Native Storytelling in Afghanistan

Native storytelling in an oral culture such as Afghanistan is a highly effective way to bridge the Afghan-western cultural divide.

Why Native Storytelling?

The majority of the Afghan population are illiterate. Those who can read do not usually do so at high speeds.

My unscientific observation of Afghans for the past ten years leads me to believe that the human mind which has developed in a predominantly oral culture is better able to retain oral information than those who have not grown up in this type of culture.

The only exception I have found is that Afghan men are like western men - they cannot remember more than three food items when I send my illiterate guard to the bazaar for groceries! Oi. Certain male characteristics seem to cross all cultures. The only solution to this, I have found, is to hire only literate guards so I can write my grocery list.

Okay, back to the topic at hand.


Storytelling, learning to tell it the native Afghan way, is so amazingly effective you will be stunned. Afghans LOVE stories. They remember the details, they retell the stories accurately, they love to laugh and cry, to revere goodness and holiness, and to revile bad characters.

Native Storytelling Methods

  1. Read the story in your native language.
  2. Make a key-word outline - limit yourself to 3-4 main words per sentence.
  3. Practice telling the story by looking just at your keyword outline.
  4. Practice some more without looking at your notes.
  5. Have the story translated into Dari or Pashto, and have an Afghan friend help you get the translation and pronunciation just right.
  6. Make a keyword outline of the story in Dari or Pashto or whatever Afghan language you are using.
  7. As before, practice telling the story just from your Dari or Pashto notes, until you can do the majority of it without looking at your notes.
  8. Tell your story, don't be anxious about using notes. Afghans are very forgiving and love our bumbling attempts to connect with them THEIR way.

Native Storytelling Ideas

So where do you get ideas of stories? It's helpful to begin a steady diet of reading Afghan stories, to increase your cultural knowledge and become rich in Persian stories.

But really, with sensitivity, you can take just about any story from your culture and just place it in the context of Afghanistan and retell it through their language.

Islam and Christianity share many Old Testament stories. The ancient culture of the Bible time period shares many similarities with Afghan culture, and the same stories are found within the Islam holy book. Brush up on your OT stories...some of those are very appropriate in the Afghan culture when you are needing to make a point.

Have fun with storytelling - the smiles and answering light in the eyes of your Afghan friends and colleagues will be well worth it.

Native Storytelling Subtopics

  • IdiomsI didn't know what else to call this section, but it's important to know that Afghans have an idiom for EVERYTHING. We foreigners need to learn idioms.


    Well, there are several books which have idioms in them, but I'll be including a page of Afghan Idioms guessed it...a tea break.

  • Also, Afghans love mother-in-law jokes. Bless my mother (deceased), loved and respected by my husband, and loved in return by my mother. However, my husband told the following joke numerous times in the past 10 years always with great success and many large laughs:

    Afghan: "Why did you come to Afghanistan?"

    My Husband's answer: "To get away from my mother-in-law."

    Use your mother-in-law to build bridges with Afghans. She'll never know.

  • Mulla-Nasruddin Jokes These are gold. I know one expat man who always starts every meeting with a Mulla-Nasruddin joke. Learn or make up Mulla-Nasruddin stories and jokes. Afghans love these, and they are a culturally effective way to make a point, connect with Afghans, or get a laugh.

I administrated a Storytelling Guild for over a year in Afghanistan some years ago, and found that it didn't work for several reasons:

  • People are very busy in Afghanistan, and storytelling sounds "fluffy."
  • Westerners simply do not understand and appreciate the power of becoming effective Storytellers
  • People are tired at night and just don't want to go out again for a storytelling meeting. Here, Afghans age fast - there is a reason for this. Life in Afghanistan is exhausting, for both Afghans and westerners. Pack your anti-wrinkle cream and sunblock.

So what's the solution?

By limiting yourself to just 1/2 hour per day to think of ways to tell a story or what story you can tell to connect with an Afghan will reap rewards far beyond the 1/2 hour time spent planning.

It depends upon how much priority you place on developing a relationship with that Afghan or group of Afghans, and if it is worth the time and effort for you to earn their loyalty.

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