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Why Afghans Don’t Know Their Ages

And why they often use only one name. Part three of our series of diaries from Kabul. A Web exclusive by Eve Conant
/ Source: Newsweek Web Exclusive

Ask Afghans how old they are, and most will scratch their heads and look to their friends for guidance. NEWSWEEK’s house here in Kabul is something of an anomaly, because most of our staff here say they do know their ages.

OR DO THEY? Take our driver, Akhbar. Akhbar, who wears dark, round sunglasses even at night, was born in 1969 and is 30 years old. But how does that explain that one of our stringers in Kabul was born in 1971—and is also 30 years old. “Things are different here,” says Akhbar, twisting around from his driver’s seat.

That’s for sure. When I interview local residents, I’ve learned to ask them how old they think they are. A lot of time also is taken up with simply trying to agree on when certain events took place. The reason: most Afghans think in terms of the Islamic solar calendar, which puts this as the year 1380. But when the Taliban took over five years ago, they imposed the Islamic lunar calendar—which says its now 1422, and will be under March 15, 2002.

There are other complications, too. “Do you celebrate birthdays?” I ask NEWSWEEK translator Sayed, who assures me he is definitely 26. “Oh, no. Of course not,” he says, smiling shyly. In fact, there are no birthdays here, just once-in-a-lifetime type events like the “cradle celebration,” in which Afghans invite friends and family—mostly women—to celebrate a baby’s new bed. “There is only one real party in your life,” says Sayed. “So when you grow up there is no party, until your wedding. Poor families don’t even have big cradle celebrations. Actually, there is no money for parties here.”

Nor do people here tend to carry any formal ID with them. Sayed, who traveled from the north to work with NEWSWEEK, has no papers with him at all, and doesn’t seem the slightest bit worried about it. “When the communist government was here [from the early 1970s to 1992] they issued documents, but most people outside of Kabul never got them,” he explains as he warms himself against one of our highly prized space heaters. “In Afghanistan you don’t need documents. You only need them on the first day when you’re registering at school.”

Driver Akhbar does have something official—an old driver’s license complete with a photo showing his now clean-shaven face bearing a long, Taliban-mandated beard—but there is no date of birth written on it. Sami, who works as translator for colleague Melinda Liu, explains that age is simply not that important and that, when asked, most Afghans will try to pass the torch on to the next person. “If you ask people, many will just tell you ‘go ask that guy—I think he was born when I was’,” explains Sami, who sits on the TV couch huddled against the cold in his patu-a thick blanketlike shawl that men wrap over their heads and shoulders.

Another aspect of Afghan life that mystifies foreigners is why local residents prefer to use only one name. Most of the 26 million people here prefer to introduce themselves informally, with even military commanders going simply by “Commander Shah” or “Commander Aziz.” “We’re not like the Russians who have three names they use at all times,” says Sayed. “We only need one name.”

Again, it’s not at simple as it seems. “You have a choice. You can choose any name,” says Sayed. Sayed’s full names are Sayed (meaning leader) Abdul (one who believes in God) Wadude (one who loves everyone) Saidi (belonging to the Sayed tribe.) His family, however, has different last names: one brother is Sayed Mahmoud, another is Sayed Murtazar, and their father is Sayed Masoud. “This does cause some confusion among Afghans,” says Sayed. “But we have to have different names. There is no system. It’s not necessary to know who is related to whom. People in our neighborhood already know who we are.”

Semantics aside, the NEWSWEEK team is now settling into its house quite comfortably. We not only have (finally) acquired CNN, but also four wood-burning stoves to help take the chill off the air. We’ve learned, too, to accommodate the fact that during the day Afghan homes and buildings are usually colder inside than out. I religiously wear three light coats when entering ministry buildings, and have found a hat, scarf and gloves to be the best defense at the nightly U.N. press conferences at the Hotel Intercontinental.

Our neighbors seem to be getting accustomed to us, too. The little children race up to our door to offer shoe-polishing services or to ask for money—”Baksheesh, Mister?”—from all foreigners, male or female. As we drive out on our respective reporting assignments, however, we’ve noticed some changes in our neighborhood of Wazir Akhbar Khan. One is that the Russians have arrived. About 90 of them, wearing Russian Emergency Situations Ministry jackets, are here setting up a hospital in a nearby abandoned lot and to re-establishing an embassy in the capital.

The Russian plans to establish a diplomatic presence in Kabul have triggered U.S. concerns that Moscow may lend legitimacy to a Northern Alliance government. The Bush administration does not consider the Alliance and its leader, Burnahuddin Rabbani, to be a viable alternative to the Taliban and supports U.N. plans to form a new, broad-based government.

But the Russians on the ground have less political concerns. Many Afghans are still hostile toward them because of the Soviet occupation of 1979-89, and several Russian guards have admitted to journalists that they are terrified to be here. During the day, their base camp is ringed with Afghan men who peer at them from a distance, leaning against their bicycles along the side of the road for hours at a time. Among those waiting, though, retribution didn’t seem at the top of the agenda. Many were simply young Afghans who speak Russian—and are hoping for work as translators.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.