In our ‘Exploring Countries’ series, our next stop is Afghanistan. Let’s get to know this country with its breathtaking landscapes and its colorful and warm-hearted people.
Geographical Location of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is situated in the heart of Central and South Asia, acting as a bridge between these two crucial regions. It shares its borders with Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and China to the northeast.
Population and Ethnic Composition of Afghanistan
Concrete population data is challenging to obtain in Afghanistan since there hasn’t been a recent census, and even the requirement to carry identity cards was only initiated in 2019. Estimates suggest a population of around 39 million. Regarding ethnic composition, the Pashtuns make up the largest community in Afghanistan, accounting for about 42%. Tajiks constitute 27%, Uzbeks 15%, Turkmen 9%, Aimaq 3%, and Hazaras and Balochs make up around 2% each.
Languages Spoken in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has two official languages: Dari (a dialect of Persian) and Pashto. Uzbek, which is the third-largest language, has been introduced as an elective subject in schools in recent years. In addition, Turkmen, Pashto, Nuristani, Balochi, and Pamiri are among the regional languages spoken by the majority in some areas and are considered the third official languages of Afghanistan.
The Economy of Afghanistan
Afghanistan is among the world’s poorest countries, with a minimum wage of around $70. Approximately 80% of the population is engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry, with sheep and goat farming being prominent. However, modern methods are not commonly employed in animal husbandry. Export products include cotton, wool, handmade carpets, and precious stones. Afghanistan also imports a significant portion of its food and energy.
Afghan cuisine is centered around rice and meat dishes. People often use their hands instead of utensils, especially when eating rice. The variety of rice preparations in Afghanistan reflects the wealth and status of families, with rice being a staple at weddings. What distinguishes Afghan rice from that in Turkey is the use of ‘meyni’ rice, which is slightly thinner and longer than the rice used in Turkey. Afghan rice is often mixed with carrots, raisins, saffron, and meat, giving it a distinct flavor from Turkish rice.
Another notable aspect is the consumption of green tea. Wherever you go in Afghanistan, you’ll be offered green tea. It is typically consumed before meals, similar to how some people drink black tea in Turkey. Green tea enthusiasts are as common here as black tea enthusiasts in Turkey.
There are even some proverbs related to green tea, such as “Çay nehurde cenk nemişe,” which means “There can be no battle without tea.” Besides green tea and rice, dishes like ‘sembuse,’ ‘mantu,’ ‘bulani,’ and kebabs are commonly enjoyed. Afghan breakfasts are simple, often consisting of only green tea, bread, and grapes. For lunch and dinner, rice is typically the main course, making up a significant portion of Afghan cuisine.
Afghanistan is known for its conservative way of life, similar to other Muslim societies. Family ties are very strong, and marriage often occurs at a young age. Afghan boys and girls are generally married off after the age of 18. Matters like a child’s education and marriage are the father’s responsibilities. This is because men cannot marry without paternal support, as the dowries can be quite hefty, starting from a minimum of $10,000 to $15,000.
The dowry amount increases depending on the girl’s skills, such as weaving carpets, or if she comes from a noble family. After engagement, Afghan men can remain engaged for a long time while collecting the dowry, especially if they have poor financial circumstances. Some may remain engaged for two or three years.
Another unique aspect is weddings. Even if the marrying couple’s financial situation isn’t great, elaborate weddings are held. For these grand celebrations, the city of Mazar-i-Sharif boasts palace-like wedding halls. Unlike weddings in Turkey, Afghan weddings begin after the morning prayer and continue until the afternoon prayer.
Religious Structure of Afghanistan
Approximately 99% of Afghanistan’s population is Muslim. Among the remaining 1%, there are about 20,000 Bahais and between 3,000 to 5,000 Christians. Until the mid-1980s, Hindus and Sikhs accounted for 30,000 to 150,000 of Afghanistan’s religious population.
Nawruz in Afghanistan
‘Nawruz,’ which means ‘new day’ in Persian, is celebrated on March 21st. Nawruz celebrations in Afghanistan begin with a message from the president marking the start of the new year. The festivities commence in Mazar-i-Sharif, where it is believed that the shrine of Hazrat Ali is located. It starts with the firing of cannons and includes the flag-raising ceremony of the ‘Cehende’ or ‘Shah-i Cehende,’ which symbolizes Hazrat Ali’s staff. This flag, which is about 30-35 meters tall and involves the participation of many people, is raised on the first day and taken down on the fortieth day.
Cehendes are made of white, green (symbolizing Islam and spring), and red (representing independence) fabrics, each with its own significance. The flag must be meticulously crafted. According to local beliefs, during this time, blind people regain their sight, and disabled individuals are healed. With the raising of the first Cehende flag comes the beginning of the ‘Mile-i Gül-i Surh’ or ‘Tulip Festival.’ This festival includes various games like wrestling and running, as well as the traditional Afghan game of ‘Buzkashi’ (goat dragging). Additionally, there are fun games and festivities.
The Heart of Afghanistan: Mazar-i-Sharif
Mazar-i-Sharif is located in northern Afghanistan, about fifteen kilometers east of Balkh. With an estimated population of one million, it is one of Afghanistan’s largest cities. The name ‘Mazar-i-Sharif’ means ‘Tomb of the Saint,’ as it is believed to be the burial place of Hazrat Ali. It is said that after Hazrat Ali’s martyrdom in Kufa in 661 AD, his body was not buried. Instead, they loaded his shroud onto a white camel and followed it until the camel stopped and there, they buried him. For many years, the location of Hazrat Ali’s grave remained unknown. Eventually, it was discovered by Sultan Ahmad Sanjar of the Seljuk Empire in 1136, and a shrine was built around it.
When talking about Mazar-i-Sharif, one must mention the white pigeons found there. All the pigeons in the city are white, without a single spotted or differently colored one. According to legend, if a pigeon with any colored spots enters the vicinity of the shrine, it turns completely white.
Local Attire in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has a rich variety of traditional clothing due to its diverse ethnic backgrounds. You can often tell a person’s ethnicity by their attire as you walk down the street. However, it’s more challenging to guess the ethnic origin of women because they typically wear a single type of clothing, except on special occasions. In general, Afghan men wear a long garment known as “Afgani” that goes down to their knees. Women, on the other hand, wear a burka, a full-body veil with a mesh-covered opening for the eyes. Burkhas are typically blue in color.
Now, let’s delve into the small differences. What sets the Pashtuns apart is the “Lungi” and the “Kulah-e-Pashtu,” a specific hat they wear. This hat is unique to the Pashtuns. The difference is that it has an open front. Tajiks wear “Afgani” and typically wear a “Pakol” hat. The “Pakol” gained international recognition because it was worn by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a former Afghan military leader. Hazaras wear “Barak,” a sleeveless jacket, on top of the “Afgani.” On special occasions, women wear “Gand-i Afgani,” a colorful local attire. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai was known for consistently wearing this hat, so it’s also called the “Karzai hat.”
Mevlana in Afghanistan
Although most people associate Mevlana with Konya, he was born in the city of Balkh, which is now within the borders of modern-day Afghanistan, on September 30, 1207. This is why people in Afghanistan refer to him as “Belhî.” His father, Bahaeddin Veled, was a prominent scholar in Balkh and held the title of “Sultan of Scholars.” Mevlana Celaleddin began receiving lessons in philosophy, philology, and religion from his father at a young age. In 1214, along with his family, he moved to Baghdad, and in 1218, they settled in Konya, which is now in Turkey. Since Anatolia was known as the “Rum” region, people referred to Mevlana as “Rumi.”
Mevlana left behind people who remembered him with fondness during his journey from Balkh to Anatolia. His teachings have transcended generations, spreading from tongue to tongue and heart to heart. May Allah make the seeds of love he sowed in hearts flourish throughout all time. May his tomb be pure and bright.