Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

El Borak, N. Ullah and The Way to Turkestan: An AAN Context and Culture Eid Reading List

Thomas Ruttig 10 min

After the fighting in Ghazni and the atrocity at the learning centre in Kabul’s Dasht-e Barchi neighbourhood, this is another of these Eid holidays into which many go in a subdued if not even depressed mood. We at AAN share these feelings, and our thoughts are with the relatives of the victims, their friends and near and far neighbours. For the long holiday week over Independence Day, Arafat Day and Eid al-Adha, we offer here two reading lists, one selected by AAN co-director Thomas Ruttig and one generated by algorithms from our Context and Culture column. This is matter that might appear light, but at a closer look is – we hope – not only interesting but serious. We, the AAN team, hope the reading might even serve for some as a balm for their minds.

Our Context and Culture column covers a broad range of issues. There is some serious stuff. Recently, we asked Afghans – women and men – what they thought about the Eid ceasefire and got mixed reactions that reached from hope to mistrust. There was even what we call a Thematic Dossier about not-too-distant history, “The PDPA and the Soviet Intervention.” The column also has some obituaries.

No less serious, but also much lighter, are our series about bird watching and football in Afghanistan under the Context and Culture headline. Both subjects also made it into dossiers (see here and here).

One idea that stood at the beginning of the Context and Culture column was to make language – languages – a topic. We printed proverbs, short poems (including those on trucks) and landey and did so regularly in our Eid messages. We discussed the nature of Afghan names and poked some fun at military airlines for dropping people because they “only had one name” and at journalists for misspelling or distorting Afghan names (“Khalil Lula” – no, not a Brazilian president – and “N. Ullah”).

So far we have managed to publish 255 blog entries – we call them dispatches now – under the Context and Culture header. With Eid coming again, and despite the recent atrocities in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, we hope it will be a peaceful one and that some of our readers will find some time to read. So, we invite you to look at our Context and Culture archives. We have compiled a list of the 20 most-read pieces under this header, which you can find at the end of this text, but first we suggest dipping into the very subjective selection of ten pieces chosen by this author. Many deal with history and language – popular linguistics, I’d call it. No birds, no football, this time. I also left out the obvious choices that are in the Top 20: the history of the pakol, the texts about the bride price, Pashtunwalai and the cultural history of opium, the movies series . . .

A) Thomas’ Favourites

Number 10: Guts, Prettily Coiled: A guide to Eid sacrifices

Our Eid messages have sometimes been brilliant. But this one, by our former colleague Christine Roehrs, beats them all. It can be pretty gruelling if you’re not really a meat eater. (You saw the headline.) But it is presented perfectly: ten steps to making your Eid sacrifice plus a visual tutorial and an appropriate prayer. And don’t forget: The whole feast (or slaughter) has a strong social component. It is about sharing.

Guts, Prettily Coiled: A guide to Eid sacrifices

Number 9: What Links Sarajevo to Kabul? Impressions from the western end of the Persianate world

Yes, I know, I wrote this one. But it is only number 9. I tell you it was a lot of fun. The result of a vacation trip to the Balkans, it opened my eyes. For how widely spread was what is called the “Persianate” culture. As the title suggests, from Sarajevo to Kabul (and even Delhi). I knew it, but I didn’t. Ziarats of Khorassani knights and Sufi verses in Bosnia, Persian names, poems, whole libraries. It was not only fun; it often was terribly sad. I’m thinking about those libraries that went up in smoke in war, in Sarajevo, incinerated by Serbian phosphorus grenades. And those in Kabul that fed the cooking fires of the militias camping on the university’s compound. History repeating itself. But not as a farce. As a tragedy.

What Links Sarajevo to Kabul? Impressions from the western end of the Persianate world

Number 8: Malalai’s Wayward Sisters

I didn’t remember that we had a piece about a female Afghan – well – gangster. Although it sounds like the plot of a Bollywood movie, it is not a made-up story, but happened in real life, in Ghazni. (Ring a bell?) There, a twenty-year-old girl was arrested, together with her accomplices, in an operation by the National Directorate of Security (NDS). She led of a group of kidnappers and robbers that allegedly enjoyed wide contacts with those ‘Enemies of the State’ – the Taleban. Any takers in B/Hollywood?

Malalai’s wayward sisters

Number 7: Afghanistan in World Literature (IV): Weird tales from the frontier

I had started this small series, in another piece, with quotes from Gabriel García Márquez (about the gipsies from Jalalabad who brought the ice to Macondo) to Sherlock Holmes’ Dr Watson (who served in one of the Anglo-Afghan wars). Fabrizio Foschini picked it up and introduced one less well-known writer, Robert E Howard. His hero Francis Xavier Gordon, alias El Borak, who “when not riding across hills on the trail of some villain” lived in Kabul with his ‘family’ of trusted Afghan helpers, including his right hand, the “burly and redoubtable Afridi warrior” Yar Ali Shah. (Stereotypes? Maybe.) What better setting then Kipling’s (and Kim’s) – the gun Zam-Zammah in Lahore, the rocky slopes of the Khyber Pass and “the perfect cradle for heroes, Afghanistan?” This is for the avid reader of adventure. And arespite from Netflix.

Afghanistan in World Literature (IV): Weird Tales from the Frontier

Number 6: Walking the Kabul Wall, Looking into History

This is a nostalgic piece. The famous Kabul Wall Walk, a thing of the pre-suicide-bomb past, at least for us khariji. Kate Clark tells us, through her Dari teacher, one side of the story, of Zamburak (“the little wasp”), the tyrannical king, and his terrible brother, Zanbilak (“the little bell”, who ruled Kabul. Fearing invaders, they ordered the wall built. And then, the – nameless but courageous – blacksmith’s daughter comes in. I won’t tell you more; you’ll have to read it yourself. Of course, the kings who built the wall were the Hindu Kabul Shahan, the last rulers before the Muslims captured Kabul for good. They must be tyrannical, must they not? And Kate would not be Kate if she did not guide our eyes from the wall on Koh-e Asmayi hill down to “the natural wetlands of Kol-e Hashmat Khan, a royal hunting-ground and home, once, to as many as 30,000 water birds from over one hundred species until its source was damned during the war and it became a silted up, seasonal lake.” Here, this piece connects to our bird-watching dossier – have a look.

Walking the Kabul Wall, Looking into History

Number 5: “But This Gang of Ministers Could Neither Fly Nor Swim Properly”: Memoirs from 1920s Afghanistan

This is one of several book reviews in our column. This has been written by Jolyon Leslie. Not many people know and love Afghanistan as he does. He is also a pretty good reviewer. Here he reviews a travelogue from a tumultuous time in Afghanistan: 1927, when King Amanullah attempted comprehensive social reforms and an Indian teacher, Syed Mujtaba Ali, came to Kabul to help.

The city of Kabul was then trotting like a mad horse wearing ‘dereshi’. The word ‘dereshi’ came from the English word ‘dress’ meaning hat, tie and trousers. I was told that one had to wear dereshi if you were in government service – be it a lowly clerk’s job or a constable’s. Not only that, one could not enter public parks if one was not in dereshi. First, the pressure from government, secondly, an attraction towards the culture of advanced societies and thirdly, images in the movies – Kabul was mesmerized by dereshi.

Sounds like Germany to me where, as Lenin once said, revolutionaries would not storm the railway station without buying a ticket first. Good ol’ days. Well, we should have more of Jolyon here. (And we hear something new is coming, for our culture and context column.)

“But This Gang Of Ministers Could Neither Fly Nor Swim Properly”: Memoirs from 1920s Afghanistan (Book Review)

Number 4: Khalil Lula and His Friends or: Bad Dari spoken

Sorry, this is one of mine, again. I could not resist because it makes me cringe when Western journalists try to use local vocabulary, in order to make their text sound more authentic, or manage to distort the wonderful, meaningful Afghan names. (Most of them mean something, and I always like to discuss this with their bearers.) My favourite story is how, reportedly (but there is no other explanation), a certain Dr Abdullah Abdullah came to his ‘double name’:

Journalist: What’s your first name?

Abdullah: Abdullah.

Journalist: And your second name?

Abdullah: Well, Abdullah.

Since then, he is Abdullah Abdullah, in the Western media.

And this is how I imagine that Dr Najibullah came to have a first name (he previously had none; I confirmed with his daughter):

Editor: So what is his first name?

Reporter: He doesn’t have one.

Editor: Well, then let’s take Muhammad.

(Well, I adapted what a journalist told me how former Indonesian President Sukarno got ‘his’ first name, Ahmed.)

I also (dis)like the photo caption in one of his interviews in Spiegel magazine: “Afghan President N. Ullah.” Yes, there was only small space. But it would be like calling the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (the new Sherlock) “B.C. Batch”.

Khalil Lula and His Friends or: Bad Dari spoken

Number 3: Ahmad Zaher or Manga Style? The cutting-edge business of Afghan barbers

Walking around Kabul can really be dull nowadays, with its diesel- and manure-saturated dust. The trash lying and flying around, the burning plastics. The Hesco walls and the barbed wire. The traffic jams and the unpaved roads next to the narcotecture palaces of the rich who do not seem to give the slightest damn for how people move past their stolen or occupied properties. What lights me up are the imaginative signboards posted by dentists, video game parlours, tailors, beauty salons. And barbers. And you should see the styles they do. Do you choose Ahmad Zaher, or Manga Style, Zineddin Zidane, David Beckham or Mesut Özil? Problem nist.A very nice piece by Obaid Ali.

Ahmad Zaher or Manga Style? The cutting-edge business of Afghan barbers

Number 2: Hamstrung by Translation: How to analyse Afghanistan in an Afghan language? 

I have said it: Lingo. Here, our former colleague Borhan Osman looks at the difficulties of writing analyses in Afghan languages. Dari/Farsi still seems to be easier then Pashto. On the surface of it, Dari seems to catch up more easily with modern developments. On the surface of it. I have met many Pashtuns who speak such a good, rich Pashto, knowing all the original words where Farsi/Dari or Arabic has made it into the everyday language – and at the same time had no problem using those Farsi/Dari or Arabic words because they were generally understood. For example: paitakht for capital. I learned that in my Pashto lessons 35 years ago. Most of my teachers were Afghans. (We first had a Kandahari, then a Paktiawal, then a Mashreqi, maybe in order to get a mix of dialects into us, which then nobody would recognise as “theirs”.) The word used now by news channels – “plazmena” (پلازمینه) – I heard (to be honest) for the first time in post-2001 times. My good old 1358 (1979/80) Pashto Academy dictionary, by respected academics Hashem Rahimi and Seddiq Rohi, does not know it. I assume it must have been cooked up by someone like my former Mashreqi Pashto teacher, who did not allow us to say “rubab” (he wanted shrangsurtay) and “radio” (he wanted zhaghdablai). (Google translate simply says “markaz” 😉 ) And why use “tol takena” for (general) elections? Because “takel” (takena is the substantive derived of this verb) means “to appoint”, perhaps so that now one thinks elections have something to do with a choice?

Hamstrung by Translation: How to analyse Afghanistan in an Afghan language?

Number 1: Inequality in Equality: Linguistic convergence between Dari and Pashto

Borhan’s number two leads straight to my number one, a piece about linguistics – by a linguist, Lutz Rzehak, a German colleague. He speaks three of Afghanistan’s languages, has carried out research here for several decades,knows what he talks about and presents those so-divisive matters of language in such an understated way that is simply masterly. He confirms what Borhan wrote in his article: Dari presents many more and a wider variety of model codes that are copied into Pashto but the reverse occurs much less; that is, colloquial Pashto shows the ever-increasing influence of Dari at all levels of the language, but not so much vice versa.

Linguistic tensions between the two languages are strengthened by the fact that they have unequal partners outside Afghanistan. Rzehakwrites: “In Iran, Persian has national language status and enjoys all conceivable forms of support from the authorities. It is promoted in almost all kinds of modern mass media and is even used in highly specialized fields of science and knowledge. In Pakistan, Pashto has no official status and it is not even used for primary education.” It seems that post-2001 governments have tried to reverse this trend, bringing more Pashto speakers into the administration, leading to complaints of about ‘Pashtunisation’. Whatever maybe the case, the languages can’t be blamed for what their speakers are doing, and they all belong to the country’s heritage. Language matters.(There is also a second part to the piece that naturally is also a must-read.)

Finally, out of the official competition, I’m including in here some striking little gems of Afghan poetry. The first is from Saadi’s Gulestan, and it sounds like an analysis of US-inspired politics in post-2001 Afghanistan (in our C&C pieces here).

ترسم نرسی به کعبه ای اعرابی
کین ره که تو میروی به ترکستان ااست

tarsam ba Ka’aba ne-rasi, ey e’rabi
in rah ke tu merawi ba Turkestan ast

I fear you won’t get to the Ka’aba, oh traveller (*)
The way you are going leads to Turkestan.

(*) e’rabi actually, literarily, means ‘nomad’.

The second is a Pashto expression and was a friend’s reply to my question about the situation in his province (here in C&C):

 Charsi wayi: “Yawolas miashte gard, yau miasht ramazan.”

The hashish eater says: “Eleven months of dust, one month Ramadan.”

Guest Blog: Inequality in Equality: Linguistic Convergence between Dari and Pashto

 

B) The Algorithm Generated Most-Read 20

  1. The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives 

Author: Fazal Muzhary

Date: 25 October 2016

The Bride Price: The Afghan tradition of paying for wives

  1. On the Cultural History of Opium – and how poppy came to Afghanistan 

Author: Doris Buddenberg

Date: 11 January 2016

On the Cultural History of Opium – and how poppy came to Afghanistan

  1. From Alexander the Great to Ahmad Shah Massud: A social history of the pakol 

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

Date: 3 January 2014

From Alexander the Great to Ahmad Shah Massud: A social history of the pakol

  1. Rambo Was Too Late: Afghanistan in Western films (part 1), from 1909 to 2001 

Author: Christian Bleuer

Date: 23 December 2014

Rambo Was Too Late: Afghanistan in Western films (part I), from 1909 to 2001

  1. Afghanistan in World War I (I): Afghans in the Kaiser’s jihad 

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 27 July 2014

Afghanistan in World War I (1): Afghans in the Kaiser’s jihad

  1. Plants of Afghanistan 2: the Koh-e Baba foraging top ten (amended) 

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 11 June 2012

Plants of Afghanistan 2: the Koh-e Baba Foraging Top Ten (amended)

  1. From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in Western writing 

Author: Christian Bleuer

Date: 17 October 2014

From ‘Slavers’ to ‘Warlords’: Descriptions of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks in western writing

  1. A Taleb Lost in a Polish Forest and More: Afghanistan in Western films (part 2), 2001 to 2015 

Author: Christian Bleuer

Date: 11 September 2015

A Taleb Lost in a Polish Forest and More: Afghanistan in western films (part 2), 2001 to 2015

  1. The Kabuliwala of Kolkata: Photo exhibition about a community longing for Afghanistan that once was home 

Author: Nazes Afroz

Date: 22 March 2015

The Kabuliwala of Kolkata: Photo exhibition about a community longing for Afghanistan that once was home

  1. Pashtunwali – tribal life and behaviour among the Pashtuns 

Author: Lutz Rzehak

Date: 21 March 2011

Pashtunwali – tribal life and behaviour among the Pashtuns

  1. In the Light of the Conflict: Photographer Andrew Quilty’s experience in Afghanistan 

Author: Jelena Bjelica

Date: 25 June 2017

In the Light of the Conflict: Photographer Andrew Quilty’s experience in Afghanistan

  1. Happy Eid! And ten stories of celebrations and customs from all over the country 

Author: AAN Team

Date: 7 August 2013

Happy Eid! And ten stories of celebrations and customs from all over the country

  1. Nancy Hatch Dupree’s Last Project: Afghan history revealed in photographs 

Author: Martine van Bijlert, Kate Clark and AAN Team

Date: 10 September 2017

Nancy Hatch Dupree’s Last Project: Afghan History Revealed in Photographs

  1. Bird Bomber: Police kill ‘dangerous’ houbara bustard (amended) 

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 5 December 2014

Bird Bomber: Police kill ‘dangerous’ houbara bustard (amended)

  1. A Pathan Moustache Hair’s Worth: Afghans in Bollywood, Bollywood in Afghanistan 

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

Date: 27 August 2012

A Pathan Moustache Hair’s Worth: Afghans in Bollywood, Bollywood in Afghanistan

  1. Guest Blog: Inequality in Equality: Linguistic convergence between Dari and Pashto 

Author: Lutz Rzehak

Date: 17 May 2012

Guest Blog: Inequality in Equality: Linguistic Convergence between Dari and Pashto

  1. War Doves: The Afghan sport of pigeon flying 

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

Date: 7 June 2013

War Doves: The Afghan sport of pigeon flying

  1. On the Roof of the World: The last Kyrgyz in Afghanistan 

Author: S Reza Kazemi

Date: 3 November 2012

On the Roof of the World: The Last Kyrgyz in Afghanistan

  1. Melons: Afghan riches at the surface level 

Author: Fabrizio Foschini

Date: 15 December 2011

Melons: Afghan riches at the surface level

  1. Ahmad Zaher or Manga Style? The cutting-edge business of Afghan barbers 

Author: Obaid Ali

Date: 15 August 2014

Ahmad Zaher or Manga Style? The cutting-edge business of Afghan barbers

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