Welcome to The Coffee Shop, just for you early risers
on Monday mornings. This is an Open Thread forum,
so if you have an off-topic opinion burning a hole in
your brainpan, feel free to add a comment.
We burned continents of silence the future of nations
the breathing of the fighters got thicker became like oxen’s
there is in that breath sparkles of scorched flesh and the fainting of stars
– Etel Adnan
As long as War is made overwhelmingly by men, and men are also the ones patching together one more ephemeral Peace, women will be the uncounted casualties, victims of violation and bombings – dead, or left with their children homeless and hungry. That a woman was blamed for the Trojan War because she was too beautiful is only a passing irony in the endless litany of the forgotten.
In June of 2015, I wrote an article about the poetry of some Afghan women, words which have haunted me ever since. They are even more painful as the American “misadventure” in Afghanistan has been tripping over its feet to get out after we have inflicted 20 years of bad ideas on a country where no outside force has ever won a war, not even Alexander the Great, who just battled his way through from one side of the country to the other on his way further East.
Today, I’m posting some of that article here – for the Afghan women who have endured countless wars. This is only a sampling: the Ghaznavi invasion of Ghur in the 12th century, the Mughal-Safavid War, the three Anglo-Afghan Wars, civil wars, religious wars, the Russians, ISAF’s failed fix, and the U.S.
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.
When the Taliban tried to ban music in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they included landays. In some places, bans against them remained in force, but the landays have never stopped.
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.
– from I Am the Beggar of the World, translation © 2014 by Eliza Griswold – Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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 also voice 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.
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.
Today is also the anniversary of the birth of Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika (1923-2007).
We tend to think of the “Arab World” as one monolithic Culture, but it is not, any more than “American Culture” is the same in all 50 states. However, poetry is usually far more valued in the Arab World than it is in the U.S., and a number of modern-day women have risen to prominence because of their talent as poets, women like Etel Adnan of Lebanon; Simin Behbahani, the “Lioness of Iran”; Nawal El Saadawi of Egypt; Kajal Ahmad of the Kurds; and Nazik Al-Malaika, the first Arabic poet to use free verse.
For all the forgotten women:
Elegy for a Woman of No Importance
by Nazik Al-Malaika
She died, but no lips shook, no cheeks turned white
no doors heard her death tale told and retold,
no blinds were raised for small eyes to behold
the casket as it disappeared from sight.
Only a beggar in the street, consumed
by hunger, heard the echo of her life—
the safe forgetfulness of tombs,
the melancholy of the moon.
The night gave way to morning thoughtlessly,
and light brought with it sound—boys throwing stones,
a hungry mewling cat, all skin and bones,
the vendors fighting, clashing bitterly,
some people fasting, others wanting more,
polluted water gurgling, and a breeze
playing, alone, upon the door
having almost forgotten her.
“Elegy for a Woman of No Importance” from Revolt Against the Sun: Selected Poetry of Nazik Al-Malaika, translation © 2020 by Emily Drumate – Saqi Books
Nazik Al-Malaika, born August 23, 1923, to a feminist poet mother and academic father; Iraqi poet, one of the most influential women poets in Iraq; noted as the first Arabic poet to use free verse, in her ground-breaking second book of poetry, Sparks and Ashes. Her poems covered nationalism, social and feminist issues, honour killings, and alienation. She left Iraq with her husband and family in 1970 after the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party (a pan-Arab military-dominated group) came to power, moving first to Kuwait, until it was invaded by Saddam Hussein in 1990, and then to Egypt, where she lived for the rest of her life in Cairo. Her other three books of poetry are And the sea changes its color, Bottom of the Wave, and The Night’s Lover.
- Coffee mug / last photo: Afghan woman hiding her face behind homemade mask — © 2014 by Seamus Murphy
- Kabul, March 2019 — Afghan Women’s Network (AWN) members, representing women from all over Afghanistan, voice their concerns and claim participation in the peace process. © AWN
- Afghan woman, completely covered, at the 2020 International Women’s Day event in Kabul