On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were his reference, the question touches on a matter much deeper: what is art’s purpose? Either it is an indulgence, lacking gravitas—the wasted calories of dessert after a nutritious meal, good tasting but not essential—or art is a vital part of the human experience in good and hard times. This collection of landays—an oral tradition of women’s poetry in Afghanistan, with prescribed form but subtlety of subject matter—brings full-circle that conversation 13 years ago. This collection testifies in deep and important ways how art is inextricably part of life. These poems, historical and culturally central to Afghanis, can address timeless matters such as love, composed centuries ago or in the present as a woman grieves the death of loved ones killed in a drone strike.

Griswold is an editor and translator, a poet, and she is a non-fiction writer who has been addressing the contemporary intersection of Islamic and Christian worlds (The 10th Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line Between Christianity and Islam, 2011) through first-hand accounts. She negotiates the tense geographical intersections, giving her unique access. Here she draws from first hand interviews with women from the Pashto region, generally rural, isolated and conservative. She brings together the landays topically, followed by a brief narrative of the poets’ lives and circumstances for the poems. Interspersed throughout are candid black and white photographs taken by Seamus Murphy of the people and their surroundings.

A landay is a prescribed formal short poem. As Griswold explains, “[E]ach has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound ma or na. Sometimes landays rhyme, but more often they do not.” Landays are primarily oral, and often sung, accompanied by a hand-held drum when religious authorities have not outlawed their use. Improvisations can happen in the moment as the poets keep the form, content remembered from previous versions, but with creative riffs to meet current circumstances. The landays, and the changes made can be biting, satirical, bawdy, or heartrending. The poems are recited/sung in groups of women, in privacy away from men. This collection is organized by the traditional subjects of landays.

The first section is “Love.” One can imagine these first landays being sung hundreds of years ago:

Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their stinging.

Climb to the brow of the hill and sight
Where my darling’s caravan will tent this night.

In a note following the second landay, Griswold explains that landays are traced back to Bronze Age immigrants from Indo-Aryan people, from around 1700 B.C.E. The nomadic way of life is as alive now as then.

These women, however, live in modern times:

Daughter, in America the river isn’t wet.
Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the internet.

How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged. Text me.

Griswold explains that when women went to the river in the past to gather water, the men might hide so that they and the women might have some sort of glimpse, a covert courtship at a distance. With wells now rather than rivers for water, women do not have water gathering as a reason for leaving their house. Although Griswold gathered most of the poems quoted, here she cites a civic leader from the district of Rodar, in the village of Chinar, “who transcribed these texts [poems] by local girls who were trading tongue-in-cheek landays that comment on how their lives are moving beyond the river bank traditions.” A photograph follows of a woman walking away from the camera with a water basket on her head, in desolate, rocky terrain.

Griswold concludes this section by recounting meeting Salma, a professional woman in her twenties, still single, with a radio show in Kandahar that features poetry, at least for now; women in her circumstance might not continue after American forces fully withdraw and Taliban rule returns. This anxiety repeats throughout the collection.

Salma has a younger sister, Sanga, who just got engaged to a cousin. Griswold recounts an exchange that the girl and her cousin had, one of the few citations of a male using the form:

One recent morning, the cousin approached her on the way to school and recited a landay to declare his love for the first time: “My mother loves me and God loves my mother, so God will reward you with being my mother’s daughter (his wife).” She responded with another landay: he’d better hurry up and send his family to ask for her hand in marriage, since others were already coming to her home.

While the exchange seems playful and perhaps surprising in the boldness which Sanga claims, the next section, “Grief and Separation,” strikes a counterbalancing tone in the first landay quoted:

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.

The next landay gives the book its title:

In my dream I am the President.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

In the follow-up explanation Griswold recounts a conversation with a refugee in a camp, an older woman whose husband is dying; the woman’s prospects when he dies are bleak.

“War and Homeland” is the final section of landays. The complexity of attitudes and conflicting deep feelings are striking:

May God destroy your tank and your drone
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.

Contrasted with:

May God destroy the Taliban and end their wars.
They’ve made Afghan women into widows and whores.

The explanations for both landays given by Griswold, and the other poems within their contexts, make for important, powerful reading. America is not a liberating presence, but one more destructive force faced by Afghani women through history, albeit with some temporary benefit, a reprieve for now from women’s exclusion from receiving education, and some freedoms in the public sphere of cultural life.

These poems were not composed and recited for the Western readers’ benefit; instead they are part of the cultural reality and centuries old vitality of Afghani culture. This is not a literary act of appropriation, but of introduction. Griswold brings them to us so that we might listen in a bit to others’ realities, one to which we in the Western world, and especially the U.S., are now yoked.

Comments are disabled for this article.


I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
By Various
Translated by Eliza Griswold
Reviewed by Grant Barber
160 pages, hardcover
ISBN: 9780374191870
Dinner by César Aira
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .

Read More >

We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >