Understanding Afghanistan

The conflict between East and West seems like a thoroughly modern concept. To many Americans the Middle East seems like a world of extremes and instability. However, according to Whitney Azoy, who spoke at the Museum of Anthropology Nov. 13, the country of Afghanistan, at least, has always been this way.

Whitney Azoy/Photo courtesy of flickr

Azoy began his work in Afghanistan in 1971 as a member of the United States Diplomatic Corps. In 1973, he left the Diplomatic Corps to study graduate anthropology at the University of Virginia. He is the author of Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan and a National Geographic filmmaker. With his four Fulbright grants he has devoted his life to studying the peoples and cultures of Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan has a very different kind of history. It’s one of the last intact medieval Muslim societies,” Azoy said.

In an attempt to explain what he calls the chronic instability of Afghanistan, Azoy delved into its chaotic history. As a major stop on the Silk Road, Afghanistan was literally the crossroads of the ancient East and West. Afghanistan was a melting pot of peoples and cultures hundreds of years before the United States. Not only did Afghanistan have the challenge of incorporating so many outside influences, it had the challenge of holding itself together.

Afghanistan contains three fringe areas of the Eurasian landmass, and, according to Azoy, its task is to coordinate.

Afghanistan has always been a high-pressure area. Once placed awkwardly between Russia and the British Empire, “the Afghan is but grist for the mill,” according to 19th century poet Alfred Comyn Lyall. Since then Afghanis have lived in a world where might makes right and constant revolution is the expectation.

“Is what’s happening over there the exception, or is it in fact the norm?” Azoy said.

It is difficult for Westerners to truly understand Afghani culture. Their quam, or personal identity, is based almost solely on family, ethnicity and tribe. Individualism is secondary. And with so much stratification, the country is making very little progress.

“How do you govern a country whose topography is so fragmented and who’s infrastructure is so primitive? If the United States pulled out all troops, that country would go to hell in a hand basket,” Azoy said. “There is a certain wildness about Afghanistan.”

He described the people and culture as a Buzkashi, the most popular game of Afghanistan. The game has no official rules.

“Dr. Azoy’s description of Afghanistan’s wildness created a completely different view of Afghanistan and The Middle East than I think a majority of people in the room had ever thought of,” freshman Danielle Cales said.