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Guide to Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Welcome to our guide to Afghanistan.
This is useful for anyone researching Afghan culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and wanting to understand the people better.
The Soviet Union has traditionally been the leading trading partner. Japan, United Kingdom, Germany, Singapore, India, Pakistan, and China are the other trading partners. The country remains at a much lower stage of economic development than most
of its neighbors. Between
1956 and 1979, economic growth was guided by several five-year and seven-year plans, and supported by extensive
, primarily from the Soviet Union and the United States.
You may be going to Afghanistan on business, for a visit or even hosting Afghani colleagues or clients in your own country.
Remember this is only a very basic level introduction and is not meant to stereotype all Afghanis you may meet!
Facts and Statistics
- Location: Southern Asia, north and west of Pakistan, east of Iran
- Capital: Kabul
- Climate: Arid to semiarid; cold winters and hot summers
- Population: 31,822,848 (July 2014 est)
- Ethnic Make-up: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4% Religions: Sunni Muslim 80%, Shi'a Muslim 19%, other 1%
Language in Afghanistan
Pashtu and Dari (Afghan Persian/Farsi) are the official languages of Afghanistan. Pashtu (also written Pushtu) was declared the National Language of the country during the beginning of Zahir Shah's reign, however, Dari has always been used for business and government transactions.
Before they were converted into Islam, Nuristanis had statue of wooden idols and ancestral images sculpted by them and these are well-preserved in the Kabul Museum. Several of these were possibly used to venerate dead ancestors and used in healing rituals or ceremonials (see “Other Minority Ethnic Groups in Afghanistan”. 2002). Moreover, life in the Afghan home is upholding high values because they really defined the roles of the men and women. These roles are very different from any
culture around the world.
Both belong to the Indo-European group of languages. According to estimates, approximately 35% of the Afghan population speaks Pashtu, and about 50% speaks Dari. Turkic languages (Uzbek and Turkmen) are spoken by about
11% of the population.
In1919, Amir Amanullah Khan declared a holy war against British Imperialism for Independence of Afghanistan. The treaty of Rawalpondi on August 8, 1919, Recognized Afghanistan's political independence. The Afghan-Russian treaty was signed on February 28, 1921 A treaty of friendship signed by Afghanistan and Soviet Union and completed the
establishment of diplomatic relations
. The first president of Afghanistan was Mohammed Daoud Khan who was in office between July 17, 1973 and April 27, 1978. On August 20, 1998 The United States of America assaulted
Afghan territory Khost to target the terrorist centres with cruise missiles. Approximately, 80 missiles were launched into the Afghan territory. The main target of the attack was to destroy Osama Bin Laden's headquarters.
There are also numerous other languages spoken in the country (Baluchi, Pashai, Nuristani, etc), and bilingualism is very common.
Afghan Culture & Society
- Islam is practised by the majority of Afghanis and governs much of their personal, political, economic and legal lives. Islam in Afghanistan.
- Among certain obligations for Muslims are to pray five times a day - at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening.
- Friday is the Muslim holy day. Most shops and offices will be closed.
Government offices and businesses may also close on Thursday, making the weekend Thursday and Friday.
Intermixture of the two principal linguistic groups is evident in such people as Hazaras and Chahar Aimaks, who speak Indo-European languages but have pronounced Mongolian physical features and cultural traits, usually associated with
- During the holy month of Ramadan all Muslims must fast from dawn to dusk and are only permitted to work six hours per day. Fasting includes no eating, drinking, cigarette smoking, or gum chewing.
- Foreigners are not required to fast; however, they must not eat, drink, smoke, or chew gum in public.
The Ethnic Make-up and Tribes
- Afghanistan is a vast country and as a result has a rich mix of ethnicities and tribes.
II. Discussion As I have mentioned earlier, there are two ethnic groups who dwelt in Afghanistan. These groups practiced different cultures. Moreover, different cultures are practiced in Afghanistan because there are numerous ethnic groups that are smaller in number who are scattered throughout the country
. Nuristanis is another ethnic group of Afghnistan. They dwell in the secluded mountains of the northeast of Kabul, near the Pakistan border. The Nuristanis claimed that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great.
- The Pashtun are Sunni Muslims who Pashtu. They constitute around 42% of the population and are concentrated in Nangrahar and Pakhtya provinces. A large population also live in neighbouring Pakistan.
- Tajiks comprise roughly 27% of the population. They are Iranian in origin and speak a form of Persian found in Eastern Iran.
The women’s lives only revolve in their home and to their children; thus, this practice is in line with their Muslim beliefs. Starting from late 1950s, the urban women who belonged in a well-off family were allowed to find their work far from their homeland and had opportunity to study on higher education
. But these privileges were not enjoyed by all women because women who dwelt in the rural areas or amongst nomadic tribes are not given these opportunities. Everyday, Afghan women supply their families with two meals, together with snacks.
Most are Sunni Muslim. Most reside in Kabul and Herat provinces,although some reside in the mountains north of Hindu Kush, and the Iranian border.
- Hazaris make up about 9% of the population. They are descendants of the Mongols, and speak a dialect of Persian that contains many Turkish words.
One of the first significant pre-Islam events was named "Alexander the Great invasion" in 328 BC. This was one of the many conquests of Alexander the Great. The first Muslim-Arab Conquests began in 652-664 AD. These people were likely the
ancestors of most ethnic afghans currently living in Afghanistan and the surrounding area.
They are also Shiite Muslims which led to much of their persecution under Taliban rule. Most live in the Hazarajat region.
- Uzbeks live in the northern parts of the country and also comprise only 9% of the population. They are Sunni Muslims and speak a dialect of Turkish.
Historically, Afghanistan has been a crossroads that has linked China with Rome, and Central Asia with India. Greek culture, Buddhism, Mongols, Persians, all have left their mark on the land. The region has experienced invasions
time and again. Greeks, Scythian, Dravidians, Aryans, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and Persians have all passed through it with India
as their ultimate target and have inhabited it at different times to make it an ethnic and linguistic mosaic.
- The Turkomen are a small minority with making only 3% of the population.
- Baluchis are pastoral nomads who speak Baluchi, an Iranian language. They comprise 2% of the population.
- The family is the single most important unit in the Afghan culture.
The most important recent discovery is that of natural gas, near the Turkmenistan border about 75 miles (120 km) west of Mazar-e- Sharif. Pipelines from there deliver natural gas to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and to thermal and fertilizer plants in Mazar-e-Sharif. Afghanistan’s petroleum reserves are poor. Some lead, zinc, silver, and chrome are also mined.
- Men and women's roles are much more defined along traditional lines.
- Women are generally responsible for household duties, where as men will be the bread winners. In the cities professional women do exist.
Their traditional meals are pilau which has meat or vegetables, poultry or wild game kebabas, mutton, yogurt, hot soup and nan which a flat bread. In addition, Afghan has different ways when they engage in marriage
. A man and a woman are united in marriage through an agreement
made by both parents by settling financial commitments or also called as the “marketplace” or “dowry”. In their culture, marriage is considered as a deal between families not just by individuals and it includes financial commitments on both families. The groom will give a dowry to the family of the bride
- Families commonly arrange marriages for their children. Factors such as tribe, status, network, and wealth are the major factors forming any choice.
- Families traditionally live together in the same walled compound, known as the kala. When a son gets married he and his wife begin their married lives in a room under the same roof.
Nearly 99 percent of the people in Afghanistan are Muslims, of whom three-fourths are members of the Sunnite sect. Shiites account for 15 percent of the population. The Hazaras belong to the Shia sect. Nuristanis are recent converts to Islam (mostly in 1895). Afghanistan is among the least urbanized of the world’s nations
. Only 20 percent of the population lives in
- As with much of the Muslim world, the family is sacred and as such, is highly protected. As a result, probing about the family is not advised.
The Concepts of Honour and Shame
- Honour in Afghan culture defines the reputation and worth of an individual, as well as those they are associated with.
The dowry comprises of decorative and functional items that are necessary for establishing a household. It comprises goods like beddings, utensils, clothing, jewelry, fans and hangings. The men who attend the weddings are given presents like embroidered handkerchiefs or turban caps. The process in assembling a dowry involves a long period of time and much effort and it is usually started while the girl is still young. The relatives of the
females help in the wedding preparations (see “Afghanistan”). III. Conclusion Truly, the cultures in Afghanistan are one of a kind.
- The head male of a family is responsible for protecting the honour of the family. o The issue of honour drives much of the behaviour surrounding the protection of women, modes of dress, social interaction, education and economic activity.
- If someone's honour has been compromised, they are shamed and will look for a way to exact revenge for themselves, their family or group.
- The role of honour and tribalism has fuelled much of the disharmony in the country's recent history - with one group carrying out violent acts against another, the victims are forced to respond causing a circle of violence.
The Role of Hospitality
- Hospitality is an essential aspect of Afghan culture.
Music and dance, although banned under Taliban rule, was, and is an essential part of Afghani tradition. Music would only be played at joyous occasions such as weddings, but not at funerals. Most women play a drum-like instrument named the daireh. While men play the armonia an instrument resembling the lute. The national dance of
Afghanistan is called the Atan, and is usually performed at receptions.
- No matter who you are, if you visit a home you will be given the best the family has.
- This relates back to the idea of gaining honour.
- If you are invited for tea, which you inevitably will be, you will be offered snacks and your tea glass will be constantly filled. When you have had enough cover the glass with your hand and say "bas" (meaning 'enough').
Social Etiquette, Customs and Protocol
Meeting and Greeting
- When meeting someone the handshake is the most common form on greeting. You will also see people place their hands over their hearts and nod slightly.
The Durrani group among the Pashtuns, who inhabit the region between Kabul and Kandahar, essentially form the traditional nucleus of Afghanistan’s social and political elite. The Tajiks, mostly farmers and artisans, account for one-fourth of the country’s population
and live mostly in the northeastern part.
- One should always enquire about things like a person's health, business, family, etc.
- Women and men will never shake hands let alone speak directly to one another.
- Eye contact should also be avoided between men and women. Between men eye contact is acceptable as long as it is not prolonged - it is best to only occasionally look someone in the eyes.
It is estimated that nearly 3.5 million people escaped to Pakistan and some 2 million to Iran, and the population of Kabul nearly doubled in size between 1980 and 1990. It is estimated that Kabul now contains over a million people, representing a large proportion of the country’s urban
Mixing Between Genders
- Free mixing between genders only takes places within families.
- In professional situations such as at businesses or universities, males and females may be co-workers, but are nevertheless cautious to maintain each other's honour.
- Foreign females must learn to read the rules and live by them.
- If a man speaks to you directly in a social context, he is dishonouring you. If someone speaks to you on the street, that is equally inappropriate.
To the west, there is a 510-mile border with Iran, and to the northeast a 200-mile border with the part of Jammu and Kashmir disputed between India and Pakistan, as well as a short 50-mile strip bordering China at the end of the long, narrow Wahan corridor.
You should avoid looking men in the eyes, and keep your eyes lowered when you walk down the street to maintain your reputation as a proper woman.
- Women must always dress properly to avoid unwanted attention. Always wear loose fitting pants under your skirts and be sure the definition of your legs is indistinguishable.
To the east, towards Pakistan, several ranges effectively isolate the interior of the country from the outside world. The mountains are the highest in the northeast section of the country where high mountain passes are at between
12,000 and 15,000 feet altitudes; the region in general has deep narrow valleys and lofty mountains. To the south of the ranges is the Khyber Pass, which leads to the Indian subcontinent
It is also strongly advisable to wear a headscarf in public.
- On the other hand foreign men should note that it is inappropriate to initiate social conversation with a woman, and one should not ask a male about his wife or female relatives.
- Men and women should never be alone in the same room. If this happens you should ensure a door is left open.
Kabul (population: 700,000) is the nation’s administrative capital and a major metropolis, located south of the Hindu Kush at the crossroads of the trade routes between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia and between the Middle
East and the Far East. It is also the country’s main center
of economic and cultural activity. Kandahar, second to Kabul in population (225,500), is located close to the Pakistan border on the Asian Highway in the south-central part of the country.
- Men and women should never touch one another under any circumstances.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- First rule of gift giving is to never give alcohol. However, if you know from first hand experience that the receiver drinks you may do so but covertly to avoid shame.
The Pushtun are a nomadic people that primarily congregate in Afghanistan, although they are gradually being incorporated into Afghanistan's larger cities. The exact population of the Pushtun is unknown because of mountain villages and such, however, it is estimated to be around seven to nine million.
- The first time you go to someone's house for tea, it is appropriate to bring a small gift.
- If you are invited to lunch or dinner, bring fruit, sweets or pastries. Make sure the box is wrapped nicely.
- When bringing a gift be subtle in how it is given. Do not immediately give the present but rather discreetly place it near the door or where you sit down.
Afghanistan has borne that name only since the middle of the 18th century, when the supremacy of the Afghan race (Pashtuns) became assured: previously various districts bore distinct appellations, but the country was not a
definite political unit
, and its component parts were not bound together by any identity of race or language. The earlier meaning of the word was simply “the land of the Afghans”, a limited territory which did not include many parts of the present state but did comprise large districts now either independent or within the boundary of Pakistan”
- When it comes to wrapping gifts there is no special protocol. Green is good for weddings.
- Dining in Afghanistan is a different experience and there are many differences in etiquette. o Always remove your shoes at the door if visiting a home.
- If eating at someone's home, you will be seated on o the floor, usually on cushions.
- Food is served on plastic or vinyl tablecloths spread on the floor.
- Wait to be shown where to sit.
- If you can, sit cross-legged. Otherwise sit as comfortably as you can.
, Land of the Pushtun, is a mountainous land-locked country in Central Asia with a history and culture that goes back over 5000 years. Throughout its long, splendid, and sometimes chaotic history, this area of the world has been known by various names
. In the ancient times
, its inhabitants called the land Aryana. And in the medieval era, it was called Khorasan. Modern life in
Afghanistan is much different than life in the west. This report will illustrate some of the key differences and similarities to other parts of the world. This information was made possible by several sources listed in the endnotes.
Do not site with legs outstretched and your feet facing people.
- Food is generally served communally and everyone will share from the same dish.
- Do not eat with the left hand.
- Always pass and receive things using your right hand too. o Food is eaten with the hands. It will be a case of watch and learn. Food is usually scooped up into a ball at the tip of the fingers, then eaten.
- Leave food on your plate otherwise it will keep getting filled up again.
Business Etiquette, Customs and Protocol
What to Wear?
- Men should wear conservative suits and shoes.
Afghanistan's Pushtun culture is a culture of vigor and mystery. Not much is known about it. But what is known is that the people that live there may pray differently, cook differently, or even live in different kinds of
houses, but we are really aren't that different.
- If working in the country in a non-commercial capacity then wearing the traditional Afghan dress (long shirt and trousers) is best.
- Women must always dress modestly and conservatively. The general rule is to show as little flesh from the neck downwards.
Northwest, and north of the Hindu Kush ranges, is a somewhat flatter and more fertile region that borders Tajikistan and slopes gently towards the Amu River. The average elevation of this essentially Central Asian steppe land is about 2,000 feet.
- If working in business, women should wear knee-length, loose fitting business skirts with loose fitting professional trousers underneath. Wearing headscarf is advisable.
- Business is very much personal in Afghanistan.
The national sport of Afghan, Buzkashi, involves a headless carcass of a goat being put into a ring and is being sought after by men on horseback. The object of the game is to bring the carcass back to the player's own side. The winner of the match gets to keep the goat as food. This is a very difficult game and is much too challenging for the
younger men. Other sports include tent pegging, Topay danda, a game that is similar to stickball, and kitefighting, a youth's game. The object of kitefighting is to break the opponent's string by gluing shards of broken glass to the player's kite string and flying it into the opponent's kite string.
If you have not already invested some quality time in getting to know your counterparts, then you must use initial meetings to establish trust.
- Once this has been accomplished you can move on to the nitty-gritty of business.
- Do not be surprised or offended if during meetings people walk in and out of a room or phone calls are taken.
- If the meeting involves a group of people it will be led by the leader who will set the agenda, the content, and the pace of the activities.
- Meetings are usually held to communicate information and decisions that have already been rather than a forum for discussion and brain storming.
- Meeting schedules are not very structured. Start times, points of discussion, etc are all fluid and flexible. Be prepared for a lot of tangents in the discussions.
- Afghani communication style is rather indirect. It is therefore sometimes necessary to read between the lines for an answer rather than expect it to be explicitly stated.
One major Muslim event is Ramadan. It is a fast lasting one month, followed by a feast to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael to God. Another holiday is Noruz celebrating the New Year on March 21. Other holidays include: Loss of the Muslim Nation on April
28, Remembrance Day for Martyrs and Disabled on May 4, Independence Day on August 19 and Pashtoonistan Day on August 30 or 31. On the Muslim calendar there are five feasts. All of the dates of the feasts have something in common with the prophet Muhammad.
For example, if someone is asked if they can complete a job on time, you will rarely get "no" as the answer. It is therefore also important to phrase questions intelligently.
- Honour and shame should always be considered. Always express yourself in a way that is not direct or pins blame on someone.
The Soviet invasion of the country in 1979 and the ensuing civil war and destruction of towns and villages resulted in mass movements of people in two major directions—in the east to Pakistan and in the west to Iran—or to the relative safety of the
capital city of Kabul, causing great disruption of the population patterns.
Never make accusations or speak down to anyone.
- Negotiating can be a tricky, frustrating but often an enjoyable affair if approached correctly.
- Always make sure you negotiate with the most senior person possible as they are the decision makers. If you negotiate with someone more junior they may be there to simply test the waters.
Afghanistan is potentially rich in hydro-electric resources, which remain mostly untapped because the nation’s demand for electricity is negligible and projects are unprofitable. These have, therefore, been exploited only in the demand-areas of Kabul-Jalalabad. Manufacturing activity is only limited to items based on agricultural and
pastoral raw materials.
o As a rule Afghans generally negotiate with a win-lose mentality. The goal is always to get the best for yourself at all costs.
- This means that there is always a stronger/weaker party. This can however be used to your advantage if you play your cards right.
The Soviet invasion of 1979 and the subsequent civil war, however, severely disrupted the country’s development plans. Agricultural production declined and food shortages were reported, and industry stagnated. As a landlocked country, Afghanistan depends on transit facilities from its neighbors for its international trade
. It has no railroads and only a few navigable rivers, relying mostly on roads as a mainstay of its transport system.
Always start wildly high in negotiations and very slowly work your way down, always explaining why you are dropping in price but at the same time explaining the damage it is doing to you.
- Always appeal to their sense of fairness and justice and use the fact you are looking to build a strong relationship.
- If monetary matters do not work then try pushing the idea that a deal with you will bring prestige, honour and respect.