SSoP Podcast Episode 29 — Afghanistan: Poppies, Tribalism, and the Taliban

SSoP Podcast Episode 29 — Afghanistan: Poppies, Tribalism, and the Taliban

Monday, 25 October, 2021

Located in Central Asia with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east, Afghanistan sits at the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East. That’s made it a hot spot for invaders from all directions for millennia. From Darius I of Babylonia and Alexander the Great to Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, superpowers in every century have tried — and failed — to tame the tribal warriors of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s terrain is rugged — and in some places, stunningly beautiful — with deep gorges and river valleys, deserts, snow-topped mountains, and irrigated land used for farming. It’s best known for pomegranates — some say Afghan pomegranates are the best in the world. And poppies. Heroin made from opium grown in Afghanistan makes up 95% of the market in Europe.

Afghanistan is a culturally conservative and religious nation. Reputation is the most valuable social commodity, which forces both men and women to comply with a web of strict social rules. An estimated 99.7% of the Afghan population is Muslim. And that faith plays out in dress, dietary codes, regular prayer, language, and social interactions.

In this episode, we get curious about Afghanistan’s violent history, its tribal and social customs, and the rise of the Taliban. Then we discuss five books that gave us a better understanding of the whole situation. From reportage to history to a literary crime novel, these books illuminate a vivid picture of this remarkable, challenging country.


Read the full transcript of Episode 29: Afghanistan.

The Underground Girls of Kabul

buy | read review

Games without Rules

buy | read review

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana

buy | read review

The Taliban Shuffle

buy | read review

The Taliban Shuffle

buy | read review

The Opium Prince

buy | read review

other books we mentioned


other cool stuff we talked about

President Ronald Reagan meets in the Oval Office in 1983 with Afghan fighters opposing the Soviet Union
Former President Ronald Reagan meets in the Oval Office in 1983 with Afghan fighters opposing the Soviet Union.
  • This is a really nice piece from NPR that explores poetry, a girls’ school, and other aspects of Afghan culture.

  • The New York Times reports on the significance of the pomegranate harvest for Afghan farmers. ‘Crack a pomegranate in half and its blood-red seed-filled chambers make it look almost like a broken heart. In Arghandab district, which in Afghanistan is almost synonymous with the fruit, a Taliban offensive has cut the heart out of the harvest season, leaving farming families desperate.’

  • BBC News reports on opium production in Afghanistan. ‘The Taliban claims opium poppy cultivation was stopped and the flow of illegal drugs halted when it was last in power in Afghanistan. But although there was a sharp drop in 2001 - when it was last in control - opium poppy cultivation in Taliban-held areas has risen in subsequent years.’

poppy field in afghanistan

two truths and a lie

soldiers waiting in line to get into tim horton's in afghanistan

  • A British man used a pot as a toothbrush holder until he realized it was a 4,000-year-old artifact from Afghanistan. Read more about it here and here.
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of the book The Dressmaker of Khair Khan, which tells the remarkable story of Kamila Sidiqi. Ms. Magazine has a moving conversation between the two women from May 2021, just before an attack on Kabul and a few months before the US withdrawal.

  • Kim Barker is the author of The Taliban Shuffle. Here she discusses her book with Tina Fey, who played in her in the film version Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

  • The action in The Opium Prince by Jasmine Aimaq is launched by the death of a young Kochi girl. In this article, an Afghan nomads mourn a vanishing way of life. ‘We are called Kuchis in Afghanistan because we were constantly on the move,’ he said, referring to his community’s name by the Dari word that denotes their status as nomads. ‘The Kuchis were not restrained by borders, and our lives were truly free.’

learn more about afghanistan


Do you enjoy our show and website? Please consider supporting our work on Patreon! Every little bit helps us keep the show going and makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Get all the info you need right here.



Subscribe to our podcast so you never miss a must-read book or thrilling destination!

If we're not available on your favorite podcast-listening platform, send us an email!

Top image courtesy of Aditya Chinchure/Unsplash.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

This work by Afghan poet Roya cuts to the bone with sharp imagery and four simple words: Not an Afghan woman. It's a plea and a protest and — most of all — an assertion of self-worth that shouts in quiet phrases.
Bread is often more than food. Yes, it's physical sustenance. But it can also be a symbol of comfort, prosperity, or warm hospitality — we literally break bread with others to connect and form bonds of friendship.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

If you like the work we do, you can help support us through our Patreon! That'll unlock additional content, too — like Mel's recipe for Banh Mi Bowls, and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter
We'll never share your email with anyone else. Promise.

This is a weekly email. If you'd like a quick alert whenever we update our blog, subscribe here.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.