Two years ago, the publication of a volume of Taliban poetry caused considerable outrage. Colonel Richard Kemp, a former British commander in Afghanistan, denounced The Poetry of the Taliban as ‘self-justifying propaganda’ giving ‘oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country.’
A new volume of Afghan poetry has just been published with far less fanfare. I Am a Beggar of the World is both more significant as a poetry collection, and more revealing of Afghan life, than The Poetry of the Taliban. ‘The significance of the anthology’, I suggested in reviewing The Poetry of the Taliban, ‘is not that it helps humanize the Taliban… but that it reveals the complexity of human cultures’. It is a complexity revealed far more movingly, indeed hauntingly, in I Am a Beggar of the World.
Afghanistan is a nation with a fine poetical tradition reaching back centuries, a tradition in which high literary forms, especially those that derive from Persian or Arabic, are revered. I Am a Beggar of the World is, however, a collection of landays, folk rather than high poetry, an oral tradition created by and for mostly illiterate people, especially women. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban.
A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. The landays in I Am a Beggar of the World were collected by American poet and writer Eliza Griswold. In a 2012 essay in the New York Times, Griswold described the meaning and significance of the form:
Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, belying the notion that they are submissive or defeated. Landay means ‘short, poisonous snake’ in Pashto, a language spoken on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The word also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, sexy, raging, tragic, landay are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landay; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women. ‘Landay belong to women’, Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said. ‘In Afghanistan, poetry is the women’s movement from the inside.’
Traditionally, landay have dealt with love and grief. They often railed against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor… But they have also taken on war, exile and Afghan independence with ferocity… More recently, landay have taken on the Russian occupation, the hypocrisy of the Taliban and the American military presence.
Like most folk literature, Griswold observes, ‘landay can be sorrowful or bawdy. Imagine the Wife of Bath riding through the Himalayan foothills and uttering landay so ribald that they curled the toes of her fellow travelers’.
Griswold started collecting landays after learning the story of Rahila Muska, a young woman who, like many in rural Afghanistan, was forbidden from leaving her home. ‘Fearing that she’d be kidnapped or raped by warlords’, Griswold writes in an essay introducing the new collection, ‘her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. Poetry, which she learned from other women and on the radio, became her only form of education’:
These days, for women, poetry programs on the radio are one of the few permissible forms of access to the outside world. Such was the case for Rahila Muska, who learned about a women’s literary group called Mirman Baheer via the radio. The group meets in the capital of Kabul every Saturday afternoon; it also runs a phone hotline for girls from the provinces, like Muska, to call in with their own work or to talk to fellow poets. Muska, which means smile in Pashto, phoned in so frequently and showed such promise that she became the darling of the literary circle. She alluded to family problems that she refused to discuss.
One day in the spring of 2010, Muska phoned her fellow poets from a hospital bed in the southeastern city of Kandahar to say that she’d set herself on fire. She’d burned herself in protest. Her brothers had beaten her badly after discovering her writing poems. Poetry — especially love poetry — is forbidden to many of Afghanistan’s women: it implies dishonor and free will. Both are unsavory for women in traditional Afghan culture. Soon after, Muska died.
Griswold travelled to Afghanistan with the photographer Seamus Murphy on an assignment for the New York Times Magazine ‘to piece together what I could of [Muska's] brief life story’:
Finding Muska’s family seemed an impossible task — one dead teenage poet writing under the safety of a pseudonym in a war zone — but eventually, with the aid of a highly-effective Pashtun organization called Wadan, the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, we were able to locate her village and find her parents. Her real name, it turned out, was Zarmina, and her story was about more than poetry.
This was a love story gone awry. Engaged at an early age to her cousin, she’d been forbidden from marrying him, because after the recent death of his father, he couldn’t afford the volver, the bride price. Her love was doomed and her future uncertain; death became the one control she could assert over her life.
You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.
Although she didn’t write this poem, Rahila Muska often recited landays over the phone to the women of Mirman Baheer. This is common: of the tens of thousands of landays in circulation, the handful a woman remembers relate to her life. Landays survive because they belong to no one. Unlike her notebooks, the little poem couldn’t be ripped up and destroyed by Muska’s father.
Landays are like peepholes into the life of the mind and the heart that no burqa or chadri can cover or still. Their eloquence lies in their very brevity, a brevity that itself seems to speak to the constraints placed upon women’s lives in Afghanistan, and yet also takes us into a not-so-hidden world of sensuousness, desire, hope, frustration, anger and pain.
Griswold and Murphy began collecting landays in secret in refugee camps and private homes, in farms and at weddings:
I collected most of them in person with two native Pashto speakers, both of whom were, of necessity, young women. Over gallons of green tea at the cozy house that Wadan occupies in Kabul, we transcribed the poems in Pashto, which has the same characters and sounds as Arabic, so I could sound out words although I had no clue of their meaning. On the fly, we’d rough out an English version in the car or during lunch to gauge whether the landay merited the time it would take to render properly in English. Then, along with a translator, I translated the selected poems word by word into English. Working from that frequently nonsensical literal version, I sat with a handful of native Pashto speakers — academics, writers, journalists, and ordinary women — and went over each poem to make certain the translations made sense. My versions rhyme more often than the originals do, because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved the most effective way of carrying the lilt of the Pashto over into English. The most useful note on translation came from Mustafa Salik, one of Afghanistan’s leading novelists: ‘Don’t worry so much about being faithful to the Pashto. Get them right in English so that people can enjoy them’.
And Griswold seems to have got them right. I am a Beggar of the World is in turn beautiful, tender, wry, funny, bitter, angry and heartbreaking. Seamus Murphy’s photographs that accompany the poems (all the photos here are Murphy’s) are as haunting and poetic as the landays themselves. Here is a small selection of some of my favourite landays. But do seek out the full collection.
My body is fresh as henna leaf:
green outside; inside, raw meat.
Of water I can’t even have a taste.
My lover’s name, written on my heart, will be erased.
Separation brought this kind of grief:
it made itself a mullah and me the village thief.
Because my love’s American,
blisters blossom on my heart.
Is there not one man here brave enough to see
how my untouched thighs burn the trousers off me?
Making love to an old man
is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk blackened by mold.
Unlucky you who didn’t come last night,
I took the bed’s hard wood post for a man.
When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
My body belongs to me;
to others its mastery.
The drones have come to the Afghan sky.
The mouths of our rockets will sound in reply.
Come to Guantánamo.
Follow the clang of my chains.
May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women widows and whores.
Wormwood grows on the one-eyed Mullah’s grave.
The Talib boys fight blindly on, believing he’s alive.
Hamid Karzai came to Kabul
to teach our girls to dress in Dollars.
I dream I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.