A heart full of hope: Poetry from Afghan women

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In many ways, the ceaseless war in Afghanistan has become a war of narratives. Perhaps it has always been a battle over the stories. In this battle over stories, the tales of Afghan women have always been told by somebody else. In the process, a subliminal message was given by most of those stories that Afghan women can’t speak. I myself was influenced by many of them. But then I stumbled into landays.
 
Landay in Pashto means a short poisonous snake. In the realm of Afghan poetry, it means a form of rural folk poetry that consists of two lines and twenty-two syllables (nine syllables in the first line and thirteen in the second). The tradition of landay is pre-Islamic. The current form of landays is believed to have evolved over a thousand years.

The creators of landays are mostly women. As the Afghan poet Safia Siddique said, “Landay belongs to women.”
 
Women have shared landays with each other and handed them down to later generations for hundreds of years. These poems are mostly anonymous; every orator carries the poems knowing it’s hers and not hers at the same time. From Kabul to Kandahar, the air of Afghanistan is filled with the generational voices of women whispering landays like lullabies.
 
Anonymity doesn't mean the poems are stripped of ownership. On the contrary, every landay belongs to all Afghan women and they own all of it. It speaks to the solidarity they have and the stories they share.
 
There is security in anonymity too. Cast in the role of subservience in a culture where writing poetry for women is often forbidden, this extremely shameful exercise, if found out, can cost a woman her life. Take, for example, the cases of Zarmina Shehadi and Nadia Anjuman, who were gone far too early, far too brutally. But first let us visit the women’s poetry club in Kabul called Mirman Baheer, where the Monday nights light up with women coming out in circles and reciting new verses.
 
Sahira Sharif, an Afghan MP from Khost Province, founded Mirman Baheer. It has sprouted what it calls “cells” in more than eight provinces where women poets meet in secret and read out their poems. In Kabul, it means taking risks as very few women and girls can afford to sign names on their poems in the capital city. Like Leeman Niazi, a fifteen-year-old girl in Kabul, writes:
 
You won't allow me to go to school.
I won't become a doctor.
Remember this:
 One day you will be sick. 

On April 8, 2010, Zarmina Shehadi who took the pen name Rahila Muska, committed suicide at the age of 16 after her parents had caught her, once again, reading one of her love poems over the phone. Her parents assumed there was a boy on the other end of the line, not a girl named Ogai, who was also a poet and a member of Muska’s weekly Mirman Baheer poetry group of 40 women. She was beaten up and threatened by her own family that she’d be killed if she continued writing poetry.
 
She set herself on fire afterwards, as if, in a final autonomous act whereby only she had control over her life. Her family denied her suicide, claiming that she caught fire while getting warm after a bath.

Zarmina is one of many women poet-martyrs in Afghanistan. Let's listen to Zarmina now, and let’s imagine how Zarmina would have read it, uttering the first line twice in the true Afghan fashion.
 
I call your stone.
I call your stone.
One day you'll look,
 and I'll be gone.

 
The story of Zarmina reached me as well as the outside world through the translations presented by Eliza Griswold. A journalist and a poet herself, Eliza worked in Afghanistan for more than a decade, along with photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy. She collected landays, went looking for Zarmina, stood in front of her grave. She published I Am the Beggar of the World, A collection of Contemporary Afghan Landays, which won a 2015 PEN Prize. She translated one of the last verses Zarmina wrote and read to Ogai.
 
My pains grow  
as my life dwindles.
I will die 
 with a heart full of hope.


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Eliza translated landays that are raw, burning with angst and desire, or very humorous. It is an absolute slap over the face of those who believe that Afghan women are weak and devoid of any agency. Listen to this love poem,
 
Your eyes aren't eyes,
they are bees.
 I can find no cure for their sting.

 
 Or this poem,
 
My darling you are
just like America. 
 You are guilty

and I apologize.
 
Then there is Nadia Anjuman, the first woman to enrol in Herat University after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Her poems were translated by Farzana Marie. She served in the US Air Force for over six years, including two consecutive years deployed in Afghanistan, where she also served as a civilian volunteer at a Kabul orphanage. Somaia Romesh, another Afghan poet, helped in the translation process.
 
Nadia’s poems, along with many others written by Afghan women, are collected in Farzana Marie’s book, Load Poems Like Guns: Women's Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan. Nadia didn't write landays; she rather took a more contemporary approach. In the poem “Makes No Sense”, Nadia writes,
 
here, in this captive’s cell with Grief and Remorse;
why live, if my tongue is sealed, still.
 
Nadia Anjuman was killed in an incident of domestic violence on the 4th of November, 2005, just shy of her twenty-fifth birthday. Her husband beat her till she was unconscious. In the court ruling later, it was established that after an altercation with her husband she committed suicide by taking poison.
 
Her chosen pen name honours her beloved Herat Literary Society, Anjuman-e Adabīye Herat.
But for now, let's listen to some lines from one of her poems.
 
I am caged in this corner
full of melancholy and sorrow,
my wings are closed and I cannot fly. 
 I am an Afghan woman and so must wail.

Literary memory cannot be destroyed. There is a reason why every time the Taliban seize power, the first action they take is to close down the girls’ schools. They know how powerful words can be. They fear women who gather and read out verses that they have written. It poses a threat for them that the women will remain beyond their control.

The western world becomes giddy almost every time it is exposed how awful the country and the culture they bombed really is. Be it a liberal or a conservative force, a glow adorns their faces remembering how they then rebuilt the country. The country they’d bombed and burned to the ground first.  

It should never be lost on us that the CIA had funded the Taliban to drive the Russian forces out of the land. The British, the Russian and finally the American governments made Afghanistan a pawn in their games. Now the end result is that ordinary Afghan men and women are paying the price for the monstrous forces that the Americans had created. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie once told that stereotypes are dangerous not because they are wrong but because they are incomplete. The idea that Afghans are a monolithic community of needy people is heart-achingly incomplete and lacks nuance. In this ultra-capitalized world, nuance isn’t a very good capital; it doesn’t sell very much. 

Afghan women, bearing the brunt of the ongoing battles, carry their buried past, haunting present and precarious future in verses. No matter what government they are under in a precariously Islamised Afghanistan, they dream of a bright future weaving hopes in their poetry and thus coping with the present with astonishing courage. In the dry Afghan winds, where no longer the smell from wheat and sugarcane fields exists, the heart of Afghanistan beats in the steps of these women. 

Come now, let’s imagine this is one of those nights in Kabul. Women are coming out in circles, their heels on the pitch dark roads echoing. They are sitting down, clutching their phones in one hand and the notebooks in the other. If you clear out the sound of drones and suicide bombs, you can hear the cautious whispers of new verses. It cuts through the air like a knife.
 
The drones have come
to the Afghan sky.
The mouths of our rocket 
 will sound in reply. 

 

 

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