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The Insidious Language of War

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By HABIB ZAHORI

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.”

In Kabul, a foreign friend told me about the night a headlight on his car had stopped working during a drive. His driver got out of the car to fix the light, but he could not. When he got back into the car, the driver shook his head and said, “It’s a Mullah Omar car” — after the one-eyed Taliban leader.

If you are sick and have gone pale, they tell you, “You’re as pale as a suicide bomber.” Sometimes, when people want to announce that it is bedtime, they will say, “Let’s imitate the dead.”

We have had to create new words, and they have taken root. In Pashto, in addition to “zanmargai” for suicide bombers, there is “chaapa” for night raids, and it has been expanded to mean any surprise swooping in. And there is “pataw” for a bomb explosion, or for anything that bursts.

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.

Whether we Afghans can find an answer to our troubles and achieve peace is hard to say. But one can say with confidence that war has surely left a lasting mark on us all.

Habib Zahori is a reporter for The New York Times’s Kabul bureau.

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