This week, as Afghanistan continued to outpace Iraq in the two countries' olympic race toward self-destruction, the Loya Jirga, or Afghan parliament, debated whether to use pohantun, the Pashtu word for 'university,' or daneshgah, the Dari word, in the new higher education law. Delegates also argued over which of the nation's two official languages should be used in class.
Pashtu, the majority language, is spoken in most of the country by the Pashtun, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan. Dari, related to Farsi, or Persian, is used mostly by those in the country's northwest who live closer to the Iran border.
A reporter for a state-run newspaper was recently fined for using the Dari word for 'university' instead of the Pashtu one which is on Kabul University’s official seal.
The seal of Kabul University, which opened its doors in 1932, shows the name in Latin and Pashtu. Initially, KU's instructors, mostly from abroad, taught in a variety of European languages. It's not clear what language is used in classrooms today, but even though Afghanistan has two official languages, the government now favors the Pashtu word for 'university,' not the Dari one.
Language has often been a flash point in Afghan education, though until recently, education hasn't been much of a national priority in a country known for the routine destruction of its own cultural heritage and whose national flower is the opium poppy.
According to Mobin Shorish, in 1940 the government mandated that all of Afghanistan's 324 schools teach in Pashtu (that's right, 324 schools of all kinds). In the 1950s, after the U.N. put pressure on the country's Pashtun leaders, Dari schools were permitted in the Dari-speaking areas. Although the number of schools in the country had mushroomed to 762 by this time, the Afghani literacy rate had risen to only 11%, and for women it was a mere 2.8%. Shorish adds that the Russian occupation brought education in the country to a standstill, and the Taliban finished off what little remained after the Russians left.
Kabul University, which got its start in 1932 but didn't really function as a comprehensive university until after World War II, was primarily staffed by foreign instructors who taught in English, German, French Arabic, and Russian. The university was destroyed by the Taliban and has only recently reopened. It's not clear from materials available online what language is currently used in KU's classrooms, though the American University of Afghanistan teaches entirely in English, a language that is also popular with Afghani students, who can conjugate "Yanqui go home" for every person, number, tense, mood, and voice.
Afghani students protest the American presence in Afghanistan, in English, when they're not busy memorizing the future perfect, "Yanqui will have gone home . . ." or the passive, "Yanqui will have been expelled . . . ."
Delegates to the Loya Jirga proposed three solutions to the current language debate: let schools in Pashtun areas use Pashtu; let those where Dari speakers predominate use Dari. For schools in mixed areas, the language of each classroom would be dictated by whether there is a majority of Pashtu or Dari speakers. They've apparently learned much about majority rule from their American "advisors." Even so, delegates came to no decision and in true American fashion, the parliament referred the matter to committee.
There are more than 40 other languages spoken by the people of Afghanistan, but the government continues to ignore all but the big two. At the same time that the Loya Jirga was debating which language would provide the word to use to refer to universities, parliament balked at enshrining Turkmen, the Turkic language of half a million Afghanis, as the country's third official language in the revised constitution they were also voting on.
After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, and for the first time in its history, Afghanistan began a massive education initiative at the elementary level. If this succeeds, there will have to be a corresponding expansion at the secondary and college levels, something that is sure to strain the country's already strained educational resources.
But if Afghanis can't even decide what to call their schools, and if questions about what language to teach in continue to inspire legislative fights, then it's clear that learning will continue to take a back seat to ethnic posturing and political rivalries in a country whose history suggests that the sword is always mightier than the pen.