4 Things You Need to Know about Afghan Culture

Afghanistan is home to a rich and diverse culture that has been shaped by various factors. These include the ethnic make-up of the country as well as the dominant religion, Islam.

Afghanistan’s central position along historic trade routes also played a role in shaping its culture by exposing the Afghan people to influences from western Asia, eastern Asia, and Europe. More recently, other Western cultures have affected its culture, but this influence is mostly felt among those living in larger cities.

Despite these various influences, Afghan culture is unique. It is built on ancient local traditions that are still alive and well throughout the country. Take a look at these four things you need to know about Afghan culture:

1. Afghan people go out of their way for guests.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Afghanistan has no doubt been exposed to the incredible level of hospitality that locals extend to their guests. As an essential aspect of Afghan culture, hospitality is instilled in Afghan people at an early age. Proverbs and stories highlight the formal and informal cultural expectations related to how one should treat family, friends, and strangers.

Afghan people will go out of their way to ensure that everyone who visits their home feels welcome and comfortable. Regardless of who they’ve invited over, an Afghan host will not let their guest leave without feeling full of food, tea, and good conversation.

A typical meal consists of several courses, and guests’ plates are usually refilled as soon as they are emptied. After the meal, guests are treated to tea and more food, typically dried fruit and sweets such as cake and cookies.  

This type of sharing and hospitality is referred to in Afghanistan as “the right of salt,” and it’s generally viewed as a religious obligation to treat others with kindness and respect. For those visiting the country, it’s important to honor a host’s generosity by showing gratitude and graciousness while in their home.

2. Afghan food is fabulous.

While on the topic of Afghan food and hospitality, it’s important to take a moment to address how delicious the cuisine of Afghanistan is. Many people focus on the kebabs and rice, but Afghan cuisine is much more sophisticated than these staple dishes would indicate.

Afghanistan’s position at the crossroads of several major civilizations has exposed the country to the flavors of Indian, Middle Eastern, and Asian cuisines. Afghan food, however, is in a category all its own. In Afghanistan, recipes are passed down through the generations. Food provides much more than sustenance. It also brings families together and helps them stay connected with their ancestors. 

Some favorite traditional dishes include mantu, a meat-filled dumpling, and aashak, a scallion-filled pasta. Both dishes are traditionally topped with a tomato-based sauce and served with a side of yogurt and mint. These traditional dishes and others such as borani banjan, kabuli pulao, and korme kofta are a major part of Afghan culture. They play a large role in celebrations and special occasions.

3. Afghan people love sports.

Many people do not know that Afghanistan is a country full of sports fans. One traditional sport associated with Afghans is buzkashi. This polo-like game is played on horseback; a goat carcass is used instead of a ball.

While buzkashi is the country’s national sport, more conventional sports also enjoy a significant following throughout Afghanistan. Football (soccer) and cricket are by far the most popular. In addition, many Afghans are taking up activities such as martial arts and boxing.

It may come as a surprise that bodybuilding, weightlifting, and powerlifting have a long history in the country. In fact, these activities have been popular among Afghan men for decades. According to the Afghan National Bodybuilding Federation, which was founded in the mid-1960s, there are now more than 1,000 weightlifting gyms spread out across Kabul and other towns and cities across the country.

4. Afghanistan is a society of poets.

traditional garb

Although the literacy rate in Afghanistan hovers just above 30 percent, poetry has been part of the heart and soul of Afghan culture for millennia. During the early days of Afghan civilization, kingdoms and castles throughout the region had an official poet. These poets were selected through poetry contests, which are still popular among children and adults in modern Afghanistan.  

Today, the majority of Afghans are raised on a steady diet of poetry fed to them by recitation from teachers and parents, who learned verse from their parents before them. Because of this tradition, everyone from taxi drivers and shopkeepers to Afghan mullahs and other local leaders shares a love for poets and their work.

While some of the country’s monuments and other historical treasures have been damaged or destroyed during recent conflicts, the poetry of Afghanistan still thrives. It appears in news columns and is heard on street corners throughout the country. It is even used to tell Afghan history and make a point during arguments. Perhaps most importantly, poetry is the common thread that binds all Afghans regardless of age, ethnicity, and social status.    

Afghan Art on the World Stage at the “Made in Afghanistan” Exhibit

When you think of Afghan art, you might call to mind some examples of delicate woodwork, exquisitely set gemstones, or intricate carpet weaving. But although Afghanistan is currently experiencing an important reconnection with these historic arts and crafts, there is more to the country’s evolving artistic and cultural landscape than these traditional forms.

Intriguingly, after decades of repression, Afghanistan is once again home to a small but vibrant contemporary art scene fueled by a community of exciting and talented artists who are committed to showing the world a different side of their homeland. And show the world they did at the recent “Made in Afghanistan” exhibition, held from November 2019 to January 2020 at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in the United Arab Emirates. Read on to learn more about the exhibit, the participating artists, and why this opportunity was important for contemporary art in Afghanistan.

What was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition all about?

Made in Afghanistan is the largest art exhibition focused entirely on Afghan artists that has ever been held in the UAE. Featuring over 50 artworks from 11 different artists working across a range of disciplines, both contemporary and traditional, Made in Afghanistan is a celebration of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage that also marks the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence. The aim of the exhibition—which included handcrafts, antiques, and agricultural products alongside a wonderful selection of modern artworks—was to introduce visitors to Afghanistan’s unique artistic and cultural scene, which is often overlooked next to stories of the country’s conflicts and challenges. The exhibition also sought to deliver a special message of peace and hope from contemporary Afghan artists.

Who organized the exhibit?

A number of different partners, both in Afghanistan and in the UAE, worked together to make Made in Afghanistan possible. These players included:

The Etihad Modern Art Gallery (EMAG)—A multi-purpose art space and café in the heart of Abu Dhabi, EMAG has been providing a vital showcase for local and international artists since it was established in 2013. With the goals of advancing Abu Dhabi’s art scene, promoting Emirati culture and arts to a wider audience, and providing emerging and established artists alike with a platform for their passion, EMAG offers a regular program of art shows and events at home and internationally in partnership with respected galleries and institutions.

Berang Arts—A co-curator of Made in Afghanistan, Berang Arts is a Kabul-based group that works to develop and support contemporary arts in Afghanistan. For the past decade, the peer-run organization has been an important resource for both new and established artists trying to negotiate the challenging balance between Afghanistan’s traditional values and their own contemporary aesthetic.

The Afghan Embassy—The Embassy of Afghanistan in Abu Dhabi, one of the world’s largest Afghan embassies, played an important supporting role in organizing the Made in Afghanistan exhibit, working with both EMAG and Berang Arts to bring the artworks for display from Afghanistan to the UAE.

Which artists participated in the exhibit?

Some of the most exciting artists currently working in Afghanistan were featured in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition, including:

Mohammad Shahab Eslami—An active member of Berang Arts and a founder of the Kabul photography group Induction, Mohammad Shahab Eslami is an experimental filmmaker and photographer. A self-taught artist, Eslami explores different genres of photography to capture the form and content of contemporary human life. Six of his pieces were shown at Made in Afghanistan.

Shamsia Hassani—A co-founder of Berang Arts, Shamsia Hassani is believed to be the first female graffiti artist in Afghanistan. Her work, which features vivid imagery that symbolizes the issues faced in modern Afghanistan, can be found on walls and buildings around Kabul.

Robaba Mohammadi—At just 19 years of age, Robaba Mohammadi has overcome tremendous obstacles in order to make a name for herself as an artist. Unable to walk or use her hands due to a condition she’s had since birth, Mohammadi found her passion for art during her lonely years of growing up without being able to attend school. Today, she paints and draws using her mouth, producing beautifully detailed portraits of Afghan streets and people. She is also a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities in Afghanistan.

Why was the Made in Afghanistan exhibition important?

Made in Afghanistan offered a very valuable opportunity for these 11 young artists to show their work internationally, and in another Arab country at that. As explained by Nabila Horakhsh, a co-founder of Berang Arts and a co-curator of the exhibition, Afghan artists have few opportunities to exhibit inside Afghanistan while also struggling to access international galleries. This means that chances for their work to be seen by the public are rare. Everyone involved in the Made in Afghanistan exhibition hopes that this event will mark the beginning of a long-term relationship between Afghan and Emirati artists, with more exhibits and exchanges to come on both sides.

Spotlight on a Busy Fall at the Bayat Foundation

2019 is drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean that things at the Bayat Foundation are slowing down. On the contrary, Afghanistan’s largest private philanthropic organization has been busier than ever during the fall months, working tirelessly to achieve its mission of bringing hope and support to Afghans in need.

The Bayat Foundation’s most recent projects and activities include:

Support for Kabul area schools.

Toward the end of the summer, the Bayat Foundation completed its 2019 School and Student Assistance Program. This initiative saw the Foundation sponsoring a range of facility improvements at several secondary and high schools in Kabul. A new well was constructed at Rabia Balkhi School, the gymnasium and volleyball facilities were repaired at Wahdat Girls High School, and Omulbanin High School received a brand-new athletic field.

In addition to these upgrades, the program also distributed thousands of key school supplies to local students, including notebooks and pencils, backpacks, shoes, and nutritious prepared meals. Describing the program, Bayat Foundation co-founders Dr. Ehsan Bayat and Mrs. Fatema Laya Bayat emphasized the critical importance of education to Afghanistan’s future, and expressed the hope that the improvements and supplies provided by the program would help students flourish at school and fulfill their potential.

school children

The second annual Bright Future Business Accelerator program.

In September, the Bayat Foundation launched the second round of its highly successful Bright Future Business Accelerator program. Originally established in late 2018, the program is an initiative of Bright Future Afghanistan, a consortium of four leading Afghan non-profit organizations, including the Bayat Foundation.

The broad goal of the program is to support Afghanistan’s economic development by helping to build and sustain a robust network of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are exactly the type of companies the country needs to create employment opportunities and allow Afghanistan and its people to prosper. Twenty-five Afghan SMEs have been selected to participate in the second Bright Future Business Accelerator. Through the program, these companies and their leaders will receive training and mentorship support in a number of key business development areas, including business plan development, marketing and sales, and production and logistics.

The 2019 Hearing Care Mission.

Every year since 2014, the Bayat Foundation has partnered with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to host the Bayat-Starkey Afghanistan Hearing Care Mission. One of the most important health care programs in Afghanistan to specifically target deafness and hearing impairments, the Hearing Care Mission works to bring the gift of hearing to thousands of vulnerable Afghans.

According to estimates from the Afghanistan National Association of the Deaf, as many as 34,000 Afghan children between the ages of seven and 18 are living with deafness, blindness, or both. Unfortunately, many of these children are unable to access help or care for their hearing impairments, due in no small part to the considerable stigma that still surrounds deafness in Afghan society. The Hearing Care Mission therefore offers a rare and important opportunity for both children and adults with hearing issues to receive treatment from medical experts. At this year’s Mission, over 1,400 Afghans received hearing screenings from professional audiologists and hearing care specialists, information on care and treatment, and hearing aids, all completely free of charge.

school children

As always, the Bayat Foundation is proud to deliver this important annual mission in partnership with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. The philanthropic arm of leading hearing aid manufacturer Starkey Hearing Technologies, the Starkey Hearing Foundation works in more than 100 countries around the world to bring the gift of hearing to those who need it most. Through its collaborations with governments, health leaders, and non-profit organizations, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has touched the lives of more than 1 million people living with deafness or hearing impairments.

Afghanistan’s first ever anti-slavery conference.

In November 2019, the Bayat Foundation celebrated a milestone achievement: hosting a groundbreaking conference on the elimination of modern slavery, human trafficking, and labor exploitation within Afghanistan and beyond. This was the first conference on this topic in Afghanistan. Titled “Ending Slavery, Extending Hope,” the conference shed important light on and helped build critical awareness about the often-taboo subjects of slavery and exploitation, which are a troubling reality for far too many vulnerable Afghans.

Held at the Bayat Media Center in Kabul, the conference was organized into two panel discussions led by local and international leaders from both the public and private sectors. The first discussion focused on recommendations from the Bali Process, an international forum for policy dialogue, information sharing, and practical cooperation around the issues of people smuggling and human trafficking. The Bayat Foundation is Afghanistan’s official representative to the Bali Process. The second discussion examined the efforts that Afghan businesses, government, and non-profit organizations are currently making to tackle and eliminate slavery and exploitation. This panel also discussed other solutions and strategies that could help protect vulnerable communities and populations.