Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Speak the same language

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I think there are over two dozen languages spoken in Pakistan. Though, my much respected friend the fine artist Mian Ejaz ul Hasan says there are eighty. If there really are eighty languages, then I can go into depression that I know so few of those. But if there are two dozen, then I speak at least three. Not good enough, but better than none at all. All these languages have been picked up, never learned formally.

In my last few months in the army I was posted at Peshawar and that helped my Pushto considerably. The language I had picked up previously from the Pathans in my unit. But when I left the service and went to live in Karachi, I gradually lost the language. Now, I can just barely understand the Pushto of the Yusufzai plain. Of course, no one, not even those who speak it themselves, can understand the Pushto of Bannu! It does not even sound like Pushto. Heaven knows where this language came from even though it is said to be Pushto.

Today, so many years after having lost touch with Pushto, I can still understand a fair bit and can even save my life in the language. But if you want me to have a conversation. Sorry, that is no longer possible. In my ten years in Karachi and my extensive travels in the interior of Sindh, I rather quickly picked up a working knowledge of Sindhi, it being so close to Punjabi. In 1987, when I made friends with Abubaker Shaikh of Badin, I learned the alphabet from him and started reading Sindhi newspapers. Sindhi is a beautiful language with a wonderful lilting cadence to it and though I cannot speak it like a Sindhi, I can still make myself understood. The problem is that remaining out of touch with it for extended periods, then getting into and getting started takes me a couple of days. In fact, my work entails interviewing ordinary, sometimes illiterate, village folks who speak only Sindhi and I rarely have trouble understanding.

Balochi is another area of darkness for me. Just cannot understand it. Again, like Sindhi, Western Balochi (Turbat, Punjgur etc) has a delightful lilt to it. But all I can do is pick out some Persian words as I pick out Punjabi words from Eastern Balochi. Beyond that, it is Greek to me. The languages of Indus Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, the entire lot, are again totally out of my reach. With Shina, however, I can identify words common with Punjabi. But Wakhi, Burushaski, Balti, Khowar, Gujri and Kohistani are languages in which I am completely illiterate.

In Herat in March 2006, I stood outside a tomb and asked a visitor, 'Een ja che ba khak ast?' (What is buried here?) The man burst out laughing and corrected me, 'Een ja cheen ba khak ast?' (Who is buried here?). These were words I had gleaned from reading Ghalib and Iqbal etc, and I do not wish to give the impression that I speak Persian. I might be able to string together a few words that might make some sense, despite being grammatically incorrect. But that is all. In 1980, I learned German at the Goethe Institute, Karachi. And for only two semesters my language was pretty nifty because I had a German friend. Then I got a scholarship to go to a Goethe Institute in Germany in 1997. And my language got even better. But the Institute was in a village in Bavaria and on the streets of Murnau, I realised that Bavarians speak German as the Bannuchis speak Pushto!

Again, without reading it, one loses the language. And sadly my German is no longer what it used to be. I must get back to reading more. That having been said, I can carry out a basic conversation in this language, can read instructions on notices and generally know what is going on. When an outsider speaks the local language, people warm up. Sometimes the interlocutor may not know the outsider's language well enough and in that case the outsider can pick up nuances that would otherwise be missed. In 1986, travelling around Germany with my friend and staying in his parents' place in a small Bavarian village, I made friends with everyone I was introduced to, simply because of my German. I got so many invitations to dine with these total strangers, that there was not time enough to accept all of them.

For a traveller, language is essential. It helps change formality to acceptance and helps one get the very essence of the place. In Pakistan, Urdu, being what it is, makes things very easy.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 July 2013 at 10:00, Anonymous Kausar Bilal said...

Great! I always envy people who are good at languaes. Apart from languages, there are always opportunities to learn so many things from places we visit and people we interact with, provided we have a knack to learn, grow and get diversified in ourselves.
Salman, I appreciate your involvement with different cultures and their languages. I am impressed that you knew yourself well and enter into traveling which something very unusual in our country. You have all what it takes to be a wondeful traveler and travel writer.

At 3 July 2013 at 10:14, Blogger Deb Sistrunk said...

I learned a lot from this post. Very informative!

At 3 July 2013 at 12:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting. I learnt Dari at NUML but having no connection with the related literature have already forgotten. You can only keep your language if you use it.

At 5 July 2013 at 16:00, Anonymous Elen Bialystok said...

Great Salman. If you know the core vocabulary of the language, you can speak the most and work through. It's not how many words one knows, rather, which words one can use. Interesting blog. Happy to find you.

At 7 July 2013 at 14:47, Blogger saima ashraf said...

Being concerned with languages, I found it one of the most interesting posts you wrote.

And truely speaking, after every 25 miles or so, we come across changes in accents and tones of a same language. On the name of dialects, we do injustice to a language, in my opinion. Coming from Lower Punjab, I can quote more than 5 major dialectic changes in Punjabi. Same is the case with Saraiki, it has different tones and accents in Bahawalpur, Bhakkar, Sargodha, Mianwali, Multan, and Khoshab.
Even Urdu as national language is a strange matter. Urdu in Karachi, Urdu in Punjab, Urdu in Pakhtoonkhawah, Urdu in Balochistan.....all do not play a role of tributaries dropping to one sea. That is why we need the pillar of English;)

At 14 July 2013 at 07:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Saima, you will notice, I do not use the word 'dialect'. We speak languages, not mere dialects here. They may be related but they are distinct. Your observation is very smart.

At 14 July 2013 at 07:20, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Hi Elen, Just got a bunch of children's joke books in German to get re-started.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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Riders on the Wind

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