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Afghanistan: Taliban Forced Rift Between Country's Two Main Languages

  • Theodor Alexe

Afghanistan has two main languages -- Pashto and Dari. In the capital Kabul, Dari is the predominant tongue. Television broadcasts are in Dari, government officials speak Dari, and it is in Dari that popular singers perform, their lamentations flowing out of the broken loudspeakers of the cassette sellers in the bazaar. Many Kabulis recall with distaste the manner in which the Taliban militia tried to impose the Pashto language on the people of the capital during their five-year reign. Some residents say this has led to a form of cultural resentment new to Kabul. RFE/RL correspondent Dan Alexe is in the Afghan capital and files this report.

Kabul, 25 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Dari is Afghanistan's most widespread language, spoken by up to half of the population. Second in line is Pashtu, which is spoken by up to 40 percent of the population, primarily in the country's south and east. But it was Pashto that was the language of the Taliban, which during their five-year reign forced the language on much of Afghanistan, changing signs and textbooks throughout the country -- even in the capital Kabul, where Dari has traditionally dominated.

Many Kabulis, like 17-year-old Akhmad, are fluent in both languages. But the Taliban's insistence on Pashtu, he says, left the language with a tarnished reputation: "I know Pashto very well -- not like many Taliban members, who didn't know it well but used it just to show that they were with the Taliban -- but I made a specific point of not using it at the time. I was only speaking Dari."

Today, the situation is somewhat reversed. Officials in Afghanistan's interim government -- even leader Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun -- speak Dari, which is closely related to both Persian and Tajik. The only remaining traces of Pashto are on the local currency: Russian-printed Afghan banknotes still carry the Pashto translation of "Bank of Afghanistan." But this may not be enough to soothe the mutual feeling of injustice dividing the speakers of Afghanistan's two main languages.

Pashtu, which is spoken in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and southern Iran, is a completely distinct language from Dari, and is considered by many Afghans the "inferior" of the two local languages.

Dari has a long literary tradition. The 13th-century epic "Mathnawi" of Sufi master Jalaluddin Rumi -- sometimes referred to as the "Persian Koran" -- is written in a language considered a predecessor to modern-day Dari. The native literature of the Pashtuns, by comparison, is limited mainly to tribal histories and love poems. It was only after the creation, in 1937, of the Pashto Academy in Kabul -- which sought to advance the status of the language -- that a modern Pashto literary tradition begin to emerge. Successive Afghan governments during the 20th century tried to make Pashto the national language but failed. Even the exiled Afghan King Zahir -- who himself is Pashtun and put forward a number of initiatives to bring the language further into the fore, including the 1964 Afghan Constitution, which granted Pashto official status -- has only a limited knowledge of the language and prefers to speak Dari.

Today, many Kabulis say they feel that the Taliban's insistence on Pashto was a type of revenge for the traditional dominance of the better-educated, Dari-speaking north over the poorer, less-educated Pashtu-speaking south.

Kabul resident Mustafa Siddiqi says he had to interrupt his medical studies because of the Taliban's aversion to Dari.

"Before the coming of the darkest period of the Taliban and of the anticultural and anti-educational regime of the Taliban, each person in the society, including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, revered [Dari], and there wasn't any fanaticism, and no discrimination," Siddiqi says. "But, [under] the dark days of the Taliban here in Afghanistan, not only did they not take [Dari] into consideration, but they mocked, derided, and scorned this language. Not only the language, but the people who spoke it as well. It was because the majority of the Taliban militia were Pashtuns, and non-Afghan Pashtuns -- I mean foreigners. [They insisted] that they had [no] discrimination [toward] this language, but inwardly they had strong discriminations toward [Dari]."

Siddiqi says the examples of the Taliban's discrimination against Dari are numerous: "I can give an example. In one of our greatest educational and cultural institutions, the University of Kabul, the majority of the subjects -- which [had been] written, published, and taught in Persian, in Dari, for a long time -- were going to be replaced and republished in Pashtu. As you know, the educational curriculum here in Afghanistan is the same in each province. In the northern part of the country, especially in Kabul, the textbooks are written in Dari, in Persian. But they didn't want it to be in Persian anymore."

The Taliban's actions at the university, Siddiqi says, were akin to a "cultural cleansing."

"Once we were in the class of pharmacology, and our professor was really a very knowledgeable and experienced person. And he was replaced by a turbaned, bearded, inexperienced and inept teacher -- I can't call him a teacher, but he came to teach the pharmacology. He was really non-professional. He came to the class and started to teach in Pashtu," Siddiqi says. "It was really very strange for us, because we had studied -- especially here in Kabul -- from the first grade to the 12th grade into Persian, in Dari. When he started, one of my best friends stood up and asked him, 'Hey, professor, please' -- and he said really very politely -- 'is it possible, please, to teach us in Persian?'"

The teacher's reaction, Siddiqi says, was not accommodating: "He got furious and called our classmate names, cursed him [and] said, 'If you are not able to get something from my teaching, [you can leave], because Pashto is my maternal language.' He knew how to speak Dari, but he didn't. He said, 'This is my maternal language, and if you are not able to get anything [from this class], go!'"

The debate over Pashto and Dari, meanwhile, overlooks the status of the country's other languages, such as Tajik, Uzbek, and Turkmen. Tajiks -- who make up a large percentage of the Northern Alliance -- occupy almost one-third of the seats in the interim administration. In an interview last week, interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, himself a Tajik, expressed the belief that Afghanistan will eventually become a harmonious multiethnic, multicultural state: "I think both [Dari and Pashtu] are official languages of the country, but other languages should also be spoken by the native population in different parts of the country. But that will not be a problem. In me, it is of course solved, because my father was Pashtun and my mother was Tajik and I was born in Kabul."