A Week in Afghanistan

A Proud and Friendly Spirit Against All Odds

by Nuria Tahan

Mid July, 1995, I flew to Kabul for a week with Ariana Afghan airlines. Their slogan is: “Be a second Marco Polo.” You can tell how appropriate this is when you arrive in Kabul and see the life-style and culture of the Afghan people. Despite fifteen years of war, first against the Russians, then internal fighting amongst various factional groups, the Afghans bravely carry on with life as usual. Laundry hangs in a riot of color from buildings full of bullet holes. Teenage boys sporting military uniforms and Kalashnikov rifles guard the airport. Window panes are cracked from incessant bombings, and electric power has yet to be restored. Credit cards are not accepted, but drive-through banking services are provided at the bazaar. You simply drive up, roll down the window, negotiate a rate and exchange your dollars for huge wads of afghanis.

Foreigners are treated as honored guests, and Afghans will go out of their way to help you if you’re lost, hungry, or just can’t communicate with anyone. Afghanistan was once a favorite destination with young travellers doing the Europe to India/Nepal trip in the seventies. Insha’allah it won’t be long before it resumes it’s rightful place on the great overland trek.

Koochi children. Photo: Nuria Tahan

Encounter with the Koochi Nomads

Having read James Michener’s Caravans and seen the movie years ago, I was really hoping to meet the Koochi people. I was in luck. It turned out they were camped at Tenge Gharu, only eight miles out of town. With the help of an Afghani passerby, I hired a taxi to take me out to Tenge Gharu for $5.00, including round-trip transport and one hour waiting time. Gasoline is expensive here. Tenge Gharu is the place where the Koochi nomads camp when they want to visit Kabul. I went there in the afternoon and there were only women, children and one old man there.

I was made welcome, though they were wary of my male taxi driver. I had tried to get an Afghan friend to come with me to translate, but he backed out at the last minute because he was afraid of the police checkpoints. There are probably male Koochis who speak English, but they weren’t around. I could only say “Salaam Aleykum,” smile a lot and pass out sweets. They didn’t seem to mind me taking photos and videos, but they probably would not like a man to do the same.

They were all colorfully dressed in their gypsy-like outfits with lots of tribal jewelry. The children are especially attractive little waifs with huge dark eyes rimmed with kohl. The girls and women wore their hair in small braids all over their heads. At first I didn’t even attract much attention because I physically resemble an Afghan, until the children came up to check me and the taxi out. I managed to tell them I was an American journalist, since these words are the same in their language. (editor’s note: Nuria was admitted into Afghanistan after presenting a letter from Habibi requesting her to research and write this article) Soon they were running around chattering excitedly about “Amereeca zhoornaleest.” Women came out of tents and offered tea and an unknown dish which I politely declined. Interestingly enough, most of the women seemed to be pregnant. Makes you wonder about those long, cold Afghani winters.

Crashing an Afghani Wedding

The other highlight of my trip was crashing a wedding party at a restaurant called Parwan, or something like that. It’s the preferred place for wedding parties. I had an Afghan friend with me (An Ariana crew member who befriended me), and he got me inside.

Afghani wedding, author Nuria Tahan, center

The room was divided into male and female sections, but a few men came over to the ladies side to dance. The band was on the men’s side, and played lively dance music. Afghan music and dance are very similar to Persian. Wedding guests would take turns dancing in the small space available. Sometimes, someone would throw a wad of bank notes in the air and the children would scramble around for them. There was a professional videographer and photographer there, and I also filmed. Nobody minded.

Word quickly spread that an American had crashed the party. People would come up to try out a few English words on me, and say “Welcome to Afghanistan.” They really went wild when I joined in the dancing. The movements are not difficult, and there were plenty of people to follow. The most interesting dance was one where the band would play music and then stop suddenly. A skilled dancer is supposed to be able to anticipate when the stop will be, and freeze a pose until the music begins again. It seemed to especially amuse the Afghans to watch the American try this. It took a few tries, but I finally timed it right and earned a round of applause.

The bride and groom came in a little later preceded by people dancing with huge flower arrangements. Family members held a flower-covered Koran over their heads. The groom was in formal Western clothes and the bride was in a frilly pink wedding gown embroidered with silver sequins sort of a cross between Eastern and Western styles. They had a candle lighting ceremony and then jointly cut the wedding cake, feeding each other just like in Western weddings. Pieces of cake and tea were then passed out to guests.

My friend translated my congratulations to the bride and groom. Then I made my farewells, as I was attracting too much attention and did not want to steal the bride’s day. It was a wonderful experience and I had to wonder what would happen if the situation were reversed, and some Afghans crashed an American wedding!

Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She is an inveterate traveler, having traveled to every country in the world except Libya, Lebanon, Iran and North Korea. Currently, Nuria resides in Dubai where she owns and operates Gypsy Tailoring, and designs belly dance costumes. She performs frequently in Kuwait, and plans new and exotic adventures around the world.

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