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The Politics of Persian in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is diverse without a doubt, and this fact is widely cited as part of and indeed relevant to Afghanistan’s ongoing strife.  As students of nationalism well know, it is seldom asked where ethnic boundaries lie in the minds of those to whom they are ascribed.  The commonly accepted ethnic map of Afghanistan looks something like this one, posted on the BBC.  Much of this map is rubbish in that it obscures the real central divide, which is between speakers of Persian and Pashto.  That’s not to say that the criteria used in the previous map has no  basis in history or that they’re not at all relevant, but there’s another force at work here and that is the ongoing contest between the two dominant languages, Persian and Pashto.  Afghanistan is a country struggling to find an identity other than we are Afghans, and as such, almost any issue can be hijacked by dispersions cast on its “Afghanness.” 

The ethnic identities often cited in Afghanistan are usually a constellation of three factors:  religion, language, and lifestyle.  Within this rubric, the Pashtuns form the largest bloc.  They share the language, Pashto and are practitioners of Sunni Islam.  Sunni Persian speakers are Tajiks whereas Shii Persian speakers are Hazara, but there are other Persian speaking affinity groups such as Ismailis and Aimaq.  Baluchis, Brahuis, Uzbeks, and Nuristanis speak entirely different languages but confess Sunni Islam.  Turkish speakers are mostly Sunni but are mainly divided as Turkmens or Uzbeks, the operative distinction seeming to be that the former are nomads or  at least were originally.

While Pashtuns are often cited as the largest ethnic group, their language is at least at parity with Persian in terms of native speakers, each having somewhere between forty and forty-five percent of the population.  Uzbek and various Turkic dialects account for about ten to fifteen percent and numerous other local languages like Balochi, Brahui, Nuristani languages, and Pamiri languages have around one to two percent.  Also keep in mind that a person might have two or more native languages, so if this adds up to a little more than a hundred, it’s okay!

In addition to the languages and their speakers, the socio-economic-political status factors heavily into the language’s place within society.  Ruling élites have typically been Pashto in background but the Persian language has traditionally been the prestige language of governance.  Persian, in turn, has a complex relationship with Turkish (in this case, the eastern Chaghatay-based dialects of Uzbek and Turkman), as élites within the Persian sphere have often come from Turkish backgrounds.   Persian is also a curious language in terms of history and evolution.  It has remained extremely stable for two thousand years (read a pre-Islamic Pahlavi text and its grammar is very much like that of modern Persian, the main difference being lots of borrowing from Aramaic rather than Arabic) and has an unusual geographic distribution.  Rather than having a geographic heartland, it had a socio-economic one of  urban dwellers spread fairly thinly between Jerusalem and western China.  So people in the cities spoke Persian while people in the country continued in Arabic, Kurdish, Aramaic, Turkish, Pashto, etc.

Nationalist movements threw all of this into disarray, which I decline to explain in detail but suffice it to know that all of sudden, people’s identity had to be a complete package with a language, god, and political unit all its own (the ruling élites really liked that last bit). In Iran, Persian had to be taken out of its horizontal role within a single, widely distributed class, and moved into the  national role where it would be a language spoken by peasants, entertainers, and Indian chiefs.  When Persian became the identifying characteristic of two countries in the region, Iran and Turkmenistan, the numerous Persian speakers outside those territories could, at some level, be perceived as a threat. In Uzbekistan during the Soviet era, Persian speakers had to declare themselves Uzbeks or they had to move to Tajikistan.  To this day, Samarqand and Bukhara are major centres of the Persian language.  In Afghanistan, the ruling élite settled on the dual strategy of promoting Pashto and subconsciously, I think, trying to redefine the Persian language spoken within its borders.

The Pashto language offered a good unique selling point for Afghanistan, by dint of not being the main language of surrounding countries.  Sure, an equal number of Pashtuns could be found in Pakistan, or India before its creation, but only in Afghanistan were they on top.  For this reason, the government, from Abdurrahman Khan until the Taliban, encouraged the Pashtun language and ethnic group to the maximum extent.  In some cases, large numbers of Pashtuns were encouraged to resettle in strategically important places in the non-Pashtun north such as northern Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan, Chaharbulak west of Mazar, and eastern Badghis.  The government tried to encourage the use of Pashto by all and sundry, but having extremely limited resources, it couldn’t really manage this.  And the same people who were trying to push Pashto came from an environment in which Persian was the language for culture, so few people who were not ideologues imagined anything radical.  Two major changes symbolised this process, the addition of Pashto words into Persian vocabulary and the primacy given to non-standard local Persian dialects.

The Persian language, being by its nature a “high” language, does not have a lot of variety despite its span.  The biggest difference, perhaps exemplified by the difference between Kabuli and Tehrani Persian, is not nearly as significant as the difference between British and American English.  If there are sometimes problems with intelligibility, it only results from the fact that speakers of either dialect do not commonly hear each other like the way an English speaker will hear a news show anchored by an American and a Brit.  Persian always had a notion of a formal variety, called darî, but Afghanistan at some point made a really big deal out of this and politicians called its Persian Fârsîyi Darî,(Iranians meanwhile were sticking with simply “Fârsî”) which has the effect of saying “our Persian is bigger than yours.”  After a while, this got shortened to simply “Dari.”  And not just local Persian but the Kabul dialect, which had a higher rate of borrowing from Pashto, Urdu, and English as well as curious phonetic features like dropping its H’s.  Dari could have meant Persian as spoken generally in Afghanistan, but in practice it came to refer to the Kabul.  As a result of thinking of Persian in terms of this proper language, other non-standard dialects of Persian were defined and promoted by some to the status of their own languages.  This is especially the case with “Hazaragi,” Persian spoken by Shiis. Differentiating it from Persian spoken by Sunni Tajiks proved a useful tool for keeping the Shii down.  The “invention” of other languages in place of Persian also provided a benefit for the Pashtun ruling class.  It took Persian down a notch in terms of speakers and was a cheap way to buy out other affinity groups whose status might in some ways be elevated by the extra recognition.  In the sanctioned Persian dialect, Pashto words were pushed on Persian speakers for places of distinction, like pohantûn for university instead of dânishgâh.  I personally find these things ironic because they remind me how unpopular Pashtun identity is for non-Pashtuns, but the mental process that led to it is pretty typical of the challenges facing Afghanistan.

An incident in Mazar-e Sharif between students over the Persian name for Balkh University shows how these issues play out in real life. The name of the university is written in two languages above  the gate.  The Pashto portion was never in doubt and was always going to be there as Da Balkh Pohantûn.  But the dispute arose over the question of whether the Persian would be Pohantûni Balkh or Dânishgâhi Balkh.  Just as someone associates with a political party in Afghanistan rather than talk about the underlying issues that matter (supporting Hizbi Islami or Junbish for example), a lot of other deep and complicated social issues can get boiled down to the use of a single word. 

It never stops being bizarre that you can have a conversation with someone in Afghanistan, in my case in western-accented Persian, and he insists that he is speaking a different language, even though both of us are entirely intelligible to each other.  I continue to speak Persian with a western accent because it’s a part of my identity too, its association with modernity and adaptability to the modern world.  When this happens, I nod my head and smile and call it Dari, but I’m still not going to start speaking like an Afghan, other than for politeness until Afghanistan gives me a reason to.  Language is political for me as well.