Afghan women express forbidden love through secret poems, or landays. Eliza Griswold looks at the words of rebellion that have been passed down for centuries.

When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they're selling their sisters to others.
– Anonymous

Several years ago, I had the immense privilege of travelling around Afghanistan with the filmmaker and photographer Seamus Murphy for a very unusual project we called investigative poetry.

In refugee camps and remote villages, at weddings and on at least one horse farm, we collected anonymous folk poems called landays. A landay is a couplet: a two-line poem passed mouth to mouth, ear to ear, among Pashtun people for at least 1,000 years.

No-one knows for certain where landays come from

No-one knows for certain where landays come from – the most popular theory is that these biting little poems began as a form of communication within the Indo-Aryan caravans that arrived in the region millennia ago. They were born long before Islam, and their closest cousins are the slokas, the two-line verses that comprise the ancient Hindu holy texts called the Vedas.

A landay has very few rules. It must have 22 syllables, with nine in the first line and 13 in the second. It must end in the sound ‘ma’ or ‘na’. It must take on one of five subjects: meena, love; jang, war; watan, homeland; biltoon, separation; and, finally, gham, which means despair or grief. But gham doesn't mean grief in general, it speaks to the particular form of grief that belongs to a Pashtun woman.

It was this grief, this gham, that brought us to this project.

It was the story of a girl who killed herself because her family wouldn’t allow her to write poems that first provided us a window into the complex world of women and poetry in contemporary Afghanistan.

Forbidden love

Rahila Muska, which means ‘love smile’ in Pashto and which was her pseudonym, wrote poetry as a teenager in secret in her rural town of Gereshk in the war-riven province of Helmand.

For women and girls in Afghanistan, poetry is often associated with singing and dancing, and sometimes with prostitution. One of the landays I collected in my 2015 book I am the Beggar of the World refers to the idea in Pashtun society of the riverbank, or godar – where women gather water – as a place of romance. Forbidden from going to the godar, men nevertheless sneak glances at the women they love as they walk to and from the riverbank.

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

Because of its associations, families often forbid their daughters from writing poetry. Muska was one of these girls. She also belonged to the vast majority of Afghan women and girls, eight out of ten of whom don’t live in cities, but in the country’s 34 rural provinces.

Afghan women can read their poems and tell their stories to the sympathetic members on a dedicated phone line

One day, while she was stuck at home, Muska was listening to the radio and heard the women of Mirman Baheer, a literary society founded by the formidable Sahera Sharif, an Afghan politician and champion of women’s rights. Sharif founded Mirman Baheer so that professional women and students in the capital, Kabul, could come together for weekly gatherings to read their poems and short stories and to hear literary lectures.

But the true genius of Mirman Baheer lay in its desire and innovative efforts to reach out to girls like Rahila Muska. The organisation runs a poetry hot line of sorts, a dedicated mobile phone line on which girls can call in and read their poems and tell their stories to the sympathetic members of the larger group. Sharif and other members of her group share their own stories and work on the radio, while giving out the hotline numbers so that girls can find them.

Collective strength

After she heard them on the radio, Muska started calling and regularly reading her love poems aloud. While she was on the phone, her brothers overheard her and assumed that she was calling a lover rather than a group of women sitting in a room in the distant capital. They beat her terribly and threatened to kill her if she kept writing. She did it anyway, and was discovered. After another attack, she decided to take her own life. I was told, when I went to Gereshk, that she set herself on fire because her parents would not let her marry the man she loved.

During the last call she placed to the group, Muska told them she was calling from a hospital bed. She’d set herself on fire and wasn’t going to survive. The group never heard from her again. And most of her poems didn’t survive, since Mirman Baheer didn’t have the means to record calls or the work of the poets who found them.

The one poem that survived Muska was a landay.

I call. You’re stone.
One day you’ll look and I’ll be gone.

The poem survived precisely because it was collective and anonymous. Muska’s father ripped up and burned her notebooks, but he couldn’t destroy the landay.

In their sexiness and in their rage, they defy any facile stereotypes of women as powerless creatures beneath blue burkas

The anonymous nature of these poems, along with their dark humour, sting and beauty, give the landays their power. They’ve been mostly sung, at weddings and around fires, by both men and women at the end of long days in the field, for centuries. Since they belong to an oral tradition, a woman doesn't need to be literate to retain thousands of these poems.

Their anonymous nature also allows them to be startlingly subversive. Take, sex for instance. Landays are bawdy and earthy – not just for a laugh but as a form of women’s empowerment.

Unlucky you who didn’t come last night,
I took the hard wooden bedpost for a man.

In their sexiness and in their rage, they defy any facile stereotypes of women as powerless creatures beneath blue burkas. And over time, as they travel between singers and stories, they morph. The shifting form of the landay also reflects the legacy of foreign occupation. Here’s how another has changed over ages of empire:

Because my lover is a British soldier,
blisters blossom on my heart

became

Because my lover is a Russian soldier,
blisters blossom on my heart

and is today

Because my lover is an American soldier
blisters blossom on my heart.

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