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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer

3. Before Negotiation: Trust Building, Preconceptions and Hospitality

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3.1. Building Trust: Foreigners’ Preconceptions Prior to Assignment in Afghanistan and Their Preparation for the Cultural Context

  • 1  This common idea is difficult to refute because reward, be it material or moral (recognition), doe (...)

1Generally speaking, individuals working – and thus negotiating – in a cultural context remote from their own need time to adapt. They can, however, take important steps, prior to moving overseas, to sensitise themselves to some aspects of their new cultural context. This is particularly true for countries such as Afghanistan, where the political and social situation is extremely complicated, money governs most interactions between foreigners and nationals, and building trust requires overcoming the initial mutual mistrust of both parties. This mistrust is based, on the Afghan side, on multiple factors – religious and cultural discrepancies, the (perceived) arrogant behaviour of foreigners and, importantly, general doubts as to the foreigners’ real motivations for working in Afghanistan.  For Afghans, the decision to leave a relatively comfortable situation in a prosperous country to come to Afghanistan – facing (often self-imposed) movement restrictions, a clear loss of comfort and separation from friends and family – is not easily understandable. For many Afghans, financial motivations are the only reason to make such a drastic move. The idea predominates, for instance, that aid workers are not in Afghanistan for the reasons they allege, but because they receive huge salaries in compensation for the inconveniences they encounter in Afghanistan.1 Moreover, the geographical segregation of the international community in the privileged, high-security areas of Kabul creates a parallel world that serves only to augment the psychological gap between foreigners and locals (Fluri, 2009). The phenomenon, of course, is not new, and was already evident in a 2006 study that observed ‘significant levels of alienation vis-à-vis the aid community’ (Donini, 2007) a process highly likely to have only increased in the five-year interim.

  • 2  This view is also difficult to dismantle, as need leads people to become more materialistic. A gre (...)

2On the foreigners’ side, distrust is also often a result of a religious and cultural gap. Common statements that ‘Afghans still live in the Middle Ages’, ‘they don’t abide by rules not based upon Islam’ and ‘they disrespect me because I’m a woman’ are indicative of this disconnect. In the survey conducted as part of this research, participants were asked to note a few key words describing the preconceptions they held regarding Afghanistan prior to beginning to work and live there. After the elimination of some relatively neutral words (such as ‘beards’), it became evident that the overwhelming majority of the key words had negative connotations: religious fanaticism; backwardness; Bamiyan Buddhas’ destruction; burqas; aggressive; ignorant; conservative; Taliban; unforgiving; patriarchal; and lack of high culture. Only two key words indicated positive connotations: hospitable and friendly. Foreigners’ initial attitudes toward the inhabitants of the country in which they intended to work, therefore, seem to be cautious at best. Moreover, in a parallel to the Afghans’ aforementioned suspicion of foreigners’ intentions, foreigner workers similarly believed that Afghans’ collaboration stems more from personal (economic) interests than ethical or ideological commitment.2

  • 3  English is often (but not always) a foreign language for both the foreigner and the Afghan (and so (...)

3The survey also asks foreigners whether their employers had prepared them for the cultural differences they would face when working in Afghanistan. 15 out of 17 said ‘no’. Furthermore, only six out of 17 spoke a local language. Of these six persons, five were working as interpreters. Of the 11 respondents who spoke no local language prior to their arrival, only three reported learning some basic phrases beyond greeting formulas. These results suggest that cross-cultural interactions take place in a setting where the foreign (i.e. Western) Weltanschauung predominates, and English is most often used.3

4As a consequence of the elements discussed above, one may conclude that, from an Afghan perspective, negotiation takes place:

  1. With people whose familiarity with Afghan culture is not guaranteed, as it depends on whether or not they have made personal efforts. Moreover, even as particular foreigners become more conversant in Afghan culture, the end of their assignment draws closer, and eventually another new, culturally illiterate foreigner takes their place. The cycle then goes on to repeats itself.

  2. With people whose motivations are not unclear and whom they suspect of feigning genuine motivation in order to secure a lucrative job.

  3. In a non-native language (English) or via an interpreter whose mastery of the local language varies.

  4. With people who, in turn, hold preconceptions regarding Afghans that also present barriers to trusting interaction(s).

5These conditions should in no way be considered absolute, but are nevertheless likely to very often prevail. Most interactions thus tend to begin in conditions generally adverse to positive initial contact and the construction of trust.

3.2. Les salamalecs: When Greeting Matters

6As illustrated by the way people interact with those they do not know well, Afghanistan is a high-context culture. The manner in which Afghans greet each other corresponds to a codified sequence of structured and repeated inquiries about health, the well-being of the family and other aspects of life. The universal answer to all such questions, regardless of the actual state of affairs, is ‘well’. The less familiar the participants are with each other, the longer this ritual takes. The French term salamalec nicely summarises the way Westerners perceive this ‘oriental’ ritual, namely as ‘exaggerate politeness’.  

SALAMALEC [salamalεk] n.m. – 1659 ; « salut turc » 1559 ; de l’ar. salâm alaïk « paix sur toi » ♦ FAM. (surtout plur.) Révérences, politesses exagérées. Faire des salamalecs (cf. Ronds* de jambe). « tous ces salamalecs, souriants et mornes » (Goncourt)

(Le Petit Robert, 2006, 2351).

7Lutz Rzehak describes this phenomenon in the following words:

‘Needless to say that ostentation represents a crude breach of the rules of conduct; and one should not even talk about oneself without being asked to do so. A good illustration of this rule of behaviour is the greeting ceremony. When inquiring after somebody’s health one will hardly get an answer right away. Instead of answering, the other person will inquire about the health of the conversational partner. Such questions and counter-questions can last for several minutes in many cases. Answering too soon would show that one wants to be in the focus of attention, […]. When finally answering, one will content oneself with saying that everything’s fine and thanking God for that’ (2011, 12).

8This cultural difference can play a major role in structuring interactions between foreigners and Afghans, particularly in the case of outsiders meeting with more traditional, rural Afghans for the first time. A rushing the greeting, in combination with an overly-prompt answer to the inquiry regarding well-being, can lead to serious resentment that may negatively influence the subsequent negotiation process. With younger and more urbanised Afghans, in contrast, a shorter, more Western greeting is becoming popular. Finally, the phenomenon of mutual adaption also holds with respect to the greeting formula. Eight of those surveyed felt that they adapted more to Afghan greeting formulas than vice versa, with five reporting the opposite. Four said they felt both parties adapted equally.

3.3. Melmastia: The Symbolic Importance of Hospitality

9The Pashto word melmastiaېلمستیا) is usually translated as ‘hospitality’, a concept that requires further elaboration in order to illustrate its utmost importance. While hospitality is, of course, central to many cultures, and known to have a significant social function in almost all nomadic societies, it plays an even greater role in Pashtun culture. As guests are seen as gifts from God, hospitality is considered ‘a pious deed’ (Rzehak, 2011, 15). It is a form of sakhawat (سخاوت, from Arabic), the Muslim term for generosity. This implies that it is not only impolite, but also a religious affront not to demonstrate – at least symbolically – the intention to provide a guest with some tea or food. Even poor people will fulfil this requirement strictly. Melmastia is not only a rule for the host, but also the guest, who is obliged, under all circumstances, to accept the host’s generosity. This can lead to serious misunderstandings in instances where a foreign guest does not duly honour his host’s hospitality, or offer at least some tea to an Afghan guest.

  • 4  The concept of melmastia is discussed here in the Pakistani context.

10The minimal version of melmastia (i.e. offering tea) seems to be  observed by the survey respondents. In the survey, 14 out of 17 answered that they always offered tea when hosting Afghans for the purposes of negotiation. Similarly, 15 people reported that they never refused tea when offered. Initially, this may seem trivial, but at least symbolically demonstrating hospitality is of crucial importance. American diplomats Howard and Teresita Schaffer explain: ‘Offering a visitor something to eat and to drink is a requirement; not to do so is insulting. […] The fact that many offices in the United States do not routinely offer coffee or tea to visitors is unsettling even for Pakistanis experienced in the ways of Washington’ (2011, 36). 4

11The concept of melmastia does, however, encompass more than simply the requirement of offering tea or food. It is central to Pashtun tradition, and is at the heart of other aspects of pashtunwali not necessarily related to negotiation, such as the unconditional grant of asylum (كول پناه ; pana kawel) to foreigners, or even an enemy. There are also some other, subtler aspects of melmastia , which are nevertheless relevant to interaction and negotiation. A host, for example, is supposed to entertain a guest, it is insulting to leave a guest alone, even for a short time. In contrast to Western convention, a guest is allowed to be more frank than the host (Rzehak, 2011, 15). Similarly, any frankly negative answer, or denial of a guest’s request, is even more insulting than it would be per se.


1  This common idea is difficult to refute because reward, be it material or moral (recognition), does in fact seem to be a very important source of motivation for foreigners working in Afghanistan, though of course not the only one. This makes it much more difficult to convince Afghans of the moral integrity of aid workers’ concerns.

2  This view is also difficult to dismantle, as need leads people to become more materialistic. A great deal of this problem might be facilitated by the international community, moreover, since the installation of clientelism and the creation of economic dependency (‘incentives’ etc.) play a pivotal role in building ‘mutual trust’.

3  English is often (but not always) a foreign language for both the foreigner and the Afghan (and sometimes also for the interpreter). This may further complicate interaction since the use of tact tends to require fine-tuned verbal communication.

4  The concept of melmastia is discussed here in the Pakistani context.


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