21 October 2012

JOY-ography 101 -The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan

Today, we begin our 287+ part series with a VirtualVisit to the central and west Asian nation of Afghanistan.*


(Queue rousing rendition of Aghan National Anthem)

Our visit to this rugged, mountainous country begins in Kabul, the nation's capital. We land at the Khaja Rawash Airport (also known as the Kabul International Airport). As we deplane, we thank our Ariana Afghan Airlines flights attendants for taking good care of us. Though we chose to start our visit in Kabul, it certainly wasn't our only choice. Had we been coming from the south, we would have landed at the Kandahar International Airport. If our flight took off from Tehran, we would have arrived at the Hirat International Airport, and if Uzebekistan had been the previous stop on our itinerary, we'd have flown into the Mazar-i-Sharif Airport. In total, Afghanistan has approximately 53 airports.

As we leave the airport, we notice the Afghan flag flying proudly. Afghanistan has made more changes to its flag in the 20th century than any other country, but the colors black, red and green have appeared in most of them. The black band signifies the past, red is for the blood shed for independence, and green can represent hope for the future, agricultural prosperity, or Islam. The image in the center of the flag is the Afghan emblem.

At 652,230 sq km (251,830 sq mi), Afganistan is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Texas and the 41st largest country in the world. Its more than 30 million people make it the 40th most populous nation. Kabul, the largest of its 34 provinces, is home to approximately 10% of Afghans.
When we get to our hotel room, our guidebook and the copy of Daily Outlook Afghanistan (the country's first English newspaper) that we bought when we landed are the first items to be unpacked. Owing in part to the country's low (28.1%) literacy rate, print media is not a popular source of information among Afghans. There are only about 500 registered publications nationwide, predominantly in Pashto and Dari Persian, the two official the national languages. The circulation of independent newspapers is confined mainly to Kabul. In general, people rely on the nation's 175 radio radio stations for their news and entertainment.

It was a long flight and it's definitely time for lunch. Judging by the descriptions in our guidebook and the hotel's dining guide, we will not be disappointed by our dining options. Afghan cuisine is a fusion of the many culinary influences upon it both geographically and historically. Throughout the country wheat, barley, and rice, yogurt, potatoes, garlic, onion, tomatoes, saffron, cilantro, and cardamon are prominently featured.

Whichever restaurant we decide on, we'll definitely want to order naan, which means "bread" and comes in long, thin, oval shaped loaves. We might want to order torshi, a mix of pickled vegetables, vinegar and spices to put on our naan or chutney, a pepper sauce made from vinegar, cilantro, and tomato paste.

Rice dishes are a staple of Afghan cuisine. Quabili palao, considered the national dish, is a rice dish blended with meat and stock and topped with raisins, silvered carrots, and pistachios. That sounds tempting, but so does Qorma, an onion-based casserole served with baked rice called chalow.  For dessert, we might go with gosh e feel, a thin, fried pastry covered in powdered sugar and ground pistachios, or maybe baklava. Tomorrow morning, we'll definitely want to find a couple of khoojour  to dunk in our coffee.

Over lunch, we take a look at the day's news. It seems as though Afghanistan is a country that has been struggling to recover from wave after wave of occupation and resistance throughout its entire history. The area that is modern day Afghanistan has been populated for more than fifty-thousand years. Urbanization began here as early as 5000 years ago. It was a strategic point along the ancient trading route known as the Silk Road. In 330 BCE it fell to Alexander the Great and again to Genghis Kahn in 1219.

Even independence came in stages. In 1709, Mir Wais Hotek, considered the grandfather of Afghanistan, freed the southern part of the country from Persian rule. Thirty-eight years later, in 1747, Ahmad Shah Durrani united the Pashtun tribes and founded the last Afghan Empire. Seven hundred years after Genghis Kahn's rise to power, modern-day Afghanistan came into existence, in 1919, when it declared independence from Britain.

Today, Afghanistan is made up of 34 provinces, further divided into 398 smaller provincial districts.  Provincial governors, appointed by the president, oversee the provinces. They also select the district governors for their province. At the national level, Afghanistan's governmental system bears a striking resemblance to the United States. The Executive Branch consists of the president (Hamid Karzai since 2004) and two vice-presidents (Mohammed Fahim Kahn, since 2009 and Abdul Karim Khalili, since 2004). They are elected by a direct vote for a five-year term and can be re-elected once. The Legislative Branch, the National Assembly, is a bicameral body consisting of the 250 seat (maximum) House of the People and the 102 seat House of Elders. The Judicial Branch is the Supreme Court served by nine judges appointed by the president for up two non-renewable four year terms. They interpret the country's mix of civic, customary, and Islamic law.

After an amazing meal and a walk to work some of it off, it's time for a nap. Back in our hotel room, we flip through the TV channels rather absentmindly. Wait, what's this? We weren't expecting to see any familiar faces, but there's Big Bird, Grover, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie and Abby Cadabby. Just about the whole Sesame Street gang.

Forty-two percent of the population is under 15 years of age and and only around 50% percent of children attend school. As part of an effort to raise educational levels, Baghch-e-Simsim (literally "Sesame Garden"), a joint project of the U.S. embassy in Kabul and the Afghanistan Ministry of Education, is produced in both the Pashto and Dari languages and airs most days of the week.

Waking up just in time for dinner, we head out for another wonderful meal. There are a multitude of rice dishes produced in Afghanistan. But maybe kebobs or a salad will strike our fancy. After dinner, we take a stroll through town. Perhaps a little live entertainment to finish off the evening? Poetry is enormously popular here and like other countries in the region, Afghanistan claims Rumi as its own. There are a wide variety of musical styles from which to choose. Classical music in Afghanistan, called "klasic," includes both instrumental, vocal, and belly dancing ragas, tarana, a type of Hindustani vocal music and ghazals which are songs that focus on the beauty of love despite the pain of separation. And if that sounds a little heavy, there's always folk music, pop, and hip-hop, not to mention tunes from Bollywood films.

Pop and klasic musical artist Farhad Darya

We won't want to stay out too late, though. There's so much to do we'll want to get an early start in the morning. Both because of and despite its years of war and civil unrest, Afghanistan is a country with a vibrant and diverse culture. Its heritage is a mix of Greek, Persian, Central Asian, Islamic, Mongolian, Chinese, Indian, Russian, and British influences and these are beautifully reflected in its artistic forms and styles.

The Minaret of Jam
Today, 80% of the population of Afghanistan is Sunni; 19% is Shia; however, prior to the spread of Islam in the 7th century, Afghans were a multi-religious people including Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Pagans, Hindus, Christians, and Jews. Ghandara, an ancient Buddhist style of visual art depicts scenes of the Buddha's life. Monumental works are spread throughout the country: the Great Buddha of Bamiyam; the mosques of Mazar-i-Sharif, and Hirat; the Great Arch of Qal'eh-ye Bost; the Bala Hissar fort in Kabul. UNESCO has declared two places in Afghanistan World Heritage Sites: the Minaret of Jam and the Valley of Bamyan.

A more recent addition to the country's artistic canon is photography. Photography has become a medium through which people tell their stories of living with the fallout of war and continuous turmoil.

Photo of a game of buzkashi by Toni Di Zinno.
Afghanistan is not without its diversions. Sports are big here. Maybe we'll catch a Lions game while we're here. The national football, The Lions of Khorasan, was formed in 1922 and has been competing internationally since 1941.  Home games are played at the Ghazi National Olympic Stadium in Kabul. Cricket is a newly introduced sport. There are two cricket stadiums in the country; one in Kabul, the other outside Jalalabad in the Nangarthar Province. Volleyball, basketball, taekwondo, boxing, wrestling, bodybuilding, and weightlifting are some of the other popular sports. Among mainly northern Afghans, buzkashi is a game similar to polo played by two teams of horsemen, each trying to grab and hold onto a goat carcass.

Time to call it a night. The days ahead, crisscrossing the country, promise to keep us very busy. I don't know about you, but I don't think I could live with myself if I left Afghanistan without seeing someone grab and hold a goat carcass.

Our next VirtualVisit will be to the Republic of Albania. 

*Information is complete and accurate to the best of my knowledge. At least there is nothing intentionally false.

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