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Poems about the Taliban, the US, and husbands: the Afghan women who risked their lives for self-expression

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“You won’t let me go to school. I won’t become a doctor. Remember this. One day, you will be sick.” The message to the Taliban, and to other male oppressers, delivered by an anonymous Afghan woman in a two-line, traditional poem called a landay, could not be clearer.  Landays are written in couplets, date back thousands of years, and are certainly pre-Islamic. But in recent years Afghan women have been using them to communicate in secret with one another, distributing landays, usually via mobile phone texts, about the Taliban, the Americans - and about more earthy subjects, too, such as the size of their husband’s manhood.     

Poet and journalist Eliza Griswold was on stage at the Southbank centre on Saturday to talk about landays as part of the Southbank’s Poetry International weekend, focusing on Poetry in Conflict. With her on the platform was Sahira Sharif, pictured, an Afghan MP and founder of the Mirman Baheer literary society in Kabul, set up to help Afghan women communicate with one another.

Sharif told the audience: “If women are writing poetry, it means they are risking their lives. In our community, if a woman writes some words, it is seen as stigmatising family honour. And that’s why she always tries to hide her name and her identity when writing poetry. But this poetry is much more powerful than the sword. It could be our best medium to fight what is going on.”

Griswold said that Sharif’s literary society met openly in Kabul to share poetry. “But in the rest  of Afghanistan’s provinces, they have secret meetings. There is a poetry hotline, and they call in, whispering their poems, telling about how they’re suffering. They are poems of self-empowerment, and of subversion.”   

For at least one poet, such subversion ended in tragedy. Griswold told how one poet had set herself on fire and died after her brothers had overheard her reading a poem over the phone, and beat her up: “She’d read poetry every week, called in every week, and then rang from her hospital bed, to say that she was dying.”

She and filmmaker and photographer Seamus Murphy had set out for Afghanistan to collect contemporary landays. Griswold added: “Women sometimes get ‘death letters’ from the Taliban. Words like drones and remote controlled bombs appear in the poems. ” She quoted another landay: “My darling, you’re just like America. You are guilty. I apologise.” And she mentioned another, adding, “Ooh, they’re so saucy!”, to illustrate another aspect to the landays: “Slide your hand inside my bra. Stroke a ripe pomegranate from Kandahar.”  

The book produced by Griswold and Murphy, I am the Beggar of the World, is aimed at helping to “explode the idea of an Afghan woman as a mute, blue [burka-clad] ghost”, said Griswold. But she warned that with the withdrawal of western forces there are fears about the loss of international funding for small-scale projects that can improve Afghan women’s lives.

To illustrate the incremental nature of progress, two outspoken Afghan women poets who had been billed to share the platform with Griswold and Sharif had been unable to obtain visas to travel to London. Sharif said: “They are very bold, they really wanted to be here, but even their families didn’t want them to come.” But she added: “This gathering at this festival is really great. I have no words. We were so far, you are here, but through this we are together. I want this to continue, for this distance to be shortened.” 


IT’S NOT that the Taliban dislike poetry. On the contrary. When the Islamist extremists took control of Waziristan, a mountainous, remote area in north-western Pakistan, they ordered the local poets, who had previously specialised in romantic subjects, to write poems about jihad instead. Then the Pakistani military moved in, trying to force out the Taliban, and many civilians found themselves in refugee camps. And the poets found they could no longer write just about love, whether or not they were pressurised by the Taliban.

Three Pakistani poets – Saleem Khan, Zahid Ullah Khan, and Dilawar Kahan – took part in a discussion via video link at the Southbank’s Purcell Room, which was chaired by journalist Declan Walsh. Saleem Khan said: “My poetry 10-12 years ago was totally different. It was love poetry, about lips and hair, and meeting your beloved. But as the situation got worse in Waziristan, then these times were speaking through our poetry. Whatever we were seeing on a daily basis, we couldn’t help it, we had to write about it. The Taliban demanded of some poets that they should write about jihad. We remember the Taliban times very vividly. All the difficulties.”  

He added that poetry remained a very strong form of expression in Waziristan, and other regions “that are really backward. We are so behind the times. I think this is the best way to express ourselves.” And clearly the Taliban think so, too. Another poet, Dilawar Khan, said: “They really like poetry. They have always tried to promote poetry, and poets.”   


THE ISSUE of whether poets who find themselves caught up in war should feel obliged to write about it came up in the first of the three talks at the Southbank on Saturday. Iraqi poet Adnan al-Sayegh, who found himself dodging death in the long conflict between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s said he found poetry was a way of escaping from the “bitter reality” of “a hell of a war”. He also discovered that dodging bombs helped him to find a way of avoiding the censor in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, when “you could be killed by a single word”. He described writing in Iraq at that time as like “walking in a minefield”.

The discussion, Modern War Poetry, an English PEN event, was chaired expertly by BBC broadcaster Harriet Gilbert, and also involved Syrian Kurdish poet Golan Haji. Sayegh argued that war had changed, and its way of expression had changed, too, so that war poetry “is sometimes expressed in a way that is not directly linked to the war”. Haji, who left his country in 2011 – “I ran away because of the mandatory military service” -  added that “poems depend mainly on the imagination, that’s the most important thing. Sometimes we write something out of moral duty that we do not really consider as poetry.”

Sayegh, who worked as a journalist for 15 years but left “at the first opportunity”, conceded that some war reporting “tended towards poetry”. He also confessed to “stealing” from journalism on occasions in finding subjects for poems.

And he told the story of a large, old tree that was in ever-changing occupied territory during the Iran-Iraq war. “Iraqi soldiers would carve their lovers’ names on the tree.  After a while Iran took the area where the tree was, and the Iranian soldiers did the same. After a long time all the names got mixed up together, Iraqis and Iranians. That real story gave me a good lesson. The Iraq-Iran war ended a long time ago. And both tyrants are no longer there.” 


CHOMAN HARDI, from Iraqi Kurdistan, writes in both Kurdish and English. But she finds it hard to write about conflict in Kurdish, which she described as a flowery language that requires more adjectives. Writing in English, on the other hand, is about “understatement, precision. With a few lines, a lot of things can be said.” It gives her a sense of detachment.   

Hardi was born in Iraqi Kurdistan just before her family fled to Iran. She returned home aged five, but then when she was 14 Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurds with chemical weapons, and her family was forced into exile once more.  She has written about the gas attacks and of fleeing across mountains. In her poem ‘Summer Roof’, which she read at the Southbank on Friday night, she tells of sleeping on the flat roof on a summer night, and watching a well-known painter on the opposite roof, “a tiny light turning on / every time he puffed his cigarette”. She fantasises about being married to him, “cooking for him and washing his hair”. Suddenly the house opposite is empty. The poems ends thus: “Years later we met again / the same man with a few fingers missing, / bad tempered, not able to paint.”   

Hardi was appearing at Poets on the Front Line on Friday night at the Southbank, and shared the platform with Iraqi poet Ghareeb Iskander, who writes mainly in Arabic, and is helped by others to translate his poems. He read a number of his poems, first in Arabic and then in English, including ‘Home or Exile’ (“The wisdom of being silent is over”), another for his brother, who was arrested – “We do not know how he died” – and a poem for Lorca, who he said was a very important figure as part of as Iraqi poetry was concerned, “because he was the victim of a dictatorship”.   

The third poet at the event, which was chaired by BBC correspondent Lyce Doucet, was Forward prize winner and Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who had read with Hardi and Iskander at a recent literary festival in the Kurdistani capital of Erbil. He said his first introduction to the landscape of the Middle East had been via the Bible, and read a poem from his collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion: “here is Bethlehem; here is Tel Aviv; here is Gaza; also Edinburgh; Aberdeen; Egypt; Cairo; and here is Bengal; Mount Horeb; Albion; Alps; they say – all of here is Babylon.”   









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Laura Taylor

Fri 3rd Sep 2021 10:31

Excellent article Greg!

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Cynthia Buell Thomas

Tue 28th Jul 2015 10:54

Greg, I'm glad you are able to attend many different venues, to appreciate them wholly, and then share them so vividly with the rest of us.

You must find being 'official staff' of WOL both a great pleasure and a real challenge, especially in time consumption. Thank you for your many interests and your applied talents.

(I know I write like a real dork, but I can't help it.)

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