This intro to a National Geographic documentary shot in 2000 has been edged into my memory as it was this way that I was introduced to this country at the crossroads of cultures, this country South of the Hindu Kush, "East of New York" *
What I saw in this documentary impressed and fascinated me so much that after several month of research I decided "I must see Afghanistan for myself"
But what was it that fascinated me about this place, which had made news only with war and conflict for the previous 22 years?
Let me tell you more about these things which fascinate me about Afghanistan:
The Afghan Tragedy of the last three decades began with the overthrow of the king in 1973. Zahir Shah was in Italy for an eye operation when he was deposed in a palace coup by his cousin, Mohammad Daoud. Daoud declared Afghanistan a republic, with himself as president. He relied on the support of leftists to consolidate his power, and crushed an emerging Islamist movement. But towards the end of his rule, he attempted to purge his leftist supporters from positions of power and sought to reduce Soviet influence in Afghanistan. It was this that helped lead to a defining moment in Afghanistan's recent history - the communist coup in April 1978, known as the Saur, or April Revolution. President Daoud and his family were shot dead, and Nur Mohammad Taraki took power as head of the country's first Marxist government, bringing to an end more than 200 years of almost uninterrupted rule by the family of Zahir Shah and Mohammad Daoud. But the Afghan communist party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan - or PDPA - was divided, and splits emerged. Hafizullah Amin, who had become prime minister, was opposed to Taraki, and in October 1979 Taraki was secretly executed, with Amin becoming the new president. Amin, known for his independent and nationalist inclinations, was also ruthless. He has been accused of assassinating thousands of Afghans.To the Soviets in Moscow, he was looked upon as a threat to the prospect of an amenable communist government bordering Soviet Central Asia. In a swift chain of events in December 1979, Amin was assassinated and the Soviet Red Army swept into Afghanistan. Babrak Karmal was flown from Czechoslovakia, where he was Afghan ambassador, to take over as the new president, albeit as a puppet leader acceptable to Moscow.5 million refugees and 1 million dead later the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Two factors mainly contributed to this: the disintegration of the Soviet block itself and fierce resistance in Afghanistan against the occupying forces by the Mudjahedin. The latter where supported by the U.S. by means of arms and monetary assistance through Pakistan. However, after the Mujahedin had granted the Soviet troops unobstructed withdrawal through the Salang Tunnel (tunnel through the Hindu Kush into Tajikistan), Afghanistan's problems where far from over. After a Pakistan-brokered transitional power-sharing arrangement between the various Mujahedin parties collapsed, armed conflict broke out once more, this time among the Mujahedin. The situation was not aided by the fact that the dislodged Afghan communist regime had opened all prisons prior to the arrival of the Mujahedin in Kabul, thus creating fertile ground for criminals who could freely rape and commit a range of other crimes. They were joined by uncontrolled Mujahadin. In lack of a proper authorities and a functional police force the situation had slipped into anarchy. Not only that, part of the Mujahedin had began to shell the city of Kabul in an attempt to dislodge the faltering Rabbani government in power. As a result large parts of the city were completely destroyed. Disillusioned with the Mujahedin's inability to govern and appease the country the Taliban - founded in the Madrasas in Western Pakistan and widely manned by Afghan refugees - was able to sweep the country including Kabul with the promise to clean up the mess. But resistance formed fast against the new rulers who would soon implement an unbearably restrictive regime of Islamic law, stifling the society. Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most prominent of the Mujahedin leaders, who had already led the resistance against the Soviets, brought together a large number of Afghan leaders and commanders in what was coined "The Northern Alliance" by the Western press, as the majority of its members where from the northern provinces of the country to resist the Pushtun-supported Taliban offensive. But the Northern Alliance was largely un-supported by Europe and the US. So it took the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York to incite military action to remove the Taliban regime. With the help of the Northern Alliance forces the US invasion finally removed the Taliban from power in late 2001 and established a transitional government under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai. In October 2005 the first elected parliament in thirty years was sworn in. This completed the transitional democratic process set forth for Afghanistan by the international community in 2001.
The above represents the briefest possible run-down on Afghanistan's recent history. The situation was much more complex and needs far more in-depth details to be understood well; but it would exceed the limits of this section to attempt a more detailed account.
So for those interested in reading more we recommend to start with this website where you will find a comprehensive collection of books on Afghanistan and her history.
This recent history, this Afghan Tragedy, has left millions of scars and many personal disasters. Yet, after all this it appears that the Afghans have not lost hope and much less dignity in the face of their continued suffering. They have been laid low, but they have not been defeated, "Afghanistan could not be captured" . Fiercely independent, it will be difficult for any power to try and dominate the Afghan people.
Afghanistan's culture is characterized by a deep appreciation of music and poetry - influenced by Persia with her ancient poetry of the likes of Hafiz, Rumi and many more. These Sufi poets represent the link between the mystics of India and Islam in this part of the world. Afghan music shows many elements stemming from Indian / Pakistani as well as Central Asian Music.
At the crossroads of cultures, Afghanistan's people and her culture are as varied as her history. Below a map which illustrates the ethnic distribution of the country.
The physical appearance of the various people is fascinating, too. From the Pakistani looking people of the south, the Mongol faces of the Hazaras, the fair-skinned Nuristanis of the North East, who claim to be descendents of Alexander the Great, to the Tajiks who by definition are the easternmost subgroup of the Caucasian race and all shades in between.
Each of these groups speak their own language, but there are two national languages: Pushto and Dari. The first is mainly spoken in Southern regions by the predominantly Pashtun population, while Dari - a simplified Persian - is spoken in the North as well as in Kabul.
Almost all of Afghanistan's people share the same religion: Islam. Most are Sunnis, only the Hazaras are Shiites. There are Hindus and Sikhs but they make up less than one percent of Afghanistan's 25 million population. This is an estimate as the latest census is pending.
Afghan society is deeply steeped in traditions, molded by Islam but also the cultures of Persia and Central Asia. One of the first things which become apparent when traveling the country is the wide-spread segregation of the genders. While in many Kabul offices one will find men and women working side by side, in the countryside such mixing does not take place. There many women wear the chatri, the head-to-toe cover made infamous by the Taliban. This dress, however, was not invented by the latter, but has existed for centuries. It does also not signal an endorsement of the explicit suppression of women practiced by the Taliban. In Afghan homes one will not find the women of the house mixing with guests, if men are among them. Food will be served by the children. Foreign women invited to an Afghan house will be considered "honorary men" and will be allowed to sit with the men. At the same time they will have the exciting option to visit the women in their part of the house. With the opening of the Afghan society, these traditions may slowly change, even though they probably will change more slowly in a society who draws its values from religion, which is often a strong bulwark against fast changes.
Such gender segregation is reminiscent of the perda of the Persian and Mogul courts where women had their own living quarters and where men, except for the emperor or Maha Raja, were not permitted. Intended as a safe haven for women it has reached the Western mind as a tool of suppression of women. Stemming from royal court life it is hence evident why the nomadic people of Afghanistan - the Kutchis - do not practice neither the veiling of their women, nor the perda. Kutchi women had to work along side their male counter parts as dictated by their nomadic life. A chatri or even the inability to even talk to men would have hampered their ability to work. The same can be observed among the nomadic people of Central Asia.
Another thing all Afghan tribes share is their hospitality. Be not surprised to be invited by a total stranger - a shopkeeper perhaps - to his house. While one would of course politely decline, one can assume that the invitation is genuine and stems from a culture of true hospitality where a stranger is considered an honor and must be served at least tea and some food.
"These people have a great heart and also a great soul. This is one of the greatest countries in the world"
Afghanistan's climate is typical of an arid or semiarid steppe, with cold winters and dry summers. The mountain regions of the northeast are subarctic with dry and cold winters. In the mountains bordering Pakistan, a divergent fringe effect of the monsoon, generally coming from the southeast, brings tropical air masses that determine the climate between July and September. At times, these air masses advance into central and southern Afghanistan, bringing increased humidity and some rain.
The Central Mountains, with higher peaks ascending toward the Pamir Knot, represent another distinct climatic region. From the Koh-e Baba Range to the Pamir Knot, January temperatures may drop to -15 C or lower in the highest mountain areas; July temperatures vary between 0 and 26 C depending on altitude. In the mountains the annual mean precipitation, much of which is snowfall, increases eastward and is highest in the Koh-e Baba Range, the western part of the Pamir Knot, and the Eastern Hindukush.
This continental climate is the brush which creates the beautiful painting which is Afghanistan: mostly blue skies, barren mountains, blue rivers, green valleys, majestic snow caped peaks, tree-lined village roads, donkeys and horse carts.
Dotted throughout the country are the reminders of her culture and history: her traces of all the visitors, who came and left, who either destroyed or built. Please see our photo gallery for details.
There is for example the most well-known and most haunting of it all: The Buddha of Bamiyan. Until it was destroyed by the Taliban it was the largest Buddha statue in the world. Plans are afoot to rebuild the Buddha. A reminder of the recent violent history, Bamiyan is still worthwhile a trip as it is still a picturesque valley and an impressive document of Afghanistan's Buddhist history.
There is Mazar-e-Sharif with its marvel of Central Asian architecture: the "Tomb of the Exhalted", then there is the old city of Balkh, "mother of all cities", birthplace of Rumi and also the recently unearthed ruins of Ai-Khanoun, where Alexander the Great is said to have founded "Alexandria on the Oxus".
Then there are the Pamirs, part of the Hind Kush - largely unexplored by mountaineers, there are the Band-e-Amir lakes - a picture painted by nature, there is the Panjshir Valley - the only fast moving river body in Afghanistan, a natural fortress with its chilling display of destroyed Soviet tanks.
Then there is Kabul with its numerous historic sites. Unfortunately most of them are in ruins but even the ruins are documents of history - a document in this case of the ever shocking human ability to massacre ones own.
Unfortunately many Afghan artefacts have been taken out of the country uncontrolled during three decades of conflict. The most obvious was the ran-sacking of the Kabul museum by the Taliban removing most priceless pieces. But even uncontrolled unearthing of historic relics have removed irreplaceable historic wealth from the country.
These are only a few highlights of Afghanistan's sights. Many more are there to discover.
But one thing applies to them all: wherever one travels in Afghanistan, it is the journey which is the destination. The experience of a genuine land and her people invites to marvel at it at every turn - for those willing to deal with her scars of conflict a genuinely beautiful country unfolds.
* reminiscent of the book "West of Kabul, East of New York: an Afghan American Story" by Tamim Ansary
 So called by the author
 Massoud Khalili, Afghan Ambassador to Turkey, Feb. 2006
 As per Wikipedia.com
 Reza Deghati, photographer, Nov. 2000, on the Afghans