Negotiating Hierarchy with Strangers in Rural Afghanistan

Our host picked up the teapot.

“No, no,” said Abdul Haq. “I will pour it.”

“I insist—you are my guest.”

Abdul Haq grabbed the handle; Haji Mumtaz took it back. This was a ritual I had gone through almost every night as I walked across Iran. This village had been part of an empire centered in Persia for most of the previous two thousand years. In both Iran and Afghanistan, the order in which men enter, sit, greet, drink, wash, and eat defines their status, their manners, and their view of their companions. If a warlord had been with us, he would have been expected, as the most senior man, to enter first, sit in the place farthest from the door, have his hands washed by others, and be served, eat, and drink first. People would have stood to greet him and he would not normally have stood to greet others. But we were not warlords and it was best for us to refuse honors—not least because no one else’s status was clear. Status depended not only on age, ancestry, wealth, and profession, but also on whether a man was a guest, whether a third person was present, and whether the guest knew the others well.

Qasim had not struggled very much before taking the most senior position. He probably thought he deserved it as a descendant of the Prophet, the oldest guest, and the most senior civil servant present. But he could have made more of an effort to hold back. Our host, Haji Mumtaz, showed his manners by ostentatiously deferring to Qasim. The more he did so, the more we were reminded that he had done the pilgrimage to Mecca, was the village headman, and was twenty years older and much richer than Qasim, his pushy guest.

Abdul Haq sat himself at a junior position, folding his long legs beneath him with a natural easy smile. Aziz’s poverty was evident from his scrawny frame, ill-kept beard, and poorly fitting clothes. He was only walking with us because he had married Qasim’s sister. He moved to the bottom of the room with a defensive scowl. Only I deferred to Aziz, but then I was very low on the scale: visibly young, shabbily dressed, traveling on foot, and, although they might not know this, not a Muslim. But, perhaps because I was a foreign guest and had letters from the Emir [of Herat], I was promoted after a long debate and made to sit beside Mumtaz. When other senior men from the village entered, we all rose in their honor. But when the servants brought the food, I was the only one to look up. Servants, like women and children, were socially invisible.

SOURCE: The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart (Harcourt, 2004), pp. 38-39 (see also his Iran Diary in LRB)

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