Afghans question own culture of hospitality

When should a foreign guest no longer be welcome?

Many displaced families living in the squalid tent camp outside this dusty desert town near Afghanistan's border with Tajikistan are so destitute, they have to boil grass and brush to make tea.

Yet, when a foreign reporter arrives at the Kum Kushloq camp - home to about 8,000 desperately poor people who have escaped Taliban rule in the south - refugee Palawan Abdul Rashid insists on sharing a pot of the steaming brew his veiled wife has just prepared.

"It is a great honor to have a foreign guest in my home," he says with a sweep of his hands across his canvas tent.

Afghans across this war-devastated country take great pride in showing visitors - especially foreign ones - effusive hospitality. Thus, refugees like Mr. Rashid will invite a reporter to join his family of 14 for dinner, even though they subsist on foreign donations of wheat, cooking oil, and what they can scavenge from surrounding fields.

Understanding the importance of this time-honored tradition among the Afghan people is crucial to comprehending the Taliban view in terms of its current impasse with the United States over Osama bin Laden. Taliban leaders are refusing to hand over the Saudi extremist, whom US authorities are calling the mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks on Washington and New York. The Taliban call Mr. bin Laden a foreign guest who helped their nation - mainly with his vast financial resources and connections to Islamic extremist groups - in Afghanistan's time of need during the 1980s, when the mujahideen were battling Soviet invaders.

The Taliban, which has claimed up until now to be curtailing bin Laden's communications with the outside world, say those restrictions - and any others on him - have ended. They say this move is justified by the US-led air assault against Afghanistan.

"Now that America has begun its war against Muslims, the situation is totally changed, and there are no restrictions on Osama," Abdul Hai Muttmain, a spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, told the BBC's Pashtu-language service.

But other Afghans question the Taliban's continued determination to protect bin Laden, saying he is a houseguest who has, in the words of one man here, "brought ruin and shame to our home."

The roots of Afghan attentiveness to foreign guests are unclear. The Islamic holy book, the Koran, tells Muslims to honor their visitors. And since the days of the Silk Road, nomads and traders have passed through this country, prompting some historians to speculate that the hospitality tradition arose to encourage early traders to return to the remote villages of Afghanistan.

When asked, most of the turbaned Afghan men shrug and say that it's simply always been this way. But, increasingly, some are starting to question the practice, or at least whether all who turn up should be invited in.

The opposition Northern Alliance is still reeling from the fatal wounding of its revered military commander, Ahmad Shah Masood. Two Arab men posing as TV journalists were granted an interview with Mr. Masood last month. A bomb, concealed inside their camera, killed the opposition leader. The two suicide bombers had been flown in from neighboring Tajikistan on a Northern Alliance helicopter and given shelter at one of Masood's compounds in Khadja Buhaudouin.

"Why should the Taliban honor a foreign guest whose men are killing Afghan people?" asks Muhammad Ayu, a wrinkled Uzbek who fled to Kum Kushloq last year. "This goes against everything in our tradition of hospitality."

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