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A U.S. Soldier’s Passion For Afghan Proverbs

Edward Zellem
Edward Zellem
Edward Zellem, a U.S. navy captain, has collected Afghan proverbs in Dari and Pashto languages, gathering them in books that have been published in some 70 countries. Zellem now invests the profits he earns from these books in educational projects in Afghanistan.

Zellem told RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Malali Bashir that he became passionate about the proverbs in 2010, when he began learning Dari before being deployed to Afghanistan for 18 months.

RFE/RL: What motivated you to collect Afghan proverbs and when did you start working on turning your collections into books?

Edward Zellem: I went to Afghanistan [in 2010] and was working with Afghans every day, all day. I heard them use proverbs all the time, so I started using them too. I thought they were interesting and useful. I collected them and friends suggested I write a book. One thing led to another and now, three years later, I have published two collections of Afghan proverbs in Dari and Pashto in 15 different languages.
An Afghan proverb translated by Zellem.
An Afghan proverb translated by Zellem.

I found myself understanding Afghans, and I think they understood me. We would talk for hours about the meaning of these proverbs. Some of them are also found in English. They are very easy to understand. They are very deep and meaningful ways to communicate.

RFE/RL: How do you think your work can benefit academics in researching the people and languages of Afghanistan? I am assuming your works are not aimed exclusively at Afghans.

Zellem: The overall purpose is for Afghan literacy, to support Afghans in learning how to read, and to support foreigners in learning Dari and Pashto languages. For example, I donated 500 copies of my Dari proverbs book, "151 Zarbul Masal," to Kabul University. It is included in a travel library that goes to different parts of Afghanistan, and is used in schools to learn Dari and English. I published the first book in Kabul in 2011. Forty thousand copies of that edition have been used in over 200 Afghan schools.
An Afghan proverb translated by Zellem.
An Afghan proverb translated by Zellem.

The books are bringing the wisdom of Afghan proverbs in Pashto and Dari to the rest of the world, too. The books are available in over 70 countries. I have had overwhelming support from Afghans. On Twitter, I have over 2,500 followers at @AfghanSayings, and my Afghan proverbs get re-tweeted every day all over the world, reaching millions of people. I get so many positive comments on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve only had a few negative comments, but most of the feedback is positive. The negative comments are actually from Iranians.

RFE/RL: And why is that?

Zellem: Some of the Iranians are accusing me of stealing Iranian proverbs and calling them Afghan proverbs. That is not true. I heard the proverbs in Afghanistan. I used them in Afghanistan. I know Afghan sayings.

RFE/RL: What are your future plans? Are you aiming to compile a new book about Afghan proverbs soon?

Zellem: My most recent book is, "Mataloona; 151 Afghan Pashto Proverbs." It was released this month and is now available on, and within weeks it will be available in over 70 countries. My Dari book has won 3 awards in the United States. When I published the Dari book, everyone was asking when I am going to publish the Pashto book. Now I have done it. A high school student in Kabul has done the illustrations for the book.

Malali Bashir tweets @malalibashir