Dari or Farsi?
The tug of war between speakers of Farsi and Dari in Afghanistan is a pointless and time-wasting exercise.
The Afghan identity appears to be muddled in a war of
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.