A Lecture by Margaret Mills, Ohio State University, part of the Afghanistan in Ink Conference.
These observations are based on a set of interviews conducted jointly by this author and Dr. Omar Sharifi, in Kabul, Herat and Mazar-i Sharif in April-June 2009, with a wide variety of adult Afghan citizens, male and female, engaged in public sphere activities and not, government employees and opposition political activists, employed and not. The interviews were focused on eliciting the interviewees’ assessments of current social, political and military conditions and their advice, hopes and priorities for the near future. This talk will focus on certain interviewees’ citations of traditional wisdom literature in the form of proverbs and aphorisms, some attributed to known literary sources, others not, as well as some culturally potent metaphorical language perhaps not as fully crystallized as proverbs, as forms of summative moral or practical assessment in current conditions. We were attentive to the social and political positions of the interviewees, their personal and professional background, their degrees of social activism, as aspects of the “spin” of interpretation that could be assigned to the use of a given proverb or expression. Proverbs, aphorisms and culturally specific metaphors are deployed to convince in several dimensions, to be explored in these examples using Morofsky’s distinction of four functions (applicatory, authoritative, ornamental and erudite) as a jumping-off place. While proverb studies assume, and proceed to demonstrate, rhetorical strategies to claim authority, in the present circumstances, the interviewees also expressed great uncertainty over the futures they were being asked to project and critique. Proverbs and aphorisms used in these circumstances are also subject to analysis as problematic bids for (problematic) coherency in very uncertain times. Some of the expressions as they were used, left referents to varying degree indeterminate or multiplex, in ways also indicative of uncertain and multiplex power relationships in the exchange.