I Am the Beggar of the World: Poems by Afghan Women

Divided into three sections — Love, Grief/Separation and War/Homeland — the editor allows us to peek briefly into the everyday lives of Afghan women.

By Natasha Hakimi  truthdig.com  December 11, 2015

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

To see long excerpts from “I Am the Beggar of the World” at Google Books, click here. [More photos included.]

“I Am the Beggar of the World”
A book edited and translated by Eliza Griswold

Eliza Griswold, the journalist and poet who collected, translated and edited the collection of Afghan poetry titled “I Am the Beggar of the World,” writes about the form of the poems in the book [and quotes many of these two-line poems], which has its origins in an oral tradition practiced among groups of Afghan women for many years.A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not.

In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love.

Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.

The word “landay,” from which the Pashtun folk poem takes its name, means “short, poisonous snake,” and in many ways the 2-line, 22 syllable poems sting like the eponymous creature, leaving a long-lasting effect with their short, biting lines. And while the Pashtun couplets are often feisty and witty, they can also be full of grief and longing — the inevitable effects of decades of war and loss.

“I Am the Beggar of the World” is beautifully punctuated with photographs taken by Seamus Murphy in Afghanistan, as well as anecdotes and commentary written by Griswold that explore the themes of the poems as well as gloss certain ideas, terms or history of which the reader may be unaware.

Divided into three sections — Love, Grief/Separation and War/Homeland — the editor allows us to peek briefly into the everyday lives of Afghan women. Some of the poems are included in Pashtun as well, but not enough — the collection, which does such delicate and fine work of presenting these poems in a manner sensitive to their native culture, would benefit from being a bilingual edition to allow readers to see the beauty of the Perso-Arabic script juxtaposed with the familiar Latin letters. Moreover, it would allow those interested in reading the original the ability to do so.

Griswold was able to collect these poems during the several years she spent working as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, and did so at great risk to her own personal safety. But perhaps she drew some of her courage from the women who shared these landays with her and others, despite knowing that doing so could mean bodily harm or death. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Griswold explains in her introduction, women were kept from leaving their homes for fear they’d be kidnapped or raped.

Poetry then, and in many cases radio shows about poetry, became the only source of education for many young Afghan women. And yet the literary form is forbidden to women in many parts of the country, especially when it discusses love, because “it implies dishonor and free will.” Women have been beaten and sometimes killed when others discovered their lyrics. In one case, a poet even set herself on fire as protest against the brutality she suffered when her brothers found her poems.

Landays such as the following reveal some of the dangers and injustices many women face in Afghanistan, even at the hands of their own family members, simply because they were born female.

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

“When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.”

“In my dream, I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.”

The title of the book, which was taken from this last landay, is an epigraph of the lives of women indentured from birth by a patriarchal culture. The perils they face in their homeland, however, are not only inflicted by the men in their society, but also, as many landays show, by foreign military forces.

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