lake of Grandiose.”

Wildlife spotted in the region include urial sheep, wolves, lynx, red foxes, Pallas’s cats, and ibex wild goats. Visitors are drawn to the region by the purported healing properties of the local lakes. In addition, pilgrims frequent the area to visit Prophet Ali’s holy shrine.