A View From the Top of the World


“Islam is a great religion” appears to be the mantra of the day, mouthed by many, including a variety of world leaders. It has since occurred to me that the constant parroting “Islam is a great religion” in some convoluted fashion contributes to the dehumanizing of Muslims. Borders and cultures disappear as we stereotype anyone who practices Islam. Yet, though many of us could give a speech on the difference between culture and religion, somehow all of that theory slides off our brain and we happily lump all Muslim people together because they practice Islam.

I have lived in Kabul now for about a year. I’ve had the privilege of being able to get a peek inside the proverbial veil and want to give you my perspective of some aspects of the everyday culture of the Afghan people. A large section of the Afghan population is nomadic. I am not writing about them as I have not got close to anyone in this group. I am mainly talking about people who most likely share the kind of demographics as the readers of this article – middle class and educated.

A child is born. “It’s a boy!!” He will continue the family name and take care of his parents. Huge numbers of relatives and neighbors are invited on the sixth day – Shab-e-Shash – evening-of-the-sixth. I was invited to one and took a friend with me. We entered to find at least 50 other women sitting tightly against each other along the perimeter of the living room. We sat down in one corner and wondered if we had been impolite by not individually greeting everyone, even though we knew no one. We had. We made up for it by overdoing the good-byes.

This brings me to Afghan greetings – an overwhelming, elaborate and complex set of rituals for the uninitiated. I am invited and I enter the house. The hostess comes up, grasps my hand and kisses me three, four, five, six times on my cheeks while unleashing a series of sentences at the same time: how are you, are you tired, is your health ok, is your family ok, welcome to my home, may you live long. I am supposed to do the same, but even after a year I helplessly hyperventilate as I cannot keep up. I’m entrenched in the polite, how are you, I’m good, thank you. End of greeting.

Now let us reflect that in most Afghan houses several brothers with their wives and parents and children live together. Each man, one by one, rests a hand on his heart, bows slightly and greets you with, Salam-wale-kum, khush amadi, zinda bashe – Hello, welcome, may you live long. All the women and teenage girls kiss you, shower you with questions, and all the little ones, boys and girls, gravely approach you and shake your hands. A good 15 minutes have passed by before it is all over and I can sit down, and I’m secretly dreading the time I have to leave, because a variation of this is going to happen all over again.

I swear to you, this elaborate ritual is not limited to parties and invitations. Often when I’m walking from my house to the office, half way down the street a kind of guard-switching takes place. A guard approaches me and stands to my side, while the other walks back to the house. I have to stand there for about 2 minutes as these guards, who see each other every day, exchange an elaborate set of greetings.

Children are completely adored and spoiled. I genuinely can’t understand how they grow up to be so polite and capable. An Afghan 13 year-old boy or girl is extremely self-sufficient. Most boys marry by the time they are 22 and girls by the time they are 18. The boy is capable and confident, able to work, negotiate in the bazaar for the best price on everything from a melon to a TV, maneuver the bureaucracy to get jobs done, organize events and the girl can cook for 30, sew everything from curtains to elaborately designed wedding outfits, take care of babies, manage a budget – it amazes every non-Afghan here.

SANTWANA DASGUPTA is with Peace in the Precincts Steering Committee, a program of Friends for a Non-Violent World.  She can be reached at: santwana@hotmail.com.