Translators, traitors, and turnips
The American commitment to Afghanistan will mean more civilian contractors. Among these will be translators—or, as they were once known—terps (military speak for interpreters). I was once a terp. In the southern and eastern dialects of Pashto, a “terp” is the word for a radish or a turnip. In the days of the British, the French, the Russians, and the Great Game, the word used for this common root vegetable was moolai—code by the locals for “traitor”. I have never considered myself either. Not a traitor, but perhaps, more importantly—not a turnip. In the annals of Afghan gastronomy, there are dishes for kings and paupers. Moolai and daal were reserved for prisoners of war, servants, and those with few means. But I digress. As a terp, I was often asked by other terps—local nationals and hyphenates alike—to teach them Pashto and help my colleagues with their English.
I came to call bad translations “terpish.” Sometimes, it was amusing. In the hands and mouths of a terp, harmless everyday objects were turned into weapons of destruction. A “pomegranate” became a “pomgrenade.” A terp, it seemed, could be everything, but an interpreter. An alchemist, even. In terpish, “jalghuzi” (pine nuts) were miraculously transformed into “rubies.” What were poor people doing with sacks of rubies in the house? A terp from Pakistan, without a background in the two major tongues of Afghanistan—Dari and Pashto—once suspected a kotband (a coat hanger) might be a bomb. Another wondered what a maktab could be: Was it a safehaven for nefarious villagers to gather and plot? To plot points on a graph, perhaps, because a maktab, in Afghanistan, is a school. When I asked this terp what they call “school” in Pakistan he answered as one might in Urdu-glish: school.
To complicate matters further, terps could not even keep up with English words that the locals had made their own. The word “missile” was used colloquially for anything larger than a bullet that was shot in the air. Terps took this to mean an actual munition system. What was an “i-lux”, they questioned. It came from the Toyota Hilux, and now “i-lux” is used to refer to any pickup truck. What in the world was an “esco” (HESCO barrier)? You can imagine the serious problems that would arise from such, shall we say, ‘terpisms’, if not for vigilant and thoughtful analysts.
Still, many words were lost on them, as well. Asalaam-Alaykum became a proper noun. Where is Asalaam-Alaykum? Are you Asalaam-Alaykum? If you mistook this for the actual greeting and replied, it was you. It was a gadwad-sarchapa (topsy-turvy) state of affairs: If you were an incompetent, terrible terp, somehow, you prevailed. You were hailed and beloved by your military and contractor supervisors. If you were unfortunate enough to be a terp with sense, you were fired. The intangible security clearance they dangled for years, but never processed, was now mysteriously revoked and you were labeled “a threat to national security.” Finally, you had arrived. You were now, officially, a radish.
Perhaps, despite the passage of time, there’s no escaping some words. Or, is there? Who owns Afghan words? Who imbues them with meaning or diminishes their power? Other than caring for an always resentful and completely irrational relative of mine—being a terp was the worst experience of my life. It didn’t have to be. I’ve come to the conclusion that the vocabulary of war is pretty limited. There are only a handful of words that anyone living and working in Afghanistan needs to mind. These words, the same in Pashto, Dari, and several other languages spoken in Afghanistan, will be detailed below.
The Afghan heart: We and I
For a little over 16 years, the American military slogan in Afghanistan has been “win hearts and minds.” Growing up in an Afghan family and later working in Afghanistan, I’ve had to ask myself this: When your words are profoundly disconnected from your actions, doesn’t your heart stray from your mind and, vice versa? The separation didn’t happen in one day and, we may not even be aware of it. I’m reminded of the student who cheats on a test for a scholarship or the government employee who fudges figures for more funds and a promotion… For one minute, a person looks like they won, but for generations, many people—from the hard-working student to the cash-strapped, but important agency—lose out.
When my mother, the Pashtana speaks, you will never hear her say ze (I). It’s always mugh (we). On the surface, this sounds altruistic. Like other words, how you use ‘we’ and ‘I’ can alter their meaning in the real world (and alter the real world). Over time, it’s easy to not see or make a distinction between the two. If you use mugh to pass the buck, that’s not exactly selfless, is it? When you make a mistake, it’s easier to say someone in the mugh did it, not ze. And, if you lose your sense of self, of ze how can you find the way for your children and your family?
To survive, what some Afghans have known and practiced are thousands of ways to dissimulate. It’s always no in our hearts, never no with our mouths, followed by a less than half-hearted ‘yes’ with our actions. It’s not a matter of Americans winning Afghan hearts and minds. How do Afghans win the peace for the hearts and minds of their own people? To live. To grow. To thrive. How do you see another Afghan when you don’t even see yourself? Afghans like to say their country is “the heart of Asia”. For too long, we Afghans have ignored ourm own hearts and our own words.
No more marg!
The cycle of violence outside—in the countryside and in the streets—mirrors the repetition of certain words in the family compound; one feeding off the other. The war outside becomes words of war at home. The words of war at home become the war on the outside.
The oft-repeated curse of Marg! is one example. Literally, it means ‘death’, but it’s more akin to “damn you!”. In a land where there is so much unnecessary, unnatural death on a daily basis, “death to you!” is somehow not as benign sounding as banishing you to a distant hell. My overwhelmed mother would shout, marg! into her cooking pots and into the oven when my overwhelmed father would call to her from somewhere in the house. I quickly became a fearful, anxious child with a nervous stomach. The dilemma was this: I needed sustenance, but it never left me nourished or feeling good. I did not eat food. I ate my parent’s ghamoona (sorrows, troubles) and the ghalmaghal (noise, din) in the house. Eventually, they ate me.
You say, marg! I say, salaam!
Marg came sooner than we all expected. My father died. My brother soon followed. I know it wasn’t the curses, but before violence becomes something physical, it starts as a word, a thought. Or, not enough of either. The careless use of words can empty them of their meaning. The words change, we change.
Let’s return to Asalaam-Alaykum. In a country at almost perpetual war, this phrase is uttered mechanically in shops, schools, offices, and homes at least a dozen times a day. How do you turn wishes of peace from a holy book into unharmonious ghalmaghal?
Easy. I can’t tell you how many gatherings I’ve attended where, hands on their hearts, Afghans kissed, embraced, and wished each other peace. A minute later, men and women were viciously, openly and secretly gossiping about one another. How does one engage in Peace Summits if, on a personal and national level, you yourself have never been at peace? I was raised by my mother to adhere to certain traditions—no matter what. Respect your elders and greet them first was one of many unspoken rules. Once, a middle-aged terp from California (or was it New York) returned my joyful and innocent salaam with mocking mimicry of a woman’s voice that made me regret ever acknowledging his existence—never mind offering him those beautiful words. So, I didn’t. Never again.
Joy and peace: Words to replace jang
Several years ago, I met a blue-eyed twenty-something in Kabul. His black hair was typical for an Afghan, and, in his wathan (ancestral homeland) so too were blue eyes. His coworkers called him God’s Enemy (or day khoday dukhman). He didn’t seem to mind. He laughed good-naturedly along with them. He was self-assured and studying to be—what else—a doctor. I was there as the project manager for a start-up; he was an interpreter for another American company. One afternoon, after a meeting, he caught up with me.
“I was surprised you didn’t say anything when he made that dig about Pashtuns. I was waiting for you to put him in his place.” The man in question was an Afghan of another ethnic group.
For a second, I was thoughtful. How dare I let him get away with it? Why did I let most comments—and almost anything that wasn’t substantial or work-related—slide? Was I lowering the bar? No. Quite the opposite. I heard and saw everything, but I let it all go. I knew why, but no one had asked.
“I don’t like jang (battle). I’m tired of all of it.” It had been too much, for far too long. No one would ever be right about anything as long as the deceit, the violence, and the hateful words continued. Enough.
He laughed. “How can you be tired of jang? We’ve been here all our lives and we’re still not tired of it.”
Jang is used for war, street fights, arguments and conflict of every sort, but it usually overlooks internal jang—the harm that what we create with our own words—for ourselves and for other Afghans. An Afghan, it is said, found a way out of hell only to have another Afghan drag him back down. No one got out, no one moved forward. Curses, insults, underhanded remarks stemming from petty rivalries and jealousies. He’s rich, she’s pretty. He’s this, she’s that. So what? Whatever it is, life is not a competition. It’s true. See them. See their youth, their pretty clothes, their good grades, their happy faces. They’re not taking anything away from you. You, however, are taking something away from yourself: Time. Joy. Peace. Maybe they worked for it. Maybe they stole it. Let her be. Let him be. Then, we can all be. Together.
A saag shoy in “Amreekah”
In Afghanistan, I am either the spoiled and fabulously wealthy hyphenate who grew up in “Amreekah” or a saag shoy (dog groomer). I’m sure I’ve been called many other words that shouldn’t be printed here, but what to do? The names and the stereotypes have never bothered me because I know who I am. I’m the daughter of 9–5-working refugees who gave my brothers and me a middle class life. Nothing more, nothing less. I’ve never washed a dog. It’s far worse: I pick up after my mother’s dog. I spent most of my childhood in Hawai’i.
How to tell the average Afghan, born and raised in war, that in peaceful “Amreekah”—paradise, no less—I was raised in a house of janjal (chaos)? How to tell him that my tolerance for jang was sifr (zero)?
Of course, the real question was: Why was young blue-eyes, another Pashtun, waiting for me, the woman, to say something? He was questioning why I was keeping above the fray just as he was doing. Did I, the full time US citizen, part-time traitor and washer of canines, have less to lose? Despite his tough words, he was demonstrating that his appetite for a paycheck and attending medical school were bigger than his impulse for a silly jang that might get him fired—and ruin his chances for all.
I had to hand it to him: Hope and action. He was moving carefully towards his goal. This is what separates the dreams of the new generation from the khyal palauoona of the old. A khyal, in this context, is more of a fleeting notion rather than a serious thought that you put muscle behind. Rice and meat dishes like palau were food for the rich, the stuff of fantasy.
Words are ideas and pareyan
Pareyan are the little, invisible people of Afghan folklore. They’re clever and try to avoid mankind, but their borders are trespassed, their babies end up being stepped on, and they won’t rest until they have their revenge. Pareyan have something in common with Afghan females and children—no one seems to hear or see them. An Arabic interpreter I once knew, he called himself The SHT (The Super Human Terp) insisted on adding “Al” to a list of Afghan names, as one, I imagine, does with Arabic names. Without crushing him—he was literally and figuratively a small man—I had to explain that Afghans don’t do that and a couple of other things.
For example, while Pashto and Dari use a form of the Arabic script, Pashto itself is older and one of the most ancient languages in the region. The Sanskrit Vedas mention a Paktu (variant of Pashtun or Pakhtun) people with their own distinct language and culture. The Afghan words which seemed borrowed from other places were actually returning and no longer meant the same things. Sometimes, the migration of words enhances them. In Arabic, amal is ‘hope’. In Pashto, amal is ‘action’. What I did not share is that in dealing with my coworker, I employed all the sabr I could muster.
Sabr, an Arabic word that is also used in Pashto is often translated as patience’. “God is great. Have sabr,” my parents would say. To me, this meant: shut up and take it. I did. Cry. Pray. Wait a year. Wait ten years.
There is something to be done. Sabr is not injustice against ourselves, but rather, empathy in action—for ourselves, for others. The Arabic meaning of this word is richer and actually very proactive. Sabr is not reaction, but action. It is simultaneously ‘perseverance’ and ‘restraint’. Essentially, learning when and how to speak and act. We all have borders and limits. Ideally, you check yourself so that others don’t have to—but that’s not the way life works. Oppressive individuals or those who lack self-awareness do not exhibit an understanding of sabr. Neither did The SHT. Shortly after I corrected him, he invented a story to have me fired.
Gham / Grief; Troubles; Sorrows
As in, “Your father gives you jang with his fists, your mother gives you gham with her words—peace is what you have to find for yourself.” My Afghan mother never made eye contact, opened her mouth only to correct and criticize me, and, if she answered my innocent questions, did so with anger or frustration. She had no qualms , however, with dumping every real, exaggerated or fabricated problem on me, and ignoring my repeated advice and solutions.
No, nothing was possible. No, there was nothing to be done, but sigh and stare and offer me a stone face. Nothing to be done, but lie, cry, and seek out a male—any male—who would give her the words she wanted to hear. If they came out of his mouth—foolish as he was—they must be the right words.
I didn’t give up all at once. Since I was fifteen, I gave up a little each time. If I was right, I was wrong. Why bother? As soon as I appeared, it was only to fill me with ghamoona (troubles) about her husband, her in-laws, her children, her sister and her sister’s children, distant relatives, her American friends, her Afghan friends, strangers, young brides from her village who committed suicide before their wedding day…
My tea and my food cold, tears streaming into the plate, my hopes for the day diminished—she stopped. Then she would laugh: “Look at the time. I must get started on lunch.” I was bewildered by what I had just heard—yet again. I was drained, exhausted, and empty. She was full, but she had more ghamoona to cook and serve. Her chief source of gham? “They [her mother and brothers] gave me away at fifteen.”
Long after the Pashtana’s husband was dead and she did not need the in-laws or the sons for anything, if she ever did—this gham would morph into an excuse for her own mistakes. Except, she did not make mistakes. She was not responsible for anything. “They gave me away at fifteen” was the answer for her perplexing behavior. Everything was still impossible and it was still someone else’s fault: her husband, her in-laws, her children… She did not see that most of her new ghamoona were all things she herself manufactured and, thus, could have been prevented.
Protect your borders from jang-ghamyan
I do what Afghans and people have always done. I made up my own word that covers all extremists, the school bully, and your overbearing mother: jang-ghamyan. I’m tempted to spell it ‘yawn’, because they’ve repeated these words—and thus, these habits—for so long, that’s what they are: a bore.
Change and innovation will not come from jang-ghamyan. They don’t start anything, they don’t end anything. However, over and over and over again, they will drag you back further and further. Jang-ghamyan are the people who give you jang or fill you with gham and, if you don’t run and avoid their company—both. Jang-ghamyan are not only war-lords, but they’re more often tiny tyrants like mothers, fathers, brothers, in-laws, extended relatives, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and classmates.
The klaka Pashtana and the fil khana
If there’s an English word that’s been used more than any other to describe Afghans it would be ‘resilient’. Truthfully, I don’t care for it. To me it says, “throw whatever you have at an Afghan and he or she will find a way to put up with it.” What is ‘resilient’ in Pashto? In the language of the people, the best thing I can come up with, that makes sense, is klak. Tough. To survive amongst jang-ghamyan you must either become klak and hard like a rock or, a miskeen—a silent, weak little thing.
A couple of Afghan sayings come to mind. “If you want to keep elephants, you must build fil khanas (elephant houses)”. A related one is this: “The Pashtun hurled a boulder to the heavens and then stuck his neck out for it.” My mother, who refers to herself as a klaka, 100% pure Pashtana (a female member of the Pashtuns) interprets this as most Afghans do: The mighty and legendary Pashtun could take and take on anything.
I see it this way: Don’t try to pick up something you can’t carry in the first place. Then, if you do, don’t attempt to throw it up in the air, for you will only end up crushing yourself and everyone near you. Above all, forget about more elephants. Try shukr (gratitude) for what you already have.
The mother and father of jang and gham
My point is, what if Afghans didn’t have to put up with jang and gham in the first place? What if we could stop fights and sorrows before they start? That brings me to the root of jang and gham and all these words: zor and zilm.
Zor is commonly understood as ‘force’, but here, let’s just say it’s ‘violence’ too. Frankly, the New York Times-worthy Pashto word for ‘violence’ is too long (and doesn’t go with my victory chant—which is coming up). Zilm is all oppression, corruption, and, of course, zor. Traditions of zor and zilm include forced marriages, forced studies, forced professions, forced, well, everything. When do you breathe? You don’t. As in, “What Afghanistan really needs—in government, at home, work, and school—is a policy of Zero Zor, Zero Zilm.”
Forced marriages create jang and gham for the couple, their families, the village and, worst of all, their children—the next generation. At worst, the couple resents one another for a lifetime. At best, they learn to put up with one another in a way that is harmless to them and to their children. This is rare. Every weekend, my parents played either guests or hosts. I don’t recall seeing any happy, calm or peaceful parents or kids. You can’t force another Afghan—man, woman or child—to do anything.
Whether it’s through overt, physical zor or, the insidious, manipulative kind—excessive (and wrong) lies, guilt, and shame. As in “Instead of economic prosperity and the new Lapis Lazuli Corridor, the Zor and Zilm Express will continue to carry Afghans backwards into the Valley of Jang and Gham. Jang, jang, jang, jang, gham, gham, gham, gham…Choort! Choort!”
Choort is mindlessly watching a Bollywood movie with that sad music, over and over and over again. It exacerbates depression. When an Afghan is “lost in choort” it’s often not the pleasant, reflective kind. He or she is drowning in thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow. This—given their harsh memories of being refugees, beaten, and otherwise tormented and abused, often by their own—can be debilitating. It’s more akin to that look of shell-shock or PTSD you see on the faces of people who are here, but not really here.
Yesterday and tomorrow do not exist, but you do: Here. Now. It’s zor and zilm that leads to jang and gham and a mountain of emotional, mental, and physical diseases which doctors—one of two acceptable professions that Afghans force their children to pursue, engineering being the other—then invent fancy names for.
Hala! Bala! Boo!
Zor and zilm make everything in Afghanistan and the lives of Afghans gadwad and sarchapa—all “mixed up” and turned on its head. As in “In Islam, there is no compulsion in something as important as religion.” Why do some Afghans, who call themselves Muslim, force everything else on one another? A religion of peace; its adherents at war for decades. Or, Islam makes life easy; people make living hard. Does this make any sense? Gadwad-sarchapa.”
Hala-bala. The panic and fear that comes from trying to surviving in an environment of lies—at home, in the streets—is another fun word. Okay, not really, but it was just Halloween. Hala!Bala! Boo! That reminds me: a monster or an abomination is a balaw. As in, “Colonialism, Communism, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Jang, Gham and every other Balaw”. War must always be an aberration—a balaw. You should not become accustomed to it. It should not be what’s normal.
An Afghan is an Afghan; A Muslim is a Muslim
Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik or Hazara; Sunni or Shia. This is how we classify Afghan and Muslim problems, but these are only convenient answers we have grown accustomed to hearing and mouthing. Unity can be Afghanistan’s strength, and hatred for one another, its weakness, but divisions and ethnic animosities are not the root of Afghan social and political issues.
When Afghans drove out the Soviets and the British, they were further apart than they are today. In truth, it’s always zor and zilm. When a country and its people are beginning—again—our standards and our standard of conduct must be higher. You can’t force unity or love, but individual Afghans can build peace and stability by checking their daily zor and zilm against one another. At home, work, and school. In our words and in our actions. There’s hope. Zor and zilm are not qismat.
Qismat is often translated as ‘fate’, but also, ‘the will of God’. I prefer the latter because it falls in line with another misused phrase: inshAllah or ‘God willing’. InshAllah and qismat are not about fatalism. They’re not about sitting on your hands. Muslims are taught that only good comes from God.
Zor and zilm are words we humans have created and given power to with our actions (and vice versa). They’re habits. Reewojoona (traditions) are merely habits we Afghans have practiced longer than other ones. Sifr Zor, Sifr Zilm is a simple policy: If it causes jang or gham for you or another Afghan, don’t say it and don’t force yourself or other Afghans to do it.
Leave the real zor for the Afghan National Security Forces. They can monitor national borders for jang-ghamyan; we can maintain our own individual borders. I pray that the Afghan government will bring an end to the conflict in Afghanistan.
There’s another war that every Afghan can end today, starting with our own words.