10 Things You Might Not Know about Afghanistan

In this article, we look at 10 interesting facts about Afghanistan, its culture, and its people—from the country’s love of poetry to the national sport of buzkashi.

1. Afghanistan’s capital city is Kabul.

Kabul, Afghanistan’s largest city, is located in the country’s eastern section. The only city in Afghanistan with a population of more than 1 million, Kabul is home to around 4.114 million people.

Nestled in a valley of the expansive Hindu Kush mountains, Kabul’s elevation of approximately 1,790 meters makes the city one of the world’s highest capitals. First mentioned around the era of the Achaemenid Empire, the city of Kabul is said to date back more than 3,500 years.

2. The national sport of Afghanistan is buzkashi.

Afghans have petitioned for buzkashi, known as the world’s wildest sport, to be recognized as an Olympic sport.

buzkashi

Buzkashi, or goat-grabbing, involves horseback riders grabbing at a goat carcass, galloping clear of their rivals, and dropping it within a chalked circle. The game has been played on the northern steppe for centuries, and was once the sport of rich rival warlords. Today, it is largely funded by mobile telecoms companies and private airlines.

3. Alexander the Great’s wife, Roxana, was born in Afghanistan.

She was described as one of the most beautiful women in the whole of Asia. Roxana’s Afghan name, Roshanak, means “little star” in Persian.

Although Alexander the Great’s marriage to Roxana was politically motivated, it is widely noted that she was his greatest weakness. Married in 327 BC, Alexander was so charmed by Roxana’s beauty and wisdom that the couple were inseparable, much to the annoyance of some of his soldiers.

Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, Roxana gave birth to Alexander IV. She was murdered in Macedonia in 320 BC by Alexander’s former ally.

4. Approximately 90 percent of the Afghan population has mobile coverage.

After the Karzai administration gained office in 2001, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Communications and Information Technology rapidly expanded the country’s wireless, internet, radio, and television industries.

tower

In 2006, the Afghan government signed an agreement with ZTE of China, striking a deal worth a reported $64.5 million. Under the agreement, ZTE would lay the country’s optical fiber cable, improving telephone, internet, radio, and television services throughout Afghanistan.

By 2014, approximately 90 percent of Afghans had access to communication services.  Today, Afghan Wireless keeps Afghanistan connected, providing unparalleled speed, freedom, and reliability.

5. Poetry is an integral part of Afghan culture.

Afghans have been telling tales in verse for more than a millennium. In the western city of Herat, locals celebrate “poetry night” every Thursday, with men, women, and children gathering together to share both modern and ancient verse, enjoying traditional Herati music, and indulging in pastries and sweet tea well into the evening.

6. Afghanistan is a landlocked South Asian nation.

The country is bordered by Iran to the west; India and China to the east; Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan to the north; and Pakistan to the south. The terrain is dominated by rugged mountains, with flat plains in the north and southwest.

7. The country is twice the size of the UK, but has half its population.

Afghanistan’s current population is estimated at almost 39 million. The majority of Afghans live in rural locations within tribal and kinship groups. Approximately 10 percent of Afghans live in Kabul. The nation’s second largest city is Kandahar, with just under 400,000 residents.

8. Afghanistan is semi-arid, with hot summers and cold winters.

shepherd

Afghanistan has a dry continental climate, comprising all four seasons. In Afghanistan’s lowlands, temperatures can peak at 50⁰C in the height of summer, dropping to around 20⁰C in the wintertime. In mountain regions, winter temperatures often fall as low as -25⁰C, with some isolated areas dropping considerably lower than this.

9. Afghans celebrate the new year on March 21.

The Afghan new year is marked by celebrations lasting around 2 weeks, culminating in Nauruz, or Farmer’s Day, which is celebrated on March 21.

In the city of Mazar-i-Shar, the Red Flower Festival forms an integral part of the new year festivities, celebrating the blaze of red tulips growing on plains surrounding the city.

In Mazar, up to 200,000 Afghans gather for Jahenda Bala on the first day of the new year. High ranking officials gather for a religious ceremony at the Blue Mosque, the site of the tomb of the 4th Calif of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

10. Agriculture is big business in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is self-sufficient in terms of around 95 percent of its rye and wheat supply. The country’s agricultural sector more than meets the country’s needs for potatoes and rice. Agriculture accounts for around 23 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and 44 percent of the country’s labor force.

Afghanistan produces around 1.5 million tons of fresh fruit every year, and experts predict this sector could expand significantly in years to come. The country is gaining a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest grapes, cherries, apricots, melons, peaches, and figs.

5 Fascinating Facts about Afghanistan’s Official Languages

Did you know that Afghanistan has not one but two official languages? After coexisting on an informal basis for centuries, both Pashto and Dari (the Afghan term for the language which is also known as Farsi or Persian) were recognized in Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution as the two official languages of the state.

Read on for a look at some fascinating facts about the history, usage, and relationship between these two different but equally important tongues.

The proportional balance between Dari and Pashto speakers is fairly close.

According to recent estimates, roughly 50 percent of all Afghans speak some version of Dari, while over 40 percent speak Pashto.

Dari—the first language of ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs—is generally viewed as the lingua franca in Afghanistan and has long been used for business and government transactions. Pashto, on the other hand, is the first language of the Pashtuns, who comprise Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority. It’s also interesting to note that bilingualism and multilingualism are fairly common across the country. For example, many Pashtuns in urban areas also speak Dari, while Dari-speaking Afghans with higher levels of education often have a good command of Pashto as well.

Dari and Pashto are both written using the Arabic alphabet.

Although Arabic is linguistically quite different from Afghanistan’s official languages, it is the Arabic alphabet that is primarily used for both Dari and Pashto, with a few modifications. For example, the modern Dari alphabet includes three extra characters that represent sounds that do not occur in traditional Arabic. Pashto goes even further, using all the Arabic letters, the additional Dari letters, and a number of other special Pashto letters for sounds that are not found in either of the other two languages (in total, the Pashto alphabet has 44 letters, while standard Arabic has 28).

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Not everyone is in favor of the term Dari.

Although Dari is the official Afghan word for the Persian language, not everyone agrees on using it. Some Persian-speaking Afghans object to the use of the word on the grounds that it makes the language seem like a separate dialect (that is, the Afghan dialect of Farsi), when in fact, Farsi and Dari are simply two different words for the same language. (This is certainly not to say that there are not distinct accents and variations when it comes to vocabulary and usage, as indeed there are throughout the country, only that these are not enough to constitute a completely different dialect.)

Other Persian speakers believe that calling their language Dari makes them feel too separated from the cultural, linguistic, and historical ties that they share with the rest of the Persian-speaking world, including countries such as Iran and Tajikistan. As a compromise, some linguistic activists in Afghanistan refer to the Persian language as Farsi-Dari.

Some of Afghanistan’s best-known poetry is written in Dari.

Over the course of the last two millennia, during which a series of Persian dynasties spread Farsi throughout significant areas of Central Asia, the language developed a deep, rich, textual presence. Today, scholars can draw on a wealth of historical Persian volumes on philosophy, science, and statecraft to trace the evolution of the Persian language over the course of centuries. Part of this extensive literature includes many works of poetry, including those by Afghanistan’s best-known and most beloved poet Rumi.

A 13th-century poet and theologian, Rumi was known for mixing sensual and religious themes and imagery together in his work. His most famous work, known as the Mathanvi or the Masnavi, is a six-book spiritual epic that attempts to teach Sufi Muslims how to become one with God. Originally written in Dari, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into many different languages and is widely read all over the world.

Unlike Dari, Pashto was a primarily spoken language.

Although the last few centuries have seen an important expansion in the body of writing and literature in Pashto, this language, in contrast to Dari, was long a primarily spoken language. (This is partly to do with the relatively restricted location of Pashto speakers, who have been largely isolated in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.)

As a result, the richness of the Pashto oral tradition is remarkable. For example, in addition to long-form oral poetry and stories, a special genre of short Pashto folk poems called landays has developed. Composed by women and typically sung aloud to the beat of a drum, these poems describe the everyday trials, tribulations, and joys of life for Afghan women. Today, alongside this oral tradition, Pashto writing and literature are more widely recognized due in part to the acclaim given to poets such as Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th-century warrior and poet whose works touch on subjects such as unity, honor, war, and love.

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.

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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.

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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.