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Altman: Navy captain’s book on Afghan proverbs up for award

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Published:   |   Updated: August 19, 2013 at 11:40 AM

For Edward Zellem, a Navy captain working at U.S. Central Command, what started out as a notion has turned into a cottage industry. And next month, he finds out if he’s won an award from the Military Writers Society of America, which “helps veterans, their families, and historians record history and the complexities of military life ― and encourages writing and other creative endeavors as therapy for the stresses of our special circumstances,” according to the organization’s website.

Zellem had learned the Dari language in Afghanistan as a member of the AfPak Hands program ― created in September 2009 to develop military and senior civilian experts specializing in the language, culture, processes and challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan. During his time there, he began collecting traditional proverbs.

One of the things Zellem learned about Afghanistan — which has a rich history of colorful verbal communication, though 70 percent of the population can’t read — is that proverbs speak volumes.

“Afghans use proverbs all the time to make their point,” says Zellem. “Being able to speak in creative ways is really prized. Traditional poetry and elegant turn of phrase goes back thousands of years, to ancient Persia.”

Zellem eventually turned them into a book called “Zarbul Masalha: 151 Afghan Dari Proverbs,” which is now up for an award from the Military Writers Society of America.

“It is a great honor for them to even consider it,” says Zellem, a former University of Virginia offensive lineman who turned world traveler before joining the Navy. “I looked at the other books and some look pretty good.”

Zarbul Masalha has taken on a life of its own.

Initially distributed thanks to a State Department grant, the book has now been published in German and French. And a high school student in Virginia, along with her father, who is in the foreign service, just finished translating the proverbs into Russian. That book was published last week.

Now people are working on a Polish version. And a Dutch version. And a Hebrew version too.

And, because the book has been such a hit in Afghanistan, he is working on a version in that nation’s other major language, Pashtu.

But not alone.

Zellem is turning to crowd-sourcing, reaching out through social media to gather Pashtu proverbs, and will produce another book “once I hit 151 good ones.

As with Zarbul Masalha, Zellem has lined up Afghan kids to illustrate his new book, which he hopes to publish by the end of the year.

As popular as the book has become, Zellem’s foray into Afghan pop culture is not limited to the printed page. Zellem will be a presenter at the Rumi Awards in Las Vegas in October, a gala event billed as the Afghan Emmys. Zellem, who has conducted several interviews with Afghan media stars, said he thinks he will be the only non-Afghan presenter.

Zarbul Masalha is a finalist for the Military Writers Society of America’s 2013 Best Book awards (Reference category). Gold medals will be announced Sept. 28 at the organization’s annual conference, held this year in Dayton, Ohio.

Golf course repair

A recent announcement in an online registry of government spending caught my eye last week.

“PERFORMANCE WORK STATEMENT FOR AERIFICATION OF GOLF COURSE GREENS AND TEES AT THE BAY PALMS GOLF COMPLEX at MacDill Air Force Base.”

The announcement called for the work to be done on 38 greens and 36 tee boxes. At a time when the military is having trouble paying to keep planes flying among other big spending cuts, the announcement looked like an easy tee-off on Pentagon excess.

Until I did a little research.

The work, which took place last week, was designed to “add air and nutrients to the root zone,” according to Air Force Capt. Sara B. Greco, the new spokeswoman for the 6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill’s host unit.

The process takes place about three or four times a year, said Greco, and cost about $1,400 last week.

I used to be an avid golfer, mostly because my best friends played. At my best, I was just good enough to get frustrated and I no longer can afford the time or money for greens fees and the many sleeves of balls I would lose. But I know enough about golf to know that if you don’t take care of the grass, it will die, especially in this climate.

Given how much is already invested in the courses at MacDill, what’s another $6,000 or so a year?

Of course, there are those who would argue about whether an Air Force base even needs a golf course, let alone two. But that’s a story for another day.

Death in Afghanistan

Three soldiers were killed in Afghanistan last week

Staff Sgt. Octavio Herrera, 26, of Caldwell, Idaho, Sgt. Jamar A. Hicks, 22, of Little Rock, Ark., and Spc. Keith E. Grace Jr., 26, of Baytown, Texas died Aug. 11, of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their unit with indirect fire. The soldiers were assigned to the 4th Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Ky. Herrera and Grace died in Paktia Province, Afghanistan, while Hicks was evacuated to Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost, Afghanistan, and later died.

There have now been 2,248 U.S. troop deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.

hatlman@tamaptrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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