Language & Culture: The Challenges of Translation

31MAR2011. The first lecture of the language and culture training block consisted of a brief history of some of the wars in Afghanistan interlaced with what was taking place through 2011. It wasn’t very detailed, probably because the language and culture trainers weren’t given much time to do a deep-dive. Some of the highlights included:

  • Three Anglo-Afghan wars with Britain in 1839, 1878 and 1919;
  • The brutality of the Hazaras between 1880-1901, viewed as an inferior ethnic group by the Pashtuns, and remains the third largest group at the forefront gender equality;
  • The idea of Afghanistan being comprised of “mini-Afghanistans” with their own regional/provincial governing bodies – all loosely affiliated with the central government in its capital (Kabul);
  • The British-led partition of 1947, which led to the creation of Pakistan, and the Durand Line, which is recognized internationally as the western border of Pakistan, but unrecognized by Afghanistan; and
  • An agreement that made Afghanistan a “buffer zone” between Russian and British interests in 1919. 

I think the class would’ve benefited from a more detailed overview of the history of Afghanistan. I also think we, as a nation (the U.S.), would have benefited from understanding its tumultuous history because it may have provided the necessary context to develop more successful military and socio-political strategies. But we didn’t seem to care to understand because we were going to do it our way, the American way, because we thought we knew best. Almost two decades later, we’re still in Afghanistan without a clear path to understanding how the hell to get out.

The language portion of this block of training was focused on Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan (the other is Dari). This was good because I didn’t know a lick of Pashto. Not that I was eager to become a native speaker, but I was open to learning some key phrases and greetings such as “manana” (thank you). Looking around the room, most of my fellow grunts were even less enthused, one going as far as calling the country “Trashcanistan,” and muttering that he had no interest in “wasting his time” learning Pashto. While I found such comments offensive, I hesitated to call people out. Maybe I should’ve been more vocal, but I made a mental note of who said what and opted for one-on-one conversations instead.

Most of my classmates were far from prejudiced or racist. As for the individual who’d called the country Trashcanistan, he’d deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and his views of Afghanistan were based on the U.S. approach as much as it was on his interactions with local Afghans in the Southern region (namely Kandahar), where loyalties changed quite often. He understood why: it was easy to pledge loyalties to the U.S. military when there was a heavy presence of troops in the region to keep them safe and compensate them for their cooperation. But as soon as the U.S and its allied forces left the area – assuming that their work was done, the Taliban would crawl out of their holes and threaten the locals, leaving them no other options than to cooperate with the enemy. My fellow grunt said that this cat-and-mouse game was the rule and diminished the morale of the troops, increased hostilities, and distrust, and left them wondering what the hell we were doing in the country in the first place.

I’m glad I took the time to understand his perspective; not that I condoned his name-calling. I could understand that some viewed Afghanistan as a backward country that harbored terrorists with a less-evolved population that allowed it happen; and now the superpower America had come to liberate it from the grip of evildoers and help it find its way into the 21st century. I could also understand that others viewed the war as a U.S.-led invasion that was motivated by self-interest, prompted by a need to rid the world of al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, as well as the Taliban; with the goal of turning Afghanistan into a “Swiss democracy” as an afterthought.  

I agree that the terrorist groups that wreaked havoc on the population of Afghanistan – the Taliban, and bin Laden and his ilk – needed to be eradicated. But I was just as frustrated as my fellow grunt with our approach in Afghanistan, thinking that we had all the answers. We didn’t take the time to understand the country’s history (like why it’s referred to as “the graveyard of empires”), we didn’t ask the Afghans for input…we were eventually going to turn things over to them, but not from the outset because we didn’t want them to screw things up. The inferiority of the locals’ way of life, knowledge, socio-political acumen, military prowess, etc., and the need to be led by a more advanced ally (the U.S.) formed the overarching narrative. Whether blatant or subtle, this narrative was evident in how we interacted with the locals, how the media reported on Afghanistan, how we trained the Afghan military, and how little confidence we had in its population in taking the lead in rebuilding the country.

5 apples with one red one in the middle.

In the course of contemplating these things, I kept going back to the work of Edward W. Said, a Columbia University professor whose seminal book, “Orientalism,” sent shockwaves throughout academic corridors in the late 1970s. His ideas centered on the framing of the East and West in a dichotomous framework, where the West (U.S., Great Britain) represented all that was good and the East (Islam, Arabian countries) represented all that was bad. This framing, he argued, was practiced by Great Britain via colonialism and by the U.S. via its educational system; done so subtly by the latter that if you were educated in the West, you’d hardly recognize, nor question your worldview. I suppose you can say that about other countries and their people: filtering their views of others through their own cultural/ethnic lenses.

What makes an ethnocentric worldview harmful is the power dynamic – the power to define the “other” as inferior and define the advancement of a population with a capitalist yardstick. Case in point; a handful of Afghans such as warlords profited tremendously by the war in Afghanistan, but that didn’t turn them into open-minded human beings who all of the sudden recognized the need to unite the country and use their newfound wealth to promote social justice. On the contrary, their socio-political views remained intact, while their economic ambitions continued to grow.

During our first smoke break, I ran into one of the language and culture trainers (the one who smoked). I introduced myself in Dari and he immediately started asking questions about my family, where I was from, my thoughts about the war, and why I was interested in the program. The 10-minute break didn’t allow for much time to provide too many details about his inquiries, but over the course of training, I shared more about myself and how I ended up as part of the HTS program. He commended my efforts to understand the broader picture as well as my willingness to put myself in danger to assist my adopted country in understanding my birth country. I thanked him but told him not to be too impressed because I wasn’t sure how helpful I would be to either country.

He chuckled, telling me that I was way too humble considering that I not only had the education and experience but an intimate understanding of Afghanistan that many others lacked. He also told me that he’d pray for my safe deployment and return home. I thanked him for his kind words and told him I looked forward to learning about Afghanistan from his perspective; a perspective informed by his experiences in Afghanistan during the ouster of King Zahir Shah (the last King of Afghanistan), the Soviet Invasion, and the Taliban.

While I was able to engage in conversations with him during training, I never saw or spoke with him again. Sadly, I recently learned that he passed away. RIP Faiq.