The grave of an Afghan teenage girl who burned herself after being forbidden to write poetry
Western poets have been aware of the ghazal’s couplet-like form for decades. But there is less familiarity with landays, a form of oral folk couplet shared amongst speakers of Pashtun. That may soon change with the Poetry Foundation’s June issue, which is entirely devoted to the form.
In the accompanying Poetry Magazine podcast, Eliza Griswold, a poet and reporter who collected the poems in the issue, recounts that “no one wrote them. That’s the beauty of these poems. They are collective and anonymous. They are folk poetry.” Landays have been sung and shared between Pashtun speakers in Afghanistan and Pakistan for centuries. Traditionally, they are chanted to the beat of a handdrum, with each reciter taking a turn to recite a known poem, or in some cases, to compose on the spot. Today, landays are shared through social networks, and the spirit of informal competition remains.
Short and poignant, landays consist of two unrhyming lines. There is a strict adherence to syllable count: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The result is a lilting stanza full of wit, astuteness and brevity. Themes range from nature, love, honour, heroic deeds, social conflict, grief and longing. Landays are usually sung by women, and the point of view is always female. Formally, the poems are remarkably versatile, and allow for a rare glimpse into the private thoughts and feelings of their composers. The voices are ferocious, tender and sly, especially when rearranging well-known landays to respond to current trends. Recently, the poems have been an outlet to express views prohibited under Taliban rule. They have also criticized drone strikes, the U.S. occupation and losing fathers and husbands in roadside bombings.
Griswold, who does not speak Pashtun, travelled through Afghanistan collecting landays with photographer Seamus Murphy. This involved entering homes, where women urged them to dress in burqa so neighbours wouldn’t gossip or report them. Many were reluctant to recite landays unless Griswold used a ruse. Once, her iPhone was taken from her when she was discovered secretly recording their recitations. She needed to be “sneaked into” women-only gatherings at weddings and refugee camps, where her presence often “alarmed them… intensely.” But these episodes invoke Griswold’s difficulties and her discoveries, not any danger or threat she herself posed to the Pashtun women.
As sympathetic and sensitive as Griswold is to the voices of landay, her motivations are not simple. At her best, she dispels the image of the “mute ghost beneath a blue burqa” and highlights the heavy emotional cost of the foreign presence in Afghanistan. At her worst, she attempts to translate the nuances of a foreign culture without being a member of it. While notions of the cultural outsider and insider should be challenged whenever possible, consider that a Pashtun women does not have Griswold’s freedom of “dressing up” in different clothing to enjoy Western privileges and liberties. In her essay, Griswold appears unaware of this power differential: “I wanted to gather poems from women before the U.S. pulled out and their voices were lost.” The implication here is that without a western presence to facilitate access, these poems would be irretrievable. Not so for the women who sing to each other.
Next year, Farrar, Straus and Giroux plans to publish I Am The Beggar Of The World: Landays From Contemporary Afghanistan. I can hope for many fruitful creative outcomes if English-speaking poets adapt landays’ formal aspects and attempt to convey its approach to sharing. It may be too much to ask that such adaptations also evoke the form’s transgressive qualities, yet I look forward to the attempt. At the very least, as readers, we can be sensitive to the tension between how far landays have travelled and yet how close to home their singers are tethered. We can also reflect on the possibility of poetry to incite social change, or at the very least, snap the silence of its most subjugated individuals. Both Poetry Magazine and Griswold have helped to carry these voices on the wind, and it remains to be seen what our response will be.