Grima Santry is a rare American woman who has lived among Pashtuns for a long period of time. She has learned their way of life, made close friends, and excelled in their difficult language. Perhaps her most impressive feat is that, as a woman, she gained intimate knowledge of a people notorious for their isolation—and for severely restricting the movement and knowledge of their own women.

She first visited the region at the age of 18 in 1976, and later returned for what turned out to be more than a decade of living, studying, and working among Pashtuns, from 1978 to 1990. Hers is a 12-year tale of a woman traveling and living alone—or, sometimes, with her infant daughter—in the rugged reaches of Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. Such a feat is rare even among Pashtuns. For a Westerner, it is virtually unheard of.

It also requires complete fluency in Pashto. (In the scholarly world of Middle Eastern and Asian languages, there’s a common sentiment: Turkish, hard at first, then easy; Persian, easy at first, then hard. Pashto? Hard at first, then hard.) This Indo-Iranian language pulls in vocabulary from Urdu and Panjabi for Pakistani Pashtuns, whereas Pashtuns in Afghanistan sprinkle their language with vocabulary from Dari and Farsi, the Persian dialects of Afghanistan and Iran. When Grima Santry was first studying Pashto, it was such an obscure language for most Westerners that she had to resort to using a Russian-Pashto dictionary as her closest reference to a Western language. Studying Pashto already required reference to other dictionaries—Persian, Arabic, and Urdu—in order to locate etymologically linked words used in Pashto but not found in a Pashto dictionary.

Yet Pashto is one of the major languages of Afghanistan and the major regional language of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the 17 million who do speak it comprise one of the main ethnic groups in both those countries. Among the Pashtuns are the Taliban and others who have given hospitality and protection to Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 1991, after two graduate students (Robert Nichols G’93 Gr’97 and Anne Carlin G’93) had requested to study Pashto, Grima Santry began teaching a class—made up of Nichols and Carlin. Though both went on to make significant contributions—Carlin with the World Bank in Washington and assisting refugees in Peshawar with the United Nations; Nichols as an associate professor of history at Stockton College in New Jersey who has published books and articles on South Asia—the program was dropped in 1993 because of the low enrollment. “The languages I studied were so obscure,” Grima Santry says now, “that I never thought there would be an interest in them.”

Then came 9/11. Penn’s Department of South Asia Studies contacted Grima Santry and asked her to return and teach Pashto. She now teaches three levels—beginning, intermediate, and advanced—to Penn students as well as to students from other institutions. Her courses expose her students to both the classical and modern written Pashto through classical poetry, historical texts, modern short stories, and folklore. She also prepares her students to understand the vast array of spoken Pashto, which has several dialects largely influenced by geography. For this, she uses materials recorded from her fieldwork, representing a variety of dialect regions.

Today Penn is one of only three institutions in the United States that offers Pashto studies (the other two are Indiana University and the Monterey Defense Language Institute). Grima Santry is among the world’s few experts on the culture, language, and history of the southwestern Asian region where Pashto is spoken. At the same time, the U.S. government desperately needs language and cultural experts to go to that part of the world.

“American foreign policy is handicapped by shortages of knowledge of foreign languages and cultures,” explains Dr. Brendan O’Leary, the Lauder Professor of Political Science and director of Penn’s Solomon Asch Center for Ethnopolitical Conflict. “The U.S. military plainly finds humanitarian intervention and peace-keeping more difficult because of the dearth of language education among its key personnel. Some would argue this absence disables their core-functions: war-making and counter-insurgency capacity.”

Dr. Whitney Azoy, senior research fellow at the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies in Kabul, agrees: “It’s a great pity—and a greater shame—that no U.S.-born American government officials have such command of this language, currently the most vital in our on-the-ground confrontation with militant Islam, and of others equally obscure.” Our national failing on that score “stands in stark contrast to 19th-century British colonial officials, who spent entire careers in one area of the Empire,” she adds, noting that because American diplomats continually relocate and often deal either with each other or with local elites who speak fluent English, they have to rely on translators with questionable loyalties and skills. “Witness the December 2001 debacle at Tora Bora: American troops in dubious alliance with local Pashto-speaking militias. How much got lost—or willfully distorted—in translation?”

Given Grima Santry’s “legendary” mastery of Pashto, Azoy suggests, “maybe Osama would not have escaped” had she been on hand.

While Grima Santry is modest about her proficiency in the language, those who have worked with her are often astounded. Birch Miles, a classmate of hers in William Hanaway’s 1979 Persian class and later a colleague in 1986-87 when both were in Pakistan, has vivid memories of Grima Santry’s linguistic capabilities.

“I would meet her in the morning to go out into the bazaar in Peshawar, that Dodge City at the east end of the Khyber Pass,” says Miles, who worked as a director and Persian-language interpreter at a medical clinic for Afghan refugees north of Peshawar, while Grima Santry was doing her fieldwork. “She would start out in the Peshawari dialect of Pashto, but if she detected a regional accent, she would change to that. Once, two merchants were so amazed at her ability that they turned to me and exclaimed, ‘She speaks Pashto better than we do!’ Then, in the afternoon, I’d pass by a refugee-aid agency that had a piano, and I could hear her singing Rossini and Mozart from over the walls.”

Thirty years ago, when her elderly aunt asked her to be her companion on a trip through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, Grima Santry seized the opportunity like a lifeline. Having grown up in a Foreign Service family, she was used to living and traveling around the world. Her American father was born in New York and shortly thereafter moved to France, where he grew up fluent in French. His ancestral family had come from the island of Gozo, Malta, the family name deriving from the Maltese Grimaldi. Grima Santry’s mother is from Versailles, France.

Until high school in Connecticut, Grima Santry grew up around the world in vastly different cultures: Algeria, the Philippines, Madagascar, and Switzerland. “If we were in a French-speaking country, we’d have to speak English in the house. And vice versa. In the U.S.A., we had to speak French at home. My parents maintained a completely bilingual atmosphere wherever we lived.”

By the time she was 18, she longed to immerse herself in the different cultures and languages that had defined her upbringing. Her aunt’s offer seemed heaven-sent.

Yet that trip also taunted her. As she helped her aging aunt get around on the tour she’d booked them on, Grima Santry yearned for the freedom to sit in the cafés and talk to the locals. Back in the States, she threw herself into gaining the skills that would allow her to go back on her own terms. She took up Persian studies at Bard College, where she was in her final year as a French comparative-literature and creative-writing major. After Bard, she went to Paris for two years of Farsi (Persian), Pashto, Urdu, and Arabic at the Institut des Langues Orientales.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 05/08/06

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FEATURE: Understanding Pashto
By Beebe Bahrami