AFGHANS. The word conjures up mustached men on small decoratively equipped horses that are charging across vast ocre-colored plains.
Or black-eyed beauties in exquisitely embroidered clothing. Or richly seasoned dishes, persimmons, pomegranates, and grapes.
Or domes and minarets piercing the periwinkle sky with purplish pink mountains dwarfing the khaki colored adobe fortresses the Afghans call home.
To the Afghan, home includes a large extended family - including mother, father, single sons, married sons with their wives, single daughters, and grandchildren.
Although the line of descent is through the male, Afghanistan is highly matriarchal with the women making most of the decisions regarding home and family.
The men's and women's worlds are outer and inner ones respectively. The man is in the bazaar and teahouse, the latter called ``newspapers of bricks'' because in a largely nonliterate culture news is verbally exchanged. Women receive news from men or the daily stream of visitors to the home, the inner world.
Ninety-five percent of the Afghans cook over wood or charcoal fires. They tell time by the call to prayer five times a day, go to public baths, and use outhouses.
Entertainment consists of sitting in the midst of family and guests and talking, joking, singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments.
The five percent of the Afghans who are westernized, including women, work in offices, banks, hospitals, and schools occupy a three-mile-square area in the capital of Kabul.
The women have intimate knowledge of foods, herbs, and spices, and know their fertility cycles. Due to underpopulation - 15 million in a country the size of Texas - and a high infant-mortality rate, Afghans opt for large families. Children and nature are the Afghans' two treasures.
The women tend to decide how many children they will have, what education the children will have - encouraging any innate talents - and who the children will marry.
Marriages are socioeconomic alliances usually between first cousins, but a cousin can put in his or her ``order'' for a mate. Parents do their best to please, matching couples astrologically as well.
Divorce is practically unknown since the alliances are based on respect and duty. The girl is not given until female members of the groom's family wear the soles of their shoes ``as thin as an onion skin'' coming to the house to ask. Then the groom's ``women'' promise that he will be as the ``dust under her feet.''
Sometimes a man and woman are married to stop a family feud. Marriages based upon emotion exist only among westernized Afghans. When an American woman attended a wedding and showed them a picture of her husband, the word ``love marriage'' spread like wildfire, and soon 200 women formed a circle around her to stare curiously.
THE Russian occupation precipitated many Afghan men, women, and children into new roles.
For example, one woman named Tajwar Kakar worked for seven years in Kunduz Province for Jamiat Islami, one of the seven major parties.
There she organized women and girls as spies and ammunition carriers to the Afghan resistance. A grade school principal and teacher, she also organized students to disrupt public displays of communist activity.
On one occasion, Ms. Kakar and a group of teen-age girls went into the streets and threw their cloaks around the shoulders of passing men and boys asking them to join them in resistance.
For a woman to take public action in the streets and remove a garment is tantamount to undressing.
Another time, according to Kakar, in order to shame Afghan officers taking part in a communist parade, women threw cloaks around them and told them to go home and stay with their women as they were no longer men in their eyes.
Eventually, Kakar was summoned to the capital Kabul by the minister of education and asked to ``go abroad for higher education'' to any Soviet bloc country of her choice or to India.
She declined and was subsequently imprisoned in Kabul where she was subject to electric shock torture and daily beatings. She had her fingernails pulled out and was deprived of food and sleep for long periods.
Once, Kakar says, her interrogator threatened to execute her and to kill her family if she didn't reveal resistance fighters' plans.
Kakar declared her fate was in God's hands and not his. She believed this was God's way of showing her what the communists were doing to her people. One week later she was released.
Afterwards, Kakar and her family had a harrowing escape to Pakistan. Soviet tanks blocked the road and attacked her convoy of cars. She held the Koran over her family's head and prayed as they watched the others being massacred. Kakar's and another's car were the only survivors out of 40 vehicles. Both parties had bullet holes and burns on their clothing, but were unhurt.
Kakar believes that Afghans are winning the war because they are fighting for their faith.
According to the Koran, those who give up their possessions - and even their lives - for Islam will ultimately triumph.
``If we die,'' she says, ``we are martyrs and go directly to Paradise.''