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In my dream I was the president.
When I awoke,  I was the beggar of the world.

 Ashaba, an elderly woman in Samar Khel Tagaw, a refugee camp about ten miles east of Jalalabad, repeated this landay to me. Her husband lay dying in the next room and she was terrified of what would happen to her after his death. Without him she feared she would lose her place in the world. Like most Afghan women, she had no idea of her age. When I asked, she replied, “I’m fifty.” Her daughter replied, “Mom! I’m fifty. You’re at least seventy.” The tiny mud room of maybe twenty women huddled cross-legged together on the floor cackled gleefully. Afterward, we went to meet Ashaba’s husband: a ghost of a man tucked into a wooden bed in an empty room.


Poetry Magazine, June 2013, is an entirely surprising edition:  not poets American or British or English-speaking, not poems of rivers and autumn or animals acting like humans, or vice-versa, or the sun or the moon or love in sonnets or in anguish.  Instead, an entire volume of Afghan “Landlays.” two line couplets, traditionally sung to the beat of a hand-drum, some ancient and anonymous, some so modern the Internet is spoken of, and used to transmit them.

They are principally, if not entirely, invented and passed along by Pashto speaking women.  According to Eliza Griswold, who collected them, along with photographer Seamus Murphy, there are 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 lullabye that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness and wit, but also fro the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland and grief.

Griswold, in the introduction, talks about collecting them, in situations where she was an outsider in groups of women often under the double duress of being in war-torn villages and as singers,  a vocal form linked in Afghan consciousness to licentiousness and prostitution.  That she was able to collect any at all deserves high tribute. That she has translated them — no small feat, as she describes– to grip our own, English-language shaped understanding puts her in a rank above. Murphy’s photos surround them with a gritty, human context.

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


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

Quite a few, re-mixed as Griswold calls it, from older lines, and wars, have strong political content.

My Nabi was shot down by a 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.

And as in Spanish cante or country-western laments, the grief of separation has its song:

Separation, you set fire
in the heart and home of every lover.

It is an entirely incredible collection.  Read, purchase, pass around.

Griswold and Murphy’s work is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

A full book of landays will be released in the spring of 2014, by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, where Griswold has published previously.  It is to be titled I Am The Begger of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan. 

Thanks so much to John Hulyer and Susan Lux for passing them on to me….