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Everyday Life in Afghanistan, Circa 1921

What are the parallels between life in Afghanistan back in 1921 and now?

February 23, 2003

What are the parallels between life in Afghanistan back in 1921 and now?

The buffer state of Afghanistan, historic shock-absorber between Great Britain and Russia in middle Asia, years ago put up a “Keep Out” sign, a “This Means You” warning, to all white men and Christians. The land is “posted” — to use a poacher’s phrase — posted against trade and concession hunters, against missionaries, and against all military and political hunters in particular.

The “Keep Out” sign is still up. Today the foreigner is no more welcome in Afghanistan than he was a hundred years ago. Forbidden Lhasa itself is no more exclusive than brooding, suspicious Kabul, the capital of this isolate, unfriendly realm of fanatic tribes, of rocks, deserts, irrigated valleys, and towering unsurveyed ranges.

No railways or telegraph lines cross this hermit country or run into it, and its six or seven million people are hardly on speaking terms with any other nation.

Night and day, from stone watchtowers and hidden nooks along the ancient caravan trails that lead in from India, from Persia and Russia — trails used long ago by Alexander and Jenghiz Khan — squads of bearded, turbaned Afghans, with imported field glasses and long rifles, are keeping watch against trespassers from without.

No ambassadors or ministers, not even missionaries, are permitted to reside in this forbidden Moslem land. “Splendid isolation” is a sort of Afghan tradition, a conviction that the coming of the foreigner will spell the end of the Amir and his unique, absolute rule.

With an area of 245,000 square miles, Afghanistan is, next to Tibet, the largest country in the world that is practically closed to the citizens of other nations. But political life at wary, alert Kabul is in sharp contrast to the meditative seclusion and classic aloofness of the pious lamas at Lhasa.

The Amir’s word, his veriest whim, is law to his millions of subjects. He is, in truth, the last of the despots, a sort of modern Oriental patriarch on a grand scale. His judgments are, of course, based primarily on the Koran, or on the common law of the land; for there is no statute hook, no penal code, and no court.

To keep the wires of politics, of military and economic control, in his own hands, the Amir vests subordinate authority only in his relatives and close friends; and woe betide the incautious underling who dares think for himself or act contrary to the Amir’s wishes; for in this primitive, secluded region there still survive many unique and startling methods of “rendering a culprit innocuous.”

The Amir reserves to himself the right of passing death sentences. The cruel Afghan forms of punishment, such as shooting a prisoner from the cannon’s muzzle, sabering off his head, stoning him to death, burying him alive, cutting off his hands and feet or putting out his eyes, are seldom employed nowadays; yet often the criminal himself will choose a quick though violent exodus to paradise rather than suffer long imprisonment in a filthy iron cage, perhaps to die eventually of starvation.

The way of the transgressor in Afghanistan continues to be uncommonly hard, however. Time and again, in the recorded history of this land, deposed amirs, troublesome relatives, and political enemies have been deliberately blinded, there being a tradition here that no man with any physical affliction may hold a public office of honor or profit.

The trade of Afghanistan is moved entirely by caravans and is largely in the hands of Hindus and Tadjiks. The chief route lies through the famous Khyber Pass, the great gateway from India, which has been fortified by the British Government.

This pass is open every week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, except in very hot weather, when it is available to trade only on Fridays. A most rigid scrutiny is exercised by the Amir’s agents on all who come and go. As soon as caravans from India enter the country, their Indian leaders are turned back and heavily armed Afghan guides take their places.

The Yankee fountain pen and cheap watch are popular in Kabul. Most imports, however, come from India and China. Of late much Japanese merchandise is finding its way into the country. Either directly or through reshipping, India supplies Afghanistan with cotton goods, hardware, sugar and tea, dye materials, and silver bars for the coining of money.

Gun running and the smuggling of ammunition, which flourished for many years, have recently been restricted by British supervision of the Indian frontiers. Though camels and packhorses, yabus, are mostly used for transport, it is not at all uncommon to see elephants, and even wheelbarrows, on the Afghan trails.


Owing to the aggressive pursuit and harsh punishment meted out by the Amir’s troops, the once famous robbers of the Afghan hills have almost disappeared, so that caravans, even in the desert districts, can now travel in safety; but in some provinces near the borders constant quarrels and raids are going on among hostile tribes.

In all Asia no fighting force is more picturesque or presents a more astonishing mixture of ancient and modern fighting methods than does the army of the Amir. Most of his troops are mounted, either on horses or camels, and a few of his better regiments of cavalry are organized somewhat after the Anglo-Indian style. The regulars are recruited mostly from among the town-dwelling Tadjiks.

The Malkis, or territorials, are organized and used in the various provinces as a sort of home guard. Some of them use flintlocks, and many depend on the spear and the long, curved sword for dispatching an enemy at close quarters.

Afghanistan’s willful isolation of herself has, of course, affected the life of her people. Even among the different tribes within the country jealousies and ethnological differences are conspicuous.

The high mountains and frequent deserts so separate the cultivated and inhabited districts that tribal customs and habits, tongues, and religious differences are found here in sharper contrast than in most other countries of the East.

But because of the Afghan’s chronic aversion to all foreigners, and the clever exclusion policy of the Amir, aided by nature’s own barriers of sand wastes and almost inaccessible mountain ranges, it is likely that for a long time to come foreign influence will spread but slowly in this isolated land.

Yet the Amir and his military aristocracy follow intently all big events in the turbulent outside world. America is spoken of with sympathy and admiration, and, despite the prevailing illiteracy, many Afghans display an amazing knowledge of geography and current history. During the World War even the nomads on the steppes had fairly accurate news of great battles, and they had heard of air raids and submarines.

Today all Islam is in ominous ferment. Though the World War is officially ended, fights and disputes are still sweeping over Asia. Eventually and inevitably Afghanistan must again become the object of rivalry among big powers that rub shoulders in the East.

Adapted from “The World of Islam” edited by Don Belt. Copyright © 2001 by the National Geographic Society. Used by permission of National Geographic.