16. Afghan landays

Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy have made a book that is necessary reading for anyone who has ever made assumptions from a distance about what a burka-wearing woman might be like, and for anyone who cannot fathom how poetry could get you killed. In other words, this book is a must-read for every U.S. citizen.

I am the Beggar of the World is a book of poems, war reportage, and photographs. It presents and comments on a set of folk poems—“landays” (pronounced “LAND-ees”)—in translation from the Pashto, and it describes the current and historical contexts of these poems’ production, with a special emphasis on detailed anecdotes drawn from Griswold’s and Murphy’s encounters with their Afghani informants and subjects.

A landay is a two-line poem. Its opening line has nine syllables, its closing line has 13, and a landay ends with one of two sounds: “–ma” or “–na.” Landays may be read, but true to their roots in oral tradition, they are frequently sung, sometimes with a drum for accompaniment. Bouts of landays may be a formal part of a family gathering or may emerge more spontaneously as an adjunct to collective labor.

Following a brief introduction to the work that led to the book, I Am the Beggar of the World is divided into three sections—“Love,” “Grief Separation,” “War Homeland”—followed by a brief epilogue. A typical few pages of the book comprises a photograph or three and then a poem or set of poems followed by a brief prose explanation, or anecdote, and or commentary, as below, for example. Facing a photograph of a camo-clad U.S. soldier against backdrop of supplies air-dropped onto rugged hilly terrain, Griswold offers two poems:

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.
To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

Because my love’s American,
Blisters blossom on my heart.

The first landay used to be sung: “My lover is fair as a British soldier …,” referring to the British occupiers of the 19 century. The word Angrez, English, remains shorthand for any foreigner. Slowly, the word “American” is taking its place. Now foreign soldiers—Spanish, British, Italian—are called American. The joke here is one of miscomprehension. The outsider doesn’t even recognize his own lover, so he kills her as an enemy. She is martyred, given a holy death, in error.

In the second landay, “American” has replaced “liar.”

The world changes, but the embedded cultural form continues to be useful, even by those who have traditionally been excluded from using the form. / thedailybeast

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