Monday, July 11, 2011

Hospitality: Hosting Guests the Afghan Way

Did you know that Afghans are considered to be the most hospitable group of people in the world? The central location of Afghanistan has a lot to do with the generosity and hospitality of Afghans. Afghanistan is accessible by Europe, the Middle east and far east (China) by foot, car, train and airplane. Notice, I didn’t mention a ship because is in a landlocked location. Given this central location of Afghanistan, groups of people have always come and gone and come back again to Afghanistan (and not just for military reasons!)

Back in the day, it was the meeting place for trade and commerce from all over the world. The Chinese and Indian followed the silk road into Afghanistan to trade spices with British in Afghanistan as it was an easily accessible location with a hospitable group of people who always welcomed everyone with open arms (even today). I personally think, it was the generous hospitality that kept everyone coming and staying in Afghanistan and not just business. Afghans are known to treat their guests sometimes better than their own family members!

If anyone has visited Afghan friends, you know exactly what I am talking about. Afghans are taught to host guests in the most generous and hospitable way. I remember three years ago, I visited Afghanistan and we went to visit a local family. The family was quite poor and because we were guests from ‘America’, they put their life savings together to buy meat for dinner for everyone( keep in mind they themselves probably hadn’t eaten meat in months given their financial situation and didn’t have their basic needs met). Afghans will give the very best to their guests even at the cost of their own lives.

Below I have outlined a few rituals that are extended to guests being hosted in an Afghan home. These cultural practices are what most Afghans practice regardless of where they currently live or their financial situation ( they make it happen for the guests even if they can’t afford to do it for themselves). I know after being raised in the states and newly married, I have come to practice what my own parents have done since I was a child.

The Guests Arrival:
When guests first arrive ( They might call you first), usually dressed in nice attire (some guests might bring fruit or a small dessert for the host as it’s always better to show up with something to give than empty handed). Guests are seated and entertained by the host until dinner is served. Sometimes, depending on familiarity of the guests, they will be separated, where men go to a separate living room and the women gather together. The woman of the house usually will excuse herself briefly after the guests arrival to serve dinner (some dishes are cooked in the morning while others might be cooked the day before, depending on the number of guests attending).

The Food cycle:
The Afghan meal consists of three courses with the first one being a buffet style dinner. Yes you read that right, first a buffet, then the courses! What can I say, we are a food loving people and enjoy serving one another. The buffet has the main dishes (lamb, chicken, different types of rice, veggie dishes, salad.etc. We don’t drink alcohol, so we substitute that with drinking tea later. After the main meal, guests compliment the cook on their favorite dish and for casual chatter, the woman ask the host for the recipe in the manner of “ oh wow, this is so delicious, what did you put in this? Mine never comes out this good!” (my mom always gives the correct recipe if someone asks, as some Afghan women don’t!) The aftermath of the meal is quickly cleaned up (usually if it’s a big group of people, the younger girls may help with the dishes or close family members).

Tea Time:
After dinner is my favorite part as the host, because it relaxes me knowing the main event went well and the guests are happy, then it’s time to relax and eat some more! The host will serve green tea with dried fruit neatly placed in a glass dish, along with cakes and cookies for the guests. Sometimes, a wedding video is played for entertainment ( I know this was the case when we first got married! Who am I kidding, it's the case when we have new guests come over! My husband just rolls his eyes when it comes time for this. ut I know every Afghan female who comes to visit a newly married friend wants to see their wedding video!)

With more modern Afghans in the states (where the wedding video has been viewed several times) a nice current movie is played or a game ( I love playing taboo or connect 4!). Older Afghans, both men and women (think our parents) take this time to catch up on each other’s lives and everyday routines, share stories or watch Ariana TV ( the Afghan tv channel about Afghanistan). Each tea cup is refilled several times by the host for their guests and are encouraged to eat the sweets about every five minutes. Generally this came about, because traditional Afghans tend to kindly refuse to eat the first 2 times and have to continually be encouraged ( even if they have been eyeing the desserts all evening!) I remember my mom would always remind me to keep asking our guests to eat their desserts and take more and I always replied with “ if they want to mom, can’t they just get it, I mean the dish is right in front of them?”

I guess I always wondered why a 12 year old had to sit with the older guests all the time. Now, I realize it is done out of respect for the guests since they did come to visit everyone in the family. Each family member is seated with their guests until they leave, no matter what their age as a sign of respect for their guest(s). Also, it's a great way to learn about who we are and what we do. I remember my mom would always encourage me to 'learn' from their stories of being back home ( yes, every Afghan men and women our parents age has great stories to tell about their time in Afghanistan when they get together).

After the tea, the host brings out large trays of neatly arranged fruit with plates for each guest. The tray is presented to each guest and they are encouraged to take fruit. The types of fruit usually is whatever is in season. You can never go wrong with strawberries, watermelon, grapes, cherries, pineapples anything that can be cut up small and can be eaten easily. Mangoes, apples and oranges are usually placed in a different bowl (uncut) for decoration or if someone wants to eat them, they can.

About the time the fruit is finished it’s probably well after midnight and the guests prepare to leave. Of course the host always offers them their bed to sleep in if they wish to spend the night! If the overnight invitation is accepted (rarely is) the breakfast is another course!

The time that is spent with Afghans when they are hosting you is a time of pure pleasure and entertainment for them and for the guest. You can actually feel the excitement of the host and how much they appreciate you as their guest. I know my good American friends always loved coming to my home when I lived with my parents, because they were treated with the most respect and given great food and treatment no matter how old they were.

I love having guests and being a guest to my Afghan family and friends. I have to say, some of my American friends now follow the same food cycle, which is so nice.

Weight alert: Yes, you will gain weight being a guest in an Afghan home! I call this weight gain: Happy weight!