Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs

By Edward Zellem. 2015. CreateSpace. 178 pages. ISBN: 978-1475093926 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Ruth Lynch, Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics

[Review length: 853 words • Review posted on January 27, 2016]


[Cover ofZarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs]

Building on the time-honored tradition of collecting proverbs, Captain Edward Zellem in Zarbul Masalha has developed an innovative twenty-first-century methodology: crowdsourcing the collection process using technology.

Captain Edward Zellem was trained in Dari language and culture, then stationed in Afghanistan with the U.S. Navy for eighteen months around 2010. A primary goal for his presence in the country was to build relationships of clear communication, understanding, and respect. Zellem quickly realized the importance of proverbs in the everyday life and speech of the Afghan people. Learning and using proverbs helped him understand and communicate with his new colleagues, so he began collecting Dari proverbs, ending up with the 151 that make up the first edition of this book.

Through several important connections, Zellem was encouraged to publish his proverb collection in Afghanistan. Aziz Royesh, a committed teacher at the progressive and community-run Marefat High School in Kabul, offered to have students illustrate the proverbs. Through a small grant from the U.S. Department of State, the book was printed and distributed to schools and community library programs in Afghanistan in 2012.

The publication of the Dari proverbs in Zarbul Masalha set into motion a chain of events which led to Zellem’s crowdsourcing innovation. Afghanistan has two national languages: Dari and Pashto. Equality between the languages is a high value, so after Zarbul Masalha was published, Pashto speakers began requesting Zellem to publish a book of proverbs in their language. There were two major difficulties with this proposal. First, by this time Zellem’s term in Afghanistan was up and he was living in the United States. Second, he did not speak Pashto. To surmount these challenges, Zellem developed a plan to let the Pashto collect their own proverbs.

Since an increasing number of Afghans have access to the internet via smart phones or computers, Zellem built on this infrastructure. He invited Pashto-speaking Afghans to choose and translate their most highly valued proverbs and submit them by texting. He gathered them via his website and Twitter. Measuring how many times each proverb or translation was re-tweeted allowed him to gauge which proverbs were best known and loved, and also allowed him to determine the most accurate English translations. A skilled Pashto editor checked all the work. The results of this were published as Mataluna: 151 Afghan Pashto Proverbs, in 2014.

The process of tweeting proverbs proved to encourage community identity. Pashto speakers enjoyed highlighting their collective knowledge through the Twitter account. Dari speakers saw this and wished for the same opportunity, so Zellem opened another page on his website for them to crowdsource. The third edition of Zarbul Masalha, published in 2015, includes fifty bonus proverbs chosen from those gathered by Dari speakers through the Twitter account.

In addition to demonstrating an innovative proverb collection methodology, Zarbul Masalha is a beautiful book. Each proverb is presented on its own page written first in the Arabic-based Dari script, transliterated into Latin letters with a pronunciation key provided at the beginning, then translated into its literal English meaning. An explanation of the cultural meaning of the proverb and how it can be used in conversation follows, as well as an English equivalent when one is readily apparent. Fifty of the proverbs were skillfully illustrated by the students of Marefat High School. A final gift regarding the cultural background is the five appendices where Zellem recounts folktales that serve to explain several of the proverbs.

The cultural interpretations and illustrations make this book a step above a mere collection of proverbs. For example, the thirty-first proverb is literally translated, “If you don’t want to become a scandal, be like other people.” The meaning given is, “Try to fit in, or people will gossip about you,” and an English equivalent, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is quoted below. While these textual translations give an idea of the meaning of the proverb, the illustration adds depth. It shows a classroom of higher-level male students in suits and ties, being capably taught by a woman. Meanwhile, one man dances atop his desk and every eye in the room is trained on him with amusement or derision. Like most art, the picture invites viewer interpretation. Does it mean that students should respectfully learn rather than causing disruption? That people shouldn’t dance in public? That women teachers are a liability? An artist’s statement would be a valuable addition to each illustrated page.

Few collections of Afghan proverbs have been published, and even fewer are available to an international audience. As such, this book provides a valuable service to anyone desiring to understand more about Afghan oral traditions and thought. However, like any collection, these proverbs provide a limited sample of the larger body of Afghan proverbs, and an even smaller glimpse into the multi-faceted topic of Afghan culture and values. This collection of 151 plus 50 proverbs makes available some of the hearty pride and values shared between Afghanistan and the rest of the world. Zellem’s innovative crowdsourcing solution to the seemingly impossible task of gathering proverbs through technological and language barriers is the most fascinating element of Zarbul Masalha.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.