Women doing their laundry in a river. (Courtesy of Cassandra Nelson)

Afghanistan, which means "Land of the Afghans," has more than a dozen different tribal groups. The Pashtuns, the largest group, make up nearly 40 percent of the population. They live across southern Afghanistan. The Tajiks, the second largest group, are an Indo-Iranian people (related to the Tajiks found in Tajikistan). They live mainly in the northeast. The Hazaras, believed to be descendants of the Mongols, inhabit the central mountain region. Uzbeks, Turkomans, and others live on the northern plains.

Cultural Heritage
Because Afghanistan is situated at the crossroads of many different lands, it shares many cultural traditions with its neighbors in the Middle East, central Asia, and south Asia. Afghanistan is a Muslim country, and this is reflected in everyday life. From religion and languages to clothing and food, many similarities can be found with Iranians, Pakistanis, and other peoples of central Asia.

The national dance is called the attan. Intense and warlike, the attan reminds Afghans of their long and hard fight for freedom and independence.

Language. Afghans speak many different languages, and most speak more than one. The Pashtuns speak Pashto, an Indo-Iranian-based language. The Tajiks speak Dari, which is an Afghan form of Persian, or Farsi. Other Persian-Farsi dialects are spoken by the Hazaras. The Uzbeks and Turkomans speak languages related to Turkish.

Religion. Although Afghanistan is not an Arab country, most Afghans are Muslims, and religion plays an important role in everyday life. Most Afghans belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. About 15 percent are members of the Shi'a sect. Afghanistan also has small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jews.

Education. Before the Soviet occupation, Afghanistan had six institutions of higher education and hundreds of elementary and secondary schools, all coeducational (boys and girls attended together). But later, under the rule of the Taliban, education was supervised by religious leaders. As a result, many Afghan boys learned to read and write the language of the Koran (Qur'an), but they did not learn mathematics, geometry, history, or science. Girls were not allowed to attend formal school past the age of 8. During the Taliban regime, some parents risked jail and other forms of punishment in order to educate their daughters. Many formed underground schools in their homes where young girls could be educated in secret. When the Taliban government fell, boys and girls of all ages eagerly returned to school.

Way of Life. In the past, most Afghans were nomads, constantly on the move, searching the dry plains and plateaus for water and fresh pasture for their sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. Some Afghans still live a nomadic life, but most are now settled farmers, plowing their small fields with wooden plows drawn by oxen or cutting their wheat crops by hand with sickles.

In the countryside, a typical Afghan house is built of mud or mud brick and has three or four rooms, furnished with rugs and pillows. Round flat bread and rice are staple foods, together with mutton (sheep), goat meat, chicken, yogurt, and fruit. Traditional clothing for men consists of a turban wound around either a skullcap or a karakul cap (made out of lambskin), and a long shirt worn outside the trousers. A vest and quilted coat are worn in cold weather. Village women wear long dresses over trousers and large scarves over their hair.

Afghanistan's major sport is buz-kashi, a form of polo, in which players ride horseback. It is a hard-fought game, and the horses that take part are strong, swift, and well trained. Other popular sports are soccer and wrestling.

Reviewed by Alam Payind
Jennifer Nichols
Middle East Studies Center
The Ohio State University

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What are some of the subjects that the Afghani schools do not teach? Why can this be a problem?