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Afghanistan: Etiquette, customs, facts and vital information

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Afghanistan, Asia, Cultural Sensitivity, Facts and Stats, Language Acquisition, Travel Health & Safety

AFGHANISTAN: FACTS & STATS Afghanistan Map
Photo by Image Editor

Location: Central Asia, bordering Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the North, China in the North-east, Pakistan on the East and South, and Iran in the West

Capital: Kabul

Climate: Extremely hot summers and cold winters with rain and snowfall in the highlands.

Population: 31,889,923 (July 2007 estimate). A series of invasions, war, and drought are main factors in the impoverished state of this country.  The official unemployment rate hovers at 40%. According to 2004 World Bank figures, about 60% of the population are affected by severe poverty. A recent rise in economy is based on agricultural production, a major part of which is opium.

Afghanisan ManEthnic make-up: Pashtun 40%, Tajiks 25%, Hazaras 18%, Uzbecks 6%, Turkmen 3%, Qizilbash 1%, and 7% others.

Religions: Muslims form 99% of the population of which, 84% are Sunni Muslims and 15% are Shiite Muslims. The rest 1% comprises Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews. The Constitution of 2004 under the new government that replaced Taliban rule, states that Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic while granting religious minorities the freedom to practice their faiths within bounds of the law. However, evangelism is illegal and the consequences of conversion for Muslims may include the death penalty.

The language: About 50% of the population speaks Dari, 35% speak Pashto, and 11% speak Turkic. Dari is used for commercial and government transactions. Dari and Pashto employ Arabic alphabets when written.

Government: Islamic Republic headed by the democratically elected President Hamid Karzai.

 Mountains in Herat
Photo by jaxo2

Travel issues: Travel to Afghanistan requires a visa. Your visa application should include the application form, a couple of passport-sized photos, the visa fees, and a letter of support in the case of those working in Afghanistan. These have to be submitted to the Afghan embassy in your country.  Obviously, there is a war going on there right now, so you should also check with your embassy for travel warnings and additional requirements.

BurquaHealth & safety: Anti-malarial shots required for travel to areas below 6,561 feet for travel between April and December. Also recommended for all travelers are shots for Hepatitis A, Typhoid, and Hepatitis B. Adult travelers who have not had polio vaccine as an adult are recommended to take a one-time booster doze. If you’re traveling from, or through, yellow-fever infected areas in Africa or the Americas, you’re required to take Yellow fever shots. If you may come in direct contact with animals in remote areas without medical access, you need to consider rabies shots. If you’re born after 1956 and not had a measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) shot, it is recommended that you get them. It is also recommended that you’ve had a Tetanus-diphtheria shot within the last ten years.

SOCIETY & CULTUREKabul Market
Photo by Olly L

The People: Farming and maintaining livestock are the two main occupations. Both men and women have important roles here. Being a patriarchal society, men do dictate terms, but women, especially in nomadic societies, make important contributions such as weaving carpets, producing dairy products, spinning wool, and even tent making.

The Religion: Religion is an intrinsic way of life and dictates all aspects of lifestyle from food to clothing. 99% of Afghanistan is Muslim. Afghanistan Family

The Role of Family: Strong family ties find families consisting of several generations living together as a household. The oldest male is the patriarch whose word is law. A group of such families form a village which has a religious leader, the Mullah, as the head. Traditionally, village women take care of children and household duties and are considered repositories of culture which they perpetuate through their children. Family honor especially that of women, is to be preserved at all costs.  

Ancestors: Elders and ancestors are accorded considerable amount of respect. Property and wealth are handed down through generations and the oldest living member is the one in control. Older women such as grandmothers are looked up to, especially if they have numerous sons.

Recreational activities: In more peaceful times kite flying and chess were popular recreational activities. In rural areas polo, ghosai—similar to wrestling, and buzkashi, played on horseback with the carcass of a headless calf, were sources of amusements.

ETIQUETTE AND CUSTOMS

Kabul Traffic
Photo by Colleeen Taugher

Meeting and Greeting:  Upon meeting, it is customary for males to embrace one another and then shake hands. Women kiss each other on the cheeks repeatedly on both sides, two or three times. In professional situations women may shake hands, but otherwise it is totally forbidden for men and women to touch each other or even hold eye contact. The traditional greeting in full form is Assalam u Alaikum, to which the reply is, Wa alaikum assalam.

Courtesy: Address people by title rather than first name.  It is common courtesy to initiate any conversation with general questions as to health, work, relatives, even to the extent of enquiring, “How’s everything?” You never enquire about female relatives, wives, sisters, and daughters. Tea will compulsorily be offered, and should be accepted gracefully.

Afghan FoodGift giving: When you’re visiting for the first time, it is customary to bring along a simple gift that is discreetly offered or left behind in an unobtrusive manner. This is normally something edible in the form of sweets or fruits. Gifts are not opened in front of guests.

Dress Code: Both men and women have dress codes that emphasize honor and dignity. Women, especially in rural areas, strictly follow a dress etiquette that covers their whole body. A long, loose robe called the burqa is worn over other clothes to totally hide the female figure. A head scarf or purda is worn to hide the hair and face. Foreign women are exempt from such measures but loose clothes that cover shoulders, arms, knees, and legs, and a head scarf are recommended. Men may wear formal suits.

Dining Etiquette: You will most probably be seated on the floor on carpets, with cushions for support. It is customary to sit cross legged, but if that can’t be achieved, you can sit any way you want as long as your legs are not stretched out and pointing at other people. There is a seating protocol based on seniority, so wait to be assigned a seat. Food is eaten with the right hand, using fingertips to convey small amounts to the mouth, with head lowered. When dining, leave a little food behind when you’ve had enough, or your plate will be refilled.

Afghanistan ChildrenVisiting a home: Always take footwear off before entering living areas. Never enter a room without first announcing your presence with a knock or a cough. If in a group, the elders enter first.  You should wait to be seated as this will be in accordance to your perceived status within the group. The host will never ask you the reason for your visit and it is up to the visitor to bring it up. It is important to remember that during the holy month of Ramadan all Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Though foreigners are not required to do so, it would be insensitive to eat, drink, smoke, or even chew gum in their presence.

Communication style: In professional circles men and women do interact though under strictly regulated rules. You do not hold eye contact with the opposite gender. In rural areas, you do not even talk directly to the opposite gender. Foreign women may have some lee-way to speak to men, but it is important to avoid eye contact and keep your head lowered while communicating. A head scarf is useful to show your intentions are honorable.

Winter in KabulDos and Don’ts: It is considered decidedly bad taste to talk or laugh out loud in public, especially if you’re a woman. Keep your voice levels down and adopt a non-invasive body language. Keep the soles of your feet out of sight when seated. Muslims pray about five times a day and it is only right that non-Muslims do nothing to cause disruptions. Avoid smoking, joking, or any other trivial activities at these times, especially in front of elders. Though foreigners may not be chastised for such faux-pas, they will certainly be considered dishonorable.

You drive on the right side of the road and you need an International Driving License for this. Avoid or ask for permission before photographing areas next to military installations. Homosexuality is illegal; so is consumption of alcohol. Lone women travelers attract a lot of attention and is best avoided. Areas such as Kandahar are still Taliban strongholds and are best avoided by all travelers.

Man and Family photos by N Creatures
Burqua photo by Barbara Millucci
Food photo by rochelle, et. al.
Kid photo by Goosemountains
Winter photo by TKnoxB

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