Geography and Destiny For centuries, scarce resources and difficult terrain have required people in the Hindu Kush region to develop unique solutions to survive. But while geography has brought challenges, it has also offered opportunities. In Afghanistan, geography is a multi-sided destiny.
Identity and Perception Local, tribal, and religious identities in the Hindu Kush region have always shifted depending on one’s point of view. As Afghanistan decides what it means to be Afghan, it faces a kaleidoscope of moving perspectives.
Tradition and Modernization Afghans have always had to be flexible. At times, this flexibility has brought people together, and at other times it has torn them apart. Reconciling tradition and modernization means making sense of what’s at stake when people change--and when they don’t.
Traces and Narratives History is not always written. Much of what we know about Afghanistan comes from scattered artifacts, symbols, and oral traditions. Understanding these traces means piecing together the narratives that history leaves behind.
Geography & Destiny
Identity & Perception
Traces & Narratives
Tradition & Modernization
1139-22A. AMRC Collection, Williams Afghan Media Project, Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
During the Soviet War, millions of refugees began fleeing Afghanistan. They went to Pakistan and Iran, where they lived in massive settlements along the borders. During Taliban rule, their numbers increased.
When the Americans came, the refugees began returning to Afghanistan, along with a new generation of foreign-born offspring. Since 2002, an estimated 5 million people have returned to Afghanistan.
But still many of these returnees remain homeless and displaced in their own country. The influx of people has put new pressure on a system that is already stretched to its capacity. Millions remain displaced and are in desperate need of food, clean drinking water, and shelter.
In the 1980s, when the flow of displacement was just beginning, anthropologist David Edwards worked among Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan.
What was remarkable to me was just how adaptable Afghans were, that whole families picked up and took their essential belongings, which they could fit on a few horses or donkeys or camels, cross the border, and within a matter of a few weeks were—first, often they were given tents by the UNHCR—the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Within a matter of a few weeks they were building walls around those tents, and houses with rooms, and after a while the tents were gone. The tents provided emergency shelter briefly, but for the most part they knew how to make their own houses out of mud, out of wood. And they were able to get food and other supplies and water. Imagine that in America. What would happen if 3 ½ million people were thrown on their own devices—they had to suddenly survive.
I think one of the misconceptions about Afghans that’s developed over the last few years is the idea that they are treacherous or deceitful, that they change sides, that you—one of the phrases you hear is you can’t buy an Afghan, you can only rent one.
All of those ideas, I think, misconceive the nature of Afghan culture and also of Afghan history. They are a small nation and they have been manipulated by great powers for generations.
The only way that they have been able to survive intact is by maintaining a flexibility and adaptiveness.
I think that if you look at the structure of the tribe, for example, it’s really all about adaptation. The tribe can expand when opportunities allow it to expand, and it can shrink and contract when opportunities disappear.
Afghans have shown an incredible adaptability over time, and environmental—the problems of when there are great droughts, when foreign conquerors overrun the country, the tribes somehow survive.
They’ve survived being refugees in Pakistan for 20 years; they’ve survived so many different kinds of problems that other forms of social organization would not have survived. So I think you have to understand the one important element about the Afghan survival and their ability to deal with the awful situation that they’ve found themselves in so often, is their ability to be flexible. And part of that flexibility is being careful about political allegiances; recognizing that people who are making promises today will probably not be around tomorrow, so that all those promises are contingent.
And I think one thing Afghans recognize is that history is contingent. It’s dependent upon variables that are outside their control. And to offer undying allegiance to an imperial power is madness, because imperial powers have shown over and over again that they are not gonna be around after awhile.
But for now, the question of Afghanistan’s displaced masses is one that is felt not just by Afghanistan but by many countries, as the world tries to decide which borders will be open to Afghans seeking a home.
During the Soviet War, millions of refugees began to flee Afghanistan. They went to Pakistan and Iran where they lived in massive settlements along the borders. During Taliban rule, their numbers increased. Millions remain displaced today.