5 Fascinating Facts about Afghanistan’s Official Languages

Did you know that Afghanistan has not one but two official languages? After coexisting on an informal basis for centuries, both Pashto and Dari (the Afghan term for the language which is also known as Farsi or Persian) were recognized in Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution as the two official languages of the state.

Read on for a look at some fascinating facts about the history, usage, and relationship between these two different but equally important tongues.

The proportional balance between Dari and Pashto speakers is fairly close.

According to recent estimates, roughly 50 percent of all Afghans speak some version of Dari, while over 40 percent speak Pashto.

Dari—the first language of ethnic groups such as the Tajiks, Hazaras, and Aimaqs—is generally viewed as the lingua franca in Afghanistan and has long been used for business and government transactions. Pashto, on the other hand, is the first language of the Pashtuns, who comprise Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minority. It’s also interesting to note that bilingualism and multilingualism are fairly common across the country. For example, many Pashtuns in urban areas also speak Dari, while Dari-speaking Afghans with higher levels of education often have a good command of Pashto as well.

Dari and Pashto are both written using the Arabic alphabet.

Although Arabic is linguistically quite different from Afghanistan’s official languages, it is the Arabic alphabet that is primarily used for both Dari and Pashto, with a few modifications. For example, the modern Dari alphabet includes three extra characters that represent sounds that do not occur in traditional Arabic. Pashto goes even further, using all the Arabic letters, the additional Dari letters, and a number of other special Pashto letters for sounds that are not found in either of the other two languages (in total, the Pashto alphabet has 44 letters, while standard Arabic has 28).

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Not everyone is in favor of the term Dari.

Although Dari is the official Afghan word for the Persian language, not everyone agrees on using it. Some Persian-speaking Afghans object to the use of the word on the grounds that it makes the language seem like a separate dialect (that is, the Afghan dialect of Farsi), when in fact, Farsi and Dari are simply two different words for the same language. (This is certainly not to say that there are not distinct accents and variations when it comes to vocabulary and usage, as indeed there are throughout the country, only that these are not enough to constitute a completely different dialect.)

Other Persian speakers believe that calling their language Dari makes them feel too separated from the cultural, linguistic, and historical ties that they share with the rest of the Persian-speaking world, including countries such as Iran and Tajikistan. As a compromise, some linguistic activists in Afghanistan refer to the Persian language as Farsi-Dari.

Some of Afghanistan’s best-known poetry is written in Dari.

Over the course of the last two millennia, during which a series of Persian dynasties spread Farsi throughout significant areas of Central Asia, the language developed a deep, rich, textual presence. Today, scholars can draw on a wealth of historical Persian volumes on philosophy, science, and statecraft to trace the evolution of the Persian language over the course of centuries. Part of this extensive literature includes many works of poetry, including those by Afghanistan’s best-known and most beloved poet Rumi.

A 13th-century poet and theologian, Rumi was known for mixing sensual and religious themes and imagery together in his work. His most famous work, known as the Mathanvi or the Masnavi, is a six-book spiritual epic that attempts to teach Sufi Muslims how to become one with God. Originally written in Dari, Rumi’s poetry has been translated into many different languages and is widely read all over the world.

Unlike Dari, Pashto was a primarily spoken language.

Although the last few centuries have seen an important expansion in the body of writing and literature in Pashto, this language, in contrast to Dari, was long a primarily spoken language. (This is partly to do with the relatively restricted location of Pashto speakers, who have been largely isolated in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.)

As a result, the richness of the Pashto oral tradition is remarkable. For example, in addition to long-form oral poetry and stories, a special genre of short Pashto folk poems called landays has developed. Composed by women and typically sung aloud to the beat of a drum, these poems describe the everyday trials, tribulations, and joys of life for Afghan women. Today, alongside this oral tradition, Pashto writing and literature are more widely recognized due in part to the acclaim given to poets such as Khushal Khan Khattak, a 17th-century warrior and poet whose works touch on subjects such as unity, honor, war, and love.

Spotlight on a Busy Fall at the Bayat Foundation

2019 is drawing to a close, but that doesn’t mean that things at the Bayat Foundation are slowing down. On the contrary, Afghanistan’s largest private philanthropic organization has been busier than ever during the fall months, working tirelessly to achieve its mission of bringing hope and support to Afghans in need.

The Bayat Foundation’s most recent projects and activities include:

Support for Kabul area schools.

Toward the end of the summer, the Bayat Foundation completed its 2019 School and Student Assistance Program. This initiative saw the Foundation sponsoring a range of facility improvements at several secondary and high schools in Kabul. A new well was constructed at Rabia Balkhi School, the gymnasium and volleyball facilities were repaired at Wahdat Girls High School, and Omulbanin High School received a brand-new athletic field.

In addition to these upgrades, the program also distributed thousands of key school supplies to local students, including notebooks and pencils, backpacks, shoes, and nutritious prepared meals. Describing the program, Bayat Foundation co-founders Dr. Ehsan Bayat and Mrs. Fatema Laya Bayat emphasized the critical importance of education to Afghanistan’s future, and expressed the hope that the improvements and supplies provided by the program would help students flourish at school and fulfill their potential.

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The second annual Bright Future Business Accelerator program.

In September, the Bayat Foundation launched the second round of its highly successful Bright Future Business Accelerator program. Originally established in late 2018, the program is an initiative of Bright Future Afghanistan, a consortium of four leading Afghan non-profit organizations, including the Bayat Foundation.

The broad goal of the program is to support Afghanistan’s economic development by helping to build and sustain a robust network of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which are exactly the type of companies the country needs to create employment opportunities and allow Afghanistan and its people to prosper. Twenty-five Afghan SMEs have been selected to participate in the second Bright Future Business Accelerator. Through the program, these companies and their leaders will receive training and mentorship support in a number of key business development areas, including business plan development, marketing and sales, and production and logistics.

The 2019 Hearing Care Mission.

Every year since 2014, the Bayat Foundation has partnered with the Starkey Hearing Foundation to host the Bayat-Starkey Afghanistan Hearing Care Mission. One of the most important health care programs in Afghanistan to specifically target deafness and hearing impairments, the Hearing Care Mission works to bring the gift of hearing to thousands of vulnerable Afghans.

According to estimates from the Afghanistan National Association of the Deaf, as many as 34,000 Afghan children between the ages of seven and 18 are living with deafness, blindness, or both. Unfortunately, many of these children are unable to access help or care for their hearing impairments, due in no small part to the considerable stigma that still surrounds deafness in Afghan society. The Hearing Care Mission therefore offers a rare and important opportunity for both children and adults with hearing issues to receive treatment from medical experts. At this year’s Mission, over 1,400 Afghans received hearing screenings from professional audiologists and hearing care specialists, information on care and treatment, and hearing aids, all completely free of charge.

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As always, the Bayat Foundation is proud to deliver this important annual mission in partnership with the Starkey Hearing Foundation. The philanthropic arm of leading hearing aid manufacturer Starkey Hearing Technologies, the Starkey Hearing Foundation works in more than 100 countries around the world to bring the gift of hearing to those who need it most. Through its collaborations with governments, health leaders, and non-profit organizations, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has touched the lives of more than 1 million people living with deafness or hearing impairments.

Afghanistan’s first ever anti-slavery conference.

In November 2019, the Bayat Foundation celebrated a milestone achievement: hosting a groundbreaking conference on the elimination of modern slavery, human trafficking, and labor exploitation within Afghanistan and beyond. This was the first conference on this topic in Afghanistan. Titled “Ending Slavery, Extending Hope,” the conference shed important light on and helped build critical awareness about the often-taboo subjects of slavery and exploitation, which are a troubling reality for far too many vulnerable Afghans.

Held at the Bayat Media Center in Kabul, the conference was organized into two panel discussions led by local and international leaders from both the public and private sectors. The first discussion focused on recommendations from the Bali Process, an international forum for policy dialogue, information sharing, and practical cooperation around the issues of people smuggling and human trafficking. The Bayat Foundation is Afghanistan’s official representative to the Bali Process. The second discussion examined the efforts that Afghan businesses, government, and non-profit organizations are currently making to tackle and eliminate slavery and exploitation. This panel also discussed other solutions and strategies that could help protect vulnerable communities and populations.

A Look at 7 UN Agencies Working in Afghanistan

Committed to building a stable, just, and prosperous future for Afghanistan, the World Food Programme, UNESCO, and the World Bank are a few of the UN agencies that are undertaking development efforts in the country. Through its “country team,” a diverse collection of affiliated or partner organizations, the UN works across a number of different areas and oversees an incredible variety of projects all over Afghanistan. No fewer than 27 UN-associated organizations are currently involved in the country’s development. Read on for a closer look at some of these agencies, who they are, and what they’re doing in Afghanistan.

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Food and Agriculture Organization

A member of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since 1949, Afghanistan works closely with the organization via its Ministries of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock; Energy and Water; Public Health; and Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Today, FAO maintains five regional and three provincial offices around the country and focuses on contributing to sustainable agricultural development. Some of the key strategic objectives of FAO’s work in Afghanistan include reducing rural poverty, eradicating hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition; and enabling local, national, and international food and agricultural systems that are more inclusive and efficient.

International Labour Organization (ILO)

International Labour Organization

A specialized agency of the UN, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (Afghanistan joined the ILO in 1934, becoming the organization’s 60th member, and is considered today to be an original member state). Throughout its history, ILO has maintained that institution-building and local economic development are essential elements of social progress, particularly in nations like Afghanistan that are seriously affected by natural disasters and continuing conflicts. For this reason, ILO established a liaison office in Kabul in 2003 to provide resources, support, and guidance to Afghanistan in areas such as employment strategies, labor law reform, skills development, child labor, and social dialogue.

International Organization for Migration (IOM)

International Organization for Migration

Established in 1951, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the world’s leading intergovernmental organization in the field of migration based on its founding vision of humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. IOM established its mission in Afghanistan in 1992 and has maintained a continuing presence in the country ever since. In fact, IOM Afghanistan is one of the largest IOM missions in the world, comprised of close to 300 staff members working in nine regional offices. In cooperation with government and humanitarian partners and local communities, IOM Afghanistan oversees a range of programs and initiatives in areas such as humanitarian assistance, community stabilization, and migration management. For example, in recent years, one focus area of IOM has been on facilitating the return of skilled Afghan workers to their home country.

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN HABITAT)

United Nations Human Settlements Programme

The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN HABITAT) is the UN agency mandated to promote towns and cities that are socially and environmentally sustainable, and that provide adequate shelter for all. In Afghanistan, UN HABITAT is working with many partners to address the increasingly urgent challenge of Afghanistan’s unprecedented urban growth rates. According to UN HABITAT, while urbanization does offer important new opportunities for social and economic development, it is essential that this kind of growth be accompanied by sound planning and innovative policy approaches if it is to benefit Afghanistan’s population and society as a whole.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

United Nations Environment Programme

Once pristine and rich in biological diversity, Afghanistan’s natural landscapes have been devastated by decades of conflict, severe natural disasters and, more recently, the impact of rapid and unplanned urban growth and development. Since 2002, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has been working to mitigate these effects by establishing the environmental foundations for Afghanistan’s sustainable development. Today, the organization focuses on capacity building for environmental governance and natural resources management by providing government and non-governmental partners with training and technical assistance in fields ranging from environmental law and policy to climate change adaptation.

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)

United Nations Population Fund

Since 1976, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has been working in Afghanistan to reduce infant, child, and maternal mortality; increase access to reproductive health services; and support universal primary education. The goal of the organization is to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, and that all children can be born safely and be able to fulfill their potential. In 2002, with the re-establishment of its country office in Afghanistan, UNFPA embarked on a new program of long-term support for women and young people, which has included the rehabilitation of three maternity hospitals in Kabul.

United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)

United Nations Office for Project Services

The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) has supported reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan since 1995, with a particular focus on the construction of sustainable infrastructure. To achieve this goal, the organization collaborates with various partners and stakeholders, and concentrates on the key priorities of national ownership and capacity development. Some successes that UNOPS has achieved in Afghanistan include the construction and rehabilitation of more than 10,000 kilometers of roads; enhanced electricity access to 1,500 households and 100 small businesses; and support for the National Emergency Employment Program, which improved rural livelihoods by creating 2.5 million labor days during which 20 bridges were rehabilitated.