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Need to orient yourself? Afghan graves usually lie in a north-south direction, with the body laid on its right side so it faces Mecca in the west.

during elections. Despite donning democratic clothes, many Afghans see this is as a sham: ‘jangsalaran jangsalar hastand’ – warlords are and remain warlords.


Afghan society is strictly segregated between the public and private domains. Women have always been seen as the symbols of family honour, and have traditionally been very restricted in their access to education and work. Since the 1970s, women’s rights issues have made progress or been reversed according to the political and religious powers of the day (see p50 ).

The family is the bedrock of Afghan life, and family members only

A kozda (engagement ceremony) marks the public announcement by both families of a betrothal, celebrated with gifts of flowers and sweets. In some cases, this party may be the first time the bride and groom have met.

ever leave the home when they are married. Marriages are usually ar- ranged between families by negotiation. The bride’s mother and aunts usually hold the key to such discussions, although a matchmaker is sometimes used. The bride brings a dowry of jewellery and goods to set up her new house, while the groom’s family pay a mahr (bride price) for the marriage. In some cases, poverty can force parents to ‘sell’ their daughters in marriage against their or her wishes. Marriage and family are so important to Afghans that they often cannot understand why Westerners travel unaccompanied by their family – particularly Western women. An instantly recognisable manifestation of Afghan conservatism is

dress. According to the Quran, modest dress is incumbent on men as well as women, although it is in women that this has taken its most extreme form (see boxed text, p46 ). Clothing must hide the shape of the body for both sexes, while for women the hijab (veil) is essential for covering the hair. Afghan men most commonly wear the pirhan tonban (traditional male clothes) of baggy pyjama trousers and long shirt, also called a shal- war kameez. Only in Kabul can you sometimes see men be so daring as to wear short-sleeved shirts.


Before 1978, Afghan exiles and émigrés numbered in the mere hundreds. Then, within four years, some six million fled the country. Most just dragged themselves to camps in Pakistan and Iran, but several hundred thousand went on to the West, accumulating mostly in Germany and the USA, and then in Australia, Denmark, Holland and Britain. Twenty years later, a whole generation of Afghans were coming of age in exile, longing volubly for a homeland they had never seen, a longing often expressed rhetorically as nostalgia for their own khawk. What is khawk? English has no exact synonym. Soil, dust, land…all come close but none has

the full resonance, for khawk connotes not just soil, but home, nation, ancestry, life, death, rooted permanence, the evanescence of all things, and purity. Yes, purity: Muslims must cleanse themselves for prayer but if water is unavailable, they may perform their ritual ablutions with khawk. When I first returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban fled, my cousins took me to the places they assumed I most craved to see: my own khawk. In Kabul, this turned out to be my father’s property, a concrete house squatting in a weed-choked yard, its roof all blown away, its crumbled walls scarred by grooves where guerrilla armies had ripped out the wiring to sell for cash. In our ancestral village north of Kabul, my khawk was a patch of stony, featureless desert floor hemmed in by ditches running from a bombed-out, communal irrigation system that once provided this land 18 hours of water per week. Finally they took me to my other khawk: the village graveyard where my father, uncles, grand-

parents and ancestors lay buried. A few graves had headstones, but most were unmarked mounds with no inscriptions – none were needed. In this village, everyone knew who was buried where.

When the war burst out, my father stayed in Afghanistan because he didn’t want to be buried in strange soil. When the Afghan exile community first burgeoned in the San Francisco Bay Area, they could get together on only one project: buying a bit of land to consecrate as an Afghan graveyard, a poor substitute for their native khawk. Now, with the Taliban gone, some of the exiles making the pilgrimage home are the dead. Yes, some Afghan families in America are now going to the extraordinary trouble and expense of flying their dead home for burial in their native khawk. When I came home from Afghanistan – mine being the rootless soul of modern Western civilisa- tion – I told my relatives I was thinking of giving my land away to the poor squatters living on it. Ripples of alarm ran through my clan. One cousin called me from Portland to plead, ‘Don’t do it, Tamim. That land is not just equity like your house here, that’s the khawk your forefathers’ wells have watered. Our ancestor Sheikh Sa’duddin is buried there. That khawk is your blood, your his- tory, it’s who you are. You can’t give it away.’ Visitors to Afghanistan may see barren landscapes dotted with simple graves, but Afghan exiles

returning here see something indefinably more. The Afghan poet Khalili once wrote:

The fountainhead of satisfaction is the company of those we love. It’s the distance from our friends that makes death difficult. But all the friends gather in the khawk’s heart in the end, So in death as in life we are always in the company of friends.

Tamim Ansary is the author of West of Kabul, East of New York.

CULTURE •• Economy 43

While keen to preserve their traditions, Afghans are more than happy to engage with modernity and the West. Education is increasingly seen as essential for the country’s development, while natural business acumen and links from years in exile makes Afghan businessmen well-placed to help their country, given enough political stability. And yet, modern business suits and mobile phones only go so far: tradition still rules, and anyone wanting to get on is still going to have to drink a lot of tea, the one unchanging facet of all Afghan society.


The Afghan economy is largely based on subsistence agriculture. The main crops are wheat and soft fruit, with a similar importance placed on raising livestock. At the end of 2001, the economy was at a stand- still, wracked by several years of drought, and an international embargo against the Taliban. In the intervening years, a flood of aid money and investment has entered the country, prompting economic growth rates in double figures – a boom that was only just starting to slow as we went to press. Pakistan, Iran, India and the UAE are all important trading partners.

For all this, growth in the formal economy has been massively over- shadowed by Afghanistan’s production and export of opium. The country produces over 90% of heroin sold in the UK. Helmand and Badakhshan are the major poppy growing areas: if Helmand was a separate country, it would still be the biggest exporter of opium in the world (see boxed text, p196 ). Tackling opium production, which funds the resurgent Tali- ban and contributes to systematic corruption at all levels of government, remains a key issue in Afghan reconstruction. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan has been touted as a transit route for oil and natural gas pipelines from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. Governments and oil companies have signed memoranda of understanding with a succession of regimes in Kabul (at one point

Afghans are traditionally pragmatic and wary of ideology, and often quick to switch political allegiances when the wind changes direction, hence the saying, ‘You can’t buy an Afghan, you can only rent him.’ Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68  |  Page 69  |  Page 70  |  Page 71  |  Page 72  |  Page 73  |  Page 74  |  Page 75  |  Page 76  |  Page 77  |  Page 78  |  Page 79  |  Page 80  |  Page 81  |  Page 82  |  Page 83  |  Page 84  |  Page 85  |  Page 86  |  Page 87  |  Page 88  |  Page 89  |  Page 90  |  Page 91  |  Page 92  |  Page 93  |  Page 94  |  Page 95  |  Page 96  |  Page 97  |  Page 98  |  Page 99  |  Page 100  |  Page 101  |  Page 102  |  Page 103  |  Page 104  |  Page 105  |  Page 106  |  Page 107  |  Page 108  |  Page 109  |  Page 110  |  Page 111  |  Page 112  |  Page 113  |  Page 114  |  Page 115  |  Page 116  |  Page 117  |  Page 118  |  Page 119  |  Page 120  |  Page 121  |  Page 122  |  Page 123
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