Afghanistan background notes


Children are growing up under the shadow of the gun, not the tree.


Once upon a time Afghanistan was called the orchard of the many fruit trees. Pomegranates, grapes, apricots, mulberry, walnuts grew. Forests of hazel, walnut, oak, larch, ash, juniper, turpentine pine, and deodar grew and before the war there was a rule not to fell trees. Older people can remember a Kabul, which was beautiful with gardens of roses, honeysuckle, and white narcissi; old buildings, museums, libraries, picnics on the river or in parks.

Now Kabul is destroyed; many people live without glass in their windows, if they have a house at all. Because of the extremist government of the Taliban forbidding schools, children have lost five years of education. Women have the choice now to not wear the burqa but many still do as the men are not used to seeing women without it and they stare. Men can now shave off their beards if they wish. People may dance and watch TV, children may sing and fly kites again. Little girls can have a doll. Many people were pleased that the US bombed the Taliban and their regime has gone. But others say the trouble is not finished. They remember what the fundamental mujahadeen government before the Taliban was like – women weren't safe then either and they still don't feel safe now – another reason to keep wearing the burqa. And the fighting away from the capital in places like Kandahar has resumed.




The ancient art of storytelling flourishes in Afghanistan, partly because of illiteracy. The age-old custom of telling folktales, through music and the spoken word is highly developed and is an appreciated art form. The use of folklore has become the thread that links the past with the present in Afghan society. Folktales concern all parts of Afghan life and teach traditional values, and beliefs as well as entertaining.


Afghans appreciate poetry. All the great Afghan scholars were also poets. Poetry and songs and tales were orally passed on by minstrels who moved about the country entertaining in teashops and at caravanserais.

Themes in stories were: war, love, jealousy, respect for age, acceptance of parental authority, joys of children, riches and happiness, and religious themes. Afghan folklore showed heroes and courage, and the traditional virtues of the Afghan society.

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Afghan languages



Dari is the national language of Afghanistan.

It is derived from dar or dabari meaning court language. Dari was the written and scholarly language. It is very much like Persian from Iran, and is often called Afghan Persian. Farsi is the Afghan word for Persian.

Other languages in Afghanistan include: Pushtu (this is the language Pathans and the Taliban speak), Uzbek, Tajikstani, Hazari.

Religion –Many Afghans know they are Muslims but not what they believe. Years of Soviet rule couldn't wipe out their identity with Islam but it robbed them of knowledge about their religion. When some governments, especially the Taliban tried to make the country more fundamental many disagreed and many fled.


There are five pillars (or principles) of Islam:

  1. Statement of belief – There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.
  2. Muslims must pray five times a day at correct times: dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset and late evening.
  3. Alms: Muslims must give to the poor.
  4. Fasting: Muslim fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan (9th month of the Muslim calendar).
  5. Haj: Muslims are to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.


See more on religion and culture in background notes for Borderland on this site.



It is thought that due to the past 25 years of war:

  1. 70% of Afghans are malnourished
  2. Only 13% have access to clean water
  3. Millions (some estimate 6) are displaced from their homes. In the 1990's over 3 million refugees were living in Pakistani refugee camps alone
  4. Estimated 7-10 million landmines - Afghanistan is one of the heaviest mined countries in the world. Each day 10 Afghans are killed or maimed. 90% of mined areas are in agricultural areas. Estimated 400,000 children are amputees
  5. Every one in three children is an orphan – estimated one million
  6. One in four will not make it to their fifth birthday
  7. 62% of the population are women
  8. Over 500,000 have disabilities
  9. Over one million children are suffering from post-traumatic syndrome
  10. 5 million girls (90.9 %) and 4.3 million boys (74.1%) below the age of 15 cannot read or write a simple sentence.

(Some of this information is from Afghanistan online.)

Do we wonder why parents will borrow money and smuggle their families out of the country to come to a 'wonderful' land like Australia?

Although Afghans are a proud and independent people and normally would never leave their country, many have wanted to escape these difficult times to stay alive. Boys have been conscripted by the Taliban. Under Taliban rule women were not allowed to leave the house without a male escort (mahram) and not allowed to show any of their body. They were made to wear a burqa. Girls were not allowed to go to school and women not allowed to work or go to the doctor since he was male. Some women set up illegal schools from their home partly to ensure children still got educated and partly to pay for food.


One gruesome way of making money during hard times was collecting human bones. These were sold for about $2.00 and made into soap, cooking oil and chicken feed.


Ordinance on the Women's veil

Issued by a nine-member professional committee of the High Court of the Islamic State of Afghanistan.


Conditions of wearing the veil:


  1. The veil must cover the whole body
  2. Women's clothes must not be thin.
  3. Women's clothes must not be decorative or colourful.
  4. Women's clothes must not be narrow and tight to prevent the seditious limbs from being noticed.
  5. The veil must not be thin.
  6. Women's [sic] must not perfume themselves. If a perfumed woman passes by a crowd of men, she is considered to be an adulteress.
  7. Women's clothes must not resemble men's clothes.


In addition:

  1. They must not perfume themselves.
  2. They must not wear adorning clothes.
  3. They must not wear thin clothes.
  4. They must not wear narrow and tight clothes.
  5. They must cover their entire bodies.
  6. Their clothes must not resemble men's clothes.
  7. Muslim clothes must not resemble non-Muslim's clothes.
  8. Their foot ornaments must not produce sound.
  9. They must not wear sound-producing garments.
  10. They must not walk in the middle of the streets.
  11. They must not go out of the houses without their husband's permission.
  12. They must not talk to strange men.
  13. If it is necessary to talk, they must talk in a low voice and without laughter.
  14. They must not look at strangers.
  15. They must not mix with strangers.

Under Taliban rule women were beaten for accidentally showing any part of their body even their hair. Some were executed for disobeying Taliban's extremist rules.

Women hope for a free and peaceful Afghanistan.



Day: March 21. This is the first day of spring (New Year's Day for the solar calendar). The Taliban declared this holiday as anti-Islamic and tried to stop its celebrations. Despite this, people continued to celebrate it.


See more Afghan holidays in background notes for Borderland (under Jihad)


The City of Peshawar (shor e Peshawar)


 Ruth Harbinson-Gresham

from Afghanistan


Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and close to the Afghanistan border, is about 2000 years old. It has seen the rise and fall of the Buddhist era, the Moguls, Sikhs and finally the British before Pakistan's independence in 1947. The typically eastern bazaars are crowded and colourful with cloth, fruit, spices and lots and lots of people. The houses in the city are usually clay brick, often with clay mortar. The suburbs have more stone houses with mud ones becoming mud 'hovels' in the many refugee camps that circle the city. Newer suburbs have quite modern looking houses, though mostly with flat rooves. All the houses however have towering walls around them (often over 12 feet) and a man's house really is his fortress.


When you drive through the suburbs all you can see is walls, no gardens, few children and no women. It is a restrictive place for women. In public women must wear a chaddar, a tablecloth sized shawl around the head and upper body. Women must also wear large baggy trousers under a large long sleeved dress. Most women are touched and pinched in the bazaar. Islamabad, three hours away is freer. Women don't have to cover their heads there and a few even wear jeans!


Peshawar is dry and dusty; in summer it is hot and humid with temperatures between 38 and 48 degrees C, which is tough when you have to wear trousers, long sleeved shirts and a tablecloth. The mountains of the Khyber are very close and on a low pollution day or after rain they are beautifully clear. Jalalabad is inside Afghanistan and is about three hours drive if there are no problems at the border. A dusty and bumpy three hours!

Getting to know someone from Afghanistan

From reading Soraya, the storyteller do you have an idea of the background of an Afghan refugee or asylum seeker? Here are some ideas to help you.


Some experiences they may have had:

Loss of job, loss of rights, persecution, separation, refugee camps, war and trauma, death, grieving, displacement, ill health, entry to new culture, poverty, loss, forced military service, dismemberment from landmines


Cultural background:

In Afghan culture there is a strong family life, extended family, authority of family, (father is obeyed even by adult sons), not individualistic, not private, indirect in communication, people orientated, polite, strong sense of family honour, revenge, hospitality, relating between sexes is different to the West, male dominated society, no dating, arranged marriages, work experience may be different, they wear covering clothes, maybe girls wear scarves on their heads, time is more flexible, they may keep social and religious rules, they may feel freedom of a group is more important than an individual's freedom


There is a North American Indian proverb that you never really know someone (or shouldn't criticise them) unless you've walked a mile in his/her moccasins.


Q: After reading Soraya, the storyteller and these notes can you understand the Afghan worldview ie the way they may see the world and know it to be? Worldview is partly what is there and partly what we are. We are a product of our culture and family upbringing. What is your worldview?


Q: After reading Soraya the storyteller could you now outline some of the problems that an Afghan young person may face coming into an Australian school?


Q: How would you talk to such a person to make them welcome? 

The first easy thing is to smile, say hello, pronounce the name of their country correctly, and pronounce their name correctly. Accept their way of doing things and thinking about things. They don't have to think like you do. Don't be intimidated by something different, be prepared to learn something new that's helpful; let them show you how to do something eg learn some words of their language, a game, or a recipe.


Q: If you are male and you have read Soraya the storyteller would you now talk to a new girl from the Middle East and try to ask her out? For example, why does Soraya say she will never hold Kaseem's hand like Kamilah does?


The fact that you know some of a person's background and customs goes a long way in understanding and seeing things a little like they do. They will sense you are a friend.




Afghans in Australia


'Everyone's own country is Kashmir to him.' Afghan proverb.


In 1865, thirty-one Cameleers (camel handlers) first arrived in South Australia with 124 camels. Many of the men were from Afghanistan, some from Pakistan and nearby areas. Thomas Elder imported the camels and they became the nucleus of a stud at his property in Beltana. The camels were used for cartage but also the Afghans and their camels played an important part in opening up the Australian continent.

The Afghans were involved in transport, exploration, supplying homesteads and mining camps, carting ores, wool, timber, stones, water, railway sleepers, etc. They took part in projects such as the Overland Telegraph Line, the Transcontinental Railway Line, the Rabbit Proof Fence and Canning Stock Route. Some of the exploration trips were only successful because of the expertise and endurance of the cameleers. Afghan cameleers also contributed to the war effort of WW1.

The cameleers were denied citizenship in Australia and could not bring their wives and families. Cigler and Stevens were the first authors to write about the Afghans themselves and not just the camels. About 3000 Afghans took part in the camel-driving work and for nearly 60 years played an important part in the outback until the car/truck reached the outback in the 1930s. Islam in Australia is one of the most important cultural contributions of the cameleers.

Recently there have been Afghan refugees and Afghan asylum seekers coming to South Australia to escape the wars and fundamental governments in Afghanistan. There is an Afghan Association in Adelaide.



Cigler, Michael, Afghans in Australia - Ethnic Heritage Series. Melbourne: AE Press, 1989.

Migration Museum, Kintore Ave, Adelaide.

Stevens, Christine, Tin Mosques and Ghan Towns. Melbourne: Oxford Uni Press, 1989.