In my dream, I was the president.
When I awoke, I was the world’s beggar.
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 is a kind of poetry that has 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 they 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 the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of 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.
Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted culture and displaced millons of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to 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 risque. Landays are mostly sung, ….women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family …Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, yet men have no idea who she is. … . (p.195-6)
One leading theory of landays’ origin traces back to the Bronze Age arrival of Indo-Aryan caravans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India around 1700 BCE. These poems could have evolved out of a communication through call and response back and forth over a long caravan train. Many of the poems refer back to this nomadic way of life, as well as to the moon, flowers, nature. As ancient songs, they are thought to be related to the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures at least five thousand years old and comprised of couplets called slokas, not unlike landays, except that they are sixteen rather than twenty-two syllables long. (p.221)
The call and response nature of landays has morphed into teasing and sparring love poems between men and women; a kind of stichomythia that rivals that of ancient Greece. Although it’s possible that a woman might sing one part and a man another, they’re not really antiphonal. …
These opening paragraphs are extracts from the special issue of Poetry ( http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html) put together by Eliza Griswold with the help of Ilya Kaminsky and the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute, Catherine Halley and poetryfoundation.org, Jonathan Galassi and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and the Pulitzer Centre. It is a slim volume that consists of many examples of landays, but is a wonderful account of Eliza Griswold’s attempts at gathering the landays, interacting with a women’s literary group on the radio in Afghanistan called Mirman Baheer and a generous amount of pictures taken by Seamus Murphy. As she notes in the introduction ” finding, collecting, recording, and translating these little poems word by word posed an extraordinary challenge. Gathering them led Seamus and me through the pages of out-of-print collections, and in secret into refugee camps, private homes, a horse farm, and several weddings. Since landays belong to the hidden world of Afghan women, many won’t share them in front of one another out of fear that they’d later be gossiped about. Some requested that their names be changed or that I not record how I came by the landays that they whispered to me. One husband hurried up to me after I’d had tea with his wife and asked the subject of the landay that she’d given me. ‘Separation’, I told him. The poem was about sex.” (p.198-9)
Her description of the translation process is also fascinating. This is what she has to say on p.200-1
“Translating these poems was an intricate process. 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 …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 translation, 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 more effective way of carrying the lilt of the Pashto cover 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.”
If you can, buy this slim volume of Poetry. It is well worth every penny spent. A treasure. A document that will exist for a long time. I have to thank Dipika Mukherjee for having sent this edition to me from Chicago. I am so glad she did!
1 Oct 2013
Poetry ( vol CCII, No 3, June 2013) Poetryfoundation.org
$3.75 USA $5.00 CAN £3.00