from I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, translated by Eliza Griswold, photographs by Seamus Murphy
I call. You're stone.
One day you'll look and find I'm gone.
The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan's thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7,2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn't allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she'd be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. In her community, as in others, educating girls was seen as dishonorable as well as dangerous. Poetry, which she learned at home from women and on the radio, became her only continuing education.
In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet—a landay—an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 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 from 1996 to 2001, and in some places still is.
A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line; thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound ma or na. Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often not. In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for its piercing ability to articulate a common truth about love, grief, separation, homeland, and war. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for an end to separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.
The subjects of landays, from the Aryan caravans that likely brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago  to ongoing U.S. drone strikes, are remixed like rap, with old words swapped for newer, more relevant ones. A woman's sleeve in a centuries-old landay today becomes her bra. A colonial British officer becomes a contemporary American soldier. A book becomes a gun. Each biting word change has much to teach about the social satire fueled by resentment that ripples under the surface of a woman's life. With the drawdown of American forces in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk when the Americans pull out. Although landays reflect fury at the presence of the U.S. military and rage at occupation, among other subjects, many women fear that in the aftermath of America's presence they will return to lives of isolation and oppression as under the Taliban.
Yet it's also true that eight out of ten Afghan women don't live in cities but in rural places where this most recent decade of war hasn't altered public life. Their battles for growing autonomy, especially for young women, take place in the privacy of their homes, as these poems can attest. Consider this one:
You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.
Landays began among nomads and farmers. Shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding, poems were a popular form of entertainment. These kinds of gatherings are now rare: forty years of chaos and conflict have driven millions of people from their homes. War has also diluted a culture and hastened globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the Internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It's not only the subject matter that makes them risqué. Landays are usually sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret—in front of only close family or, say, a harmless-looking foreign lady writer. Given the nature of secrecy and gossip, it can be easier for a Pashtun woman to answer the intimate questions of a total stranger. Familiarity breeds distrust.
Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled than others at singing landays, yet men have no idea who she is. Much of an Afghan woman's life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honor—a gap between who she seems to be and who she is.
These days, for women, poetry programs on the radio are one of the few available means of access to the outside world. Such was the case for Rahila Muska, who learned about a women's literary group called Mirman Baheer while listening to 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 and read their 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 she refused to discuss. So many women, urban and rural, shared similarly dire circumstances that her allusions to doomsday seemed nothing special.
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, 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.
After learning about Muska, I traveled to Afghanistan with the photographer Seamus Murphy on assignment with The New York Times Magazine to piece together what I could of her 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 to find her parents. Her real name, it turned out, was Zarmina, and her story was about far more than poetry.
This was a love story gone wrong. Engaged at an early age to her cousin, she'd been forbidden to marry 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 only control she could assert over her life. The one poem to survive her is the landay above, which, like almost all landays, has no author. Although she didn't write this poem, Rahila Muska often recited it over the phone to the women of Mirman Baheer. Of the tens of thousands of landays in circulation, the handful a woman remembers relate to her life. She's relatively free to utter them because, in principle, she didn't author them. Without anyone noticing, the word or two she alters is woven into the shape of the poem. Unlike Muska's notebooks, this little poem can't be ripped up and destroyed by her father. Landays survive because they belong to no one.
On that trip in the winter of 2012, I also began to collect landays. One afternoon in Helmand, our search for Rahila led us to an agricultural seminar where women were learning to grow vegetables rather than poppy, the more lucrative cash crop. When I asked whether anyone knew a landay, one woman named Gulmakai leapt to her feet and uttered the following poem.
Making love to an old man
is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold.
The room of maybe sixty women gasped and burst into laughter, but I didn't understand the Pashto, and because it was about sex, neither did my unmarried translator, Asma Safi, who was an earnest twenty-five. Sex, marriage, love—all can be the same thing, so a literal rendering of this poem goes something like this: Love or Sex or Marriage, Man, Old / Love or Sex or Marriage, Cornstalk, Black Fungal Blight. In other words, mystifying. It wasn't until later when Asma's uncle drew us a picture of a healthy young cornstalk next to a wilting, blighted one that we—or rather, I—understood what the landay meant. I tried to contact Gulmakai again (she had given me her brother's phone number), but she didn't have his permission to speak.
Nine months later, I returned to Afghanistan with Seamus Murphy to collect poems for Poetry magazine and this book. For years, we have aspired to collaborate on a collection of words and images that captures the humanity and dark humor of Afghan life. I also wanted to gather poems from women before the U.S. pulled out and these voices were no longer accessible. Among women in particular, there is much fear that their future will be as bad as their past. The U.S. withdrawal means not only fewer soldiers, which many women welcome, but also that international funding for women's programs—more important to their daily survival—is drying up. Without money or jobs, there will be little reason for men to allow their women to leave the home. Women will lose the hard-won autonomy they've earned over the past decade, which often amounts to the fact that they have their own money thanks to their right to work.
Many women address such fears with wry humor. Like other long-suffering people, Afghans have learned to use laughter as a survival skill. This is especially true for Afghan women. However, finding, collecting, recording, and translating these brief poems word by word posed an extraordinary challenge. Gathering them led Seamus Murphy and me through the pages of odd collections into camps of startled nomads, rural barnyards to private homes, a muddy one-horse farm, a stark refugee wedding, and a glitzy one in a neon-lit Kabul hall. Since landays belong to the hidden world of Afghan women, many won't share them in front of one another out of fear they'd later be gossiped about. Some requested that their names be changed or that I not record how I came by the landays whispered to me. One husband hurried up to me after I'd had tea with his wife and asked what the landay she'd given me was about. "Separation," I told him (the poem was about sex).
To find these poems, we started in refugee camps, as the poet and intellectual Sayd Bahodine Majrouh did when he collected landays during the civil war of the 1980s. Because landays remain a rural tradition and the Pashtun heartland is a war zone, traveling to remote villages would endanger women as well as us. In some cases, women asked that I come to their houses dressed in a burqa so as not to be seen by spies or nosy neighbors. Slogging away in the same fashion that we have together for the past ten years as journalists, Seamus and I joked that this was investigative poetry.
In one camp, I was sneaked into a wedding party made up solely of women. As is the custom, in order to demonstrate her extreme modesty—read: virginity—the bride sat entirely covered with a heavy white veil and crouched against a wall while guests pressed money into her fist. We were paying for the right to see her face. Someone brought out a drum and the women began to sing poems about NATO bombing raids. I recorded their singing on my iPhone, which they later decided that they didn't like. On my next visit they took my phone from me and shoved it in a corner under a stack of hard pillows. Refugee camps in the capital of Kabul were followed by private homes, schools, and government offices in and around the eastern city of Jalalabad, a centuries-old center of poetry and landays. Where I couldn't travel to meet the women of villages under the Taliban's control, I contacted local leaders, teachers, and others, to see whether they could collect landays from the girls who sang them. Several such leaders were able to travel to meet me. They came bearing scraps of paper scrawled with words sung furtively by illiterate young women. Gathered in the field and frequently in places where the war was at its worst, these proved to be some of the most startling. Many such communities were under siege by predator drones. In Pashto, drones—bipilot (without pilot) or remoti tayara (remote control flights)—have entered the language of these poems.
Much has been made recently of so-called Taliban poetry that expresses rage at the Americans or loyalty to the militants' cause. Often, however, these sentiments have little to do with love for the Taliban. Instead, many reflect an exasperation with foreign occupation and a deepening terror of living under the threat of drone strikes. What I found, especially among women who'd had to flee bombing raids or lost family members—whether Taliban fighters or farmers—is that they were singing of their hatred of Americans and support for the Taliban in reaction to all they had endured in our more-than-ten-year war. These snatches of anthem describe life under siege by America. Yet here's the paradox: many Afghan women know that without the U.S. presence, their plight will be even more dismal. The poems reflect what it means to be caught between the two sides of this conflict, and the impact that war is having on a people and their culture.
Translating these poems was an intricate process. Several come from other important collections or folktales, yet I collected most in person with the help of two native Pashto speakers, both of whom were, of necessity, young women. In the car or during lunch, we'd rough out an English version to assess whether the landay merited the time it would take to render it properly in English. Many were too flowery or made absolutely no sense. Then, drinking gallons of green tea at the cozy house that WADAN occupies in Kabul, my collaborators transcribed the poems that interested us. Pashto has the same characters as Arabic, so I could sound out the words, although I had no clue as to their meaning. Words like "my darling," "moon," and "tattoo" repeat so often that I began to recognize them. Together, we translated from Pashto word by word into sometimes nonsensical English. From these literal versions I worked with a handful of native Pashto speakers—academics, writers, journalists, and ordinary women—on the following translations. My versions rhyme more often than the originals do because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved the most effective way of representing in English the lilt of Pashto.
Of the many remarkable and generous individuals who made this project possible, the first was the translator, Asma Safi, who, despite the risk and scandal of traveling with foreigners as a Pashtun woman, accompanied Seamus Murphy and me to Helmand to find Rahila Muska's family in early 2012. To ensure her safety and her honor, her uncle, Safiullah, traveled with us. Asma Safi was planning our next trip into the field when she died of a heart condition in a taxi on the way to the Kabul hospital during the fall of 2012. This collection is dedicated to her.
1 This is the literary theory advanced by the late Christian missionary and Pashto scholar Jens Enevoldsen in his collection of proverbs and landays called Sound the Bells, O Moon, Arise and Shine!, published by the Interlit Foundation, Peshawar: 2000.
2 In 1988, Majrouh, a major figure in the anti-Soviet resistance and a poet, was assassinated by religious fanatics. In 1994, one of his French colleagues, André Velter, published these landays in French under the title Le suicide et le chant. In 2003, this collection was translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager and published as Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry (Random House, 2010). Although "suicide" is absent from the title, today, as thirty years ago, death and song are still the two forms of rebellion and self-determination readily available to Pashtun women like Rahila Muska.
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About the Author
Eliza Griswold, a Guggenheim fellow, is the author of a collection of poems, Wideawake Field (FSG, 2007), and a nonfiction book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam (FSG, 2010), a New York Times bestseller that was awarded the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She has worked with Seamus Murphy in Africa and Asia for more than a decade. She lives in New York City.
I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux