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The Culture of Afghanistan

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The culture of Afghanistan has been around for over two millennia, tracing record to at least the time of the Achaemenid Empire in 500 BCE.[1] Afghanistan translates to “Land of the Afghans” or “Place of Afghans” in the nation’s official languages, Pashto and Dari.[2][3] It is mostly a tribal and rural society with different regions of the country having their own native language. Despite some differences, majority of the Afghans live by the same tradition and behave the same. For example, nearly all Afghans follow Islamic traditions, celebrate the same holidays, dress the same, consume the same food, listen to the same music, share the same view about the world and are usually multi-lingual.

In the southern and eastern region, as well as western Pakistan which was historically part of Afghanistan, the Pashtun people live according to the Pashtun culture by following Pashtunwali (way of the Pashtuns).[4] The western, northern, and central regions of Afghanistan are influenced by neighboring Central Asian and Persian cultures.[5][6] Afghans living in cities, particularly Kabul, are further influenced to some degree by the Indian culture through Bollywood films and music. Some of the non-Pashtuns who live in close proximity with Pashtuns have adopted Pashtunwali in a process called Pashtunization (or Afghanization) while some Pashtuns and others became Persianized.

Art and music

Women painting at the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan (CCAA) in Kabul.

Local art has spanned many centuries. The world’s first oil painting was found in Afghanistan.[7][8] One of the most famous kinds is the Gandhara art between the 1st and 7th century based on Greco-Buddhist art. Kamaleddin Behzad was a famous artist from Herat during the late Timurid and early Safavid periods. Since the 1900s, the nation began to use Western techniques in art. Abdul Ghafoor Breshna was a prominent Afghan painter and sketch artist from Kabul during the 20th century. He made many paintings and skteches but most were lost or destroyed during the decades of war.

Afghanistan’s art was originally almost entirely done by men, but recently women are entering the arts programs at Kabul University. Art is largely centered at the National Museum of Afghanistan, the National Gallery of Afghanistan and the National Archives of Afghanistan in Kabul. There are a number of art schools in the country. The Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan (CCAA) in Kabul provides young people to learn contemporary paintings.

Afghan musicians in Farah, Afghanistan.

Traditionally, only men have been involved in theater acting. Recently, in theater arts, women have begun to take center stage.[9] Afghanistan holds the 47th largest club in the Middle East, the Jiffa Zayin, with a capacity of 180.

Other known forms of art in the country are music, poetry, and several sports. The art of making carpets has been prominent for centuries. Afghanistan is known for making beautiful oriental rugs. The Afghan carpet has certain prints that make them unique to Afghanistan.

Since the 1980s, the nation has witnessed several wars so music has been suppressed and recording for outsiders minimal. During the 1990s, the Taliban government banned instrumental music and much public music-making. Many musicians and singers continued to play their trade in the cities of other countries. Pakistani cities such as Peshawar, Karachi and Islamabad are important centers for the distribution of Afghan music. Kabul has long been the regional cultural capital, but outsiders have tended to focus on the cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif with its Qataghaani style. Lyrics across the country are typically in both Dari (Persian) and Pashto. Hindi songs from Bollywood films are also very popular in Afghanistan.[10]

Afghan men performing at the new Afghan Cultural Center on Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province.

Afghans enjoy music by playing many types of instruments. They also enjoy performing the Attan, which is considered the national dance of Afghanistan. What is typically heard in the country are folk songs or ballads. Many of the songs are known by almost everyone and have been around for many years. The main traditional Afghan music instruments includes:

Poetry and philosophy

Main article: Poetry of Afghanistan

Poetry in Afghanistan has long been a cultural tradition and passion. It is mainly in Dari and Pashto languages, although in modern times it is also becoming more recognized in Afghanistan’s other languages. Classic Persian and Pashto poetry plays an important role in the Afghan culture. Poetry has always been one of the major educational pillars in the region, to the level that it has integrated itself into culture. Some notable poets include Rumi, Khushal Khan Khattak, Rahman Baba, Massoud Nawabi, Nazo Tokhi, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Al-Afghani, and Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi.[12] Many of the famous Persian poets and authors from the 10th to 15th centuries stem from Khorasan (now part of Afghanistan), such as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī (Rumi), Rabi’a Balkhi, Khwaja Abdullah Ansari, Nasir Khusraw, Jami, Alisher Navoi, Sanai, Abu Mansur Daqiqi, Farrukhi Sistani, Unsuri, Anvari, and many others. Moreover, some of the contemporary Persian language poets and writers, who are relatively well known in the Persian-speaking world, include Khalilullah Khalili,[13] Sufi Ashqari,[14] Sarwar Joya, Qahar Asey, and Parwin Pazhwak.

In addition to poets and authors, numerous Persian scientists and philosophers were born or worked in the region of Afghanistan. Most notable was Avicenna, whose paternal family hailed from Balkh. Ibn Sīnā, who travelled to Isfahan later in life to establish a medical school there, is known by some scholars as “the father of modern medicine”. George Sarton called Ibn Sīnā “the most famous scientist of Islam and one of the most famous of all races, places, and times.” His most famous works are The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine, also known as the Qanun. Ibn Sīnā’s story even found ways to the contemporary English literature through Noah Gordon‘s The Physician, now published in many languages. Al-Farabi was another well-known philosopher and scientist of the 9th and 10th centuries, who, according to Ibn al-Nadim, was from the Faryab Province in Afghanistan. Other notable scientists and philosophers are Abu Rayhan Biruni (astronomer, anthropologist, geographer, and mathematician), Abu Zayd Balkhi (polymath and a student of al-Kindi), Abu Ma’shar Balkhi (known as Albuxar in the west), and Abu Sa’id Sijzi.

Afghan proverbs

Afghans universally prize wit and cleverness in speech. They use proverbs in their daily conversations far more often than Westerners do, and with far greater effect. An appropriate Afghan proverb inserted at the right time can carry the weight of an entire explanation or discussion. An Afghan proverb used well, especially by a foreigner, leads most Afghans either to laugh in genuine surprise and delight, or to nod thoughtfully while considering its full meaning and nuance.

“Zarbul Masalha” (pronounced zar-bull mah-sal-HAA) means “Proverbs” in Dari, and these zarbul masalha deeply reflect Afghan culture. Although often humble in origin, Afghan proverbs can rival the great words of famous philosophers and writers throughout world history in their richness, meaning and color. A good Dari proverb, properly used, can match the wisdom of Confucius, the depth of Zen Koan, the whimsy of Lewis Carroll, the homespun words of Mark Twain, and the lyricism of Shakespeare – all in one short, meaningful phrase.

Above all, the proper use of Afghan proverbs demonstrates respect and understanding of Afghan culture at a very high level. Their use can lead to deeper personal connections that in turn help bridge very different religions, ethnicities, customs and traditions. Regardless of their many differences, people all over the world share many common feelings, opinions and hopes. Afghan proverbs highlight these similarities, and show our common humanity. U.S. Navy Captain Edward Zellem pioneered the use of Afghan proverbs as a positive relationship-building tool during the war in Afghanistan, and in 2012 he published two bilingual collections of Afghan proverbs in Dari and English.[15][16]


The region has made major contributions to the world’s architecture. UNESCO has acknowledged Afghanistan’s role by declaring the Minaret of Jam and the Valley of Bamiyan, home of the famous Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, World Heritage Sites.

Other examples of universally important contributions to architecture may be found in Herat, Mazari Sharif, Ghazni[17] and Kandahar


Main article: Afghan cuisine

Afghanistan has a wide varying landscape allowing for many different crops. Afghan food is largely based upon cereals like wheat, maize, barley and rice, which are the nation’s chief crops. Afghanistan is well known for its grapes.

Some of the popular Afghan dishes, from left to right: 1. Lamb grilled kebab (seekh kabab); 2. Palao and salad; 3. Tandoori chicken; and 4. Mantu (dumplings). The Afghan cuisine includes a blend of Central Asian, Eastern Asian, South Asian and the Middle Eastern cuisines. Nearly all Afghan dishes are non-spicy.


Main article: Sport in Afghanistan

The sports in Afghanistan are organized by the Afghan Sports Federation, which promotes football, cricket, basketball, volleyball, golf, handball, boxing, taekwondo, track and field, bowling, skating[disambiguation needed][18] and several others.[19]

Afghans playing a local basketball game. The Afghanistan national basketball team won a gold medal in the 2010 South Asian Games.

Cricket and football are the most popular sports in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan national cricket team, which was formed in 2001, has held matches against all other international cricket teams. The Afghan team rapidly rose through the World Cricket League since early 2008. It participated in the 2009 ICC World Cup Qualifier, 2010 ICC World Cricket League Division One, and 2010 ICC World Twenty20 where they played India and South Africa. The team won four times in a row, the ACC Twenty20 Cup in 2007, 2009, 2011, and 2013. It played against top ranking teams in the 2012 ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup and the 2012 ICC World Twenty20. In the national level, cricket matches are played between provinces, mainly between the south and eastern provinces of the country. In the other sports, Afghans usually play with challengers of neighboring states and sometimes with other Asian countries.

The Afghanistan national football team was founded in 1922, joined FIFA in 1948 and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954. Although it did not play in any international games from 1984 to 2003 due to the war, it is now striving and hoping to make it to FIFA. The Afghanistan women’s national football team was formed in 2007. The Ghazi Stadium, which was built during the reign of King Amanullah Khan, was once used for a venue for public executions by the Taliban government. The stadium is currently used mostly for football matches between teams from different provinces of the country as well as neighboring countries. Basketball has existed in Afghanistan since at least the 1970s, and is slowly becoming popular again. It is played by both Afghan men and women. Additionally, Afghans in the north of the country enjoy the sport of buzkashi.


The country’s traditional male clothing usually includes a kameez (dress), with a lungee (turban), pakol, or various types of local caps. The karakul hat is usually worn by elders, mainly by those from urban areas. It is a symbol of respect to all the Afghans. The chapan (long coat), which is often worn by President Hamid Karzai, is the style of northern Afghanistan. Occasionally some men wear or wrap a keffiyeh on their heads. Most urbanized men from Afghanistan dress similar as those from the Greater Middle East.

Traditional Afghan clothes may sometimes vary by regions and in some cases by different ethnicities. Most traditional Afghan attire for women consists of a long colorful dress with round skirt. Girls at a young age begin to cover their head with a light piece of cloth so that males don’t see their hair. They do this inside the house also, among male family members.


Students standing in front of the main campus of Herat University in western Afghanistan.

Education in Afghanistan includes K-12 and higher education, which is supervised by the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are about 10,000 schools of which 4,000 were built in the last decade. More than 100,000 teachers were trained and recruited in the same period.[20] It was reported in 2011 that more than seven million male and female students were enrolled in schools.[20] Some of the well known schools in Kabul are Habibia High School, Lycée Esteqlal, Amani High School, Aisha-i-Durani School, Ghazi High School and Rahman Baba High School. The largest high schools in Kandahar are Ahmad Shah Baba High School and Zarghuna Anna High School.

Since the country has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, the United States began establishing a number of Lincoln learning centers to help with this problem and promote American culture in Afghanistan. They are set up to serve as programming platforms offering English language classes, library facilities, programming venues, Internet connectivity, educational and other counseling services. A goal of the program is to reach at least 4,000 Afghan citizens per month per location.[21][22] The military and national police are now provided with mandatory literacy courses.[23] In addition to this, Baghch-e-Simsim (based on the American Sesame Street) was launched in late 2011 to help Afghan children learn from preschool and onward. Programs in the show “will be partly filmed in Afghanistan with the rest” lifted from other versions in Muslim countries including Egypt and Bangladesh, as well as Mexico and Russia.[24][25]

Higher education is provided by about 43 universities throughout the country, which includes American University of Afghanistan, Kabul University, Polytechnical University of Kabul, Herat University, Balkh University, Nangarhar University, Kandahar University, Khost University, Bakhtar University, and a heap of others. There is also one military college, located in Kabul. Recently with help from UNESCO, over 1,000 women have taken the university entrance exam. As of 2011, about 62,000 students are enrolled in different universities around the country.[20]


Afghan school textbooks written in Pashto language

Pashto and Dari are both the official languages of Afghanistan,[3] although Dari serves as the lingua franca for the majority. People in the northern and central areas of the country usually speak Persian, while those living in the south and east speak Pashto. Afghans living in the western regions of Afghanistan speak both Persian and Pashto. Most citizens are fluent in both languages, especially those living in major cities where the population is multi-ethnic. Several other languages are spoken in their own regions, which includes Uzbek, Turkmen and Balochi.[3] Large percent of Afghans, particularly the Pashtuns and Hazaras, learned Urdu while living in Pakistan since 1979 and due to having connection to that country. There are some Afghans who can speak Russian, mainly among the northern Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen groups. English is understood by small percent of the population although it is growing. An even smaller number may understand other languages such as Arabic, Spanish, German and French.


Men praying at the Blue Mosque (or Shrine of Hazrat Ali) in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Islam is the main religion of Afghanistan and over 99% of Afghans are Muslims. Approximately 80–89% of the population practice Sunni Islam, while the remaining 10–19% practice Shi’a Islam, and 1% are followers of other religions.[1][26][27][28] Besides Muslims, there are thousands of Sikhs and Hindus living in the country.[29][30] They are usually found in the major cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Jalalabad.


Houses in rural Afghanistan are traditionally made out of mud, and have a series of rooms located around a private rectangular courtyard where women and children play, cook and socialize. Married sons share the same house as their parents in most cases, although they have separate quarters. Afghan houses contain a special room where men socialize with each other known as a hujra. In the cities, many Afghans live in modern style houses or apartments. There are many new housing schemes being built in all the major cities of the country. Some of these include the $35 bn New Kabul City next to the capital, the Ghazi Amanullah Khan City near Jalalabad, and the Aino Mina in Kandahar.[31][32][33] The nomadic kuchi people live in large tents because they are constantly on the move from one part of the country to another.[34]



See also: Islamic Holiday

Afghanistan’s religious holidays are nearly the same as Islamic holidays. Some of the most important include Eid ul-Fitr (end of Ramadan), Eid ul-Adha, Ashura, and Mawlid.[35] Religious minorities of Afghanistan, such as the Hindus, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, and others celebrate holidays unique to their respective religion.[36]


  • Farmer’s Day, also known as Nowruz, is an ancient annual Afghan festival which celebrates both the beginning of spring and the New Year. The observances usually last two weeks, culminating on the first day of the Afghan New Year, March 21, and corresponds to the first day of the Persian Calendar.[37]



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