Ehsan Azari Stanizai
The vibrant new media in Afghanistan is a visible sign of the country’s rise from the Taliban medieval darkness. Hundreds of professional new TV channels, radio, newspapers, and the online press have developed since the 2001 American invasion of the country. However, on the flip side, a cloud of predatory endeavor by neighboring Iran to corrupt the Afghan national languages is looming on the horizon. Spearheaded by a significant media section, the Iranian cultural infiltration has already produced fears among Afghans about the integrity of their long-established national identity. That is cri de coeur that not many care to hear.
Iran exercises soft power in Afghanistan by a cultural homogenization that involves altering aspects of phonological, semantic, and elocution of Dari, a variety and dialect of Farsi (Persian) that most Afghans can speak. The rationale for this homogenization campaign for the Afghan pro-Iranian media funded by Western tax dollars is an adaptation to correct and superior variety.
Innumerable Iranian words, slang phrases, and idioms have been floating around via print and electronic media in Afghanistan, most of which aim to wipe out the traditional Afghan lexis. Hyper Persian words such as chalish (problem), banu (madam), artish (army), majles (parliament), khalaban (pilot), shahrwand (citizen), dabir (secretary), durood (greeting), hukok (salary), amozgar (teacher), ustan (province), jan bakht (died), parwanda (dossier), daru (medicine), etc., have been interspersed into everyday language in TV, music, sport, and advertising. Elite newsreaders and TV presenters in the media section controlled by pro-Iranian ethnic minorities mimic cut-glass Persian accent to hive themselves from the traditional Afghan vernacular.
Efforts for cultivating a typical Iranian accent are also observable daily. The Kabuli metropolitan accent, which was working very well as the standard dialect of Dari in Afghanistan, is at the risk of being changed into the Tehran accent. Even Dari’s grammatical structure is not safe from this unlawful linguistic foray. In Dari, the auxiliary verbs such as ‘have’ and ‘having,’ for identifying mood, stress, and voice of the tenses, find their way for the first time. Iran copied the use of auxiliary verbs from European languages in recent decades. The use of the Pashtu (another Afghan national language) alphabets are wiped out from Pashtu words when used in Dari. The Iranian highfalutin tone often seems screamingly funny when the newsreaders pronounce the names and incomprehensive words (kakh for the palace, shukaa for shock, peezaa for pizza, mushak for a rocket, pazishk for a physician, bazargan for a merchant). Similarly, they pronounce Korea as Kora, England as Inglis, Malaysia as Malizi, Sweden as Suid..
Hazaragi (a dialect of Farsi) spoken by the Afghan Shia ethnic minority is another victim of Iran’s cultural incursion. As though facing a cultural cringe, many educated Afghan Hazaras adapted an Iranian accent and even paralinguistics. If the trend succeeds, this will put the Afghan Hazaragi dialect into a slow and silent death.
Regional accents, vocabulary, sound system is entirely a natural property of every human language, and any attempt to homogenize the languages of the same roots and heritage seems an imbecile practice. There are many English(es), French(es) (spoken in 25 countries), and Spanish(es) (spoken in 15 countries) accents. Imagine if we ask an Irish man to stop using the number ninety for an excellent craic or bold for naughtiness or try to homogenize the Australian bushwalking, dooner, American hiking, comforter, and Kiwi tramping, or British duvet, American comforter, and Australian dooner.
The cultural export of Iran is not often successful. As the Middle East Institute reported, Maldives rejected Iran’s offer to establish an Iranian media project. The MEI added that “Iran provides funding and content to nearly a third of” the Afghan media. Even more interestingly, Tajikistan, a small central Asian nation that speaks another version of Persian (Tajiki), banned in 2016 the use of imported Iranian vocabulary, calling it a violation of the state language norms. As Guardian reported, an individual or organization’s use of Iranian words is punishable by a fine of up to $200.
The government in Afghanistan is too weak and dysfunctional to have effective media regulations. The President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, has a PhD in Afghan anthropology but seems unmindful of the ongoing dangerous tragi-comic cultural gamble.
Regretfully, as hinted, millions of Western tax dollars have been drained off by media owners—the fattened of whom belongs to pro-Iranian sectarians—on this willy cultural project in the past two decades. The deliberate vandalization of the Afghan languages is buying support for the Taliban.
Since language is a living and intangible cultural heritage of each nation, the Afghan threatened languages need intervention by UNESCO and other international organizations.
Given the Afghan history, Iran’s cultural encroachment will face a dismal fate of Russianization in the 1980s in Afghanistan when all Russian and communist lexis vanished away soon with the departure of the Russian troops from the country.
©Dr Ehsan Azari Stanizai is a sessional lecturer in literary studies at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA)