Beyond the Book: Background information when reading My Guantanamo Diary

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My Guantanamo Diary

The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

by Mahvish Khan

My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2009, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lesley Marshall

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Afghan Culture and Customs
Afghanistan's 33 million people are made up of more than twenty ethnic groups with their own distinctive languages and cultural mores. The largest and most dominant of these groups, politically and economically, are the Pashtuns (42% of the population), The second most populous group are the Tajiks (27%). Smaller groups include the Hazaras, the Aymaqs, the Uzbeks and the Turkmen. Pashto and Dari (Persian) are the two official languages of the country.

There are various Afghan dwelling styles. Rural people tend to live in homes made of sun-dried bricks, city dwellers live in homes made of baked bricks, concrete or both. Some nomadic tribes live in tents made of goat hair (in the 1970s about 1/5 of the population was classified as nomadic but these numbers have fallen precipitously due to the ongoing military conflicts). The constructed homes are separated into the public and private areas, so women don't interact with strangers.

The style of clothing one wears is distinguished by gender. Men living in rural areas wear turbans reflecting their ethnic tribe, and in winter men traditionally wear coats made of sheepskin, felt or quilted fabric. Pashtun women wear a chadri (the Afghan equivalent of a burqa), a long garment that covers the head and body. The chadri was first instigated by an Afghan ruler so his wives couldn't be seen, a practice then adopted by the upper classes. By the 1980s the chadri had fallen out of regular use (and in fact had been banned by the modernizing government), but was mandated under the Taliban rule (1996-2001) and many women still wear it. Rural women wear a shawl that covers their heads.

Afghan women traditionally play a secondary role in society. Education and career choices are limited especially for those living in rural areas. During the Taliban era, freedom for women was limited even more. They weren't allowed to attend school or to go outside the home without a male escort. Women who disobeyed these rules were punished severely.

Religion plays an important part in the life of Afghans. The vast majority are Islams (three-quarters Sunni Muslims) and adhere to Islamic principles of hygiene, modest behavior, and moral values. Nonetheless, people vary in their practice of their religion. Some strictly adhere to tradition, praying five times a day, maintaining halal food practices, and dressing to cover head, arms and legs, whereas others may be more relaxed in how they choose to pray and dress.

The everyday diet consists of flat bread naan often dipped in a light meat stock. Yogurt, onions, peas, beans, nuts, dried fruits and rice are all staples as well. Tea is drunk throughout the day, with sugar added only to the first cup of the day. Alcohol and pork are prohibited. When food is served, the host waits for his guests to begin to eat. It is customary for guests to leave food on the plate; otherwise the host will continue to fill it.

Up until 1973 about half of those 12 years and under had access to schools, but by the middle of the 1990s less than 650 schools were open in the entire country, many of those remaining being religious schools (madrassas). In 2000, it was estimated that 43% of men and 13% of women could read and write. Today, about 45% of the population are under 14 years of age, of which less than one-fourth attend school.

The division of labor is separated by the sexes. In the 1960s women were able to work outside the home, but from 1992-1996 the Taliban dictated that women could not leave their house without male accompaniment and were prohibited from virtually all jobs. Today, women have regained some of their freedom and a few serve in political offices in the country's government, but most stay at home to look after the house and children leaving the men as breadwinners.

2005 unemployment levels stood at 40% with 53% living below the poverty line. Agricultural products and export items include wheat, fruits, nuts, sheep related products and opium. Manufacturing is mainly small scale production of clothing, craft items, fertilizer and cement, plus some mining of natural gas, coal and copper. Most manufactured goods are imported.

Marriage is considered an obligation and divorces are rare. Marriages are arranged and choices are based upon the financial gain of the union. After the couple is married, the wife moves into her husband's family home. Marrying kin is fairly common, especially cousins. Polygamy is allowed as long as the husband treats all his wives equally.

Honor is very important in the Afghan culture. The head male of the family is responsible for maintaining the family's honor. Honor is directly related to the protection of women, their style of dress, social interactions and education. When one's honor has been compromised, the family is shamed and retaliation or violence may be exacted.

Today, Afghans are attempting to rebuild their war torn land. Poor nutrition remains a threat to people, especially children. The lack of clean drinking water and adequate sanitation has contributed to a high mortality rate.


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Article by Lesley Marshall

This article was originally published in August 2008, and has been updated for the June 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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