Anonymous is an Afghan woman.
I write blogs for different groups, and sometimes research for one turns into material for another. In this case, a news story found for a “War on Women” diary:
Love, Poetry and War: the Afghan Women Risking All for Verse
Sahira Sharif, Founder of Mirman Baheer,
Afghanistan’s largest women’s literary society
will be speaking at International Poetry Festival in London this year
so intrigued me, I bought a book mentioned in the article.
The landays of the women of the Pashtun, a tribal people living in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan, are two-line poems. This ancient oral art form is meant to be chanted or sung, often while beating a hand drum. It is almost exclusively an art made by women.
The poets stay anonymous, so they are free to say whatever they think or feel.
Eliza Griswold is a journalist who is also a poet, and she has covered the war in Afghanistan with photographer Seamus Murphy. They’ve combined her English translations of the landays she collected, sometimes in risky situations, and his striking black-and-white photographs in a book called I Am the Beggar of the World.
The impetus for the book was the suicide of a teen-aged girl, connected to the Mirman Baheer poetry society by listening to radio broadcasts of poetry, and calling in on their poetry hotline. When her brothers discovered her writing poetry, they beat her badly. Her father destroyed her notebook. She was already at risk because her family had forbidden her long-arranged marriage to her cousin when his father died and he could no longer pay the volver, the bride price. Heart-broken and defiant, she set herself on fire, and died in the hospital shortly after a final call to the poetry hotline. Her poems died with her.
She had a cover name when calling the hotline, so no one at Mirman Baheer knew her given name. The book begins with the search for the identity of this unknown poet.
Eliza Griswold says landays survive because they belong to no one.
You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home; I was your daughter.
In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.
When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.
I lost you on Facebook yesterday.
I’ll find you on Google today.
My love gave his life for our homeland.
I’ll sew his shroud with a strand of my hair.
My darling, you are just like America!
You are guilty; I apologize.
My body belongs to me;
to others its mastery.
Landays can be bawdy; funny; romantic; topical; full of rage or loss; political; pro-Taliban; anti-Taliban; anti-American. Some poems are modernized versions of old verses: a woman’s sleeve becomes a bra; a 19th century British officer transforms into a 21st century American invader. Landays rail against American drones and missiles, but there are also fears about what happens to the fragile gains Afghan women have made now that the Taliban and other extreme fundamentalists are regaining ground while America tries to extricate its troops from another military quagmire.
In spite of their emotional impact, these translations left me frustrated – they are missing all the sounds of tongues and beating hands, and they are the wrong shape and rhythm.
In a comment on another diary, martianexpatriate called translations “new poems inspired by the originals,” and I think this is especially true here. An example given by Griswold of literal translation from Pashto into English looks like gibberish, and she has to explain conventions and allusions of the landays.
Griswold is a talented poet, but even more is “lost in translation” when trying to flatten the spoken word onto a page than when shifting written words between languages.
Two lines, twenty-two syllables – nine in the first line, thirteen in the second — ending with the sounds ma or na.
The passionate voice of women for whom brevity is the soul.
SOURCES and further reading
I Am the Beggar of the World – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, text © 2014 by Eliza Griswold, photographs © 2014 by Seamus Murphy
Word Cloud photograph by Larry Cloud