Howard Altman: Navy Captain’s Book Celebrated by Afghan Students, Leaders

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By Howard Altman | Tribune Staff

Published: October 7, 2013   

Hours after the book Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs won the 2013 Gold Medal for Reference at the Military Writers Society of America awards ceremony in Dayton, Ohio, last month, author Edward Zellem posted the news on his Facebook page and the congratulatory messages began pouring in from 7,000 miles away in Kabul.

Aside from being the place where people speak Dari (and Pashtu), Kabul is also the home of Marefat High School.  Students there drew the illustrations for the book, which consists of old sayings that Zellem, a Navy captain assigned to U.S. Central Command, collected during his time in Afghanistan.

“Thanks Mr. Edward Zellem. This is a great news for Marefat High School.  Congratulations!!!!” wrote Ali Yaser Shoayb, a student at Marefat.

“Dear Zellem, thanks for the good news.  You are a beacon for Marefat.  Zarbul Masalha has opened the way and hopefully it will go farther ahead,” wrote Aziz Royesh, the school’s principal.

When it comes to the old saying, “there’s an old saying,” nobody in the U.S. knows more than Zellem, at least when it comes to old sayings in Dari and Pashtu.

That’s because Zellem immersed himself in all things Afghan as a member of the AfPak Hands program, created in September 2009 to develop military and senior civilian experts specializing in the language, culture, processes and challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

During that stint, he collected Dari proverbs, which led to the book, which led to the award and so much more.

His next book is a collection of Pashto proverbs that were collected through crowdsourcing. That led Zellem to an appearance, via Skype, at Paiwand, Afghanistan’s first-ever social media conference.

He appeared right after Kabul Dreams, which Zellem said is Afghanistan’s most popular rock band.

“They were my warmup act,” he jokes.

But it all started with Zarbul Masalha, which “was one of the many highlights in the 2013 book awards ceremony,” said society president Dwight Jon Zimmerman, a New York Times best-selling author in his own right.

The society’s awards recognize “outstanding military-themed books in a wide range of categories from children to adult.  The categories include fiction, nonfiction, spiritual/religious, poetry, business/how-to, and others,” Zimmerman wrote on the society’s Web page.  “I am particularly proud of Captain Zellem’s award which received praise from officials in the Afghan government.”

As proud as he is for himself, Zellem says he is even prouder for Afghanistan.

“There were about 50,000 people in Afghanistan tweeting it around like crazy,” he said of the award announcement. “That the Afghan proverbs won the book award was the most gratifying part.  Afghans need all the inspiration they can get right now. People should be paying attention to them as people, not as targets, or trouble makers. We should be paying attention to their culture. There are a lot of things that can be respected about their culture.”

Zellem is quick to point out that he hasn’t “gone native."

“There are things I don’t like about Afghan culture,” he says. “The treatment of women by some of the more traditional people. I don’t like the ethnic prejudice,”

But those things are beginning to change in Afghanistan, says Zellem.

“We are finding that the young people are abandoning those ways,” he says. “Since the fall of the Taliban young people are much less prejudiced and much more open to equal treatment of women.

When asked if those changes will be sustainable once the bulk of U.S. forces leave Afghanistan in 2014, Zellem answers not as a Navy captain, but as an author.

And of course, with an Afghan proverb.

“Shab dar meean ast, Khodaa mehrabaan ast,” he says.

“That translates as ‘even in the middle of the night, God is kind,’” says Zellem. “What it means is that, for Afghanistan and everyone, there is always hope that things will work out.  It is a very meaningful proverb.”



Reprinted with permission from The Tampa Tribune


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