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Edward Zellem publishes proverbs to promote Afghan literacy

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Courtesy Edward Zellem

(Read caption) US Navy Capt. Edward Zellem (second from right) and students pose at the Marefat High School art gallery in Kabul, Afghanistan. Zellem and the students together published a book of Afghan proverbs.

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Pusht-e har taareekee, roshanee ast. After every darkness is light.”

To US Navy Capt. Edward Zellem, proverbs, specifically Dari proverbs, are one of those lights.

“If Afghanistan is going to have any future it has to improve its literacy and education,” says Captain Zellem, author of the book “Zarbul Masalha: 151 Dari Proverbs.”

After more than 30 years of war more than 70 percent of the Afghan population can’t read. Zellem’s new book of proverbs is one step toward greater literacy for many Afghans.

Deployed to Afghanistan from May 2010 to October 2011, Zellem is still assigned to Central Command. What started as Zellem’s personal hobby – collecting proverbs – grew into a partnership with art students at a high school in Kabul, Afghanistan. The students illustrated the slim volume, which is now available in 35 countries and seven languages, including French, Polish, and Portuguese. Net proceeds from the book support Afghan literacy charities.

“People focus on the technology of war; it’s easy to forget it’s about the people,” Zellem says. “The Taliban burned books. These books are a documentation of Afghan’s cultural history. They show the world there is more to Afghanistan than war.”

Zellem, who attended the University of Virginia on a football scholarship, majored in foreign affairs. He joined the US Navy in 1987, after working in New Zealand and Thailand.

“I originally wanted to do four years [in the Navy], but I got hooked on the travel and adrenaline,” he says. He also discovered a knack for languages.

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Zellem took the Defense Language Aptitude Battery in 2008 while deployed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Indian Ocean. His scores got him noticed. In 2009 he joined the Defense Department’s new program AFPak Hands.

Former Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Admiral Michael Mullen created the program to cultivate military and senior civilian experts specializing in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s languages, cultures, processes, and challenges.

“It’s kind of like an armed Peace Corps,” Zellem says.

Soon Zellem found himself immersed in Dari, the type of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, eight hours a day. He spent three hours a night on homework. Sticky notes covered objects all over his house. The Dari translation was penned on each square.

After five months months of language class Zellem and 29 of his classmates deployed. He was embedded in the ANA 205 Corps, which was responsible for Kandahar Province and part of Helmand Province.

As an AFPak Hand, Zellem had more freedom of movement than most. While out he noticed how frequently people used proverbs, professionally and personally. He started memorizing them. In the evenings, when he returned to quarters, he’d type them out in English and Dari. American and Afghan colleagues began asking for his list.

Zellem decided to publish his list. He met Aziz Royesh, the founder of Kabul’s co-ed Marefat High School. Zellem decided to team with the art students and have them illustrate the proverbs.

“The students were highly excited as they were working on something new and innovative,” Mr. Royesh says. “It shows how cultural connections can easily impact the hearts and minds of people around the world. Afghanistan is part of the world and can touch the feelings of many in different corners of the world.”

However, the school was also a bit nervous about the project, Zellem says. In 2009 radicals attacked Marefat. Teachers, parents, and the Afghan National Police defended the school for three days.

“This book is everything the Taliban is against. It’s art, it’s images of living things, it’s literacy, it’s literacy for girls,” Zellem says.

The US State Department awarded the school a $66,000 grant. Karwan Press, a local Kabul printing house, published the book.

Today the books are distributed to rural communities and provincial high schools through two programs designed to promote and protect Afghan’s culture.

“The books are a wondrous novelty in many cases. They [the programs and book] help encourage a reading habit, to spread the word that reading need not be just for information but can be fun as well,” says Nancy Hatch Dupree, director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University.

Gen. David Petraeus, now chairman of the New York City-based KKR Global Institute, learned of the book just before leaving Afghanistan in July 2011.

“I started using it when I would prepare for speeches and key meetings, finding an appropriate proverb for use in the upcoming event,” General Petraeus says.
 “Zarbul Masalha” recently won the 2013 Military Writers Society of America Gold Medal for Reference. Hebrew, Greek, and Hindi editions are in the works.

“Ed’s Afghan Proverb books are a personal project, and some people say that they help ‘win hearts and minds,’ ” Petraeus says. “I have always thought that ‘winning hearts and minds’ is an inaccurate way to say it, because ‘winning’ implies that somebody also loses.

"Nobody loses here. I think Ed’s Afghan proverbs books connect hearts and minds, which is a truly critical task, needless to say.”


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