A guide to Afghanistan – etiquette, customs, clothing and more…

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Facts & Stats

  • The population of Afghanistan is currently estimated at approximately 32 million
  • The main languages spoken are Pashtu, Dari, Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi and Pashayi
  • Islam is the main religion of the vast majority of the country
  • Major cities include Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-I-Sharif, Herat and Jalalabad
  • Afghanistan covers approximately 652,090 square kilometres (251,773 square miles)
  • The currency of Afghanistan is the Afghani
  • Natives of Afghanistan are referred to as Afghans
  • The national sport of Afghanistan is Buzkahzi
  • Afghanistan declared independence from Britain in 1919 although they were never directly under British rule
  • Afghanistan is inhabited by 80% Sunni Muslims, 19% Shia Muslims with the remaining 1% having other religious beliefs.
  • The literacy rate in Afghanistan is approximately 30%

Afghanistan is a landlocked country located in central Asia bordering Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran and China. Throughout history Afghanistan has seen numerous military campaigns most notably by the Mongols, Muslim Arabs, British and the Soviet Union due to its key location on the Silk Road, connecting it to the Middle East and other parts of Asia.


Afghanistan is divided by the Hindu Kush Mountains running across the country making up the central highlands; these mountains also form part of the Himalayas. The country has a largely arid climate with hot, dry summers and cold winters with high levels of snowfall particularly in the central highlands. Some Areas in the East of the country bordering Pakistan are affected by the Indian monsoon which brings moist, maritime, tropical air in the summer.


The current population of Afghanistan is estimated at approximately 32 million people, with many who had fled the troubles now starting to return. At one point the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan alone reached 3.2 million.


The capital city Kabul is the largest in Afghanistan with a population of over three and a half million people. Situated 5,800 feet above sea level on a barren plateau surrounded by rugged, treeless mountains, Kabul guards the entrance to the Khyber Pass, the traditional route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The city lies in the eastern part of the country, 140 miles from the Pakistan border.


Located in the city are multiple five star hotels which include the Marriot and the Serena Hotel. Kabul also has shopping centres such as the Roshan Shopping Center, Park Mall and Majeed Mall as well as numerous museums, a golf club and the zoo that once housed the famous lion Marjan.


The Hamid Karzai international airport is located sixteen miles from the centre of Kabul and serves as the country’s main airport. A new international terminal, built by the government of Japan, opened in 2008. Other major airports in Afghanistan can be found in Kandahar and Mazar-i-sharif.




There are two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, Dari and Pashtu. Pashtu is the native language of the Pashtuns who are the principal ethnic group in Afghanistan and can account for approximately 40% of all language spoken. Dari is, however, the more common of the two with up to 49% speaking it as a first language and 37% having the ability to speak it as a second language.


As well as the two main recognised languages there are multiple other languages spoken by minority groups throughout the country; these include Uzbek, Turkmen, Balochi and Pashayi, each spoken by natives of a particular region. It is not uncommon for an Afghan to speak one or more of these languages due the diversity in the country.




Despite the huge variation in language and cultures in Afghanistan the majority of the people lead similar lives; almost all Afghans follow Islamic traditions, eat similar food and celebrate the same holidays.


Art plays a large part in Afghan culture, with the oldest oil painting in the world, dating back to the seventh century, being discovered following the destruction by the Taliban of two Buddha statues in 2001 in the Bamiyan region. In the past, art was created almost entirely by men but recently this has been relaxed and has seen more women enrolling in arts programs in Kabul University.


Afghanistan is also famous for making carpets and has been prominent in this industry for centuries. A traditional Afghan rug will have certain prints inspired by the diversity and culture of a particular area, making the rug unique to that part of Afghanistan. Notable for their high level of craftsmanship and the amount of skill required during manufacture, Afghan rugs are seen as some of the best in the world.


The most popular sport in Afghanistan is Buzkahzi, where opposing teams on horseback attempt to place a goat carcass into the opponents goal. The literal meaning of Buzkahzi in Persian is ‘goat grabbing’. This is most often played on Fridays whilst most places of work are closed.


In more recent years football and cricket have become increasingly popular. Cricket has really taken off since 2002 when refugees fleeing the war returned from Pakistan, where cricket is very popular, and introduced it to the country. With over 320 cricket clubs nationwide, the popularity of the sport looks set to continue to grow.


Islam is practised by the vast majority of Afghans and governs almost all that they do during their daily lives. This will require them to pray five times a day at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and in the evening. If in an urban area or even in the majority of rural areas at these times you will hear the call to prayer, generally over a loud speaker, ensuring that everyone is aware that it is time for prayers.


Friday is the Muslim holy day, similar to Sundays in Christianity. During this time most shops and offices will be closed, and some offices may even close on the Thursday creating a two day weekend for staff.


During the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, all Muslims will fast during the hours of daylight. Throughout Ramadan Muslims are only permitted to work six hours a day, which may have an effect on any business done during this period. Fasting will include not eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes or chewing gum. Whilst foreigners are not expected to adhere to the fasting, it would be seen as discourteous to smoke or chew gum in public during the holy month of Ramadan.




When meeting someone, particularly for the first time, a handshake is the most common form of greeting. Women and men should not shake hands, generally it is seen as dishonouring a woman if a man were to touch her in public. However, should a woman extend her hand it would be acceptable for a man to shake it. Similarly, eye contact between a man and a woman should not be made in public.


It would also be considered rude not to remove your shoes when entering someone’s house. Again, once inside, do not engage with female members of the house unless given direct permission to do so.


If invited to dine at someone’s residence or elsewhere there are certain rules that should be adhered to:


  • Always wash your hands prior to eating
    Seating will most likely be on cushions on the floor. If you can, sit cross-legged and never show the soles of your feet to other diners.
  • Always wait to be shown where to sit.
  • Generally food will be served communally, with everyone eating from the same dish.
  • Food should always be eaten with the right hand, the left hand is used for anything that is seen as unsavoury, like wiping your feet, and should never be used for eating.
  • Again, if passing a dish of food to someone the right hand should always be used, as it should for accepting food too.





Afghanistan is largely an agricultural country with about eighty percent of the population working in this sector of the economy. Main crops include poppy, wheat, rice, cotton sugar beets and oil seeds as well as a wide variety of vegetables, nuts and many kinds of fruit.


There has also proven to be a supply of mineral resources such as natural gas, coal, iron and copper although only natural gas has been exploited a commercial scale to date. Large purchasers of Afghanistan’s exports include India, Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium.


Whilst uncertainty around economic growth has now stabilised following the election of a new president in 2014 the Afghan economy still relies heavily on foreign aid. One of the new government’s key initiatives is to focus on developing a new partnership with the private sector with the intention of generating new jobs and economic growth. This is still very much in its infancy and will take time to develop.


There are many challenges that could present a problem when looking to do business in Afghanistan; these include a weak infrastructure throughout large parts of the country, a lack of experience in project development and management in particular when dealing with Western companies and also corruption which is still a major problem in Afghanistan.


If any such issues did arise there would be little support from the Afghan legal system largely due to their inexperience in dealing with complex commercial issues.


Business Etiquette


Of course, conducting business in Afghanistan has its differences when compared to doing business elsewhere in the world. The local beliefs of honour and shame play a key role in all business environments and can be confusing for the uninitiated. You should always come across as trying to be diplomatic when addressing any issues that could potentially be sensitive, and never act in a condescending manner.


The Afghan communication style can often be rather indirect; you’ll usually find it necessary to read between the lines to decipher what is actually being indirectly stated. This is just part of the culture and should be accepted; under no circumstances should you directly accuse or speak down to someone as this would again be bringing their honour into question.


Haggling, as in many countries, is part of daily life in Afghanistan and can often be involved when conducting business. It can be a daunting experience at first, but with practice it will become second nature.



Afghanistan probably isn’t the obvious choice of destination for expats, but many are still drawn by the multicultural heritage and the opportunity to help the nation get back on its feet.


If planning to move then healthcare must be top of the list for consideration. International health insurance is absolutely critical if you are an expat living in Afghanistan. Although healthcare and insurance can be expensive, it’s worth investing in given the risks associated with living there. Local healthcare and facilities fall far below Western standards, so private healthcare really is a must, and coverage for emergency evacuation would also be hugely beneficial.


Education may also be of importance to you. Whilst there are schools, available options are limited, particularly outside of Kabul. The main option is the international school of Kabul (ISK). This has an English speaking curriculum and is not only popular with Afghan Nationals, but with children of Expats that currently work in the development sector. Costs for a place here are approximately $12,000.


The standard of public education is generally poor due to limited resources when compared with western standards. After being banned by the Taliban, public education is still a relatively new concept to the country.

Kwintessential Translation Service

If you’re doing business with Afghanistan, or have a need to translate documents into Pashto or Dari, we provide a professional translation service. For more information, please get in touch.

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