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Ancient Form Of Poetry Captures Afghan Women's Lives


Eliza Griswold has reported from Afghanistan for more than a decade, writing news features for the New York Times magazine and other publications. She thought she had a pretty good grip on the country's politics and culture, but it wasn't until she started exploring Afghan women's poetry that she discovered a different side of women's lives there. What she found was a complex world of rage, empowerment, sorrow and sex.

ELIZA GRISWOLD: (Reading) I could have tasted death for a taste of your tongue watching you eat ice cream when we were young. In my dream, I am the president. When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

MARTIN: That is the title of her new collection "I Am the Beggar of the World." And that was Eliza Griswold reading Afghan poems known as landays.

GRISWOLD: A landay is a folk poem. The tradition is thousands of years old. No one's quite sure where they originated, but they're thought to come from the caravan trains that arrived in the region thousands of years ago. We're talking 2,500 BC.

And the poems have evolved into these two-line, 22-syllable, mostly oral - they're traded from mouth to mouth and ear to ear - poems that take on subjects that are central to the lives of Afghan women, in particular.

MARTIN: And, I mean, this is access to a different side of Afghan women's lives. You tell an interesting story in the book about being with a group of women - trying to get them to talk about landays. And at first, they won't do it. They won't even acknowledge that they know what you're talking about that. Why is that?

GRISWOLD: Well, the landay belongs to the culture of the Pashtun people, who live along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the ethnic group from which the Taliban sprung. So they're quite traditional in their beliefs. And so for those women to speak, it's an act of rebellion. And the poems themselves are acts of rebellion. So it was like a double rebellion.

Like, not only are we going to sit down and talk to you about the most private aspects of ourselves and our culture, but we're going to tell you these poems that talk about sex, that talk about war, that talk about the size of our husbands' manhood.

MARTIN: There's some anger directed at the political situation in Afghanistan as well. I wonder if you wouldn't mind reading.

GRISWOLD: Let's see. Yeah. (Reading) When drones come, only the Taliban's sons are brave enough to answer them. May God destroy your tank and your drone, you who've destroyed my village, my home.

MARTIN: Is that a sentiment, I wonder, that you tapped into often?

GRISWOLD: Oh, absolutely. And because these poems are rural, they come from some of the hottest places in the war. And so the women who sing them have really suffered a great deal of loss of their family members, and not just under the Americans, but under the Russians, under the British. And so the poems are full of rage against occupation. They're also full of rage against the Taliban, at taking sons, at brutal treatment of women, at religious hypocrisy. So they really carry both meanings.

MARTIN: And frankness. I love the story of the old woman that you tell early on in the book. Would you mind recounting that? And it is - it's graphic. So tell us a version we can use on the radio.

GRISWOLD: OK, sounds good. OK. So early on in going to find these poems, we sat down in an agricultural seminar in the capital - a place called Lashkar Gah. And at the end, I had a chance to ask if any of the women of the hundred or so gathered around knew any landays. And one woman jumped up. And she was wearing a burqa. She pulled it back. And she said something that made every woman in the room gasp and then laugh.

And I asked my young translator, Asma Safi, who was unmarried at the time and knew very little about the acts of marriage, what the woman had said. And she said well, she said something about corn and marriage. So I was mystified. Later that day, Asma and I were sitting with her uncle. And he understood what was going on. And so he said let me draw you a picture of the corn stalk here. And he drew a picture on the paper of an erect, healthy corn stalk.

And then he said let me draw you a picture of the kind of corn stalk that they're talking about in this poem. And there next to it was a shriveled, flaccid corn stalk. And what the woman had said, in terms that are palatable to listeners and still accurate, is making love to an old man is like making love to a withered corn stalk blackened by fungus.

MARTIN: That's a visual for you.

GRISWOLD: It's a visual. And of course it turned out that this woman, Gul Makai, had been married off to a much older man when she was eight years old. And when I tried to follow-up with her on the phone with her sister-in-law's phone, she said I'm sorry. I can never talk to you again. Please don't call here. So that really speaks to the depth of bravery and courage women had with sharing these.

MARTIN: I mean, there is this kind of spunk or chutzpah that we don't necessarily associate with Afghan women or at least how they have been portrayed.

GRISWOLD: That is exactly my hope that of what a reader will take from this. Like, although it's easy to look at an image of a burqa and think oh, you know, that woman is somehow other than I am. The truth is that the eyes peering out at the world are as sharp, the tongue is as brutal. And one of the meanings of landay is snake - a short, poisonous snake because that's what they are. They pack a real bite. And so for me, they just challenged everything I thought I knew. And for that reason it seemed a worthwhile project.

MARTIN: The collection is called "I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan" translated by Eliza Griswold, who joined us from our studios in New York City. Eliza, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRISWOLD: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.