Accessibility links

Dari Or Farsi? Afghanistan's Long-Simmering Language Row


The Afghan government is itself divided along ethno-linguistic lines, with President Ashraf Ghani (right), a Pashtun, and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a Persian-speaking ethnic Tajik, uneasily sharing power.

What to call the Persian language in Afghanistan? It's a question Afghans have grappled with and sparred over for decades.

The long-simmering dispute was reignited after the BBC changed the name of one of its local-language Facebook pages to BBC Dari, prompting a backlash from many Afghan Persian speakers who despise the word officially used to describe their language.

Many Persian speakers in Afghanistan prefer and use the name Farsi, the official language in Iran. They say the term Dari has been forced on them by the dominant Pashtun ethnic group as an attempt to distance Afghans from their cultural, linguistic, and historical ties to the Persian-speaking world, which includes Iran and Tajikistan.

Language has long been a sore point in Afghanistan, where it has exposed unresolved tensions among the country's ethnic and linguistic groups.

Same Language

"Dari is not the Afghan dialect of Farsi," says Partaw Naderi, a prominent Afghan poet and minority-rights activist. "Dari is the name of a language that is also known as Farsi."

Naderi says historical documents prove that the word Dari, along with Parsi, dates as far back as the sixth century, when it was used to describe the Persian language. After the language adopted the Arabic script centuries later, it fell out of use and was replaced by the term Farsi.

Naderi says he prefers to use the word "Farsi-Dari" to describe the Persian language, calling it a solution to the current standoff. Any change would require a constitutional amendment.

Naderi says that while the Persian spoken in Afghanistan and neighboring Iran have distinct accents and variations in vocabulary and usage, the language is the same. There are dozens of regional variations of Persian inside Iran and Afghanistan, Naderi says.

Dari is the lingua franca in Afghanistan, where it is the native tongue of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs as well as being spoken by Pashtuns in and around the capital, Kabul. Many educated Afghans are bilingual, speaking both Dari and Pashto, the country's other official language.

Dari is the lingua franca in Afghanistan, where it is the native tongue of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs as well as being spoken by Pashtuns in and around the capital, Kabul.
Dari is the lingua franca in Afghanistan, where it is the native tongue of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs as well as being spoken by Pashtuns in and around the capital, Kabul.

Constitutional Standoff

Dari became an official language in Afghanistan in the country's 1964 constitution. Two earlier constitutions in the 20th century had labeled it Farsi.

The late Afghan historian Mir Sediq Farhang, who was a member of the commission that drafted the 1964 constitution, wrote in his memoirs published in 2015 that the term Dari became a compromise in a standoff between the ruling Pashtun elite and leaders of the Persian-speaking community.

Farhang wrote that Afghanistan's Pashtun leaders wanted Pashto as the sole official language, claiming that Farsi belonged to Iran. To ensure equity between Pashto and Farsi, Persian speakers opted to include the name Dari to make a superficial distinction, Farhang wrote.

While Dari became the official name of the language, Farsi is still the word of choice among many Persian speakers even today.

"This debate pits those who look at language as a shared heritage that includes thinkers, writers, and poets of the Farsi language against those who believe that Dari has older roots and provides a distinct identity that cannot be confused with Iran's claim," says Omar Samad, an analyst and former Afghan ambassador who has advised senior Afghan officials.

Political Move

It is the politics surrounding Dari that has angered many Persian speakers, who say the term Dari was favored by Pashtun leaders as a means of distancing Afghanistan from the Persian cultural and political sphere.

Ali Adili, a researcher at Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think tank in Kabul, says many see the BBC name change as a continuation of this policy. "Afghan Persian speakers oppose a move they think is aimed at dividing one common language that is spoken in a broader civilizational sphere into two," he says.

The language dispute comes with ethnic tensions running high, spurred on by an unpopular and polarized central government in which power is divided between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who are Pashtun and ethnic Tajik, respectively. Ghani has been accused of ethnic favoritism and stoking tensions, allegations that he vehemently denies.

Adili says ethnic and linguistic issues are a manifestation of broader identity politics in Afghanistan. Some government officials, for example, have recently instructed journalists over what Persian words they can and cannot use. "This is a bid to distinguish Dari and Farsi, which Persian speakers consider as a campaign to block their language and reconstruct their identity," he says.

The BBC has come under fierce criticism in Afghanistan over it's branding on Facebook.
The BBC has come under fierce criticism in Afghanistan over it's branding on Facebook.

'Plot To Divide'

Mina Baktash, head of the BBC's Afghan service, said on November 4 that there were "absolutely no political and cultural reasons behind our decision" and added that the term Dari was the official name of the language in Afghanistan.

But that has not ended the criticism of the BBC.

The Private Arman-e Melli daily newspaper accused the BBC of a "plot to divide Dari from the Persian language."

"The people in Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan speak Dari, which is the Persian language," said an editorial published on November 5.

In an editorial on November 5, the private Mandegar daily said the BBC was guilty of "fascism" and sowing divisions in the country.

Amrullah Saleh, the country's former intelligence chief and leader of the Green Trend political movement, called in a Facebook post on November 5 for his supporters to boycott the BBC.

The European Campaign for Human Rights for the People of Afghanistan (ECHRA), a London-based group, has launched a social-media campaign to get the name changed back to BBC Persian.

XS
SM
MD
LG