Yasamin Rahmani: Afghan Proverbs Now in Russia

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Introduction:  Very few people make world history while they are still in high school. But Afghan-American student Yasamin Rahmani is one of them.

     I met Yasamin early last year after I gave a talk on Afghan Proverbs at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that she was exactly the right person to help me bring Afghan Proverbs to Russia for the first time.  

     Yasamin Rahmani achieved this world-first in the summer of 2013 when she and her father Asadullah Rahmani translated the award-winning book Afghan Proverbs Illustrated into Russian.  Despite centuries of Russian involvement in Afghanistan, this is the first known bilingual book of illustrated Afghan Proverbs in Russian-Dari ever published.

     The result was Афганские Пословицы Иллюстрированные (pronounced “Afganskii Poslovitsi Illyoostrirovanniy”), now available in over 40 countries worldwide - including Russia. 

     Rahmani and her father finished translating the Russian-Dari edition just as she was about to graduate from high school, and “АПИ” was then published in August 2013.  She is now in her first year at George Mason University in Virginia, where she is studying biology and hopes to one day become a doctor.

     Yasamin Rahmani has a background and talent for languages that transcends several very different cultures.  She was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where her parents had resettled after being forced by war to leave Kabul in the early 1990’s.  Her father had served as an Afghan diplomat, and her mother had been an elementary school teacher at the Lycee Malalai - a famous French school established in Kabul in 1921. 

     When Rahmani was two years old her family moved again, this time leaving Uzbekistan for Moscow.  She spent the next ten years in Russia fully immersed in its colorful language and culture, yet remaining true to her Afghan roots.  She spoke Russian at school (Koozminki Школа № 333 and Lublina Школа № 775) and Dari at home; when her family moved to the United States in 2005 she spoke only Dari and Russian.  But her talent for languages re-emerged quickly. In just a few months, Rahmani was speaking fluent English. Today she speaks English flawlessly and without an accent.  She easily could be mistaken for someone who has spent her whole life in the Virginia suburbs.        

     But throughout all these dramatic life and cultural changes, Rahmani never left her Afghan heritage or language. She is active in the Afghan-American community, has taken leadership roles in a variety of charity and cross-cultural programs, and currently serves as vice president of the Afghan Student Union at George Mason University. She also writes occasionally for Film Annex, and is finishing her first screenplay - a fascinating tale of love and tragedy across the years in wartime Afghanistan.

     Rahmani is relaxed and personable, yet energetic and passionate about her work and the causes she supports.  She is one of the best role models I’ve seen for communication, peace and friendship across cultures.   

     Yasamin Rahmani speaks here with Edward Zellem, a U.S. Navy Captain and author of the award-winning books Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs and Afghan Proverbs Illustrated.


Film Annex:  Why did you become interested in translating Afghan Proverbs Illustrated into a Russian-Dari edition? 

Yasamin Rahmani:  That’s a great question. When I was a senior in high school, I always thought of ways I could help the Afghan community as a social activist.  I wanted to be heard as an individual who wanted change, and to help make that change.  Sometimes Afghans outside Afghanistan don’t realize how influential they can be as role models and positive forces for change inside Afghanistan.  Many in the Afghan diaspora have good ideas, but then lose interest because they think that they can’t do much while living outside Afghanistan. I don’t think that’s true at all. 

     When I was offered the chance to translate Afghan Proverbs Illustrated into Russian, my level of commitment and motivation skyrocketed.  My father Asadullah offered to help and it became a family project. I realized very quickly that I could help Afghanistan and Afghans with the skills I already have.

      Afganskii Poslovitsi Illyoostrirovanniy (Афганские Пословицы Иллюстрированные) is not just about creating a bridge between two worlds.  It’s also about helping Russians and the outside world to better understand Afghanistan and its people.  The book can help Russians understand why Afghans act as they do and what they value. It also helps Russians to learn Dari/Farsi, and it helps Afghans to learn Russian. 

     Most importantly, I think the book helps both sides see that all people are  human and have a lot of things in common.  This is very clear when you see that some Russian proverbs have exactly the same meanings as Afghan Proverbs. Humanity is all one. All normal people have the same basic thoughts and emotions as human beings, no matter what culture or religion they come from.  

FA:  How do you maintain your language skills while living in America?

YR:  I grew up in Russia, so Russian became my second language after Dari.  I still listen to a lot of Russian music and watch Russian television. It’s been eight years since I’ve been away from Moscow so it’s not easy, but I’m planning to minor in Russian in college in order to stay fluent.  I guess you can say that I like having a collection of different languages in my mind. I’m fluent in Dari, Russian, French, and English.

       The next language I plan to learn is Pashto. It’s a quite beautiful language, and also can be challenging.  I hope your next book of 151 Mataluna (“Proverbs” in Pashto) will help me do that. And I hope also that there will be a Pashto Proverbs Illustrated series after Mataluna is published!  I’d love to translate that someday too and publish it in Russian and Pashto.

FA:  It’s a deal!  There is no one better than you for the job.  Zenda bosheyn and zhowandai ossay!*  (*the Afghan blessing long life to you in Dari and Pashto). 

You said earlier that some Russian proverbs have the same meanings as Afghan Proverbs.  Can you give us a few examples from Афганские Пословицы Иллюстрированные?   

YR:  Yes, it’s absolutely true that there are many parallels between Russian and Afghan Proverbs. To show that point, we included some common Russian Proverbs in Afganskii Poslovitsi Illyoostrirovanniy that are similar in meaning to Afghan Proverbs. For example, one of my favorite Russian Proverbs is Ничего никогда не поздно (neechego nikogda ne-poznia).  This translates literally as “Nothing is never too late.”

         Afghans have a Proverb with exactly the same meaning as this Russian proverb.  It’s in all the editions of Afghan Proverbs Illustrated, including the Russian edition. Afghans say:

 Maahee-raa har waqt az aab biggeree, taaza ast.

Когда вы берете рыбу из воды, она всегда свежая. 

When you take a fish from the water, it is always fresh. 

ماهی را هر وقت از آب بگیری، تازه است

     Both these Proverbs express the same universal human idea in two different ways, in two different languages.  But it’s the same idea. They both mean that it is never too late to begin something new.  This particular Proverb has great meaning for me in both Russian and Dari.  From a very young age, I’ve always been inspired by the idea that if you try really hard and put your heart into something, then you can conquer the world. The human mind is a beautiful creation that has no limits.  I use these two Russian and Dari proverbs as motivational tools in my life, and I encourage others to do the same. 

       Another Russian proverb that I keep close to my heart is Век живи – век учисью (Vek zhivi vek uchis'yu).  It translates literally in English to “A century live, a century learn.”  My philosophy is that people should pursue education for their whole lifetime. But education doesn’t have to mean a college degree.  It also can mean staying accurately informed about the world and questioning your surroundings. The famous Afghan Proverb that exactly matches this idea is also very profound:

Ze gahwara taa guhr, daanesh bejoye.

Ищите знания от колыбели до могилы.

Seek knowledge from cradle to grave.

ز گهواره تا گور دانش بجوی

      Another of my Russian favorites is Медленно но верно (Medlenno no verno), which means “Slowly but surely” in English. In life we should have patience no matter what.  With patience there is always hope that the end of your journey will finish well and be rewarding. Afghans say it this way:

Qattra qattra daryaa meysha.

Река получилась капля за каплей.

A river is made drop by drop.

قطره قطره دریا می‏شه

FA:  Why do you think different languages and cultures have similar Proverbs?

YR:  One of the most important things in life is to understand and accept others. I am both an Afghan and an American, but I am a human first.  I try my best to understand what other people are thinking before judging them on factors they don’t control.  

     Now - how does this idea relate to Proverbs?  Literature, cultural texts and ancient traditions are some of the best ways to understand another culture. Many of our daily practices and life values come from these things.  Afghan Proverbs are not just small sayings that have been passed on from generation to generation.  They represent some of the basic core values that we Afghans and all people cherish. For example, we teach our children to seek knowledge from cradle to grave: Ze gahwaara taa guhr, daanesh bejoye. We value the importance of teamwork: Ba yak gul, bahaar na-mey-sha. (One flower doesn’t bring spring).

     And most importantly of all, we always have hope.

Pusht-e har taareekee, roshanee ast.

После темноты появляется свет.

After every darkness, there is light.

پشت هر تاریکی، روشنی است

FA:  You recently organized and hosted a book tent for charity at the recent 2013 Afghan Arts and Culture Festival on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  What kind of feedback did you get about the Afghan Proverbs book collection from visitors to the tent?

YR:  I’ve done a number of charity fundraising events before, but this one was really special to me because it helped Afghans and promoted Afghan art and culture. Many people, Afghan and non-Afghan, stopped by my book table even before it was completely set up.  Everyone was fascinated by the Afghan Proverbs books. Some just went straight to them and started flipping pages. It made me really happy that they were so interested in their Afghan heritage and culture.

     I also wrote and directed several skits for the Festival, all based on Afghan Proverbs. We performed them with friends and family on the main stage in front of about 2000 people.  It was a lot of fun, and people seemed to enjoy it. You can watch the skits on a YouTube video that my friends helped me make for the event.      

     Sometimes Afghan-Americans would pass by my table with their friends and share a quick Afghan Proverb with each other, and then laugh happily.  Interestingly, one of the most common questions people asked was, Do you also have a Pashto Proverbs book?  I was pleased to tell them that a Pashto Proverbs book will be published soon, and this always put a big smile on their faces.

     One person I will never forget from the Festival was a very elderly man who stopped by my table.  He had recently survived a bombing in Afghanistan and had just moved to the United States. He first looked at the books, then he looked at me, and then he just smiled. I started to give him some facts about the book project, and how the net profits go to support literacy programs in Afghanistan.

     The man didn’t say much back, but his emotions were shining through his eyes.  It seemed like he was on the verge of tears. Then he said simply, “Thank you! Thank you for being an eager youth helping Afghanistan. Seeing people like you makes my generation feel hopeful that Afghanistan will once again flourish into the beautiful country we once cherished.”

     Now it was my turn to be on the verge of tears.  I didn’t even get his name, but I’ll never forget that man.

FA:  What did you gain personally from translating Afghan Proverbs Illustrated into Russian? 

YR:   Afghan Proverbs Illustrated has become a worldwide phenomenon.  I think it’s even fair to call Afghan Proverbs a movement now.  This is amazing and inspiring for all Afghans, and for the cause of peace and human understanding. The books are available now in 11 languagesThey can be bought easily all over the world, and more translations are on the way. There are Afghan Proverbs fans and followers now in over 50 countries, and there is more interest every day. Go to www.afghansayings.com and you’ll see what I mean.  You’ll also find Афганские Пословицы Иллюстрированные there!

     Who would have ever thought that Afghan Proverbs would one day become trendy, cool and even fashionable across the globe?  Yet that is what seems to be happening.  It’s been great to be part of this movement from the very beginning of it. I’m proud to do whatever I can to promote Afghan Proverbs, culture and peace on behalf of all Afghans.

       Before I became part of the Afghan Proverbs movement and started working with the Proverbs, I thought I knew everything about my culture - and about Russian culture too.  But I was wrong.  I have had so many new thoughts about the basic values of an Afghan.  I’ve also learned some new things about Russian culture too. It’s truly been an educational journey and highly rewarding. And I’m not nearly done yet.  

     I hope to see Afghan Proverbs Illustrated translated in as many languages as possible.  After almost 35 years of war in Afghanistan, a lot of Afghans are scattered all over the world.  Economically and politically, I think all countries interested in Afghanistan’s future should have the book translated in their native languages. I want to be a part of Afghan history, and to help Afghanistan grow into a modern nation.  

FA:  Thank you and تشکر tashakur, Yasamin jaan.  You already have become part of Afghan history by bringing Afghan Proverbs to Russia.  Zenda bosheyn! (Long life to you!)  زنده باشین

--Edward Zellem


Twitter: @afghansayings


Read more by Yasamin Rahmani on her Film Annex homepage.   

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 Ищите знания от колыбели до могилы.

 ز گهواره تا گور دانش بجوی

About the author


Captain Edward Zellem is the award-winning author of three bilingual English-Dari and English-Pashto books of Afghan Proverbs published in 15 languages. He is a U.S. Navy officer and trained Dari speaker, and spent a year and a half embedded on native Afghan teams in Afghanistan. This included a year inside…

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