Honored to Be Your Host
Being a generous host in Afghanistan is akin to a sacred duty-an obligation of honor, even of life and death. A host must provide food, shelter, and protection for a guest, whether friend or stranger. "Not to do so would be dishonorable," says Fawzia Etemadi, an Afghan author who's writing a book on her nation's codes.
Scottish writer Rory Stewart owes his life to such hospitality. In 2002, he walked across Afghanistan, and then told his story in his book The Places In Between. Stewart had hiked alone across much of Asia, but, he says, "only in Afghanistan did I find it difficult to walk alone, because the people have such a strong sense of obligation to a guest." Owners of even the poorest homes designate space as the guest room, where a visitor will be fed and housed. In wealthy homes, this space is called the memaan khana. "There's a strong sense that proper behavior toward guests brings back benefits to the host-honor, prestige, status, but also luck, that God will reward people who are generous to a guest," says Stewart.
Values. Such hospitality has deep roots in this country, a crossroads of the Silk Road where global merchants met to exchange wares, meals, and stories. Afghans adopted a philosophy of ayaraan, focused on trust and generosity. "If a person comes to your house it means that they trust you, and you would never betray that trust," says Etemadi. After more than two decades of war, many Afghans, especially in cities, have become wary of foreigners. Yet, says Etemadi, "most Afghans still carry the old values."
She describes her own upbringing in the war-torn country, which she fled after the Soviet invasion in 1979: "If I were home alone and friends of my parents came to visit, I would have 100 percent responsibility to bring them tea, feed them, and talk with them until my parents came home. We do this out of a sense of hospitality and respect." The poorest villagers share whatever they have, "and they would be embarrassed if you tried to repay them."
"I have been in 110 countries in the world, but the people who really touched me deep in my heart were the Afghans," says Iranian-born photojournalist Reza Deghati, a veteran of more than 50 trips to Afghanistan. On his first, in 1983, he was traveling along narrow mountain passes with mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets. They had to walk single file, or risk falling over cliffs. Yet occasionally the men would crowd near Reza despite the peril. When he asked why, they told him they knew when they were near hidden pockets of Soviets and wanted to protect him from gunfire. "The commander told me that from the moment he took responsibility for me, I was his guest," Reza says. "If I had been killed, all his tribe's and family's honor would be gone."
This story appears in the March 26, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.