Dari or Farsi?

The tug of war be­tween speak­ers of Farsi and Dari in Afghanistan is a point­less and time-wast­ing ex­er­cise.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S. Mubashir Noor

The Afghan iden­tity ap­pears to be mud­dled in a war of

lan­guage own­er­ship.

Some sym­bols are very pow­er­ful. They shape our self-im­age and cul­ture. And cul­ture, we know, is essen­tial to trans­mit­ting a col­lec­tive iden­tity that builds and per­pet­u­ates com­mu­ni­ties, coun­tries and even em­pires.

Karl Marx, in fact, be­lieved cul­ture to be a blunt tool of so­cial sup­pres­sion used by the elite to cre­ate a sta­tus quo that pre­served so­cio-eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties through sys­tem­atic brain­wash­ing. And this is ex­actly why Per­sian-speak­ing Afghans in late 2017 lit up so­cial me­dia with stri­dent crit­i­cism af­ter the BBC re­named its “BBC Afghanistan” Face­book page as “BBC Dari.”

This row is the lat­est man­i­fes­ta­tion of Afghanistan’s long strug­gle with na­tional iden­tity, or to put it an­other way, what it means to be an Afghan. It pits the al­leged cul­tural hege­mony im­posed by the Pash­tuns against the per­ceived sym­pa­thies of Afghan “Far­si­wan” (lo­cal Per­sian speak­ers) for the coun­try’s oftmed­dling neigh­bour, Iran.

Dari, the con­sti­tu­tion­ally de­fined name of the Per­sian di­alect spo­ken in Afghanistan, is the coun­try’s lin­gua franca. It is the mother tongue of eth­nic Ta­jiks, Hazara and Ai­maq as well as the sec­ond lan­guage of gov­ern­ment. More­over, in pure nu­mer­i­cal terms, Dari speak­ers out­num­ber their Pashto speak­ing coun­ter­parts and the di­alect is widely spo­ken in and around the cap­i­tal Kabul. In fact, to a de­gree, Dari is the lan­guage of Afghan high so­ci­ety.

Yet the Far­si­wan have a deeply in­grained sense of dis­crim­i­na­tion due to Pash­tun own­er­ship of ma­jor po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions and power cen­tres. This, of course, is partly be­cause Pash­tun kings of the early 18th cen­tury — most no­tably Ahmed Shah Dur­rani — wrested the territory of mod­ern Afghanistan from the Af­sharid Em­pire in Iran. Con­se­quently, the prom­i­nent cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal sym­bols that rep­re­sent Afghanistan to­day are over­whelm­ingly Pash­tun and this irks the Far­si­wan no end.

Like­wise, they be­lieve the le­gal cod­i­fi­ca­tion of the word Dari in­stead of Farsi is a ref­er­ence to the lo­cal Per­sian di­alect. This may be a Pash­tun con­spir­acy to di­min­ish their cul­tural her­itage. The BBC episode hence is a mere sideshow to the greater the­atre of so­cial con­flict play­ing at the top of the po­lit­i­cal food chain. Since 2014, Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah have shared power in an un­easy al­liance that mir­rors their ethno-lin­guis­tic par­ti­san­ship. Ghani pulls sup­port from the Pash­tuns while Ab­dul­lah com­mands the Far­si­wan vote, re­sult­ing in a po­lar­iza­tion that has re­peat­edly hob­bled ef­forts at mean­ing­ful law­mak­ing.

Not sur­pris­ingly, fol­low­ing the BBC’s de­ci­sion, the Ar­man-e-Melli news­pa­per fired a broad­side at the net­work, ac­cus­ing it of plot­ting to "di­vide Dari from the Per­sian lan­guage." An­other lo­cal daily, Man­de­gar, went a step fur­ther and la­beled the BBC as “fas­cist.” Sen­sa­tion­al­ism aside, there is a pop­u­lar opin­ion among the Far­si­wan that de­cry con­certed Pash­tun schem­ing to marginal­ize Afghanistan’s place in the Per­sian-speak­ing world. It also ties into al­le­ga­tions of eth­nic bias that Ghani rou­tinely faces from crit­ics of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The BBC for its part rub­bished these ac­cu­sa­tions. Coun­try head Meena Bak­tash clar­i­fied the move was aimed at align­ing the ra­dio ser­vice with the law of the land. She de­clared there were “ab­so­lutely no po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural rea­sons be­hind our de­ci­sion,” as do­ing so would dam­age the rep­u­ta­tion of a me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tion that prides it­self on ob­jec­tive jour­nal­ism.

That said, the con­spir­acy an­gle isn’t to­tally with­out merit. The late Afghan his­to­rian Mir Sediq Farhang wrote in his memoir that swap­ping the word Farsi for Dari was a com­pro­mise reached by Pash­tun and Far­si­wan lead­ers in the fi­nal ne­go­ti­a­tions on the 1964 con­sti­tu­tion of Afghanistan. The os­ten­si­ble pur­pose of this se­man­ti­cal nit­pick­ing was to lay clear cul­tural mark­ers be­tween Afghanistan and Iran.

To their minds, with­out own­er­ship of lan­guage as a key cul­tural sym­bol, the col­lec­tive iden­tity of the Afghans would for­ever be mud­dled by com­pet­ing eras in his­tory. Suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of Far­si­wan have, how­ever, re­fused to em­brace the state nar­ra­tive and, in­stead re­sisted the cul­tural lev­el­ing that seeks to cre­ate ethno-lin­guis­tic uni­for­mity where none ex­ists.

“The time of be­trayal of our lan­guage and cul­ture is past. We will not al­low any­one else to choose a name for our lan­guage,” thun­dered Mu­jib Rah­man Rahimi, a spokesper­son for Ab­dul­lah, on Face­book, af­ter the BBC story be­gan trend­ing on Afghan so­cial me­dia. “My lan­guage is Farsi,” he in­sisted, “not Dari.” Many Far­si­wan are also alarmed at the gov­ern­ment’s re­peated at­tempts to lo­cal­ize the Per­sian lan­guage in a way that dis­tin­guishes it from the di­alect spo­ken in Iran and, in­stead reroutes it closer to Pashto vo­cab­u­lary.

On the flip side, cyn­ics be­lieve Far­si­wan lead­ers are hi­jack­ing the story for po­lit­i­cal mileage. Reuters re­ported one so­cial me­dia user dis­miss­ing the

clam­our that fol­lowed the BBC’s de­ci­sion, writ­ing: “I am from Afghanistan, not Per­sia or the Per­sian race.” There is also rea­son to doubt the his­tor­i­cal ar­gu­ment cited in favour of the word Farsi. Partaw Naderi, a no­table Afghan poet, says, "Dari is not the Afghan di­alect of Farsi. Dari is the name of a lan­guage that is also known as Farsi." He added ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ev­i­dence which proved Dari and Farsi were used in­ter­change­ably for the same lan­guage as far back as the sixth cen­tury.

Nev­er­the­less, it be­hooves both the Pash­tun and the Far­si­wan to find a mid­dle ground post-haste to pre­serve Afghanistan’s frag­ile ethno-lin­guis­tic bal­ance. One pos­si­ble so­lu­tion is to mimic Pak­istan’s model of re­nam­ing its north­west­ern province Khy­ber-Pakhtunkhwa. To this end, amend­ing the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion to re­name “Dari” to “Farsi-Dari” should ap­pease most po­lit­i­cal stake­hold­ers.

Be­yond this, Pash­tun lead­ers must ac­knowl­edge the Far­si­wan as fel­low pa­tri­ots, and there­fore sup­port all par­lia­men­tary mo­tions to legally re­name Dari to Farsi. Their fears of a pro-Iran fifth col­umn in­side Afghanistan are mis­guided, as the ma­jor­ity of Per­sian-speak­ing Afghans are Sunni, not Shia. More­over, in a his­tor­i­cally loose con­fed­er­a­tion, Afghans have al­ways main­tained deeper loy­al­ties to their tribes than for­eign state ac­tors like Iran.

The clock is tick­ing fast for Ghani and Ab­dul­lah to ame­lio­rate this is­sue, as the Tal­iban and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants con­stantly threaten Kabul. In­deed, the last thing Afghanistan’s be­sieged democ­racy needs right now is re­newed eth­nic fric­tion to steepen its fight against Is­lamic ex­trem­ism.

The late Afghan his­to­rian Mir Sediq Farhang wrote in his memoir that swap­ping the word Farsi for Dari was a com­pro­mise reached by Pash­tun and Far­si­wan lead­ers.

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