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204 DIREC TORY •• Food


Hejira year Prophet’s Birthday Ramazan begins Eid al-Fitr Eid-e Qurban Ashura

1428 1429 1430

31 Mar 2007 20 Mar 2008 9 Mar 2009

13 Sep 2007 2 Sep 2008 23 Aug 2009

13 Oct 2007 20 Dec 2007 29 Jan 2007 2 Oct 2008

9 Dec 2008 19 Jan 2008 21 Sep 2009 29 Nov 2009 8 Jan 2009

Actual dates may occur a day later, but not earlier, depending on western hemisphere moon sightings.

the end of the Haj season, roughly 70 days after the end of Ramazan. It lasts for three days, during which Afghanistan effectively shuts down. Ashura is an important Shiite festival. It marks the death of Hussain at Karbala in Iraq in 680, the event that provoked the schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam. Men pound their chests and chant the name of Hussain and his companions. Some prac- tise self-flagellation, bloodying their backs with blade-tipped chains. The mourning period for Hussain continues for 40 days. For more on Ramazan, the month of fast-

ing, see right .


Nauroz, or New Year, is the most widely celebrated holiday in Afghanistan apart from Eid-e Qurban. The holiday is an adap- tation of pre-Islamic renewal celebrations held on the spring equinox. The date is now fixed on 21 March. It probably has Zoroas- trian roots, and was being celebrated in the country before Alexander the Great. Given these ancient roots, it’s no surprise that the Taliban tried to ban it.

Nauroz is a time for picnics and visiting

relations. Wheat seedlings are often grown and small fires are lit to be leapt over to symbolise renewal after the winter. Ta- bles are traditionally laid with seven items beginning with the Dari letter ‘s’: sabzeh (wheat, for rebirth), samanak (a sweet pud- ding, for affluence), sir (garlic, for health), sib (apples, for beauty), sumaq (berries, representing sunrise), serkeh (vinegar, for patience) and sekkeh (coins, for prosperity). Haft-mewah, a dish of seven fruits is also specially prepared. Rain on Nauroz augurs a good harvest. The sabzeh is thrown away into running water 13 days after Nauroz, by which time it has symbolically collected all the family’s bad luck for the year.

Across the north, the holiday is often

marked with buzkashi matches (see p57 ). Afghanistan’s biggest public Nauroz celebra- tions are held in Mazar-e Sharif, attended by tens of thousands of people ( p152 ).


Eating is relatively inexpensive in Afghani- stan, but if you spend much time out of Kabul and on the road you’re liable to be- come bored with the limited variety of food on offer. Pulao (rice dish) and kebabs are mostly the order of the day, sometimes en- livened with soup or a small qorma (stewed vegetables). The chaikhana is the backbone of the Af-

ghan eating experience. Diners normally sit on the floor or on takhts (raised platforms) in front of a large roll of oil cloth that acts as a table substitute. Many chaikhanas will have a separate ‘family room’ for women and children to eat in, often just a sheet par- tition. Prices include tea and often a space to sleep for the night (see the Accommoda- tion section, p199 ). In larger towns you’ll find a little more variety, including approximations of West- ern fast-food outlets. Street stalls are often a better bet, serving up cheap plates of bo- loni (stuffed vegetable pancakes), samosas, mantu (steamed meat dumplings) and the like. In season, there is always plenty of fruit on offer, from juicy melons from the north to plump Kandahari pomegranates. Kabul has a wide variety of international

restaurants aimed at the expat community. Expensive by Afghan standards, they offer a break from meat and rice. Alcohol avail- ability has recently been severely clamped down on due to popular disapproval.


Ramazan ( Ramadan elsewhere in the Mus- lim world) is the auspicious holy month

of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, marking the period when the Prophet Mohammed re- ceived his revelations. No eating, drinking or smoking is permitted during daylight hours, although children, the pregnant, sick or elderly are exempt. Non-Muslims are not expected to fast, but in practice you end up adapting to some degree. Local restaurants close dur- ing daylight, and many shut for the entire month. You’ll do a lot of eating and drink- ing in private. Eating in public should be strenuously avoided – it’s incredibly rude to indulge in front of those who are ab- staining, and it’s possible you might at- tract negative attention for being culturally disrespectful. This said, the celebratory aspects of

Ramazan can almost compensate for the hardships of the day just passed. Iftar, the breaking of the fast, is a time of great ac- tivity, when people come together to eat, drink and pray. As in the rest of the Muslim world, dates are traditionally the first thing to be eaten, but boloni are also popular. Traffic can be terrible in the approach to sunset, with everyone clamouring to get home – hungry taxi drivers don’t appreci- ate being flagged down at this time. The end of Ramazan is marked by the

festival of Eid ul-Fitr, which can last up to three days, and Afghans usually spend it visiting family and friends. For approxi- mate dates of Ramazan, see opposite .


Homosexuality is illegal in Afghanistan, and penalties are theoretically harsh, includ- ing jail terms – the Taliban used to debate whether the appropriate punishment should be being pushed off a cliff or crushed under a toppled wall. Afghan men often hold hands in public, but this is an accepted expression of nonsexual friendship. Like heterosexual foreign couples in Afghanistan, gay and lesbian travellers should respect local sen- sibilities and refrain from all public displays of affection.

For all this, there is a tradition in some strands of Afghan (and particularly Pashtun) society where men seek sex with younger males, so-called bacha baaz (boy players). Something of an open secret, this behaviour is not recognised as formally homosexual in any way and is widely tolerated.

DIREC TORY •• Gay & Lesbian Travellers 205


On the days listed below (and on the Islamic holidays noted on opposite ), businesses and government offices are closed.

21 March Nauroz; new year (see opposite ) 28 April Victory Day; celebrating the mujaheddin victory over communist rule in 1992. 1 May National Labour Day 4 May Remembrance Day for Martyrs and the Disabled 19 August Independence Day; celebrating victory in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. 9 September Ahmad Shah Massoud Day; commem- orating the assassination of the Northern Alliance leader in 2001.


To say Afghanistan can be an unpredictable place is something of an understatement, so travel insurance is essential. However, many insurance companies regard Af- ghanistan as a conflict zone. Coupled with advice from government travel advisories, this means that not all brokers will issue insurance for a trip to Afghanistan. Discuss this with your broker and check the small print for exclusions on the policy before signing up. Note that insurers may make a distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ war zones, where premiums reflect the level of risk. Cover for land mine injuries are often specifically excluded by some compa- nies. A minimum of US$1 million medical cover and a ‘medivac’ clause covering the costs of being flown to another country for treatment is essential. Specialist policies are available with some

brokers aimed specifically for those work- ing in conflict zones, although they’re not

always cheap. AKE Group (xin the UK 020 7816 5454, in the USA 678-560 2336;, a

dedicated security and risk management company has been recommended. In the

UK, also try Medicare (x020 7816 2033; www or J&M Insurance (x01992 566939; In the USA, try New York Inter-

national Group (x212-268 8520; or Safe Passage International (x303-988 9666; www

In Afghanistan, medical services insist on payment on the spot, so collect all the paperwork you can when being treated for a claim later. Some policies ask you to call them (they’ll usually call you back) so that an assessment of your problem can be made.

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