In 2012 and 2013, poet and journalist Eliza Griswold traveled to Afghanistan to collect and translate landays, an oral form of poetry popular among Pashtun women, in collaboration with Seamus Murphy, a photographer who has worked in the country for more than thirty years. Griswold’s translations appear alongside Murphy’s photographs in I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan, forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Landays are short couplets, twenty-two syllables in length, traditionally sung aloud by women. Simultaneously anonymous and deeply personal, landays provide space for the voicing of complex critiques, irreverent burlesque, and deep desires. For example:

Oh God, curse the German who invented the car
that carried my lover away so far.

As Griswold writes in the introduction to her book, “In Pashto, they lilt internally from word to word in a kind of two-line lullaby that belies the sharpness of their content, which is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for its piercing ability to articulate a common truth about love, grief, separation, homeland, and war. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for an end to separation, a call to arms, all of which frustrate any facile image of a Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.”

In January 2014, I spoke with Griswold about the form of the landay and her experiences in Afghanistan as a journalist and a translator. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Heather Hewett

Heather Hewett: In order to help readers understand, can you share a telling anecdote or scene from your meetings with Pashtun women?

Eliza Griswold: I met a businesswoman named Sharifa Ahmadzai who lives in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Her face was covered with tattoos called khal, which women sing about in landays, although people don’t really use them much anymore because they’re not sanctioned by Islam and they’re no longer associated with beauty. She sat over a plate of pomegranates and busted as many landays as I could get down. She played with them and made them up as we went along, which is something that people can do because they play with language so much. They are like a rap—a collective, morphing folk tradition that’s essentially an oral way not only to tell stories but also to articulate the plight of a woman’s life in Afghanistan.

As she sat there singing them, chanting them low, she started singing one and I recognized the word Guantánamo. And again. So I asked her, “What are you thinking about?” I learned that she was singing the song of a mother whose son had been taken by the Iraqis during a raid. For six months the mother didn’t know where her son was, and she assumed that he’d been taken to Guantánamo. So the landay is in the voice of the son:

Come to Guantánamo.
Follow the clang of my chains.

Through Sharifa Ahmadzai, I was able to meet with this family and hear the story of what had befallen this young man. According to the family, there was a fight in his village over land between him and some cousins. The cousins ended up ratting him out to the local Taliban, so they were free to use the land. The poignancy of meeting this mother who was absolutely destroyed by the loss of her son. . . She had sung the story at a wedding, and Sharifa Ahmadzai had heard it there. Because that’s frequently where landays are traded by women.

 I was hearing landays in refugee camps, in people’s houses when their husbands were out.

Sharifa Ahmadzai is exactly the person we could risk losing when the United States pulls out in 2014. Here she was, a highly successful businesswoman who ran a series of rug factories and had helped host U.S. soldiers. As a result, she was unable to go back to her own village, so she stayed in the city because she was under so much risk from the Taliban.

She sang another landay, one that a cousin of hers had sung and recorded on the phone about her son Nabi who was killed in a drone strike:

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

Hewett: I remember that one from the book. It’s quite powerful.

Griswold: Yes. And Sharifa Ahmadzai. . . she was as globalized as they come, she was a merchant… but she was able to capture the nuance of very different worlds and function as an interlocutor between them, which is something we’re possibly going to lose.

Hewett: Were you listening to the landays in Pashto?

Griswold: Yes, they were in Pashto, which I don’t speak. I could recognize a few words because they were repeated, and I could figure out the subject of the poem. But I would need to sit down over time to translate them, because the really good ones have several layers of meaning in them at the same time.

Hewett: Did you record them as you listened?

Griswold: No. The first time I started to record, the women took my iPhone, and they put it under a pile of pillows in the corner of the room. It wasn’t fear, though. It was an indication to me of the preciousness of what they were sharing and it was also a very clear indication that they were in control of the exchange. Everybody has a cell phone, everybody texts; that’s not a big deal. But the Internet—they don’t have access to that. The publicness of recording made them nervous.

Over the course of two trips, I had two different translators. They were more comfortable writing down transliterated Pashto. Then we would go back to the house where we were staying and over weeks and months, we would get the correct Pashto translation, translate into Pashto characters, then translate word by word from the Pashto into English, which usually created nonsense versions: something like “moon arm darling her at.” The final would end up as, “Under the moon I hear the sound of bells.”

Hewett: Had you translated poetry before? What was that process like?

Griswold: No, I’d ever translated before, and I was a bit intimidated by the act of translating. I didn’t want to meld them into something that didn’t exist. I went to see one of the leading Pashto novelists, Mustafa Salik,who lives in Kabul. I asked him, “How can I be loyal to this form, and how can I preserve the art of it?” He said, “Just use the ones that work in English, and make them work in English. If they don’t make people laugh, if they don’t wow people, they’re not working.” So I decided that I would try to render them as startling and outrageous and funny and sexy and angry as they are, in English.

Hewett: Was there anything that surprised you as you were going through that process, something that you hadn’t anticipated?

Griswold: I’ve been surprised by people’s responses, how fond they are of the landays. I knew how much Afghans loved them, but I didn’t expect that they would have so many fans in the United States. The response to them has been really heartening.

Hewett: Why do you think that is?

Griswold: To be honest, I think it has a lot to do with hunger on the part of Americans to understand what’s going on beyond the headlines, to be able to see this place through another lens. I wanted to bring some pleasure to the project. This was not to be a project strictly about the pains of war because that’s not what landays are.

Hewett: They’re about the full human experience.

Griswold: They’re funny and they’re dark and to treat them as political or narrowly political would be a mistake.

Hewett: How did you work with Seamus Murphy [the photographer]?

Griswold: The project very much comes out of our work together. Seamus first gave me a book that served as a precursor to this collection called Songs of Blood and War. He has spent over thirty years working in Afghanistan. His photographs capture the human, the unseen moment, in a way that no one else could have done.

Sometimes we would go to places and talk to people together. I would feed very much off of Seamus and his response to things. So it was common that at the end of the day, we would share the poems and see what work we wanted to do in relation to whatever subjects had come up.

Seamus is very different from many photographers in that he’s deeply committed to the content of the story: very committed to what the story really is, who the characters are, what the deeper levels of the story are communicating.

The beauty of the landay is that it’s gone as soon as you’ve said it; you have no ownership over it.

Hewett: How would you explain the relationship of the images to the landays?

Griswold: The images are never supposed to be illustrative of the poems themselves. There’s supposed to be communication between the poem and the image, but it’s never x equals y. Together they create something that’s greater. Seamus’ photographs often capture the collision of the seventh century with the twenty-first. In a deep and meaningful way, hopefully, they capture juxtapositions. The images have different layers and different correspondences. There should be a call and response between the image and the poem.

Hewett: How has this experience affected you as a poet, in terms of how you think about poetry, or what your own poetic inclinations are?

Griswold: I’ve been playing with the space between poetry and journalism for a long time. Many of the poems I write are informed by places I’ve been. It allows me to occupy a space and have an authority that feels meaningful and has an urgency to it—an internal authority that then helps me on the page. The landays have taken that further because they’re not “literary.” They are about language, but they’re not about pose. A landay is most successful when it is most authentic to the human experience.

It’s the idea of folk poetry, the idea that meaning lies in the collective, that an incredible poem can easily—perhaps more easily—come out of the mouth of an illiterate woman who has never left her village—a landay isn’t about performance, it’s about authenticity below the performance. I was hearing landays in refugee camps, in people’s houses when their husbands were out. They’re very plaintive; they’re almost akin to a wail. They can be performed joyously, but they’re not about performance.

Hewett: If landays are not about performance, what word would you choose to describe them?

Griswold: Ceremony. They’re about invoking another register of being. They’re about sacred time, cautionary tales, grief, ballads. They’re about piercing the quotidian. At the same time, they’re very much of this earth. They’re about marking sacred time.

Hewett: What else should we know about this project?

Griswold: The importance of this moment in time. We did this project now because we might not be able to do it a year from now. With the instability foreshadowing the U.S. pullout this year, the people who will suffer more than anyone else are women. And that’s not just because they’ve made great gains since the Taliban. Also because more than a decade of American presence, international presence, has allowed them a cultural way to get out of the house, to have a salary, to work. Will they be able to sustain the gains that they’ve made? “Who will survive?” is definitely one of the most urgent questions of the collection.

Hewett: Will you be able to send your book to people in Afghanistan?

Griswold: No, I don’t think I will. It’s too incendiary. I think we can send it to some people. But a lot of the women couldn’t have this book in their home—it would endanger them. I’d like to do something at the university of Kabul and share them with the literary world in Afghanistan. But sharing them with women in villages as a book… that could be a mistake. The question would be, “Where did you get this? Why do you have this? What’s your role in this?”

The beauty of the landay is that it’s gone as soon as you’ve said it; you have no ownership over it. You’re clean. You can express whatever rage you feel, you can be as personal as possible, and then all you have to say is, “What do you mean, why are you saying, ‘this is mine?’ I certainly don’t feel this way about you, my loving husband. Somebody else told me this.”

Anonymity allows a freedom of voice that’s really unique.

A selection of landays from the collection is available at the Poetry Foundation.

Photographs: Seamus Murphy