I grew up with my father spouting Afghan proverbs at every turn of a conversation or teaching moment. His favorite one for me, a tomboy, who came home with scraped knees from playing soccer or riding my bike was ----
“I have seen a girl play with dolls but not with bow and arrow like a champion prince.”
I find that Afghan proverbs are getting diluted with DarEnglish spoken by young Afghans in the United States. Sometimes in my writings I struggle with a specific thought, which I can express seamlessly with a Dari proverb but not in English.
You can imagine my delight when I discovered “Zarbul Masalah – 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs”, a book by Captain Edward Zellem.
Yes, a U.S. Navy Captain wrote the Dari Proverbs book, now available in 35 countries and translated in eight languages. A Pashto version is coming soon. During his time in Afghanistan, Captain Zellem collected and translated these proverbs in cooperation with Afghan friends and colleagues. Here is a favorite food related proverb from the book:
“We didn’t eat the aush, but were blinded by the smoke.”
Meaning, we did all the work but received none of the benefits. I can’t say that about Captain Zellem’s book. He has done the work resulting in a wonderful book that every Afghan under the age of 45 should have a copy.
What I love about the book is that the proverbs are in Dari, followed by transliteration in English so anyone can pronounce it. Then, he goes on to give the literal translation and finally the deep meaning or root of each proverb.
I call on young Afghans to get a copy of this book. Your mothers will be dazzled to hear you use speak with proverbs. I have my book marked up with favorite proverbs and every time I talk to Jeja, my mom, I throw out a new saying. It delights her to hear how much my Dari has improved.
Humaira Ghilzai of Afghan Culture Unveiled asks Captain Zellem about his love of language, Afghanistan and food:
You can learn about Captain Zellem's book on his website Afghan Sayings.
Humaira: Tell me a little bit about your overall impression of Afghanistan and its people.
Capt. Zellem: I spent far more time with Afghans than I did with foreigners during my year and a half in Afghanistan. As a Dari speaker I got to know Afghans pretty well during that time.
My overall impression is that Afghans and Americans have a lot more in common with each other at the personal level than most people think. Like most Americans, most Afghans greatly value basic human qualities like hospitality, trust, humor, good conversation, family, friends, courage, and freedom. Those are only a few; there are many more qualities that we share. Enjoyment of good food is another one, and I know you can appreciate that with the many great Afghan recipes that you share.
There are many religious, cultural and other differences between Afghans and Americans. And of course, there are tremendous differences in life experiences.
All Afghans have been affected greatly by three decades of war, and most Americans have not. But despite these differences, I found the similarities at the person-to-person level to be remarkable. I’ve lived and traveled a lot of places around the world for thirty years, and I’ve known people of many different nationalities. So I think I can say this with some authority.
When peace and security come to Afghanistan one day, I think many others will discover the same thing I did. The common human thoughts and feelings found in Afghan Proverbs can show us these commonalities too. My books of Afghan proverbs are also a completely personal hobby and a project to support Afghan literacy and charity
Humaira: I understand once you were in Afghanistan and working with Afghans you noticed their usage of the proverbs. Do you think programs should teach such intricacies of language, or the discovery of such knowledge should come from interaction with the native speakers?
Capt. Zellem: I think if you learn a baseline of proverbs and sayings in language school, the discovery of more can come naturally once you start working in that language.
The key is being a good listener and open to interacting with other cultures and people. When learning another language it’s certainly important to learn how to ask things like where the bathroom is, or how much something costs. But it’s also important to gain cultural competency in a language by trying to talk the way regular people and native speakers do. It’s also a lot of fun and it builds conversations and friendships fast.
Once I got to Afghanistan and started using Dari every day, I noticed proverbs being used all the time. So I started using these Afghan proverbs myself. I immediately found them to be useful and fun, great shorthand for very complicated thoughts, and a great way to understand Afghans better. Learning Afghan Proverbs also helped me learn more Dari vocabulary.
So for all these reasons I started writing down the proverbs when I heard them used. One thing led to another, and a personal learning tool became a hobby, then a passion.
Humaira: Since I write about Afghan food and culture, I have to ask you about your favorite Afghan dishes. Are you a cook and have you attempted making Afghan food?
Capt. Zellem: I love Afghan food, it’s some of the best in the world! I especially enjoy qabili palau, boulanee with either potatoes or leeks. Mantoo, eggplant cooked Afghan style, and of course kebabs of all kinds.
I especially like kebab-e chopan. And there is no better bread in the world than fresh naan!
“Neem-e naan, raahat-e jaan.” نیم نان، راحت جان
My wife does most of the cooking in our house – she is a lot better at it than I am. But, I do insist on cooking Afghan food, it always brings back good memories of Afghanistan. Nothing can beat Afghan food cooked by an Afghan, but I try and it is usually pretty good.
Your recipes help a lot!
I’ve used your holiday recipes for haft mewa and Afghan cookies several times with great success. People love them both, and we now serve them to our families and guests during the holidays. One day I’ll be bold and try to make my own mantoo! It is probably easier than it looks, I need to be brave and just do it.
Humaira: Are you still in contact with the Marefat School High School students who did the illustrations for your book? How do they feel about the upcoming withdrawal of the U.S. army and NATO force?
Capt. Zellem: I am still in regular contact with Marefat High School, because the students there are illustrating my next book of 151 Pashto Proverbs. In fact, the faculty is using the Pashto book project as part of the art curriculum at Marefat this semester, and the students are learning a lot from our work together.
The paintings I have seen so far are absolutely beautiful, I know people around the world will be inspired by them.
Everyone in Afghanistan and the world is concerned about what will happen after 2014. But Afghan youth like the students at Marefat are the hope for a brighter future. The world needs to support Afghan youth, Afghan literacy, and Afghan education to help bring peace and security. As the Afghan Proverb says,
“Doonya ba omeed zenda ast”
“The world is alive with hope.”. دنیا با امید زنده است
I also like to remind people that,
“ Shab dar meaan ast, Khodaa mehrabaan ast.”
“Even in the middle of the night, God is kind.” . شب در میان است، خدا مهربان است
These are two very famous Zarbul Masalha, which have great meaning for Afghanistan after 2014.
* Please note that Captain Zellem is an active duty U.S. Navy officer, anything he say here is his personal opinion and does not represent the position of the U.S. Government, the Department of Defense, and the U.S. Navy.