Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Proverbs and Sayings

Mataluna: 151 Afghan Pashto Proverbs

By Edward Zellem. 2014. Tampa: Cultures Direct Press. 192 pages. ISBN: 978-0692215180 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Rachel Loveall

[Review length: 562 words • Review posted on January 21, 2015]

Edward Zellem, the author of Mataluna: 151 Afghan Pashto Proverbs, has a previously published book, Zarbul Masalha, which is a book about Dari proverbs. This latter book garnered much attention following its publication, and later caused Afghans to pressure Zellem to write a book on Pashto proverbs, the other national language of Afghanistan. Since proverbs are just as important in Pashto as in Dari culture, Zellem understood the need well.

But how to collect the proverbs? There was the challenge of physical location, as Zellem was not in Afghanistan at the time the book was written. Thankfully, a proverb found in both Dari and Pashto, “one flower won’t bring spring,” provided the solution: Zellem would need outside help to accomplish the collection. What makes this book unique compared to other sources on the same topic is the mode of collection that Zellem used. Since many Afghans do not have easy access to the Internet, but cellphones are widely used, Zellem decided to make use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. When he approached the International Association of Paremiology (IAP) with his idea, he was informed by many that this had never been done before, and there was interest in his plan for the insight it might provide into the paremiological minimum in Pashto. Zellem decided to focus instead on collecting, translating, illustrating, and publishing Pashto proverbs that are widely used in Afghanistan.

The term “crowdsourcing” was first used in 2006, referring to the known ideas of “crowd” and “outsourcing.” Building on the attention his first book had generated, Zellem created an additional page on his website for the collection of proverbs in Pashto. Responses arrived from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as from Afghans in over twelve other countries, and Zellem quickly had more proverbs than the 151 he needed. Trying to discern which proverbs were common knowledge, Zellem used Twitter to discover the relative popularity of the proverbs in his new collection.

This book is important for its documentation of Pashto proverbs in light of the fragmentation Afghan society has experienced over the recent years due to wars and political tensions. It has the potential to serve as a uniting factor for the dispersed community. I believe, however, that the book’s real contribution lies in the mode of collection utilized by Zellem. Many other areas in the world have restricted access to computers but have an easier time using the Internet through their cellphones. Therefore, other researchers should consider following Zellem’s example and collect proverbs remotely and use Twitter, as he did, to test for popularity.

One possible concern would be the accuracy of the research: although there are many advantages to working remotely, some would argue that in this sort of research there is no substitute for working among the people. Since Zellem is an outsider to Pashtun culture, he would have gleaned valuable insight from experiencing daily life with the Pashtun and understanding how proverbs function in that society.

Afghanistan is marked for having one of the lowest literacy rates in the world. Therefore it is ironic that this book of proverbs will be more accessible to Western scholars than to millions of people who know the proverbs but cannot read it. That the proverbs are written down is both important and useful, but there is a disconnect: how wide should the readership of this book be?

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