Afghans like to entertain guests, and religious holidays like Eid gives them a good reason to invite guests. So today we were guests of one of the local tribal leaders at his house nearby.
Afghan meals are almost distressingly similar in this area, but we don’t often get to eat with the locals – we usually eat meals sent to us from the Army, the heat-and-eat variety of precooked, frozen or canned food. It’s not bad, and there is a certain amount of variety, but there are only 12 entrees, so you can pretty much predict what will be on the menu. When visiting the Afghans, you can predict the menu to within 90% probability: goat meat, bread, perhaps rice and usually a bean dish.
Today the menu was goat meat and bread. Our host had sacrificed a goat for us (at least, that’s how our interpreter translated it – the traditional Muslim killing of an animal by cutting its throat after saying prayers over it), and there is always flatbread at Afghan meals. He apologized for not having more for us, but of course we thanked him for being so hospitable as to invite us over.
Afghan meals are eaten seated on the floor. Everyone sits cross-legged, and has a large, pizza-shaped piece of very thin bread placed in front of them. This bread is what you use to eat with – you tear a piece of bread, use your fingers and dip the bread into sauce or take rice between you fingers with the bread. Everyone uses their hands, and usually eats from a common plate.
Our host started by having a young man bring a pitcher of warm water with a bowl and some soap for us to wash our hands before the meal. We washed over the bowl, then the young man poured water over our hands to rinse them. The water was warm, but there were no towels to dry our hands with, so we let them air dry.
In Afghanistan, there appears to be a definite social pecking order – older people and tribal leaders are served by younger relatives. It seems almost to be shameful for an important person (such as we are here in this country, at least to them) to have to serve themselves, especially if they are a guest. So I was not permitted to pour myself tea or take food for myself – it was done for me.
Just before the meal, a large plastic dropcloth was placed on the floor as a sort fo tablecloth. Flatbread was then placed in front of us, then glass bowls of pieces of goatmeat were set before us. No prayers were offered (I said a prayer silently, as is my normal custom before a meal) – Afghans pray before cooking the food, not before eating it. Once said, additional prayers are unnecessary.
Goat meat is greasy, and I got a good bit of grease on my hands as I ate. There wasn’t really any good way to get the grease off except by rubbing my hands with the flatbread, which I did. The sauce for the meat is an excellent dip for the bread, though.
After the luncheon, we were served green tea. Afghans love tea, and usually have several glasses at a time. I had three cups of green tea, very much sweetened (Afghans love lots of sugar in their tea), which was very good.
After the meal, we said our goodbyes, and handed out a few toys we had brought as gifts for the children. Eid often involves giving gifts to children, so our toys were a big hit. One older boy asked me what the small stuffed animal was for, and I had our interpreter explain it was a plaything. This seemed to be an unusual concept to him, but he seemed to enjoy receiving the toy anyway.
This was not my first Afghan meal, and I am used to eating on the floor with my hands now, but I still prefer eating at a table with silverware – it’s much easier for me, and easier on my legs and knees as well!
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.