My friend’s family rents three rooms in their house, and this house always produces stories for neighbors to talk about for weeks. Once, for instance, two young girls lived there and worked without any man. The neighbors nicknamed them the “Crazy Girls” because they went to the gym to practice karate and returned home in late evening. Then two months ago, an Afghan couple who had lived in Iran moved in. One day the neighbors were watching and laughing as the man washed clothes and his wife, holding the water hose, gave him instructions. The man was doing what was considered a woman’s job, but the couple did not care about the attention they received.

Thirty years of war has forced many Afghans to move to other countries, particularly Iran and Pakistan. The stories that come out of my friend’s house are stories of generations of Afghans who grew up in these countries as refugees and experienced different environments that affected various aspects of their lives, ranging from food and clothing to language, family structures, and traditions.

Clothing is a sure tell-tale sign of where someone grew up. I will never forget a job interview my third month back in Kabul. I was so confused when I saw girls wearing shiny, colorful “panjabi,” bright, high-heeled sandals and large, sparkling jewelry. I was supposed to be in an office, not at a party. “Oh my God, I have come to the wrong place for my first interview in Afghanistan,” I thought. I checked the address again but still could not believe I was in the right place. I was wearing a navy blue jacket with black pants, which is what I wore in Iran. “This might not be shiny enough for this organization,” I thought. “Thank God I did not wear the chador. Then I definitely would not get any job in this office!” Women who were refugees in Iran usually wear dark jackets and pants, and those who are religious wear the long black chador. Men wear dark coats with pants.

Later, I discovered girls who grew up in Pakistan usually wear shiny “panjabis” and men wear bright “peran” with “shalwar.” I got the job and was so excited when my colleague Zuhal, who lived in Pakistan for years, invited me to her wedding party. I was curious to know what they would wear to a wedding party! Seeing those super-shiny colors made me feel so alive after seeing so many dark, gloomy colors in Iran.

The second difference is food. Afghans who never left Afghanistan cook traditional Afghan foods like “mantu” and “ashak” dumplings, “qabli palau” with lamb, and “kabab.” However, we cook some different dishes that we learned in Iran: “ashsabzi” (a vegetable soup), “qurmasabzim” (vegetables with gravy), “sabzipalaw” (rice with vegetables), and “mahi palaw” (rice with fish). In addition, my mother learned to make different kinds of salads, pickles, cookies and cakes. On the other hand, I enjoyed eating Pakistani foods in Zuhal’s wedding party—spicy foods like “beryani” (rice with spicy chicken), “sambusa” (spicy potatoes), “kari” and “pakara”. They, too, make different kinds of snacks. All this has added nice variety to traditional Afghan foods.

Language, like clothing, is a very obvious difference. Those who studied in Iran had to study all subjects in Farsi, even English. Therefore, they are very good in Farsi literature and can read and write very well in Farsi. They use formal and informal Farsi properly. Hence, they often write as editors for Farsi newspapers in Kabul or run the Farsi magazines that publish Farsi poetry and essays, such as “Dore Dari” and “Third Line.” However, they usually don’t know English or Pashtu, and this can present a challenge in finding other jobs. Those who studied in Pakistan usually speak several languages: Pashtu, Urdu, English, and Farsi. If they went to Afghan refugee schools, they studied Pashtu or Farsi but if they studied in Pakistani schools, they had to learn Urdu and English. Therefore, they usually know more English than those who studied in Iran, and this gives them more opportunities to find jobs in Kabul. Also, they usually know Pashtu as well. This paves the way for possible government jobs. When they teach English in Kabul, though, it is with a Pakistani accent. They use a lot of English and Pashtu words when they speak Farsi, and usually mix up formal and informal Farsi. Their Farsi, in fact, sounds like a language salad, a mixture of many different words from different languages.

My friend Zuhal and her relatives are an example of the difference in family structures. I couldn’t believe she wanted to quit her job after three months of marriage. She said she had to clean the house, cook, wash, and take care of her in-laws when she arrived home after work. She lived with her husband’s family: four sisters-in-law and five brothers-in-law. They returned to Kabul two years ago after living 20 years in Pakistan. “There is no end to housework. I am exhausted; I cannot work and take care of my husband’s family at the same time. I have to quit the job,” she said.

“Ask them to do the housework when you are at work,” I said.

“Impossible. There are some important tasks that are my responsibility as their bride,” she answered.

“Get a cleaning lady to do housework,” I said.

“That would be shameful! I am a strong and real woman who can handle much housework. What would our relatives and neighbors say if I do that?”

“Why don’t you live apart from your in-laws?” I asked.

Her face became red and she stood in front of me. “What are you talking about?”

“Rent another house and live just with your husband,” I said calmly.

Her eyes got bigger and she stared at me. “Who do you think I am? A weak woman who cannot take care of her family? A luxurious one who won’t care for her family? Or a prostitute? Who?” She was shouting by now.

“Listen, it has nothing to do…” I said.

“My father-in-law and mother-in-law are like my own parents. It is my duty to serve and take of them. My husband is the elder son and an honorable and real man who is proud of taking care of his parents, sister and brothers until he dies. I would never insult him with these stupid thoughts. I would rather die than make my husband ashamed,” she said, her face as red as her red Pakistani pajabi. “You have forgotten Afghan culture! Look at your Farsi accent. It is not Afghani!” And then she left.

It seems family structure in Pakistan is much like traditional Afghan structure—large families, and the grown son’s family lives with the parents to care for them. This is so different from the usual practice among young educated couples who grew up in Iran. They prefer to live apart from their parents. They usually have small families with one or two children. In Iran, Afghan women had more opportunity than Afghan men to go to school because the men had to work but women did not, and so had time to study. Therefore, when they got back to Afghanistan, educated women had more chances to find work and support their families financially. In addition, women often become the decision-makers. For example, women have more freedom to choose a career, such as to become a singer, an actress, or a martial arts athlete. However, for Afghans who were in Pakistan these careers are considered to be male options.

One of my favorite differences is in ceremonies. Although Nawruz (the first day of spring and of the New Year) is a tradition in Afghanistan, it is marked in different ways depending on whether one was a refugee in Iran or in Pakistan. Those who were in Iran look at Nawruz as one of the biggest events of the year. They usually send me a New Year Happy card to invite for a New Year Party that celebrates with seven fruits, specific foods like “sabzi palaw” and “mahi palaw.” However, for those who grew up in Pakistan, Nawruz is not a big event. The big holidays for them are Eid al-Fitr (marking the end of Ramadan) and Eid al-Adha (commemorating Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son). They celebrate these days with new clothes, special foods, and visits to relatives and friends. Therefore, I usually get Eidi (an Eid gift) from my friends who were in Pakistan but a Nawruz gift from friends who were in Iran.

There are also, of course, some similarities between those Afghans who were refugees in Iran and those who were in Pakistan. Both groups look at Afghanistan differently than those who never left. They think out of the box and have more new ideas to deal with problems. In addition, they have knowledge and skills that Afghanistan needs to go forward. So although sometimes differences can cause conflict, these differences also provide assets to help build Afghanistan. Moreover, it has brought nice, broad variety in food, clothing, language, family structure, and ceremonies of Afghan society.

By Shakila