Culture shock: What’s all the fuss about shoes?

In Afghanistan, it is customary to remove your shoes before entering a home. Typically you will find a jumbled pile of the inhabitants’ shoes immediately inside and outside the entrance of houses, apartments, some shops, offices and hotels. Sometimes there are a collection of communal slippers inside the door, but since I was coming from an individualistic culture, I had brought my own indoor sandals and learned to hide them so that they did not become communal.


Wonderful feast in Mazar-e-Sharif

I was prepared to remove my shoes upon entering Afghan homes. But I didn’t know that Afghans wear different shoes in different rooms. There are bathroom shoes, kitchen shoes, roof shoes and maybe more. If you want to use the bathroom, there are sandals inside the bathroom door. There are also special shoes to wear in the kitchen. The bathroom I used in my first Afghan home was inside the kitchen, so if I followed the protocol, I would remove my house sandals outside the kitchen door and put on kitchen shoes, then remove my kitchen shoes outside the bathroom door to put on bathroom shoes and reverse the process to exit the bathroom and kitchen. Sometimes it was easier to just stay in my room.


Making mantoo in Karte-seh

In traditional Afghan homes, people sit, sleep, prepare food and eat on the floor. When I was there, the streets in Kabul were either very dusty, very muddy or completely flooded – a disturbing state of perpetual extremes. So I understood why it was so important to remove our outside shoes. At mealtime, a plastic cloth, called a sufra or dasterkhan, is spread on the floor like a tablecloth. As I struggled to sit cross-legged with one stubborn and protesting knee, I was told by my first host that it was extremely offensive to allow your feet to touch this cloth. However, in other homes I saw the hosts walking barefoot across these mats when serving the food, so sufra etiquette seems to vary from home to home.


Barefeet and bolani

In Afghanistan, people have hospitality competitions. Before our departure from some homes, the really competitive hosts neatly positioned our shoes facing outwards to accommodate putting them on more easily. The less hospitable hosts will put salt in the shoes of their guests as a superstitious way to make their guests leave sooner. My friend, Parisa, told me that she once tried that trick and it didn’t work. I suggested that it may work better if you tell your guests that you just put salt in their shoes as a not-so-subtle hint that it is time for them to leave. I never found salt in my shoes and my hosts in Mazar-e-Sharif won the hospitality competition with our neatly lined-up, outwardly-facing shoes. They also made me feel less paranoid about my feet touching the dasterkhan when they walked on it with bare feet to serve our food.


Picnic in Awlai region of Balkh Province

I experienced my first Afghan picnic in Mazar-e-Sharif. In Afghanistan, it’s common to see people spreading a full-size carpet on the ground in the middle of a field, on the side of the road or anywhere else where they decide to sit to have some tea or a picnic. In the U.S., we may use a picnic blanket or a cloth of some kind – but I have never seen people carrying around something as unwieldly as a carpet. I learned that the same shoe removal custom prevails when crossing the threshold between the bare earth and the carpet-covered ground.


This is where they rinse their clothes and make french fries

At the home of my first host, there was a collection of special shoes, sandals and slippers waiting at the door to the roof. In the U.S., most of our roofs are peaked, so it’s not common to walk on the roof. But in Afghanistan, the roofs are flat and are commonly used as an additional outdoor living area, more like a patio in the U.S. It’s also where this family kept their washing machine and where the female relatives begrudgingly taught me how to wash and rinse my clothes – laughing at and videotaping my feeble efforts. Next to the garden hose and the large metal bowl where they rinsed my clothes was a desk with a metal contraption on it. I thought it was related to washing clothes, but they told me it was a device to make French fries. I guess people also make French fries on their rooftops. And when the refrigerator had disappeared from the kitchen one day, I found it three days later on the roof. So I think you can understand why I felt like Alice in Wonderland during my first month in Afghanistan.

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Hiding the refrigerator outside my bedroom window

My bedroom was on the third floor – the same level as the roof. My host’s family has a menagerie of beloved fowl in their large and lush garden – peacocks, geese, turkeys, and chickens. So one morning when it seemed that one of the roosters was crowing directly through my window, I was surprised to see him standing in his cage, on the roof, right outside my room. Roosters don’t have to wear special shoes on the roof because they are carried to a small carpet made from a burlap bag and covered with a bottomless cage. However, the roosters have to wear special shoes made of cloth and tied around their ankles (if roosters have ankles) when they are loose because they have a tendency to spar and hurt themselves or others with their claws.


My first rooster sighting on the roof

A few weeks later when looking out my bedroom window, there was another rooster in a cage on the roof. But this one was dead – lying on his side, with his barefeet extended horizontally in mid-air. Why cage a dead rooster? Why put a dead rooster on the roof? I thought perhaps they put him on the roof and forgot he was there – accidentally allowing him to die from hunger, thirst or the elements. When I texted the owner to let him know there was a dead rooster on the roof, he said he knew and assured me they would take care of it. How do you take care of a dead rooster? I wanted to tell him it was too late, but he was the expert, so I said no more. Later I learned that the rooster was accidentally shot… indoors. I guess they should have taken care of the dead rooster before they accidentally shot it. I remembered Alice’s words as things seemed to be getting “curiouser and curiouser!” in the rabbit hole that was disguised as a beautiful, peach-colored house near Yousof Bangi High School.


Entrance to the rabbit hole


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