Terse Beauty

Beauty and Subversion in the Secret Poems of Afghan Women

A landay is a traditional two-line Afghan verse form subversively appropriated by Afghan women to express themselves in ways prohibited by their society.

Ahmad Masood/Reuters

Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy have made a book that is necessary reading for anyone who has ever made assumptions from a distance about what a burka-wearing woman might be like, and for anyone who cannot fathom how poetry could get you killed. In other words, this book is a must-read for every U.S. citizen.

I am the Beggar of the World is a book of poems, war reportage, and photographs. It presents and comments on a set of folk poems—“landays” (pronounced “LAND-ees”)—in translation from the Pashto, and it describes the current and historical contexts of these poems’ production, with a special emphasis on detailed anecdotes drawn from Griswold’s and Murphy’s encounters with their Afghani informants and subjects.

A landay is a two-line poem. Its opening line has nine syllables, its closing line has 13, and a landay ends with one of two sounds: “–ma” or “–na.” Landays may be read, but true to their roots in oral tradition, they are frequently sung, sometimes with a drum for accompaniment. Bouts of landays may be a formal part of a family gathering or may emerge more spontaneously as an adjunct to collective labor.

Following a brief introduction to the work that led to the book, I Am the Beggar of the World is divided into three sections—“Love,” “Grief Separation,” “War Homeland”—followed by a brief epilogue. A typical few pages of the book comprises a photograph or three and then a poem or set of poems followed by a brief prose explanation, or anecdote, and or commentary, as below, for example. Facing a photograph of a camo-clad U.S. soldier against backdrop of supplies air-dropped onto rugged hilly terrain, Griswold offers two poems:

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

Because my love’s American,Blisters blossom on my heart.

We turn the page to read:

The first landay used to be sung: “My lover is fair as a British soldier ...,” referring to the British occupiers of the 19 century. The word Angrez, English, remains shorthand for any foreigner. Slowly, the word “American” is taking its place. Now foreign soldiers—Spanish, British, Italian—are called American. The joke here is one of miscomprehension. The outsider doesn’t even recognize his own lover, so he kills her as an enemy. She is martyred, given a holy death, in error.

In the second landay, “American” has replaced “liar.”

The world changes, but the embedded cultural form continues to be useful, even by those who have traditionally been excluded from using the form. So we begin to understand how landays persist and change over time. To sing a landay is to participate in a folk tradition, to express the news or to repeat or update proverbial wisdom. In his preface to folklorist Jens Enevoldsen’s collection of landays and other Pashto proverbs, Sound the Bells, O Moon, Arise and Shine!, Leonard Bartlotti writes,

…proverbs are not folkloric relics, verbal decorations, or collector’s items. They are very much alive and play an important role in the speech of Pashtuns. Pashto proverbs are found in textbooks, newspapers, and radio and television dramas, as well as in the bazaar and in homes, between and among men and women. They are heard in political speeches and political commentaries, in situations of social conflict, and in heated family arguments. This makes proverbs not only a clever form of verbal art, but also a potent tool of verbal combat!

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Having taken hold in strongly patriarchal society, landays were traditionally and continue to be performed and exchanged by men—yet the landays Griswold and Murphy set out to hear, to record, to translate, and then to share with us are emphatically female. Each landay is like a folktale in that it has no single author, and persists in its different forms in different places and times and within a vast web of possible interpretations, old and new. If the brevity and relatively strict form of landays tends to encourage their production and to enhance their memorability, the peculiar consistency of the political histories of Pashto-speakers since the adaptation of the form from the Aryan language slóka centuries ago has meant that landays have proven durable. Pace Bartlotti, the landay’s specific form is involved in the conveyance and preservation of specific kinds of information and experience—landays position their singers socially, and may perhaps be used in competitions for power and priority. To get at what Griswold and Murphy have done, it is useful to substitute “landay” for “proverb” in the next paragraph of Bartlotti’s Preface:

Looked at this way, proverbs are what literary critic Kenneth Burke calls “strategies for living,” rhetorical devices for dealing with social situations. As such, they also provide a kind of ethnographic record of tensions and conflicts in a society. They identify recurring situations in a culture and give such situations a “name,” a label indicating that such situations have occurred before, and have been handled in this or that way. Through the use of a proverb, the presumed wisdom of the past is invoked and made accessible to speakers and hearers in the present. The authority of tradition (“we say,” “people say,” “there is a metal [proverb] that says”) can be used to propose a course of action, effect a change of attitude, or provoke a change in perspective.

Proverb use is not a simple matter!

As with the limerick, the sonnet, and the rhyming epigram in English, the fact that the landay may serve different populations suggests that there is something inherently powerful about the way it is made. Contemporary females have seized upon such an old form and made use of it to express their complex participation in and resistance to a tradition that calls for them to remain silent.

How patriarchal is the society that makes landays? The capitalized name of the language they speak—“Pashto”—also refers to their ancient tribal code of honor, pashto, with its laws of revenge (badal), asylum (nanawāte), and of hospitality (melmastia).” The landays in I Am the Beggar of the World are sung only when men are absent. When the women with whom Griswold and Murphy worked speak Pashto, let alone when they sing a landay, they identify themselves with that ancient code, and with its relative oppression of women. To revise, as they do, the landay tradition, once the sole purview of man, is to risk death. That women innovate in the landay tradition and the language Pashto cannot be acknowledged, for, as you will see below, their innovations threaten their men’s precious pashto.

If many Muslim Afghani women wear burkas, a non-Muslim American poet-reporter can, too, and thus she can achieve the same kind of anonymity offered by repetition of a landay someone else composed using bits from landays already well-known. Sometimes adopting such dress, as much to protect her informants as herself, Griswold found communities of Pashto-speaking women who have the need—and the guts—to play, to innovate, to delight each other and to please themselves with landays, in private, among women. A selection of some of my favorites in I Am the Beggar of the World will show you how powerful and succinct the landay can be, in Griswold’s deft English translations:

Unlucky you who didn’t come last night,I took the hardwood bedpost for a man.

Mullah, give me back my billy goat.I’ve had no kiss despite the spell you wrote.

Make a hole in Facebook and plant me one.Tell your mother, “I’ve been bitten by a scorpion.”

Daughter, in America the river isn’t wet.Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the Internet.

Listen, friends, and share my despair.My cruel father is selling me to an old goat with white hair.

Russians sing this lullaby to scare their sons:Don’t cry or the Afghan boogeymen will come.

May God destroy the White House and kill the manwho sent U.S. cruise missiles to burn my homeland.

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.


Slide your hand inside my bra.Stroke a red and ripening pomegranate of Kandahar.


I’d slide my hand inside your bra,but who’ll drop coins in the attendant’s jar?

Hamid Karzai sent our sons to Iranand made them slaves to heroin.

Darling, you are just like America!You are guilty; I apologize.

My body belongs to me;To others, its mastery.

In Pashto the landay may employ rhyme (as in English, almost any speech of greater than 20 words will employ some rhyme), but most of its formal oomph comes from the short-line/long-line disparity and its cadences, the juxtaposition of one statement against the next, and the performance aspect of meeting the challenge to mark the poem’s end with one of only two sounds. As you can see and hear above—the poems should be read aloud—Griswold uses rhyme (full or slant) and assonance to make her landays sing in English, and a lot of her best landays pit roughly same-length lines against each another. Note the bawdy pun in the first example, by which the speaker implies that she came last night.

Is not the horny billy goat in the second example an apt metaphor for the speaker’s sense of loss? In the third example Griswold shows us how contemporary the landay is, for today’s stream of Facebook postings is a virtual equivalent of the centuries-old literary trope in which female Pashto-speakers sent to the river to gather water hope to—and are terrified they might—catch a glimpse of some potential lover. (Of course it’s not the bite of a scorpion, which have no teeth, that is dangerous.) The fourth example demonstrates familiarity with Western trends at the same time as it makes fun of people who would live and love at a virtual “river” instead of a real one. Griswold’s evocation of girls’ clothes marked by dampness, having filled their “jugs” at the River Facebook, is part of the poem’s effectiveness.

The landay beginning “Listen, friends…,” a prosy one, seems older and sadder than most; its essential message of despair of the distaff subaltern could have been written anywhere on earth (well, anywhere the image of a goat is viable) at any time. The next is one of many landays Griswold recorded which in part record the serial occupations of Afghan territory by empire after empire. Are you curious, as I am, to know the literal meaning of the word or phrase Griswold translated as “boogeyman”? The piety of the two couplets beginning “May God destroy…” is evidence, perhaps, of separate strands of a secular faith, tied to the land, that has outlived (and will outlive) any religion which besieges and polices Pashto-speakers. In the call and response form of landay, in spite of its reliance on repeated phrases, Griswold has a little more room to play. Note in her brilliant assonantal rhyming of the girl speaker’s final word, “Kandahar,” and the boy speaker’s final words, “attendant’s jar,” and her exquisite juxtaposition of the stroking gesture in line two with the dropping gesture in line four. (If the boy were to touch his lover’s breast, Griswold explains in her commentary, he’d have to perform ablutions as a kind of penance for his sin, and that would mean paying a washroom attendant.) None of this happens, of course, anywhere but in the imagination.

Contemporary political discourses may enter the flow of landays in simple, direct language. As with earlier examples, the principal terms of the poem about Afghanistan’s current president (“Karzai” and “Iran” and “heroin”) are subject to substitution and likely take the places of parallel terms used in decades- or centuries-old landays. In the final two examples above, I hear different tones of voice in first and second lines, through which Griswold expresses the complexity of the Pashtun women’s life situations. The penultimate example expresses both admiration for America and exasperation at its deceptive (self-deceptive?) actions. The last seems to me to refer, at least in part, to the landay form itself, which is spoken by embodied souls who are not artists, yet their participation in the mastery of the form animates their voices and their lives.

If enough people read it, the publication of Griswold’s and Murphy’s work might be a crucial turning point in the education of Americans about the real world—and the place of poetry in it. Yet I Am the Beggar of the World raises for me two questions I have not been able to resolve.

First, what sort of footing is required of an American reader who wishes to take an ethical stance toward a book of poems which was—inadvertently, unintentionally—made possible by the occupation of vast stretches of Afghanistan by American military forces who were at the time of its composition waging war against the families, towns, cities, and governments of Pashto-speaking peoples?

It isn’t fair, and Griswold and Murphy would no doubt object to the alignment implied by my saying it, but I worry that their work may be the only good thing to come out of the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Second, how did the publisher manage to make a less-beautiful book out of what is virtually the same material that had appeared in Poetry magazine? (Compare I am the Beggar of the World to volume CCII number 3 of Poetry magazine. The volume of Poetry magazine called “Landays” features 65 color images by Murphy, many of them beautiful, but many of these reappear in the book only in black and white. To my taste, the selection of photographs in I Am the Beggar of the World is also much more atmospheric and so less relevant than the more ethnographic images in “Landays.” Nor is I Am the Beggar of the World a better book because of its division into sections (absent in the version published in Poetry.) The poems and images and anecdotes the book records attest to the blurring of boundaries between themes “Love,” “Grief Separation” and “Homeland War,” and the introduction of the sections seems to distort the itinerant and chance-dominated nature of Griswold’s and Murphy’s approach. It may also encourage the reader to misunderstand that because a landay is a short poem it is best understood as taking up only a single theme.

Why should this book not have been called, as it was by Poetry magazine, “Landays”? The life of this folk tradition is the star of the volume. The title of the FSG volume also panders to holders of stereotypes concerning impoverished and needy Afghanis. The title I Am the Beggar of the World is drawn from a landay that reads in full:

In my dream, I am the president.

When I wake, I am the beggar of the world.

FSG’s title suppresses the context in which the female speaker dreams big, of a power that could change the world. Did they ever consider selecting the first line of this couplet for the title of their edition? I doubt it: they prefer to tell us we are about to read the work of a people we should pity. But if we pity the women who make landays, I’m afraid, we will miss an opportunity to learn from them about their human strengths.

Daniel Bosch’s new essay on Legos and the Imagination can be read at the Fortnightly Review. His “Cover Letter: Toward a New Creative Writing” appears in 3:AM Magazine. He lives in Chicago.