What is Afghan Culture? [Book Excerpt]

"Study of an Afghan Warrior," artwork by Jules Laurens
"Study of an Afghan Warrior," artwork by Jules Laurens

Written by the author for the anthology Our Shared Stories: An Afghan Diary, edited by Emal Dusst and Jahan Shahryar

Afghans are a culturally depressed population.

Since 1978, that fateful tipping point in Afghanistan’s history when the poisonous tentacles of Communism wrapped themselves around a burgeoning democracy, Afghan culture has been repressed and ultimately depressed — both within its geographic borders and among its diaspora that has fled war.

Before I go any further, let us first define “culture.”

Culture, as we know it, was first applied by the ancient Roman orator Cicero when he said that philosophy was cultura animi, or the “cultivation of the soul.”  In Middle English, its meaning evolved to encompass the refining of language, literature, ideas, customs, the arts and intellect.

A modern-day definition of culture is:  “The quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.”

With this in mind, let me provide one definition for “Afghan.”

While there are a few different etymological theories as to the origin of the word “Afghan,” one interesting version says it stems from ancient Sanskrit.  Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a spiritual leader and founder of the Art of Living Foundation, writes:

“In fact the word Afghanistan comes from the Sanskrit roots, ‘ahi’, ‘gana’, and ‘sthan’, meaning the country of awakened people. A number of Hindu teachers and Buddhist monks of great reputation lived in Afghanistan and founded famous universities and schools of yoga and meditation there. There was a rich tradition of meditation, spirituality, music, dance, and architecture.”

Therefore, by bringing together this literal terminology of “Afghan culture,” we are in fact saying: The refining of the awakened people in the arts, languages, literature, manners, customs, ideas, intellect and other scholarly pursuits.

How far we have fallen from this meaning.

If one were to ask average Afghans within Afghanistan and throughout the world what “Afghan culture” means to them, they would probably respond by saying some of the following:  pride, courage, honor, endurance, faith, independence, family, hospitality, brotherhood, sisterhood, friendship, and the like.  

While still alive, the general reality of today's Afghan culture, as expressed in either of these definitions, has suffered greatly and its future is in jeopardy.  But what should we expect?  After all, Afghans have been bombarded by the negative realities of their country for nearly 40 years, creating, in my opinion, a state of a Cultural Great Depression.  

We are an ethnicity that has been repeatedly persecuted — partly by our own doing, and partly at the hands of outsiders.  While this is a wounding truth that we can’t escape, we should hang a lantern on it and openly acknowledge it.  

There will always be a reminder of this when someone asks, “So where are you from?”  And we know our response carries with it a weighted meaning that may be heavy to reveal because there is often a judgment waiting to be passed on the other end.

Although there are currently numerous expressions of art, music, poetry and architecture in the name of Afghan culture, only a limited of them can be considered “high culture.”  The majority is operating on an unsteady foundation of cultural confusion, appropriation, superstition, meaninglessness and simply poorly developed taste.

For example, how often are vast elements of Indian, Iranian or Pakistani cultures consciously or unconsciously incorporated into Afghan designs, events and media?  To be clear, there is nothing wrong with cultural cross-pollination; it has existed globally for centuries.  But Afghans should be careful not to lose their own identities.

How often has the empty phrase, “Well, this is our culture,” been applied to an array of antiquated or unsustainable Afghan practices, whether they may be overburdensome engagement and marriage traditions, to funeral ceremonies that lack a deeper spiritual meaning and offer little consolation for those mourning their deceased loved one?

How many times have we seen our own families or other Afghans bear some kind of taxing cultural burden out of fear of how they might be judged by their community?  “Mardum chi mehgan?” or “What will people say?” is a refrain employed in many Afghan households, and a particularly jarring reminder hurled at women and girls as a warning of social shaming to come.

Afghan culture has become too heavy, entrenched in hearsay, backbiting and keeping up appearances — a façade with a broken foundation.  We are bogged down by vapid formalities that are in dire need of reexamination, reformation and refinement.  Instead of furthering everyone’s individual growth, Afghans’ collective attitudes, group identity and institutions mostly have become unhealthy metastasizing cells, mercilessly destroying our social DNA.

While our cultural traditions (at least in the major cities) were in the process of effortful modernization in Afghanistan in short-lived bursts from the early 1900s through the 1970s, the Communist coup of 1978 and subsequent Soviet invasion a year later not only froze us in an odd cultural vacuum, but it added into it almost four decades of psycho-cultural tragedies and wounds.

In fact, according to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, half of the entire Afghan population suffers from mental trauma.  That figure is even higher for Afghan women, and depression is rampant among Afghan refugees.

If we are to succeed as a civil society, and we believe that our culture is at the epicenter of our national heart and soul, we must pay better attention to it because it is in a state of emergency.  Bad culture, like a bad parent, tends to replicate itself into the next generation — and, collectively, we suffer from intergenerational trauma.

As a first step to offset this reality, we must remind ourselves that culture is a manmade construct of beliefs and practices, and is not one which has been sent down by Providence, so we should not treat it as though it cannot evolve.  

While some of it, if not much of it in the case of Afghanistan, is interlaced with botched interpretations of religious and tribal ideologies, then we must also have a thorough reexamination, reformation and refinement of our own understanding of the Qur’an, Islam, Pashtunwali and all other ancestral codes of conduct.  

Let this process take years if it must, so long as the results of this “cultural epic” are widely publicized by an authoritative and enlightened body, taught through evocative imagery and then repeated in Afghan schools and etched into the consciousness of the nation and diaspora, translated into various languages for all generations to consume worldwide.  Indoctrinated into the Afghan psyche, this would also provide a vital counter-culture to extremist tenets.   

A culture absent of a healthy self-image will eventually wither away, its people either too exhausted, too depressed, too afraid or too physically distant from the motherland to participate in its healing.  This danger, in some form, had even presented itself to the United States, until one source of remedy was introduced.

In the 1930s, as America was in the grip of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated the largest cultural experiment in the nation’s history:  The Federal Writers’ Project.  

Funded under the New Deal, the Writer’s Project employed authors in every state to chronicle what America meant to them.  The intention:  To revitalize a sense of patriotism and pride in the United States during a period when American spirits were broken.  It was called “The America Project.”

Today, a similar cultural experimentation needs to be initiated for Afghanistan, using the creative powers of all modern media to help Afghans believe in an ideal that many fear can never be attained.  

If nothing else, perhaps some encouraging words can breathe life into such an endeavor:

Believe in an Afghan culture that flourishes in the arts, sciences, languages, literature, manners, customs, ideas, intellect and scholarly pursuits.

Believe in an Afghan culture that has a rich tradition of meditation, spirituality, music, dance, architecture, aesthetics and athletics.

Believe in an Afghan culture that inculcates empathy, where we not only feel each other’s pain, but do something of real value and of consistent effort to relieve it.  

Believe in an Afghan culture that not only preaches but actively advances the rights of women; that safeguards children and the elderly.

Believe in an Afghan culture that advocates for and comforts the physically and mentally challenged, the downtrodden and the least fortunate among us.

Believe in an Afghan culture that follows the examples of compassion, humility and strength of the prophets:  Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad.

Believe in an Afghan culture that practices religious gentleness, absent of any trace of extremism or messianic radicalism, so as to provide an environment in which toleration, measured judgment and moderation can flourish.

Believe in an Afghan culture that protects animals, wildlife and the environment.

Believe in an Afghan culture that embraces and learns from people of all backgrounds, tribes, faiths, beliefs and social classes.

Believe in an Afghan culture that studies the past and looks at the present to provide meaning to its customs and traditions, without carrying with them the weightiness of hollow and burdensome practices.

Believe in an Afghan culture that contributes to the goodness of the globe and of all mankind.

Believe in the refinement of the Afghan national soul that desperately needs to be awakened, dragged out of darkness and brought into Enlightenment.

Should each of these elements become a reality, Afghan culture will not only survive, it will become sacred to us all and we would truly hail from the Country of the Awakened People.

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