Bridging the Proverbial Gap: One U.S. Navy Officer’s Mission to Understand His Afghan Partners

Before U.S. Navy Capt. Edward Zellem deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, no one could’ve imagined that the officer would return a published author of Afghan proverbs as part of a personal hobby and project – or that he would’ve forged friendships with thousands of Afghan people. But three years, eight books and six translations later, it would appear his journey has just begun.

A Naval officer for 26 years, Zellem’s road to axiom expert started when he was a participant in AFPAK Hands program. The stateside immersion program exposed him to Afghanistan’s culture and the language of Dari (one of two primary Afghan languages) for five months before deployment. Ultimately, the program placed him at a distinct advantage once in-country.

Capt. Zellem trades Dari Proverbs with children in the Afghan countryside. Photo Credit: http://afghanproverbs.com/photo_gallery

“It’s hard for our soldiers to get out and work with the people when they have to travel in convoys because of force protection. It’s a dangerous environment,” Zellem said. “Since I spoke the language, I learned to swim like a fish in a sea of people, so to speak.”

Zellem was captivated with Afghan proverbs almost immediately, and they became one of his primary forms of communication once he arrived in Afghanistan.

“I was using them to negotiate with people, to argue with people, to make friends with people and to teach people,” he said, “and the response from the Afghans was fantastic.”

As far as their direct application in the battlefield, Zellem said the proverbs are a classic example of counterinsurgency.

“Afghan proverbs allow you to memorize short, specific words, phrases, without having to know the whole language,” he said. “For a platoon leader working with the local force, if he remembers half a dozen words, that can really help when it comes to working with foreign allies.”

Although people tend to think of war in technical terms, he said, he would argue that war is a human thing.

“When you’re out there every day, working with the Afghans, you realize they’re not that different from you.”

Able to witness the effectiveness of using Afghan proverbs firsthand, his collection of and admiration for them continued to flourish.

He spent his off-duty time writing down every new proverb he heard and documented its meaning in English and Dari. Before long, he had compiled almost 200 Afghan proverbs.

He soon discovered the list was highly sought after by the Afghan people – and that the impetus for collecting the proverbs reached far beyond any war zone. Much of their culture has been destroyed by the Taliban, so an anthology of Afghan proverbs offered its people a way to reclaim a part of their culture and document it for themselves and future generations.

Although the Afghans likely would’ve been content with his original list of proverbs, Zellem suspected there was a more lasting way of capturing the proverbs for posterity. And, after reading The Bookseller of Kabul he discovered just how inexpensive it could be to publish his book.

The artists of Zarbul Masalha. Photo Credit: Marefat High School Art Department, Kabul.

 

“It was almost accidental,” he said. “From that point, it seemed to take on a life of its own.”

As work on the project continued, students from a Kabul high school asked to illustrate the book. While such a partnership seemed the obvious next move, the school’s involvement demanded a great deal of faith, if not bravery.

Considered progressive by some, the high school caters to both boys and girls, providing an education steeped not only in fundamentals, but also in music and art.  For those very reasons, the school had come under attack by radicals in 2008. This time, they would be painting images of living things and working with an American, both of which are forbidden by the Taliban.

“It was an act of courage for the school to work with me,” Zellem said.

He was able to help the school secure a small grant through the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Affairs Division. In turn, the school used the grant to purchase a computer, which allowed them to digitize the artwork and layout, and publish the book.

In all, 40,000 bilingual books, titled Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs were safely distributed across Afghanistan to two hundred schools, who immediately implemented them as part of their English/Dari curriculum.

The story didn’t end as Zellem returned to the states. Now, almost four years since he began collecting Afghan proverbs, his first book has been translated into German, French, Russian, Polish, Swedish and Portuguese thanks to the help of volunteers from around the world, and is available in 35 countries. The book will soon be available in five additional languages. It has been given to Afghan refugees in Western Europe providing in some cases the only connection to their heritage.

Working stateside has brought new challenges to the mix, though. Still an active duty, full-time Navy officer with a family and a long daily commute, time has become a precious commodity. And the world of social media, which initially seemed much more foreign than the language of Dari, demanded a new type of immersion from Zellem.

“I’d never blogged – I thought Facebook was frivolous,” he said, “and I didn’t know the difference between a hashtag and a laundry tag.”

Nevertheless, it didn’t take long to see that proverbs and tweets are match made in cyberspace heaven.

“They’re short, but they have deep meaning,” Zellem said, “so they’re ideal for social media. They’re also great conversation starters.”

[sharequote align=”center”]Normal Afghans are horrified by bombing churches & innocent civilians as any other normal person.[/sharequote]

So much so that Zellem has relied solely on crowdsourcing proverbs provided by followers and fans on the internet to collect more Afghan proverbs for his next book, “Mataluna: 151 Pashto Proverbs”, which should be available in early 2014.  Pashto is the second major Afghan language.

Zellem’s Twitter account, which currently tops 1,500 followers, was instrumental in the endeavor.

Now a seasoned social media man, Zellem remains in daily contact with his Facebook and Twitter followers, tweeting proverbs twice a day. Sometimes, he tweets out Afghan proverbs that are light-hearted: “from talk comes talk,” for example.  One could interpret its meaning to be that there’s a good conversation taking place. (On the other hand, it could mean that a person is talking too much – and that they need to stop doing so immediately!)

After the bombing of a Pakistan church in September, he turned to Twitter to express his sadness, as well as a proverb.

“I tweeted, ‘Isa ba deen-e khod, Mousa ba deen-e khod’ which means Jesus to his religion, Moses to his,” he said.  “Many people don’t realize it, but most normal, everyday Afghans are just as religiously tolerant as normal Westerners are. This very proverb means exactly that.

“Normal Afghans are as horrified by bombing churches and innocent civilians as any other normal person is. There are people on the other end of everything we do, and consequently, there’s a proverb for every way we interact.”

Discussing Afghan proverbs with friends at a restaurant in Kapisa province. Photo Credit: http://afghanproverbs.com/photo_gallery

As he looks to the future, his goal is to help bring the lives of Afghans into the 21st century – to help give them a decent shot at a good life though promoting literacy, including digital literacy.

“If the books can help, all the better,” he said. “In the end, it’s not it’s not about winning over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. It’s about connecting them.”

Capt. Zellem’s Twitter handle is @afghansayings and his website is www.afghansayings.com.

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