From the Field: A drive through north western Afghanistan

by Magnus Marsden

I am often asked what it is like to do fieldwork in Afghanistan. To give a sense of doing fieldwork in the country today, I provide an account of a two-day trip in the northwest of the country that I made in October 2017.

The road connecting Mazar-e Sharif – northern Afghanistan’s biggest and most prosperous town – to the Afghanistan-Turkmenistan border post of Aqinah initially passes through tens of kilometres of well-irrigated and verdant agricultural land. Not far from the road connecting Mazar to cities and towns to the west, however, the land is productive in a different manner. Crops of hashish and opium are said to flourish amidst the fields of grains and fruits: this part of northern Afghanistan has since the mid-2000s been a key terrain of the anti-government insurgency led by Taliban-aligned militants. When I travelled along the road most recently in October 2017, my companions were concerned that we passed through the section of the road said to be regularly visited by militants (close to the city of Balkh), before the onset of the night.


We had taken the decision to travel to the border post of Aqinah unexpectedly.  The friend in whose house I was staying in Mazar had recently received his wife’s brother’s daughter as a guest. Unfortunately, the girl (aged in her late-teens) had been suffering severe headaches for some time, and her father had decided that they needed to consult a doctor in the city. Having taken her to a local hospital, the family were told that their daughter was suffering from leukaemia and needed to be taken to India for treatment immediately. Fifteen years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the country’s people must travel abroad (e.g. to Pakistan, India, or Turkey) when needing health care for serious conditions. The girl and her relatives immediately returned to their hometown of Andkhoy, located some twenty or so kilometres from the border post with Turkmenistan in order to gather some belongings and collect the necessary travel documents. However, the young woman did not have a valid Afghanistan passport, and the family were told by officials they would only be able to be issued with travel documents after a public holiday. Having returned to her home, the young woman died, and preparations began immediately for her funeral.  Such events are an all too common aspect of life in Afghanistan and a recurring aspect of my fieldwork in the country.

Back in Mazar-e Sharif my friend decided that now was a suitable time for me to visit the small town where he had been born, and, at the same time, make a visit to the nearby border post of Aqinah. This was indeed a trip we had been planning since first meeting one another in the winter of 2009. My friend has told me many stories over the years of the time he spent working for influential Afghan companies in Turkmenistan in the 1990s. More recently the Aqinah border has been developed by the government of Afghanistan to improve trade with Turkmenistan and open the country as a trade transit corridor. At the same time, Andkhoy (the town closest to the border post) has been the home of one of the groups of Afghan traders that has interested me most, emigres from Soviet Central Asia who left their homeland in the height of the Stalin-era terrors in the late 1920s (see also Rumi Tomato: Autobiography of an Afghan Minister).

A visit to Andkhoy had for long been on my ethnographic radar. Back in 2009 the road was safe and we travelled on several occasions to another town home to emigres from Central Asia, Aqchah. The road to Andkhoy was in a poor condition then, and our visit to the town never materialised. By the time I visited Mazar in 2016, the security situation in the region had rapidly deteriorated. Militants had descended to close to the city from nearby mountains and had fought Afghan security forces only miles from the city’s peripheries. In May 2017 dozens of soldiers had been killed in an attack on a military base. In August 2017, there was a massacre of fifty or more civilians by unidentified militants in a village that lay only twenty or so kilometres from the road. My friend decided however that October 2017 was the right time for us to travel to Andkhoy: there were, he told me, stretches of the road at which Taliban and even purportedly ISIS-affiliated militants appeared, but, if we were careful and avoided these places from the afternoon onwards, we should be fine. The fact that we would travel in the simple car of a joint friend would mean that militants on the road would be less likely to attack our vehicle.


The verdant foliage that characterise the road as it passes by the villages of Balkh does not continue indefinitely. About 45 minutes after leaving Mazar, the road enters the increasingly more arid landscape. Water is a scarce resource in this part of Afghanistan. While the region’s population – largely of mix of Farsi, Uzbek and Turkmen speaking peoples – are renowned for being industrious and hard workers, youngsters from the region have for long laboured abroad to support their families. Until the mid-2000s most labour migration was to Iran, with a fortunate few making their way to the Gulf, Europe, and USA/Canada. Over the past five years, increasing numbers of youth have moved to Turkey, mostly travelling illegally, though sometimes arriving on visas issued to them thanks to the brokerage of powerful figures from this region of Afghanistan who are influential both in Kabul and Turkey. Turkey’s influence indeed is not only visible in migration statistics.

Aside from the purported influence of militants including the Taliban and ISIS, political instability in Jowzjan has also arisen in the wake of the self-exile to Turkey of the region’s most well-known and powerful of politicians: the Soviet-era militia man and Uzbek leader, General Rashid Dostum.  Nevertheless, despite all of this, the city of Shiberghan – the headquarters of the province of Jowzjan – is also home to a flashy new mosque that has been constructed in recent years by a Turkish construction company. Funds, I am told, were both raised by local merchants and the Turkish state itself. The mosque’s design is quite different from the low-key earth brick structures that are commonplace in this part of Afghanistan. Shiberghan’s inhabitants may now worship in a replica of Istanbul’s Ottoman-era ‘Blue Mosque’.

We rolled into the town of Andkhoy at around 3pm having driven the final stretch of the road that had also been the site of militant attacks and road blocks in recent months. After a brief stop in Andkhoy we headed off to the border post. The journey took as thirty minutes or so, and we eventually pulled up outside a trading office that also advertised shower facilities – the latter being used by truck drivers from Turkmenistan. Stacks of cartons of high quality cigarettes indicated that the truck drivers also found room in the cabs of their vehicles to deliver lucrative items to the bazaars of Turkmenistan. Indeed, as a sandstorm raged outside, our host – who trades in cigarettes across the border and was assisted in the building of his trading office by a loan from my friend –  brought us bottles of vodka made in Turkmenistan and plates of fried fish caught in the waters of the nearby Amu Darya (Oxus river).  It was agreed that the cost of these luxury items would be removed from the substantial sum of money owed to my friend by our host. Hospitality is rarely without interest, either in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Waking with rather heavy heads in the morning, we got up and had a fish soup inspired by a famous Russian recipe (ukha) that my friend had learned during the many years he had spent in Turkmenistan. We then drove to the terminal of the railway connecting Aqinah with Turkmenistan that is mainly used for freighting Turkmen oil into Afghanistan. Having been shown around the terminal by the police guarding it, we set off back to Andkhoy, arriving in the home of my friend’s eldest son’s in-laws. As we parked the car, our host’s eldest son was leaving the home’s courtyard: some people from the town had been arrested and jailed by the Taliban for the role they had played in a dispute over land (they had purportedly not agreed to handover a portion of a disputed piece of land to their sisters, who, according to Islamic law, were entitled to a share of the property). The man told us that the place he needed to visit was only a fifteen-minute motorcycle ride away, and that he would be back in time for lunch. As we waited, my friend’s son found a bottle of Turkmen vodka hidden in his in-law’s house. Having lived for several years in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, my friend was convinced of the value of a 100-gram shot as an anti-hangover cure. A 100-gram shot quickly became the best part of the bottle, and my friend soon fell into a deep sleep. It wasn’t until the early afternoon that he awoke, at which point the elder son of the home also returned from his mission. He had successfully negotiated the release of all but two of his imprisoned kinsmen.

We now needed to return to Mazar as soon as possible if we were to pass through the contested parts of the road before the late afternoon. My friend’s wife and mother would travel with us, remaining fully veiled and sitting in the back of the vehicle. The drive home was largely uneventful, other than the fact that the car in which we were travelling broke down on several occasions, ultimately meaning that my friend’s son would have to travel back to Mazar in a shared taxi. There was a degree of concern that if we spent too long trying to fix the vehicle then we could be spotted by militants who keep a close eye on the identities of people travelling in this part of northern Afghanistan. We passed through the contested area of the road shortly before dusk, and my friends pointed out a couple of men they felt sure were militants scoping the road for potential targets.

Fortunately, we arrived back in Mazar without any difficulties. The next day my friend’s mother was hosting a ritual feast to commemorate the death some twenty years ago of her husband who had been killed by a thief for the sake of a $100. All the neighbours would be present and boys from the local religious seminary (madrassa) would recite the Qur’an in its entirety (khatum-e qur’an). She conveyed the message through her elder son that she’d be very happy if I could attend. As much anthropology has shown, even life in the most uncertain of contexts has its everyday routines.

This article was first published on the University of Copenhagen website.

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