How war language has infected Afghanistan

Moving story by Habib Zahori, a reporter for The New York Times’s Kabul bureau. During my visit to the country last year I constantly heard how the war consumed the lives of most Afghans, though I deeply respected the individuals who tried and not let it control their lives:

It is a cliché anymore to note that… three decades of war have changed Afghanistan. But sometimes, even the little differences have the power to shock when they are noticed — like the realization of how profoundly war has worked its way into everyday conversations, and has even changed vocabulary.

My family is originally from the Arghandab district of Kandahar Province, in the south where the Taliban are strong. Arghandab is famous for its pomegranate orchards and its greenery. Although my parents have been living in Kabul for the past 30 years, we still own a small house and some farmland there that relatives look after. My parents visit every now and then, especially when someone dies or if someone is getting married, and out of curiosity, I sometimes come along.

It was during one of these visits that I noticed how war- and military-related terminology had crept into the language of the locals. Words like “ISAF,” “casualties,” “suicide attack,” “Al Qaeda,” “night raid” and many others have become part of my relatives’ daily conversations.

For example, one of my relatives, Mohammed, had lent some money to a villager who had not paid it back on time. One Friday after lunch, I heard his side of a telephone call with the borrower, who still was not able to pay. Joking, Mohammed brought the phone up to his mouth and said, “You gotta pay me back, or I’ll send a squad of zanmargai” — suicide bombers. Then, he laughed.

The changes may be most noticeable in the south, where war and its terminology have become inseparable companions to my people. But if you could take a walk through any Afghan bazaar and listen to people’s conversations — in either Dari or Pashto, the main Afghan languages — you would start seeing the pattern.

When two friends tease each other and one gets angry, maybe he will say: “Leave me alone, or I’ll put on the vest” — referring to an explosive suicide vest. If you are a little Westernized and express slightly different ideas from the predominant ones, then you are called either “Son of Bush” or “Son of Obama.” On the other hand, if you are even slightly religious, especially if you have a beard, then you are called “Al Qaeda” or “Taliban.”

As our languages have changed, perhaps it is not so surprising that poets have changed along with them. Many younger poets, in particular, are focusing on scenes of suicide bombing, the Taliban, American soldiers and civilian casualties.

After an American soldier killed 16 civilians, mostly children, in Panjwai district last year, Majid Qara, a young Afghan poet, wrote a poem criticizing the Americans, and it fast became widely shared on social media here in Afghanistan.

Here is part of another poem, by Matiullah Turab, a Pashtun from eastern Afghanistan.

War is a female fly
female flies lay 100 eggs every day.
War is destruction, calamity
it brings disaster.
War is gambling
don’t get used to any winnings.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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