Migrations and Cultural Encounters: Afghanistan

February 19, 2019

Present day Afghanistan is strategically located along the historic Silk Road, a vast network of ancient trade routes that linked the East to the West. The routes were active beginning from around 114 BCE to 1450 AD when the rise of the Ottoman Empire put a halt to trade between Europe and Asia through their territory. During its heyday, merchants, pilgrims, monks, nomads, urban-dwellers, and soldiers from China and India to the Mediterranean traveled along the Silk Road, exchanging not only goods, but philosophy, religion, music, art, and scientific ideas.




Because of its significant location as a hub of commerce, Afghanistan’s cultural heritage is the result of a rich intermingling of Indian, Chinese, Persian, Arab, and neighboring Central Asian peoples. The cultural legacy of Afghanistan includes some of the first statues of Buddha, influenced by Greek iconography brought to the region during the conquests of Alexander the Great. Among the most well-known were the Great Buddhas of Bamiyan Province (once a center of Buddhist learning) that were built in the 6th century and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

The rich artistic legacy of this region has been overshadowed by the decades of war and oppression that devastated the country beginning in 1978. When the Soviet-Afghan war broke out it was considered inappropriate to make music, and the lawlessness in the land made it dangerous to draw attention through singing. Before these sad times  music, song, and dance were part of the daily lives of Afghan women and how they entertained themselves and their children. One of the instruments most associated with women is the doira, a type of frame drum, as well as the jews harp (also called jaw harp), an ancient instrument prevalent throughout Central Asia. The women sang songs of love, often about the star-crossed lovers Leyla and Majnoon, and sometimes poked fun at members of their community -particularly men- in order to let off steam. And they would dance together.

The grief and fear caused by war combined with religious conservatism that was generally  suspicious of music and dance made merrymaking inappropriate during times of mourning. When the mujahideen made it a crime to make music, women and men destroyed or hid their instruments and the transmission to the next generation of this rich cultural tradition suffered. A whole generation grew up not hearing the lullabies and folk songs sung to them by their mothers and lost their connection to these traditional arts. The rise of recorded music and outside influences from Indian films and media from the West also chipped away at the expression of traditional music among the youth, as it has in cultures throughout the world.

While some of the traditional folk songs have been lost for good, there are efforts being made to educate Afghan youth about their rich music heritage, and particular attention is being given to girls. An Afghan version of Sesame Street is one of many efforts to help Afghan children increase their literacy. The first episode showed kids how to dance Attan, a Pashtun circle dance that is sometimes referred to as the (unofficial) national dance of Afghanistan.

I learned Afghan dance during my many years as principal artist with the San Francisco Bay Area based company Ballet Afsaneh. Living near Fremont where there is a large population of Afghan immigrants, the company is often hired to represent Afghan culture at community events and weddings.  As a symbol of cultural pride, one could be sure Attan would be performed near the end of the evening.  Attan is a circle dance performed without touching. Originally a war dance of the Pashtuns, it begins slow and grows into a fast, frenzied state, often with the head whipping about. Both women and men dance Attan, though the women’s style is more subdued. Every tribe and family have their unique way of doing it.

There are different tribal and ethnic groups within Afghanistan, including Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Each region has a different style of dance. Gratefully much research was done in Herat in the 1970s before it became difficult to study dance in the country.  Given its proximity to Iran, solo dancing by women using some of the intricacies and styling one sees in Iranian dance, such as the concept of naz, or feminine coyness, was employed, along with pantomimic gestures referencing daily activities, such as brushing one’s hair or kite-flying, a popular pastime in Afghanistan.

Here is an example of this style presented by the dancer Satara in the 1970s when dance was still allowed on television:

Here is an archival clip of women performing Attan:

Afghan children dancing again on television in2013:


The BBC documentary “Breaking the Silence” from 2011 says this, “Filmed in Kabul and in Peshawar, Pakistan in January, as well as with the Ensemble Kabul in Geneva, “Breaking the Silence” tells the story of the return of music to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Their almost total banning of music is unprecedented in musical history, but during the former regimes of the Mujaheddin and the Soviets, music was caught in the political crossfire. Music in Afghanistan could be a matter of life and death. The film tells some personal stories of how people coped, and looks at the strong Sufi culture in the country where music and Islam meet. With powerful performances, the film documents the story of music at a crucial moment in Afghanistan’s history.”


Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan by Veronica Doubleday

Anthony V. Shay “Afghanistan” The International Encyclopedia of Dance. Selma Jean Cohen and Dance perspectives foundation. © 1998, 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.. The International Encyclopedia of Dance: (e-reference edition). Oxford University Press. California Institute of Integral Studies CIIS. 14 April 2011 http://www.oxford-dance.com/entry?entry=t171.e0012