IT IS one of the most dangerous places in the world, following more than three decades of war.
Terrorist groups remain a force to be reckoned with, and its human rights record and abuses against women and girls are renowned.
But the stories you’ve heard about Afghanistan won’t prepare you for what the country is really like.
After years of tragedy, war and terrorism, it’s impossible for news headlines in Australia to capture the colour, culture, laughter and resilience that can be found in the homes, on the streets and inside town centres across Afghanistan.
As Australia’s soldiers and international troops pack up and leave early next year, hope for the future of Afghanistan remains strong.
Here are five things you probably didn’t know about the people who inhabit a country you thought you knew everything about.
1. AMAZING FOOD
Family life is a big part of peoples lives in Afghanistan and they come together to socialise around food.
Afghan cuisine is fabulous. There’s more to it than lamb kebabs and rice. There are a lot of influences from neighbouring countries. The flavours of the food are a mix between Middle Eastern, Indian, Asian and Chinese.
A personal favourite of mine is a dish called Oshack. It’s kind of like ravioli or tortellini but it’s stuffed with a vegetable that’s similar to a leek. I visited a group of women in a shelter in Kabul and they prepared Oshack as part of their meal for myself and my colleagues.
A man cooks kebabs on an open fire on a street in Kabul. Picture: Amnesty International
2. GOING ABOVE AND BEYOND FOR GUESTS
One of the things that really stood out for me is the incredible level of hospitality that locals would extend to you. My colleague Horia Mosadiq is from Afghanistan. When we visited last year, she took me to her in-laws house for dinner.
She told them beforehand I was vegetarian, so they made sure the whole banquet was vegetarian. The family, about 12 of them, sat down to a vegetarian meal. I couldn’t believe it because we’re talking about a whole nation of meat-eaters here, people who thrive on their lamb kebabs.
So for them to just completely revolve the meal around my culinary tastes was quite humbling.
Making Oshack a women’s shelter in Kabul. Picture: Amnesty International
3. A CHEEKY SENSE OF HUMOUR
What was incredibly surprising to me was the mental strength of women in Afghanistan despite the hardships they face. When I went we conducted training workshops in Kabul, the sessions were peppered with laughter and jokes the women told. Some of them were quite rude but hilarious, it really was amazing to witness such humour and joy knowing the amount of adversity these women face.
A woman and her children at a refugee camp in Afghanistan. Picture: Amnesty International
4. AN OBSESSION WITH SPORT
Something that many people may not know is that Afghanistan is a country that is growing in leaps and bounds in sports. People normally associate sport in Afghanistan with the national game of Buzkashi – a gruesome variant of polo where teams compete with a goat carcass instead of a ball. But Afghanistan is causing a storm in more conventional sports.
In September, the country celebrated its football team’s first historic win in an international tournament at the Asian Football Federation Championship and its national cricket team recently qualified for the World Cup in 2015, not a bad effort considering the sport that was banned
during the Taliban’s rule.
Skateboarding is also becoming hugely popular. A skateboarding park built in Kabul was actually founded by an Australian skateboarder and is used by both boys and girls.
Afghan rugby players participate in the Kabul Sevens Rugby Tournament in the Chaman-e Hozouri area of Kabul.
5. POETS ARE TREATED LIKE ROCK STARS
Poetry is a big part of the Afghan society and culture. Women, men and children will gather for poetry recitals and to listen to music, reciting old classics or pieces they’ve written themselves.
Despite instability in the country, life continues, people run their businesses, shops are open and there’s a flourishing media industry.
Speaking to people in Afghanistan and hearing their stories helps remind me of the improvements we’ve seen in Afghanistan over the past 10 years, especially for women’s rights. Knowing their strength first hand makes me want to make sure this progress continues.
* Maya Pastakia, Afghanistan Campaigner, Amnesty International and visited the country for the first time last year. For more on Amnesty International’s Afghan Women’s Rights Campaign click here.
Sonya Merkova, Horia Mosadiq and Maya in Kabul. Picture: Amnesty International