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Allowing for Poetry on a Sunday Morning, Ending up in Afghanistan

This past Sunday morning, the one with an hour less and two cups of coffee more, I picked up the June 2013 issue of Poetry magazine. This is how reading poetry often works in my life. I show up whenever I can and pull published work from the Poetry pile that lies stacked like tiny white doors on my kitchen floor or from a collection of works in a basket next to the sofa.

The poetry written by others lives when we allow it to.

On this morning, my random choice of back issues led me on a trip to Afghanistan; the entire volume is devoted to “landays,” brief two-line poems swapped orally across the countryside that share the truths of the 20 million Pashtun women who recite them. The anonymity of the landays’ authors allows the poems to spread widely while protecting the women who recite and write them. Otherwise, the women might be at risk in this tightly-patriarchal society.

The story of how Eliza Griswold painstakingly scavenged and then translated these poems from Afghani villages and private homes so that the English world might know of their wit and incisive observations, is in itself an act of love, bravery, and scholarship -- as was the bravery of the women who dared to share them with her.

This issue is remarkable for the poems and their existence. Griswold’s work to gather them, as described in her introduction, was a sort of cultural covert operation worthy of the movie screen. She was joined in the effort by photographer Seamus Murphy who conveys fragments of the beauty and realities of a country so few of us in the states really know. (The featured photo above is his, taken from the volume. As is the cover image.)

Below are some of the landays she unearthed. According to Griswold, the poems don’t necessarily rhyme in their native Pashtun, but she chose to do so to replicate a bit of the lilting sensibility their native tongue instills in them.

Daughter, in America the river isn’t wet. Young girls learn to fill their jugs on their internet.

(Griswold notes that the double entendre is enriched here by the fact that the rivers is a common place for romance.)


You sold me to an old man, father. May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.


I’m tired of praising exotic flowers. I miss Sangin’s gardens; they were poor but ours.


My Nabi was shot down by drone. May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.


May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars. They’ve made Afghan women widows and whores.


One of the most fitting parts of this gift of a volume was the comment Afghani novelist, Mustafa Salik, made to Griswold. He must have recognized her commitment to serving the women and poems by taking great risk and by her desire to get the translations just right.

“Don’t worry so much about being faithful to the Pashto,” he encouraged her. “Get them right in English so that people can enjoy them.”

Enjoy indeed.

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