Synopses & Reviews
An eye-opening collection of clandestine poems by Afghan women
Because my loves American,
blisters blossom on my heart.
Afghans revere poetry, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet—a landay, an ancient oral and anonymous form created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than 20 million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. War, separation, homeland, love—these are the subjects of landays, which are brutal and spare, can be remixed like rap, and are powerful in that they make no attempts to be literary. From Facebook to drone strikes to the songs of the ancient caravans that first brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago, landays reflect contemporary Pashtun life and the impact of three decades of war. With the U.S. withdrawal in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk of being lost when the Americans leave.
After learning the story of a teenage girl who was forbidden to write poems and set herself on fire in protest, the poet Eliza Griswold and the photographer Seamus Murphy journeyed to Afghanistan to learn about these women and to collect their landays. The poems gathered in I Am the Beggar of the World express a collective rage, a lament, a filthy joke, a love of homeland, an aching longing, a call to arms, all of which belie any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.
"Landays, 22-syllable folk couplets sung anonymously by women, have long been the dominant form of social satire and gender subversion in Afghan poetry, and Griswold's translations mark a stunning handling of their complex 'beauty, bawdiness, and wit.' Flanked by Murphy's photographs, with their striking blend of wartime journalism and human compassion, Griswold's couplets are peppered with brief prose passages in which she delves into the cultural and historical traditions that inform the humor and gravity of her translations. Among her many accomplishments is elucidating the 'fury at the presence of the U.S. military and rage at occupation' while also detailing the fears surrounding the end of American occupation, including a return to lives of isolation and oppression for Afghan women. 'My lover is fair as an American solider can be,' begins one couplet. 'To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.' In Griswold's version of this 19th-century landay, the Pashto word Angrez (English) is no longer translated as 'British soldier,' pointing with stark irony to the landscape of contemporary military occupation, and signaling a collection that may indeed be remembered as a groundbreaking work of translation and poetic journalism. Photos." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
a Guggenheim fellow, is the author of a collection of poems, Wideawake Field
(FSG, 2007) and a nonfiction book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam
(FSG, 2010), a New York Times
bestseller that was awarded the J. Anthony Lukas Prize. She has worked with Seamus Murphy in Africa and Asia for more than a decade. She lives in New York City.
Seamus Murphy has photographed extensively in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. His photography from Afghanistan, begun in 1994, chronicles the tumultuous life of the Afghan people. A collection of this work, titled A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, was published in 2008 and was produced as an award-winning film. He has won seven World Press Photo Awards. He lives in London.