Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Khalil Lula and His Friends or: Bad Dari spoken

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

It has been a while that I have been collecting examples of how Afghan names and toponyms are often not only misspelled but almost violated in the media. For me, this reflects an utter superficiality because many journalists do not seem to care much about whom or what they speak about (and have no clue how to because they do not speak even a bit of a local language and miss how easily Afghan names can be explained which, again, helps in spelling them). But could you imagine the reaction if someone spelled the British Foreign Secretary William Haig or called my chancellor Ms Murkel? By Thomas Ruttig

Hey, that’s funny. Afghans even do not have a proper word in their language(s) for our (surely purely Anglo-Saxon) term ‘elevator’. According to Rod Nordland of theNew York Times who reported about the lack of proper elevation in Kabul’s increasing number of high-rise buildings a few days ago (read it here), they call it ‘lieft’ or, even worse, ‘people-lifting-thingie’.

That’s at least how his translator translated the beautiful, short (only one syllable more than ‘elevator’) and very descriptive Dari word bala barendafor him. Just to explain: bala means ‘up’, barenda comes from bordan, ‘to carry’ something, it is the verb’s present participle. So, no ‘people’, no ‘thingie’ – it could be translated as ‘up-lifter’. Not a bad translation if you asked me…

The ‘international community’, including the media, hasn’t been too good in learning many words (not to talk about a language) of the Afghans who have been hosting them almost for ten years now. The first internationals who ever started using a Dari terminus technicus for what they were doing were diplomats and military working on security sector reform: tashkil. It seems that in this case even the ubiquitous English hadn’t had something better to offer.

Tashkil means ‘organisation’ or ‘structure’, it comes from the Arabic root sh-k-l, and shakl means ‘shape’, ‘form’ or ‘figure’. So, tashkil was adopted for describing the personnel chart of the ANP and the ANA. (The tashkil had to be fixed because of all the ghost-soldiers and ghost-policemen who were paid but who did not exist – which were utilised for a rather illegitimate topping up of their supervisors’ salaries.)

Then, last year followed NATO, with Inteqal, for what initially was called ‘transfer of security responsibilities’ to the Afghan authorities and which, meanwhile, has been amended by a lot of conditionality. In short it means: ‘transfer’, ‘hand-over’(*) – and its use is probably meant to give the Western-conceived process(**) ‘an Afghan face’. Only that the ‘i’ and the ‘e’ in this word actually represent the same vowel which linguists often transcribe ‘ǝ’ and which is pronounced like the two ‘a’ in English ‘separate’. Consequently, it should be either enteqal or intiqal.

Granted: There is no officially sanctioned (and scientifically based) system in place in Afghanistan like what the Chinese have in Pinyin – no Mao Tse-tungs or Mao Dzödongs there anymore. But some Afghan versions really go too far. Like what the well-respected Newsweek  did, to an Afghan called Gul Agha, by adding a simple ‘h’ to his name, but making him Ghul Agha, instead. But ‘ghul’ means ‘shit’, instead of the original and definitely much more beautiful ‘flower’.

Indeed, the use of ‘gh’ and ‘g’ in Afghan names is often highly haphazardous. Not many people seem to realize that ‘gh’ – the letter ghayn غ like in Afghanistan – is a separate consonant Afghan languages (as well as in Arabic), pronounced like a French ‘r’, while ‘g’ is something else. So, it is Bagram (the US air base north of Kabul) but Baghlan (the province even further north) and Baghran (in the very north, but of Helmand province in the south) – and not the synthesis Baghram. Or Ghazni and Ashraf Ghani but Gulbuddin (Hekmatyar) and Gardez – and also not Pul-i-Kumri or evenPhul-I Kumri or Khandahar. Qandahar, the old spelling, would do, though.

Indeed, the ‘q’ (or qaf, ق) and ‘kh’ (khe ﺥ) are other problems. We Germans do not have it in our language without a ‘u’ following – so you often read about al-Quaida (in my favourite daily taz today, the article is not online unfortunately) or you come across a certain Abdul Quader – which would turn the ‘servant of the mighty’ (that’s what Abdul Qader means) into the ‘servant of the cuboid’. Weird. (On Facebook, you also find a city calledUrumqui.) Intiqual would fall into the same category – although ‘Qual’ (in German) means ‘agony’ or ‘torment’, even ‘torture’, and that is what it might become indeed.

Anglophones have more trouble when it comes to pronouncing ‘kh’ (see Russian kharasho, ‘well’, or Khuda hafez, Persian, ‘(Go) Protected by God’). This leads to strange pronunciations like ‘Koust’ (transcribed for some reason as Khowst or Tirin Kowt). I am sure that ‘locals’ who had been asked by passing foreign soldiers which direction this town was located have answered in complete honesty that they had never heard about this place – what, in turn, will have caused a lot of anger about these ‘lying, unhelpful Afghans’. (Of course, this is only fantasy: the GPS data of Khowst or whatever way it is spelled are well-known…).

I will never forget the story an Afghan friend told about an American visiting Zabul – it happened many, many years ago when a single civilian traveler of that very nationality still would have survived such a trip – who reported how he had visited that beautiful place called ‘Spina kuna’ (which correctly is khuna) which made his hosts break down laughing: while khuna is ‘ridge’,kuna – and I am really sorry – means ‘asshole’, and spin(a), to make thingies worse, ‘white, blank, bare’.

The winner of last week’s misspelling competition is the Christian Science Monitor, featuring an ‘Mr. Kazikabeer’. The reader who finds out first who this really is will win a big round of applause – and here is some support to make it easier to answer: it is not a Northern Afghan brand of (non-alcoholic) beer but an ‘Uzbek warlord’.

But my favourite example is already a bit older and stems from the Afghan President’s family and the New York Times again: a certain Mr Khalil Lula[usually known as Khalilullah] Karzai who, as far as I know, is not related to the former Brazilian president as well.

Finally, the Afghan President’s own name is the most confusing one: Is it Hamed or Hamid? There are two different names available: Hámid or حامد (which we in AAN spell Hamed – with an ‘e’, like Taleban – to make the difference better visible) and Hamíd حمید. In our case, it is the former.

(*) Many Afghans translate it – more due to its political content – as ‘abandonment’.

(**) I know: I have been told by a lot of public information guys that President Karzai had invented the 2014 transition deadline. But we know how things like this are decided. As a high-ranking NATO representative said at a round-table in London recently: ‘We don’t have much of an idea how the Afghans [i.e., the government) see this; it is not presented to us in a systematic way’. But NATO took a decision about ‘inteqal’ at its 2010 Lisbon summit anyway.

It has been a while that I have been collecting examples of how Afghan names and toponyms are often not only misspelled but almost violated in the media. For me, this reflects an utter superficiality because many journalists do not seem to care much about whom or what they speak about (and have no clue how to because they do not speak even a bit of a local language and miss how easily Afghan names can be explained which, again, helps in spelling them). But could you imagine the reaction if someone spelled the British Foreign Secretary William Haig or called my chancellor Ms Murkel? By Thomas Ruttig

Hey, that’s funny. Afghans even do not have a proper word in their language(s) for our (surely purely Anglo-Saxon) term ‘elevator’. According to Rod Nordland of theNew York Times who reported about the lack of proper elevation in Kabul’s increasing number of high-rise buildings a few days ago (read it here), they call it ‘lieft’ or, even worse, ‘people-lifting-thingie’.

That’s at least how his translator translated the beautiful, short (only one syllable more than ‘elevator’) and very descriptive Dari word bala barendafor him. Just to explain: bala means ‘up’, barenda comes from bordan, ‘to carry’ something, it is the verb’s present participle. So, no ‘people’, no ‘thingie’ – it could be translated as ‘up-lifter’. Not a bad translation if you asked me…

The ‘international community’, including the media, hasn’t been too good in learning many words (not to talk about a language) of the Afghans who have been hosting them almost for ten years now. The first internationals who ever started using a Dari terminus technicus for what they were doing were diplomats and military working on security sector reform: tashkil. It seems that in this case even the ubiquitous English hadn’t had something better to offer.

Tashkil means ‘organisation’ or ‘structure’, it comes from the Arabic root sh-k-l, and shakl means ‘shape’, ‘form’ or ‘figure’. So, tashkil was adopted for describing the personnel chart of the ANP and the ANA. (The tashkil had to be fixed because of all the ghost-soldiers and ghost-policemen who were paid but who did not exist – which were utilised for a rather illegitimate topping up of their supervisors’ salaries.)

Then, last year followed NATO, with Inteqal, for what initially was called ‘transfer of security responsibilities’ to the Afghan authorities and which, meanwhile, has been amended by a lot of conditionality. In short it means: ‘transfer’, ‘hand-over’(*) – and its use is probably meant to give the Western-conceived process(**) ‘an Afghan face’. Only that the ‘i’ and the ‘e’ in this word actually represent the same vowel which linguists often transcribe ‘ǝ’ and which is pronounced like the two ‘a’ in English ‘separate’. Consequently, it should be either enteqal or intiqal.

Granted: There is no officially sanctioned (and scientifically based) system in place in Afghanistan like what the Chinese have in Pinyin – no Mao Tse-tungs or Mao Dzödongs there anymore. But some Afghan versions really go too far. Like what the well-respected Newsweek  did, to an Afghan called Gul Agha, by adding a simple ‘h’ to his name, but making him Ghul Agha, instead. But ‘ghul’ means ‘shit’, instead of the original and definitely much more beautiful ‘flower’.

Indeed, the use of ‘gh’ and ‘g’ in Afghan names is often highly haphazardous. Not many people seem to realize that ‘gh’ – the letter ghayn غ like in Afghanistan – is a separate consonant Afghan languages (as well as in Arabic), pronounced like a French ‘r’, while ‘g’ is something else. So, it is Bagram (the US air base north of Kabul) but Baghlan (the province even further north) and Baghran (in the very north, but of Helmand province in the south) – and not the synthesis Baghram. Or Ghazni and Ashraf Ghani but Gulbuddin (Hekmatyar) and Gardez – and also not Pul-i-Kumri or evenPhul-I Kumri or Khandahar. Qandahar, the old spelling, would do, though.

Indeed, the ‘q’ (or qaf, ق) and ‘kh’ (khe ﺥ) are other problems. We Germans do not have it in our language without a ‘u’ following – so you often read about al-Quaida (in my favourite daily taz today, the article is not online unfortunately) or you come across a certain Abdul Quader – which would turn the ‘servant of the mighty’ (that’s what Abdul Qader means) into the ‘servant of the cuboid’. Weird. (On Facebook, you also find a city calledUrumqui.) Intiqual would fall into the same category – although ‘Qual’ (in German) means ‘agony’ or ‘torment’, even ‘torture’, and that is what it might become indeed.

Anglophones have more trouble when it comes to pronouncing ‘kh’ (see Russian kharasho, ‘well’, or Khuda hafez, Persian, ‘(Go) Protected by God’). This leads to strange pronunciations like ‘Koust’ (transcribed for some reason as Khowst or Tirin Kowt). I am sure that ‘locals’ who had been asked by passing foreign soldiers which direction this town was located have answered in complete honesty that they had never heard about this place – what, in turn, will have caused a lot of anger about these ‘lying, unhelpful Afghans’. (Of course, this is only fantasy: the GPS data of Khowst or whatever way it is spelled are well-known…).

I will never forget the story an Afghan friend told about an American visiting Zabul – it happened many, many years ago when a single civilian traveler of that very nationality still would have survived such a trip – who reported how he had visited that beautiful place called ‘Spina kuna’ (which correctly is khuna) which made his hosts break down laughing: while khuna is ‘ridge’,kuna – and I am really sorry – means ‘asshole’, and spin(a), to make thingies worse, ‘white, blank, bare’.

The winner of last week’s misspelling competition is the Christian Science Monitor, featuring an ‘Mr. Kazikabeer’. The reader who finds out first who this really is will win a big round of applause – and here is some support to make it easier to answer: it is not a Northern Afghan brand of (non-alcoholic) beer but an ‘Uzbek warlord’.

But my favourite example is already a bit older and stems from the Afghan President’s family and the New York Times again: a certain Mr Khalil Lula[usually known as Khalilullah] Karzai who, as far as I know, is not related to the former Brazilian president as well.

Finally, the Afghan President’s own name is the most confusing one: Is it Hamed or Hamid? There are two different names available: Hámid or حامد (which we in AAN spell Hamed – with an ‘e’, like Taleban – to make the difference better visible) and Hamíd حمید. In our case, it is the former.

(*) Many Afghans translate it – more due to its political content – as ‘abandonment’.

(**) I know: I have been told by a lot of public information guys that President Karzai had invented the 2014 transition deadline. But we know how things like this are decided. As a high-ranking NATO representative said at a round-table in London recently: ‘We don’t have much of an idea how the Afghans [i.e., the government) see this; it is not presented to us in a systematic way’. But NATO took a decision about ‘inteqal’ at its 2010 Lisbon summit anyway.

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Dari Language

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