Never Trust Anyone Who Says “Afghani”

In these confusing times, we all feel desperately the need to sort through the mountain of incoming fact and opinion concerning America’s new battleground. Who knows what he’s talking about? Who’s faking it? A friend of Chatterbox’s, a reporter who lived for a time in Afghanistan, recommends this brilliantly simple filter: Tune out anybody who refers to the inhabitants of Afghanistan as “Afghanis.”

People who live in Afghanistan are not “Afghanis,” but Afghans. “Afghani” is an apparent conflation of “Afghan” with “Pakistani” and reflects the general tendency to confuse Afghanistan with Pakistan. It’s conceivable that people who say “Afghani” are trying to steer clear of the term “Afghan” because it makes them think of a wool coverlet or a large dog, associations that they fear may give offense. Nonetheless, “Afghan” is the correct term.

“Afghani” is a real word, but it refers not to the people of Afghanistan, but rather to its principal unit of currency. Hence, referring to the people of Afghanistan as “Afghanis” is roughly equivalent to referring to the people of the United States as “dollars.” (According to this currency converter, $1 will presently buy you 4,750 afghani.) More recently, the word “Afghani,” when coupled with the word “Arab,” has acquired a different meaning: An “Afghani Arab” is an Arab who is not from Afghanistan, but who fought in the last two decades of Afghan wars and has now moved on to another trouble spot.

Scanning news databases for the last few days, Chatterbox is amazed and appalled at the number of prominent people who have been misusing “Afghani.” The Hall of Shame includes Chatterbox’s Slate colleague Scott Shuger (“Today’s Papers,” Sept. 24), Chatterbox’s former boss and NewRepublic Editor in Chief Martin Peretz (the New Republic, Oct. 1), and the noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami (60 Minutes, Sept. 26). Chatterbox hasn’t caught George W. Bush, who once famously referred to Greeks as “Grecians.” But at a Sept. 26 press gaggle, Bush’s press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, referred repeatedly to “the Afghani people.” On Sept. 27, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher nearly slipped at a briefing for reporters. “We are showing that this is not against Afghani–Afghan people,” he said. “It’s against a particular group that operates out of Afghanistan.” That was a close one! (It was cleaned up in the official transcript.) But Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, said in a recent appearance on NBC’s Today show (as quoted in the Sept. 28 New York Times) that “we’re after terrorists and murderers and not interested in waging a war on the Afghani people.” Other hall-of-shamers include Ted Koppel (Nightline, Sept. 21), Terri Gross (Fresh Air, Sept. 25), Brookings Institution defense expert Michael O’Hanlon (Brookings paper, Sept. 25), CNN’s Chris Burns (Sept. 30), press critic Cynthia Cotts (Village Voice, Oct. 2), the Associated Press’ Michelle Locke (Sept. 28), Matt Lauer (Today show, Sept. 27), and Diane Sawyer (Good Morning America, Sept. 17). Chatterbox urges them all to be more careful in the future. He also wishes to remind readers that people who use the correct term, “Afghan,” don’t necessarily know what they’re talking about, either.