17. Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry

Remember Nadia Anjuman? Poetry is still inextricably linked with death for the women of Afghanistan. In Eliza Griswold’s article for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, “Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry,” we learn the heartbreaking story of a more recent martyr to poetry: Zarmina, whose secret phone calls from her rural village to read poems to Mirman Baheer, the Afghan women’s literary society based in Kabul, were a soul lifeline. She said to her phone-pals in the city, “You are the luckiest people since you can meet with your friends openly…. You can learn from your mistakes and write better poems.” But after she was caught reading love poems on the phone line (and the assumption is apparently always that there is a man on the other end of the line, hence an illicit affair), her brothers beat her and destroyed her notebooks, and two weeks later Zarmina committed suicide by self-immolation. Now Ogai Amail, who answers the secret phone calls in Kabul, takes care to “note down everything—the dates of the poems, the phone numbers, every single thing…”

Arising out of the suppression of women’s voices is an anonymous form of folk poetry, the landai, often heard at gatherings of Mirman Baheer. “Landai means ‘short, poisonous snake’ in Pashto, a language spoken on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The word also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, sexy, raging, tragic, landai are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women.” We understand that Eliza Griswold is working with the women of Mirman Baheer “to translate the landai of Afghanistan’s leading poets, which no one has done since Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry, edited by Sayd Majrouh, who was assassinated in Peshawar in 1988”—and we say Bravo! to that effort. / Bob Holman & Margery Snyder, about.com May 3, 2012

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