Arabs in Balkh fear language, culture is dying
Around 900 families live in Khoshal Abad and Yakhdan villages of Dawlat Abad district of the province, and about 40 percent can no longer speak Arabic, according to elders.
Many of their customs have been forgotten, or are no longer relevant to a younger generation that identifies more with Afghanistan.
The villagers can trace their lineage back to the third caliphate of Hazrat Osman, in the 7th century, when he conquered Afghanistan and was followed by many loyalists to preach Islam.
Saifullah Yakhdan, a village elder, said Arabic was a dying language.
“We are talking Arabic among ourselves; but there is no other environment in which to speak it.”
Yakhdan said there were 300 families in the village, engaged mainly in agriculture and carpet weaving. While some of the older generation had never learned to speak either of Afghanistan’s two official languages, Dari and Pashto, many of the younger generation were being taught Dari in school and forgetting their Arabic.
“Our children first learn Arabic, then they learn other languages of the country.”
Yakhdan said he was concerned that without efforts to protect Arabic, the language would disappear.
“Our children are learning Dari in schools, this is why it affects the children and gradually they will forget their own language.”
Zaidullah Khoshal, a village elder who also speaks Arabic, said it was up to the government to ensure that the culture and the language of the Arabs was not forgotten. He said their children should be taught Arabic in schools.
However, Mohammad Zahir Pinhan, head of the education department in Balkh, said Arabic was not an official Afghan language. “After we publish Pashto and Dari school books we have a plan to publish textbooks in other languages spoken in the region, but Arabic is not included in that list.”
According to the constitution, Pashto and Dari are Afghanistan’s two official languages, while Uzbeki, Turkmani, Baluch, Pashayi, Nuristani, Pamiri, are recognized languages of the country.
“If a majority of people speak one of those languages, it is counted as an informal language and it is protected by law,” Pinhan said.
Mohammad Sideeq, 63, a resident of Yakhdan village, said many people who had lived in Afghanistan for a long time no longer thought of themselves as Arabic.
“I have found my place in Afghan culture. I see Afghanistan as my own land, so this is why I prefer Afghan culture.”
However, he still recalls some of the traditions of their Arabic heritage, such as during wedding ceremonies.
“The bride would ride a horse from her father in law to her husband’s home. The groom would meet her, take her around a fire seven times and the two would hug. Then he took her into the living room.”
Sideeq said the Arabs also had ancient medical traditions such as putting a sick child in a tree and passing a candle over the child.
“At that time people believed that this would bring good health to the patient.
“We have lost many such traditions. But now we are Afghans and should follow Afghan culture and traditions.”
Many of the youth living in Balkh also feel that Afghanistan is their home. “Sometimes I forget that we are Arabs,” said Ataullah, 26, from Yakhdan.
“I have heard the story of being Arab from my elders. But I don’t feel that I am Arab, I feel I am Afghan.
“I speak Arabic with my mother but everywhere else I speak Dari.”
Ataullah also said he could not wear the chiltar, a headdress worn by Arabs, because people laughed at him. “I am Afghan and like to live like Afghans.”
Sali Muhammad Khaleeq, head of information and culture department, said the ancestors of the Balkh Arabs probably came to Afghanistan during the time of Hazrat Osman.
“When Arabs conquered Afghanistan, some Arab families came to Afghanistan to preach. They are probably the descendants of those families.”
He said they could no longer speak fluent Arabic because of the time spent in Afghanistan.
“They are affected by Afghan culture and this is why their Arabic is not as pure as it could be.”
Muhammad Mukhtar, 38, from Khoshal Abad village, said he did not know exactly when his family came to Afghanistan, but could trace his lineage back to the Quraish tribe, one of the dominant tribes in Mecca.
Besides Balkh, there are also Arabs living in Jowzjan province.
Zaidullah, the village elder, said there were about 1,000 families living in Hassanabad of Shebarghan, capital of Jowzjan, and in Sultan Arigh village of Aqcha district which spoke Arabic.
“We communicate with each other and we have even formed some marriages between our communities,” he said.
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