Just over one week ago, two Afghan women, who have been living in Finland for the last twelve years, began work in the NEC office across the hall. They both speak Finnish and Dari perfectly, but their skills in English are equally as impressive. Yesterday at lunch, when one of them turned to me and asked, “You do understand and speak Dari, right? I mean, you’re so quiet. Why?” I was a little surprised by her question and felt rather sad answering, “No.” She responded, “Oh that would drive me crazy. When I first moved to Finland and I couldn’t understand what people were saying, it made me feel so lonely. I dedicated myself to learning Finnish and did so within a year. I think I would be so frustrated, sitting here everyday and not being able to speak with my coworkers. Aren’t you?”
I shrugged, smiled placidly, then expressed my admiration of her determination to learn Finnish and English. It was only several hours later that I came to the following realization: I have been able to “get by” speaking little to no Dari because so many people in Kabul speak just enough English for my life to proceed—at a molasses-slow pace, yes, but proceed nevertheless. Over the last month, I have simply gotten a little too comfortable letting others do things for me and assuming (rightly, it seems) that those with whom I interact will understand and speak English.
In order to ameliorate this situation, my roommates and I decided to hire a Dari tutor. We had our first lesson a few nights ago, in the soft glow of candlelight, because (of course!) the electricity went out just before our teacher arrived. We were taught the 32 letters in the Dari alphabet, as well as some simple, but essential phrases such as “Chetor aste?” (“How are you?”) and “Na-may-faa-mum” (“I don’t understand”). At the end of the hour, my eyes hurt from squinting through the darkness, and my brain and jaw ached from attempting to pronounce the four Dari letters/sounds that do not exist in the English language (zh, kh que, gh).
The next morning, I arrived at the office a few minutes early. As I ascended into the heat of the third floor, the woman who works across the hall, nodded and asked me, “Chetor aste?” (“How are you?”). I responded, “Khub astom, tashakur” (“I am well, thank you”), then, “Chee haal daari?” (“How is your health/how are you feeling?”). Her face quickly lit up and she laughed. I couldn’t help but respond in kind. It was the most delightful feeling—being a party to that one trivial, linguistic exchange. It also made me realize that even a small effort to assimilate can engender a significant reward. Ultimately, I think that that my officemate interpreted my learning Dari as a sign of respect for her culture and people… and I certainly mean it to be. I chose to come here to Kabul, Afghanistan, to work here, to do what I could to help Oruj in its endeavors… it is therefore my responsibility to adapt and adjust (to the best of my abilities) to the local environment. Just as I no longer think twice about wearing a headscarf, I now attempt to speak as much Dari as I can—which, at this point, is not very much—each day. Afghanistan and Oruj Learning Center have welcomed my help in promoting girls education and I wish to be equally hospitable in return.
Posted By Alison Long (Afghanistan)
Posted Jul 5th, 2006