Afghan Americans are immigrants or descendants of people from Afghanistan, a country in southern Asia. Officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the country is bordered by Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China to the north, Pakistan to the east and south, and Iran to the west. The terrain alternates between the rugged mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush (making parts of the country virtually inaccessible) and the plains of the North and Southwest. Only 12 percent of Afghanistan is arable. The climate can be harsh, bringing earthquakes, damaging floods, and devastating droughts. Afghanistan's total land area is 251,827 square miles (652,230 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of Texas.
According to the CIA World Factbook, the population of Afghanistan was an estimated 30,419,928 in 2012. The last official census was suspended in 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country. About 80 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim; 19 percent is Shia Muslim; and 1 percent is some other religion. Afghanistan is ethnically diverse, divided among the Pashtun (42 percent), Tajik (27 percent), Uzbek (9 percent), Aimak (4 percent), Turkmen (3 percent), and Baloch (2 percent). Many Afghans are bilingual. Half the population speaks Afghan, Persian, or Dari. The latter is an official language, as is Pashto, which is spoken by 35 percent of the population. Afghanistan has one of the lowest standards of living in the world, with a per capita income of only $1,000 in 2011. More than a third of the population is unemployed, and 36 percent of Afghans live below the poverty line. Some 79 percent of the workforce is engaged in the agricultural sector, with many Afghans involved in subsistence farming.
Afghans first started settling in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with a group of two hundred Pashtuns in 1920. Early Afghan immigrants tended to come from the professional classes, often immigrating as students and never returning home. They settled mostly in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., where large Afghan American communities still exist. Early Afghan immigrants were able to acclimatize well to life in the United States while continuing to preserve their own culture and maintaining strong ties with Afghanistan. Acclimation has been much more difficult for Afghans who came to the United States as refugees rather than as immigrants seeking improved opportunities.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey estimates U.S. residents reported being of Afghan descent. In 2005 the American Community Survey had placed the Afghan American population at 70,063. The states with the largest Afghan American populations were California, Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Texas.
HISTORY OF THE PEOPLE
Early History Some of the earliest stirrings of the nation-state that became Afghanistan occurred in 1747, when lands controlled by the Pashtuns were united under Ahmad Shah Durrani. Durrani established the first independent Pashtun-controlled region in central Asia, becoming known as the “Father of Afghanistan.” The British invaded the country in 1839, setting off the three-year Anglo-Afghan War. That year King Shah Shujah was installed as the head of the newly created monarchy. After Afghanistan achieved its independence from Britain in 1919, it endured decades of invasion, war, and internal conflict.
Modern Era In 1953 General Mohammed Daud, the new prime minister, turned to the Soviet Union for both financial and military assistance. A series of social reforms were subsequently instituted. Daud was ousted in 1963, and the following year Afghanistan redefined itself as a constitutional monarchy, adopting a new constitution that laid the groundwork for the eventual creation of a parliamentary democracy. Daud managed to recapture control through a successful coup in 1973, but a communist countercoup followed in 1978 with backing from the Soviet Union. Because it was generally viewed as pro-Russian and anti-Islamic, the countercoup led to widespread uprisings. As a result, more than 400,000 refugees fled to Pakistan, and 600,000 more escaped to Iran. At first the Soviets assisted the Afghan government in suppressing the uprisings, but they chose to invade Afghanistan in 1979. The invasion motivated the United States to supply Afghan rebels with military equipment.
The Soviet invasion generated a new wave of Afghan refugees, who fled to neighboring countries. By 1981 there were some three million Afghans in Pakistan and 250,000 in Iran. By 1985 half the population of Afghanistan had been displaced by war, and by 1991 the number of Afghan refugees had climbed to five million. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving behind a country devastated by decades of war. In 1994 the Taliban seized control of Kabul and imposed strict adherence to Islamic law. Afghan women left Afghanistan in droves, and many immigrated to the United States and Canada. On September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorists with links to the Taliban attacked the United States. The subsequent invasion launched by the administration of President George W. Bush and NATO allies in 2001 ousted the Taliban-led government. By 2004 a new constitution had been ratified, and elections were held in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai became the first president of Afghanistan ever to be democratically elected, and he headed up efforts to revitalize Afghanistan. He was reelected in 2009.
SETTLEMENT IN THE UNITED STATES
Although early records are vague or nonexistent, the first Afghans to reach U.S. shores probably arrived in the 1920s or 1930s. It is known that a group of two hundred Pashtuns came to the United States in 1920. Owing to the political boundaries in central Asia at that time, however, most were probably residents of British India (which today is in Pakistan). Some were probably Afghan citizens, however. Most Afghan immigrants in the 1930s and 1940s arrived alone or in family groups, and some were married to Europeans. Many of those immigrants were students who came to the United States to study and chose to remain permanently in the United States rather than returning to their homeland.
From 1953 until the early 1970s, about 230 Afghans immigrated to the United States and became American citizens. That number does not reflect those who arrived in the United States to earn a university degree and then returned to Afghanistan, or who visited here for other reasons. From 1973 to 1977, 110 Afghan immigrants were naturalized in the United States.
Although the first Afghan immigrants to arrive in the United States were well educated and professional, more recent immigrants have less education, interact less with other Americans, and are less proficient in English. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Afghan Americans have experienced a strong sense of isolation within American society.
Large numbers of Afghan refugees began arriving in the United States in 1980 in the wake of the Soviet invasion. Some were officially designated as refugees, while others were granted political asylum. Others arrived through a family reunification program or by illegal entry. About 2,000 to 4,000 Afghans arrived every year until 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew its troops. Estimates of the number of Afghan refugees in the United States ranged from 45,000 to 75,000.
After 1989 most Afghans arrived in the United States under the family reunification program. In that case, a visa is contingent on the willingness of family members or an organization to guarantee their support for a certain period of time. This process inevitably leads immigrant groups to settle near each other. After a brief stall in 1994, a new wave of Afghan immigrants escaping the Taliban began in 1996, with approximately 1,000 arriving each year until the year 2000. Although the first Afghan immigrants to arrive in the United States were well educated and professional, more recent immigrants have less education, interact less with other Americans, and are less proficient in English. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many Afghan Americans have experienced a strong sense of isolation within American society.
From 1999 the U.S. government began admitting Afghans who had fled to Pakistan by granting them refugee status. Most within this group were well educated, and 2,800 Afghan women arrived in the United States after 1999. About 70 percent of those women were Tajiks, and more than half were doctors, engineers, lawyers, and teachers. At the other end of the spectrum were working-class immigrants who joined the American workforce as sales clerks, office personnel, and service workers. In 2001 about half the female Afghan immigrants had been widowed. In 2006 the U.S. government created a special immigrant visa program to allow Afghans and Iraqis who had worked with the American military at great risk to their lives and safety to enter the United States. However, benefits allotted for these immigrants are often difficult to obtain and expire six months after arrival. Most of these special entrants have been unable to find jobs commensurate with their professional training and job skills. Therefore, they have been forced to work at low-paying jobs, and some have been unable to find work at all.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 53,709 Afghan Americans lived in the United States. After the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 and the installation that year of the Western-backed government, the annual number of Afghan immigrants more than doubled; from 2002 to 2011 an average of 2,500 Afghans annually immigrated to the United States (as reported by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). Many Afghan Americans also returned to Afghanistan to take on major responsibilities in rebuilding the nation. In 2011 the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS) reported that an estimated 89,040 people of Afghan descent were living in the United States.
The majority of Afghan immigrants settled in California, New York, and Washington, D.C., and established their own communities. Census figures taken in 2005 indicated that Afghan Americans had spread out to Virginia, Maryland, and Texas. In California the largest Afghan American communities are found in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles area. No city is more associated with Afghan Americans than Fremont, California, which is home to the largest concentration of Afghan Americans in the country. According to the ACS estimates, in 2010 there were 2,760 individuals of Afghan descent living in Fremont. The area of “Little Kabul” is filled with Afghan restaurants and shops and regularly hosts events that promote the Afghan culture. The Bay Area, which was home to some 11,400 Afghan Americans in 2010 (ACS estimate), has long been considered a haven for Afghan Americans, providing them with access to mosques, grocery stores, restaurants, and a local radio and television station in their own language. Another 7,500 lived in the Los Angeles area, and 3,200 called San Diego home. The climate, diverse culture, and availability of social programs have drawn many Afghan Americans to California. About 8,900 Afghan Americans lived in the New York City metropolitan area, which includes northern, New Jersey and Long Island. Many Muslim Afghan Americans have found a home in the “Little Afghanistan” section of Queens, New York. A much smaller group of Afghan Jews has made their home in New York City. Other cities with smaller Afghan American populations include Washington D.C., Baltimore, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Boulder, Albany, Philadelphia, Seattle, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Although a number of dialects are spoken in Afghanistan, there are two related languages spoken throughout the country. Pashto is one of the official languages; the dialect known as Northern Pashto is spoken in some provinces of Pakistan. Pashto speakers have traditionally made up the ruling class of Afghanistan. Dari, which is also an official language, is a variety of Persian. Dari is more often used in the cities and in business. Whereas Pashto speakers make up one ethnic group—the Pashtun—those who speak Dari include many ethnicities from many regions. Both Pashto and Dari are used by educated Afghans, who learn both languages as well as English in school. When teaching general subjects, teachers use the language that is most common to the region in which the school is located.
Dari and Pashto are more similar written than as spoken languages. In written language, both Pashto and Dari use adaptations of the Arabic alphabet. Four additional consonants are added to that alphabet in Dari for sounds unique to Afghanistan. In Pashto those four consonants are added as well as eight additional letters. Other languages spoken in Afghanistan Page 20 | Top of Articlestem from the Turkish language family, including Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi, Pashai, Nuristani, and Pamiri. Each of these languages is the official language in the area in which the designated group is the majority.
Most Afghan immigrants to the United States speak Dari, Pashto, or Tajik. Many adopt English after their arrival, but certain groups of immigrants struggle to acquire the language. For example, many poorer immigrants, who were illiterate in their home country, find it difficult to learn English. Younger Afghan immigrants continue to demonstrate their ease in learning new languages by becoming adept at English. This facility with language aids the youth in their academic and career prospects, but it can be a double-edged sword; as the member of a family who is most adept at English, a child may be called upon to interact with authority figures outside the family, such as school principals and social service agencies. Although this dialogue may be vital to the family's well-being, it upsets the traditional Afghan family hierarchy and sometimes contributes to the despair of parents who bemoan the loss of traditional family patterns.
Another dilemma faced by Afghan Americans is the combination of English words and phrases when they speak Dari or Pashto to each other. This combination of two languages has made communication among Afghan youth easier, but it has also created a serious problem in communication between children and parents with limited English language skills. According to the 2009–2011 estimates by the American Community Survey, the vast majority of Afghan Americans (89.2 percent) spoke a language other than English at home. However, the majority of those (65.7 percent) also reported that they spoke English “very well.” Researchers have found that Afghan Americans tend to use Dari and Pashto in conversations related to intimacy and family life but use English in conversations related to status. Although such language combinations may aid communication when all speakers have similar skill levels in both languages, long-term mixture may dilute Afghan languages among Afghan Americans.
Greetings and Popular Expressions in Dari and Pashto Hello / Peace be with you. Salaam. / As-Salaamu 'alaykum.
Welcome. Khoosh aamadeyn. / Kha raaghlaast.
How are you? Chutoor hastee? / Tsenga yee?
Fine. And you? Khoob astum. Chutoor asten? / Za Kha yam. Tatsenga?
What is your name? Naamet chees? / Staa num tsa deh?
Do you speak English? Ingleesee yaad daaree? / Tta pe Inglisee Khabaree kawaley shee?
Thank you for your help. Aaz khumeketaan tashakur. / Staa la maraste tsaKha manana.
Afghanistan is predominantly Muslim, and politics and religion there are interrelated, with religious laws often governing daily life. The majority of the population, 80 percent, is Sunni, the most mainstream branch of Islam. Another 19 percent are Shia Muslims, who are considerably more conservative than Sunnis. The remaining one percent of Afghans tend to be Pashtunwali, Baha'i, Buddhists, Hindus, or Zoroastrians. In a largely inaccessible country such as Afghanistan, the wider Islamic influence was once limited, and a strict adherence to its tenets was not kept. However, the Taliban strictly enforced Islamic law, and religious law continues to play a major role in the legal system and customs of contemporary Afghanistan.
In the United States, many Afghan Americans experience conflicts with American society that can be traced to Islamic traditions, history, and identity. Those conflicts have accelerated greatly since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and religious discrimination against Muslim Americans has been on the rise as some Americans equate Islam with terrorism and confuse Afghans with al-Qaeda. One of the ironies of this position is that many Afghan Americans who are accused of being terrorists have joined the military to fight “terrorists.” Another irony is that many young Afghan Americans identify themselves chiefly as Americans, and many have never even seen Afghanistan.
Muslims avoid alcohol and all pork products. During Ramadan—the monthlong period of fasting—eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during the day. One difficulty for Afghan American Page 21 | Top of Articleyouths is that Islam discourages marriage outside the faith. There is, however, a gender-based disparity in the consequences of these types of marriages. A son who marries a non-Muslim is accepted, because it is assumed that his new wife will convert to Islam. When a daughter marries a non-Muslim, she is often shunned. She is seen as a traitor to her family and her religion.
CULTURE AND ASSIMILATION
Observers have noted that many Afghan immigrants feel a sense of isolation when entering the United States. This is particularly true of those who arrived as political refugees. That sense of isolation accelerated even further after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 because of the Taliban's links to al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of the attacks. In 1994 the Taliban, a Pakistani-sponsored group, took control of Afghanistan, and many Afghans fled the country. In 1999 the American government began granting refugee status to all Afghans entering the United States via Pakistan. The vast majority had no plan to remain permanently in the United States. Instead, they came to find physical safety. Many were trained as professionals in Afghanistan but found work impossible to obtain in the United States due to difficulties with the English language, depleted savings, or lack of a social support. Some Afghan Americans are fighting back by filing lawsuits against those who discriminate against them. One recent incident involved the harassment of four Afghan American sales people who were called “terrorists” by a general manager at a Toyota dealership in Fremont, California, during a staff meeting. They ultimately resigned after being subjected to an extended period of ongoing harassment. In 2012 Fremont Toyota settled the lawsuit for $400,000 and focused national attention on the issue of harassment of Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11.
Afghan immigrants to the United States in the early 1980s tended to be urban professionals, but those who arrived in the late 1980s were often middle-class immigrants who arrived via family reunification. They were followed by Afghans seeking refugee status who tended to have even lower levels of education. Because Afghans receive only an average of nine years of schooling (with females attending for only seven years while males attend for eleven years) and the literacy rate is low (28.1 percent), many new Afghan American immigrants are illiterate in their own language as well as in English. Afghan women's literacy rate is less than 13 percent, so problems were even worse for some female immigrants.
Afghan Americans sometimes define integration into American society in ways that are distinct from those of other immigrants. Among the Afghan American refugee community, integration often means simply earning enough to support their families while maintaining their cultural and traditional beliefs and experiencing some level of stability and satisfaction, usually while isolating themselves within the Afghan American community. As Juliene Lipson and Patricia Omidian note in Refugees in America (1996), for many Afghan American refugees integration does not mean assimilation. Although Afghans who have been in the United States for many years are more accustomed to American culture, Lipson and Omidian found little assimilation of Afghans into the American mainstream, no matter how long they had lived in the United States. Because they speak Afghan languages at home, eat Afghan food, listen to Afghan music, and continue to participate in the religion and culture of their homeland, most Afghan families encourage links with Afghanistan. Even among children and teens, for whom assimilation is easiest, many young people have attempted to maintain their Afghan identity while changing only superficially.
Following the events of 9/11, Columbia University's Oral History Research Office began interviewing Afghan Americans, along with other Arab Americans, about their experiences within the context of the Oral History Narrative Memory Project. Individuals interviewed were generally young, extremely literate, and largely secular (rather than practicing Muslims). Most identified themselves as Americans rather than Afghans because they had either been born in the United States or immigrated at an early age and remembered little of life in Afghanistan. Most said they had experienced some level of racism in the post-9/11 environment. Among those interviewed, the sense of being unjustly treated after 9/11 has been particularly strong among those born and/or raised in the United States. Although they decried the attacks, some Afghan Americans felt that it was important for Americans to have a taste of the violence that had become a part of daily life for Afghans living in a country torn apart by both external and internal strife.
As with many immigrants, Afghans tend to settle in areas where there are already a large number of their own ethnic group present. This has occasionally led to increased difficulty with neighboring communities of other ethnicities, especially in places such as California, where resentment toward immigrants has heightened in the wake of 9/11 and the economic downturn of the early twenty-first century. The neighborhoods in which Afghan Americans settle also tend to be less expensive and sometimes more dangerous than those to which they are accustomed. Thus, many of those at most risk, such as the very old and very young, remain inside, contributing to an additional sense of isolation and further hindering acculturation. After 9/11 some job applicants chose to avoid listing education and job experience obtained in Afghanistan on job applications, even at the risk of appearing less qualified.
The strength of the Afghan people in the United States lies in their strong sense of family and tribal loyalty. Although strained by the dispersal of extended families and by financial stresses, that loyalty binds Afghan Americans to their cultural traditions, which Page 22 | Top of Articlehave largely been transported unchanged from their homeland. Thus, faced with a difficult situation in Afghanistan, many Afghans chose to enter the United States owing to their strong family connections.
Traditions and Customs Central to the Afghan way of life is storytelling, and many stories are so well known that they can be recited by heart at family and community gatherings. Those stories have been brought to the United States by Afghan immigrants, who tell them to their children and grandchildren. Many young Afghan Americans, particularly those born in the United States, have not always felt connected to popular Afghan tales. However, the experiences of 9/11 aroused many young Afghan Americans' interest in their native culture. On college campuses with large Afghan American student populations, new groups have been organized to promote the Afghan languages and culture, such as the Afghan Student Association of the University of California at Berkeley and the Afghan Student Union at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Within Afghan American homes, most families have kept Afghan traditions alive by speaking only Dari or Pashto, listening to Afghan music, and eating traditional Afghan foods. Organizations such as America's Islamic Heritage Museum and Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., keep Islamic culture and traditions alive through events such as the Afghan American Oral History Night, held in September 2011.
As in all cultures, some of the most renowned Afghan stories are those for children. These stories, usually with a moral lesson, are often about foolish people getting what they deserve. Other sources of narrative enjoyment are tales about the mullah, a respected Islamic leader or teacher. In these stories, the narrator casts the mullah as a wise fool; that is, the one who appears to be foolish but who, later, is shown to be intelligent and full of sage advice.
Heroism plays an important role in Afghan stories, and many such tales are taken from the Shahnama, or The Book of Kings. In a geographic region that has been fought over, conquered, divided, and reunited, it is not surprising that what defines a hero is subject to debate. For example, one popular story is about a real man who overthrew the Pashtun government in 1929. However, that same man is anything but a hero in a traditional Pashtun tale, which portrays him as a fool.
Love stories are also important to Afghans. In one tale, the young lovers Majnun and Leilah are separated and unable to reunite after they grow older. Disappointed, they each die of grief and sadness.
Arab mythology tells of spirits known as jinn that can change shape and become invisible, and a belief in the jinn is strong among Afghans and Afghan Americans. These spirits are usually considered evil. Protection from jinn is derived from a special amulet worn around the neck. Jinn frequently find their way into Afghan stories.
Cuisine As in many countries of Asia, bread is central to the Afghan diet. Along with rice and dairy products, a flatbread called naan is an important part of most meals. This and other breads may be leavened or unleavened, and the process of cooking naan requires speed and dexterity. Afghan bread typically is cooked inside a round container made of pottery with an opening in the top. The container's bottom is buried in the earth and heated by coals. After forming the dough, the baker slaps it onto the rounded interior of the container, where it adheres and quickly begins cooking, after which it is served immediately. This method is used in many Afghan and Middle Eastern restaurants in the United States today.
Another important element of the Afghan meal is rice, cooked with vegetables or meats. The rice dishes vary from house to house and from occasion to occasion. They range from simple meals to elegant fare cooked with sheep, raisins, almonds, and pistachios. Because Afghanistan is a Muslim country, pork is forbidden. Popular Afghan foods cooked in Afghan American homes include meatballs, sweet pumpkin, handmade noodles, meat dumplings, and sweets such as halwa, jelabi, and rice pudding.
The usual drink in Afghanistan is tea. Green tea is drunk in the northern regions, and black tea is partaken south of the Hindu Kush mountains. Alcohol, forbidden by Islam, is not drunk.
Clothing Traditionally, an Afghan man wears a long-sleeved shirt that reaches his knees. His trousers are baggy and have a drawstring at the waist. Vests and coats are sometimes worn. In rural areas, the coats are often brightly striped. Turbans are worn by most men. Traditionally, the turban was white, but now a variety of colors are seen. Since the fall of the Taliban, many young Afghan males have become fashion-conscious and have begun to mirror the wardrobes of most young Afghan American males, wearing jeans with T-shirts or sweatshirts and appearing in other Western fashions.
Women in Afghanistan wear pleated trousers under a long dress. Their heads are usually covered. Under the Taliban, the wearing of the burqa, a traditional piece of clothing, was reinstated. The burqa is an ankle-length cloth covering worn by Afghan women that reaches from head to toe, with mesh for the eyes and nose. The burqa had been banned by the government in 1959 as Afghanistan modernized. In the wake of the Taliban's fall, the burqa continued to be worn widely in public. However, in private many Afghan women wear Western-style clothing such as tight jeans and high-heeled boots. Among Afghan American women, most wear Western-style clothes when in public. Although many Afghan American women continued to cover their heads in public, some removed the coverings following the 9/11 attacks because of the animosity of some Americans who linked traditional Afghan clothing with al-Qaeda and terrorism.
Dances and Songs Afghan adults enjoy both songs and dancing. They do not dance with partners, the method more typical in the West. Instead, they dance in circles in a group or dance alone. A favorite pastime among men is to relax in teahouses listening to music and talking.
Traditional Afghan music has been influenced by a number of cultures, including Arab, Persian, Indian, Mongolian, and Chinese. Contemporary Afghan music, which is usually sung in either Dari or Pashto, is more similar to Western music than it is to any Asian music. Traditional instruments include drums, a wind instrument, and a stringed gourd. The males of some tribes still take part in traditional dances that involve swinging swords or guns while engaging in a war dance. For women, belly dancing is part of certain rituals in tribes such as the Durani, and the women wear long colorful dresses and many silver bracelets. The music and dance of Afghanistan have been kept alive for Afghan Americans as many continue to listen to traditional music in their homes and in gatherings with friends and family. Technology enables Afghan Americans to stay in touch with the Afghan pop scene, and websites such as Afghansongs.com provide Afghan Americans with ready access to popular songs and videos. Even though tribal dances are not performed outside the homeland, the Afghan belly dance has been transported to other cultures, including the United States. Although the belly dance is not generally performed in public, numerous videos of it are available via YouTube.
While Afghanistan was under Taliban control, many forms of Afghan music were completely banned, and it became illegal to attend mixed-gender parties. Even though the ousting of the Taliban from their official position has allowed the Afghan music scene to resurface, some repression continues. In 2012, for instance, fifteen males and two females were beheaded by members of the Taliban for attending a mixed-gender party.
In 2010 Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi released the documentary The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, which focusing attention on the practice of poor Afghan parents selling their sons to wealthy Afghans for sexual and entertainment purposes. Although the practice is illegal, the law is rarely enforced.
Holidays A countryside filled with farm animals dyed a variety of colors is a sign that the most important annual Afghan holiday, Nowruz, has arrived. Nowruz, the ancient Persian new year celebration, occurs at the beginning of spring and is celebrated on the Spring Equinox each year. An important Nowruz ceremony is the raising of the flag at the tomb of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan. Pilgrims travel to touch the staff that was raised, and on the fortieth day after Nowruz, the staff is lowered. At that time, a short-lived species of tulip blooms. The holiday is brightened by the arrival of special foods such as samanak, made with wheat and sugar. Sugar is expensive in Afghanistan, and its use indicates a special occasion. Another special dish is haft
miwa, a combination of nuts and fruits. While Afghan Americans have always been free to celebrate Nowruz, the practice was banned within Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban. A religious nation, Afghanistan celebrates most of its holidays by following the Islamic calendar. The holidays include Ramadan, the month of fasting from dawn until dusk, and Eid al-Adha, a sacrifice feast that lasts three days to celebrate the monthlong pilgrimage to Mecca.
Health Care Issues As with all immigrants, Afghan Americans are affected by the conditions of the land they left. Within Afghanistan, children continue to be the most vulnerable of all groups to the conditions of war, poverty, and inadequate access to potable water and good health care. Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate in the world (121.63 deaths per 1,000 live births). One in four dies before their fifth birthday, and one in ten are severely malnourished. In 1996 the United Nations found that the capital Kabul had more land mines than any other country in the world, and more than 400,000 Afghan children had been disabled by those mines. Over one million Afghan children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2010 there were more than two million orphaned children, and 600,000 Afghan children live on the streets. Many Afghan Americans have demonstrated their willingness to adopt or foster Afghan orphans. According to Passports USA, however, it is impossible for Americans to adopt Afghan orphans because of legal differences in adoption laws of the two countries.
Afghan Americans seeking health care face many of the same problems as other Muslim immigrants. Many Afghan American Muslims are uncomfortable with medical providers of a different sex. They may require that their beds face Mecca, and many are uncomfortable with having parts of their body exposed. Some Afghan Americans adhere to the traditional belief that females require male chaperonage when in public, and this can present problems when Afghan American females are hospitalized. Because health care is often inadequate and inaccessible in Afghanistan, more recent immigrants may be completely unfamiliar with Western medical procedures. Most Afghan American Christians who have become acclimatized to American society experience little difficulty in adjusting to the American health care system, as many of the problems experienced by Afghan Muslim immigrants are related to their religious beliefs. Recent immigrants may experience language barriers, and they may delay seeking help because of the lack of health insurance and the cultural tendency of Afghans to believe that illnesses can be treated by home remedies or through cultural rituals.
Mental health issues related to the trauma of war are common among Afghan Americans, especially more recent arrivals. Dislocation, relocation, and the death of family members and friends all weigh heavily on uprooted people. Post-traumatic stress disorder has frequently been diagnosed in the Afghan American population. In addition, there is evidence of family stress based on changing gender roles in the face of American culture.
Many elderly Afghans who had prepared to enter a period of heightened responsibility and respect enter instead a period of isolation. Their extended families are dispersed, and their immediate family members work long hours to make ends meet. Because they Page 25 | Top of Articlethemselves do not speak English, they feel trapped inside their homes. Even parents and youth suffer a sense of loss as they contend with social service agencies and schools. Women, often more willing than men to take jobs below their abilities or former status, must deal with resentment from other family members as they become primary breadwinners.
Among Afghan Americans who have been in the United States for a longer period of time, there are fewer health and mental health problems and more satisfaction with their lives in the United States. Their increasing financial and career stability provides optimism for the newer arrivals.
One problem growing in severity among Afghan Americans is the use and abuse of alcohol. This issue is emerging even though Islam forbids the drinking of alcohol. Alcohol abuse often stems from the traumas and stresses of upheaval and problems with money, jobs, and school. In such a traditionally abstinent group, abuse of alcohol leads to shame and loss of traditional culture.
Death and Burial Rituals Religious practices brought from their homeland play a major role in the funeral rituals of Afghan American Muslims. During the ceremony, passages from the Quran are read, and prayers might be offered asking that God grant long lives to remaining family members. Women are required to sit in a separate room, where services are heard only through a loudspeaker. Funerals frequently become social occasions; as is common at Afghan American social gatherings, food is an important part of the occasion. The meal may be served at the mosque where the funeral takes place or at the home of a family member. Afghan American Christians follow the practices of their own religions, and services have much in common with those of other American funerals.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LIFE
To the Afghan people, the most important social unit is not the nation but the family. An Afghan has obligations to his or her immediate and extended families. The head of the family is unequivocally the father (or the grandfather in extended family situations), regardless of social class or education. As economic pressures are brought to bear on Afghan American families, that dynamic has shifted in some cases, at times causing stress. Almost all immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s suffered a severe loss of status with their move to the United States because they were often forced to take on lower-paying jobs, and many could not obtain positions in the fields for which they were trained. Thus, they were required to grow accustomed to what they viewed as a loss of status. Since more recent immigrants tend to come from lower educational and occupational statuses, the change is generally less traumatic for them.
Both family size and dynamics are vastly different in the United States than in Afghanistan. Because in Afghanistan infant mortality is high and many families live off the land, Afghan women give birth to an average of six children. Extended family members often live together in one household, sometimes behind a walled compound. In the United States, families are smaller and more spread out, with grown children often moving to different states. Afghan American women have broken with tradition by entering the workplace, where they are exposed to a range of situations and people. Within some Afghan American families, this exposure creates challenges to the role of the male as responsible for females he feels morally bound to protect. Afghan American young people are exposed to even more outside forces and must walk a fine line in trying to fit in with their peers while continuing to respect the cultural traditions of their families. Because respect for authority figures such as fathers and teachers is inherent in Afghan culture, traditional Afghan American families often have difficulty adjusting to changing familial roles.
Gender Roles Within Afghanistan, life for women is often dangerous and is considered repressive, by Western standards. Females can be imprisoned at the request of family members or they can be forced to serve as proxies when their husbands commit crimes. Young girls are forced into arranged marriages; if they escape, they often have nowhere to turn. Some Afghans still engage in the practice of baadh, in which females are given to other family members to pay off debts. Freedom of movement is severely restricted for Afghan females.
In the United States, Afghan women have proved to be strong, resourceful, and valuable members of their families. Although the father plays the dominant role in the community and extended family, the mother's role should not be overlooked. Researchers have generally found that young Afghan women have adapted to living in the United States better than their male counterparts. Elderly Afghan American women have not done as well. They often feel isolated and lonely at a time of their lives when they could have expected to be secure in the center of a loving extended family. Many Afghan American women have taken on occupations that would have been below their former status in Afghanistan, such as housekeeping. Afghan American women who work outside the home are still expected to clean and cook at home. As in their home country, they also have had to bear the major responsibility of caring for children.
Because marriage and childbearing is considered the primary role for women, single Afghan American women contend with unique stresses. Often Afghan American men perceive their female counterparts as too Westernized to be suitable mates. They may prefer to marry women who live in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
Birth As in many cultures, the birth of a child is cause for celebration in an Afghan household. The birth of a boy leads to an elaborate celebration. It is not until children are three days old that they are named, and an uncle on the father's side of the family chooses the name. At the celebration, the mullah, a respected Islamic leader, whispers into the newborn's ear “Allah-u-Akbar,” or “God is great,” and then whispers the child's new name. He tells the newborn about his or her ancestry and to be a good Muslim and maintain the family honor. In the United States, Afghan American Muslims have continued this practice. A parent or grandparent might whisper in the ear of a newborn, “A shadu ala ilaha ilalahu wa ashadu anna Muhammadan abdoho wa raswuloh,” which means “I testify that there is no God but God, and I testify that Muhammad is His messenger.”
Education Education levels among Afghan Americans vary greatly. Many Afghan immigrants possess college degrees, often earned in the United States, and some have been able to achieve positions of prominence in American society. Other Afghan Americans have not been as fortunate. Many entered the United States in desperate straits, with little or no money, and were forced to take jobs of lower status than those held in their homeland. Many were victims of an inferior Afghan educational system in which most males attended school for eleven years but females for only seven. During the Taliban era, girls were often prevented from attending schools. Schools are underfunded, and teachers are often inadequately trained. With a renewed interest in education during Afghan reconstruction, there is an acute shortage of teachers. The result of the poor educational system is that literacy in Afghanistan is very low, particularly for females.
With female literacy at 12.6 percent, and male literacy at 43.1 percent. and the education system is rudimentary. Originally schooling was available only in mosques and only for boys. It was not until 1903 that the first truly modern school was created in which both religious and secular subjects were taught. The first school for girls was not founded until 1923 in Kabul. In the most Western of Afghan cities, Kabul, the University of Kabul opened in 1946. Even there, however, there were separate faculties for men and women.
A terrible blow befell Afghan schooling in the aftermath of the invasion by the Soviet Union. Before the invasion, it was estimated that there were more than 3,400 schools and more than 83,000 teachers. By the late 1990s only 350 schools existed, with only 2,000 teachers. The method of teaching in those schools was rote memorization. In the late twentieth century, failure to pass to the next grade was common.
Immigrants to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s confronted a daunting economic landscape. After fleeing Afghanistan, even Afghans who had been educated in the United States found themselves unable to find work there. This was often due to poor English skills or outdated training, especially in medicine and engineering. Also significant, however, was the need for many to find work immediately. Often family members required public assistance, and social workers instructed them to choose from the first few jobs offered. As a result, doctors and other trained professionals worked at low-paying, often menial jobs.
Young Afghan Americans confront their own challenges in the American school system. Unlike other immigrants who may have moved to the United States for increased economic or educational opportunities, many more recent Afghan refugees were fleeing war. Those of school age may have spent years in refugee camps, where camp administrators felt that schools were not necessary for “short-term” stays. In American schools, these children often faced the humiliating experience of being placed in classrooms with far younger children. Those placed in English as a Second Language classes, however, proved that like most young immigrants Afghan American children learned more quickly than adult immigrants.
Courtship and Weddings In Afghanistan, 80 percent of all marriages are forced or arranged, and 57 percent involve girls under the age of sixteen. Girls as young as nine or ten may be forced to marry males in their sixties. Those who refuse to marry the partner chosen by their families may be imprisoned. In the United States, Afghan parents may still exercise considerable control over a child's choice of marriage partners. More traditional families often encourage young people to choose a spouse still living in Afghanistan and bring them to the United States. Such practices may result in acquiring a spouse who is uneducated and completely lacking in English-language skills. For that reason, a more common practice is for Afghan Americans to marry within the Afghan American community, although many marry non-Afghans. American-style dating is discouraged among the more traditional Afghan American families, particularly among Muslims, because of the emphasis on chastity for females.
Weddings among Afghan Americans vary according to religious traditions. In most Afghan American weddings, the bride wears an American-style white wedding dress and veil, and the groom wears a suit or tuxedo. However, Afghan music and dancing are the norm, and Afghan food is likely to be served at the reception.
EMPLOYMENT AND ECONOMIC CONDITIONS
Afghan Americans have found occupations in a variety of fields. The growing number of Afghan and Middle Eastern restaurants in the United States is a testimony to their hard work and excellent cuisine. For many Afghan Americans who are college educated, their positions in government, media¸ and American industry are prestigious. For many other immigrants, the route to economic stability was self-sufficiency. Thus, many exert themselves in sales of ethnic items at flea markets and garage sales. Immigrants to the San Francisco Bay Area have found work in computer components companies. Others, especially first-generation immigrants, work as taxi drivers, babysitters, and convenience store owners and workers. Their children, earning high school diplomas and college degrees, soon move into their own professional careers in ways identical to that of other Americans.
Even in those Afghan American families that have achieved some measure of success and financial stability, there has been a loss of traditions. In families in which virtually every member of the family works, perhaps at more than one job, family connections becomes fragile, and the cultural roles played by each family member begin to disintegrate. This economic necessity extends even to the children in Afghan American families, who often work rather than engage in extracurricular activities or other community or school programs. The need to constantly work in order to survive inevitably contributes to an immigrant community's sense of otherness, its isolation, and its lack of acculturation. Despite these obstacles, changes have come to the Afghan American community, including increases in the rate of home ownership and increased numbers of young people attending postsecondary and professional schools.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Like other Muslim immigrants, Afghan American immigrants have traditionally been conservative and have expressed support for the Republican Party. However, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent so-called War on Terror launched by President George W. Bush led to outrage among many Muslim groups, who have been increasingly more inclined to support the Democratic Party. The vote of Afghan Americans was considered particularly important in battleground states during the 2012 presidential election.
In 2001 Radio Afghanistan, a listener-supported radio station that operates in the Los Angeles area, found that Afghan American callers were divided in their reactions to the 9/11 attacks and political events in Afghanistan. While some supported the Taliban, others supported the anti-Taliban efforts of the Northern Alliance. Some were opposed to both groups. Whatever their opinions, they all condemned terrorism. The sense of isolation felt by many Afghan Americans continued to grow in the wake of 9/11, and open discrimination proliferated. Many fought back by filing discrimination suits. In August 2012 four Afghan American car salesmen employed by a car dealership in Fremont, California, received $400,000 to settle a discrimination suit they filed after they stated that a general manager called them terrorists during a staff meeting. Fremont is home to the largest group of Afghans living in the United States.
Relations with Afghanistan A factor that strongly influences Afghan Americans' sense of tradition and culture is the maintenance of close ties to family members who still live in Afghanistan. This connection with their former country provides its share of tribulations as well. Because of the many years of bloodshed in Afghanistan, most Afghan Americans were unable to return. The invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and NATO and the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, however, drastically changed the dynamics of the relationship of Afghan Americans to their homeland. The installation of a new government headed by President Hamid Karzai allowed many Afghan Americans to return to Afghanistan to take on a role in rebuilding the country. Back in Afghanistan, Afghan Americans ran for political office, accepted appointments in various bureaucracies, served as linguists, and opened businesses of all kinds. Other Afghan Americans remained in the United States, contenting themselves with sending private donations and helping to raise funds for American relief efforts. The Afghan American diaspora has also been involved with other Afghans in founding a new generation of organizations dedicated to the effort to revitalize Afghanistan by empowering its people. One such organization is Young Women for Change, which was founded in 2011 by Noorjahan Akbar and Anita Haidary for the purpose of motivating Afghan women to become active socially, economically, and politically.
Academia Mohammed Jamil Hanifi (1935–) is a professor of anthropology who specializes in the study of Afghan culture. He is best known for works that include Islam and the Transformation of Culture (1974) and Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Afghanistan (1976).
Nake M. Kamrany (1934–) has had a distinguished career as a professor of economics. He is the cofounder of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska and has published more than twenty works about the Afghan economy; his expertise has proved instrumental during the restructuring of Afghanistan.
Anthropology professor Nazif Shahrani, born in Afghanistan, is a specialist in Central Eurasian studies who has remained in the forefront in discussions
of current issues affecting Afghanistan, including “Afghanistan Can Learn from Its Past,” a thought-provoking op-ed piece for the New York Times (October 14, 2001) written in the wake of the events of 9/11.
Economist Abdul W. Haqiqi (1945–) is one of the many Afghan Americans who returned to Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taliban.
Business California businessman Jawid Siddiq has established himself in the area known as “Little Kabul” in Fremont, California. In 2004 he purchased the only single-screen theater in Fremont. Amid great controversy, he renamed it “The Palace” and re-created it as a venue for movies, dinner theater, and cultural events.
Culinary Arts Afghan Americans have been instrumental in helping exiled Afghans to maintain ties with their own culture by opening Afghan restaurants in areas with large Afghan American populations. Three of the most notable individuals in the field were the siblings of Afghan president Hamid Karzai (1957–). Brothers Quayum Karzai (1956–) and Mahmoud Karzai and sister Fauzia Karzai were all in the restaurant business in the United States before returning to Afghanistan to take part in the rebuilding of Afghanistan.
Film Both director Anwar Hajher and producer Mithaq Kazimi established their reputations with the documentary 16 Days in Afghanistan (2007), which chronicles the days immediately following the fall of the Taliban.
Another rising figure in the film industry had his career tragically cut short. Jawed Wassel (1959–2001), the writer and director of FireDancer (2002), was murdered by his business partner. FireDancer was the first Afghan film to ever be under consideration for an Academy Award.
Actress and TV host Azita Ghanizada (1979–) has appeared on a number of popular television shows, including The Closer, Bones, Ghost Whisperer, and How I Met Your Mother.
Government One of the most prominent Americans of Afghan heritage, Zalmay Khalilzad (1951–), served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. After serving two years as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, he was designated in 2007 as the permanent U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, where he served until 2009.
Journalism Based in San Francisco, Fariba Nawa (1973–) is one of the best-known Afghan American journalists. She has written extensively on Afghan women and the Afghan drug scene.
Nabil Miskinyar (1948–) operates Ariana Afghanistan International, a television station based in Orange County, California. Journalist Lina Rozbih serves as a correspondent for Voice of America.
Literature The best known of all Afghan American writers is Khaled Hosseini (1965–), author of the best-selling novel The Kite Runner (2003), the film adaptation (2007) of which also won critical acclaim. After returning to Afghanistan for the first time since the Soviets invaded in 1979, Hosseini published A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007).
Tamin Ansary (1948–) is best known for his memoir West of Kabul, East of New York, published in October 2001, when the United States was still reeling from the events of 9/11.
Coeditors Zohra Saed (1975–) and Sahar Muradi (1979–) received recognition for bringing the stories of Afghan American culture to an international audience in One Story: Thirty Stories: An Anthology of Current Afghan American Literature (2010), which combines history and literature to tell the stories of Afghan Americans.
Writer and playwright Youssof Kohzad (1935–) is an Afghan American of Tajik descent; in 2000 he immigrated to the United States with his wife, journalist Zakia Kohzad.
Music Popular figures within the Afghan American music scene range from those who date from the 1970s to the present. Singer and songwriter Naim Popal (1954–) is considered one of the most influential figures within the Afghan American music community. Ehsan Aman (1959–) is considered one of the most visible representatives of Afghanistan's Golden Age of Music of the 1970s, before music began to be suppressed by authorities. California-based Haider Salim has remained popular with Afghan American audiences since the 1970s. California is also home to Afghan pop singers Mariam Wafa (1973–) and Jawad Ghaziyar. Afghan American singer-songwriter Zohra Atash and her band, Religious to Damn, blend the sounds of Page 29 | Top of ArticleMiddle Eastern music accompanied by the rubab and the harmonium to the sounds of contemporary alternative rock. Afghan American rapper J. Mecka is a member of the hip-hop duo D-Clique.
Azadi Afghan Radio (WUST-AM 1120)
2131 Crimmins Lane
Falls Church, Virginia 22043
Phone: (703) 532-0400
Fax: (703) 532-5033
Ariana Afghanistan International TV
Primarily serving the Afghan community in the United States, Ariana Afghanistan International TV offers Afghan-related and international news.
15375 Barranca Parkway, Suite 103
Irvine, California 92618
Phone: (949) 825-7400
Fax: (949) 825-7474
Considered the foremost Afghan American television station, Nooor TV offers both news and entertainment.
5700 Stoneridge Mall Road
Pleasanton, California 94588-2874
Phone: (925) 577-8060
Fax: (925) 467-1542
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce
This organization endeavors to promote business and trade ties between Afghanistan and the United States, with an emphasis on improving the business climate in Afghanistan.
8201 Greensboro Drive, Suite 103
McLean, Virginia 22102
Phone: (703) 442-5005
Fax: (703) 442-5008
Founded by young professionals, the organization is dedicated to rebuilding Afghanistan following decades of occupation and war.
Chloe Breyer, Vice President
4699 Apple Way
Boulder, Colorado 80301
Afghanistan Council of the Asia Society
Founded in 1960, the Afghanistan Council seeks to introduce Afghan culture to the United States. Its coverage includes archeology, folklore, handicrafts, politics and history, and performing and visual arts. The Afghanistan Council also aids in producing and distributing educational materials.
725 Park Avenue
New York, New York 10021
Phone: (212) 288-6400
Fax: (212) 517-8315
Afghanistan Studies Association (ASA)
Organization of scholars, students, and others who seek to extend and develop Afghan studies. The ASA helps in the exchange of information between scholars; identifies and attempts to find funding for research needs; acts as a liaison between universities, governments, and other agencies; and helps scholars from Afghanistan working in the United States.
Charley Reed, Media Relations Coordinator
Center for Afghan Studies
University of Nebraska
Omaha, Nebraska 68182-0227
Phone: (402) 554-2376
Fax: (402) 554-3681
U.S. Afghan Women's Council
Founded through the cooperation of the American and Afghan governments, the group promotes efforts to improve the lives and status of Afghan women.
Elaine Jones, Executive Director
Georgetown Center for Child and Human
3300 Whitehaven Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20057
Phone: (202) 687-5095
MUSEUMS AND RESEARCH CENTERS
9/11 Oral History Project, Columbia Center for Oral History, Columbia University
Created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the project includes interviews with Afghan Americans about their experiences and reactions to 9/11.
801 Butler Library
535 West 114th Street
New York, New York 10027
Phone: (212) 854-7083
Center for Afghan Studies
The first center for Afghan Studies created in the United States. Housed at the University of Nebraska, it offers courses in all aspects of Afghan culture as well as language training in Dari.
Charley Reed, Media Relations Coordinator
University of Nebraska
6001 Dodge Street
Omaha, Nebraska 68182
Phone: (402) 554-2129
SOURCES FOR ADDITIONAL STUDY
Barfield, Thomas. Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
Conley, Ellen Alexander. The Chosen Shore: Stories of Immigrants. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Cvetkovich, Ann. “Can the Diaspora Speak? Afghan Americans and the 9/11 Oral History Archive.” Radical History Review 2011, no. 111 (2011): 90-100.
Daulatzai, Anila. “Acknowledging Afghanistan: Notes and Queries on an Occupation.” Cultural Dynamics 18, no. 3 (2006): 293-311.
Foster, Laila Merrell. Afghanistan. New York: Grolier, 1996.
Lipson, Juliene G., and Patricia A. Omidian. “Afghans.” In Refugees in America in the 1990s: A Reference Handbook, edited by David W. Haines. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
———. “Health Issues of Afghan Refugees in California,” Western Journal of Medicine 157 (1992): 271-75.
Marsden, Peter. The Taliban: War, Religion and the New Order in Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Rubin, Barnett R. The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation & Collapse in the International System. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.
Sultan, Masuda. My War at Home. New York: Washington Square Press, 2006.
Vollmann, William T. An Afghanistan Picture Show. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1992.