I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan


An eye-opening collection of clandestine poems by Afghan women

Because my love's 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...

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I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan

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An eye-opening collection of clandestine poems by Afghan women

Because my love's 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.

2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation Winner

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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. (Apr.)
Library Journal
The landay is a two-line folk poem invented and shared by Afghan women, an old form still very much alive. These present-day landays offer a peephole into the society of those who have taken great risks to write them. While poetry writing is now permitted in Kabul (it was banned previously by the Taliban), it is still frowned upon in rural areas; authors often refuse credit for their work. Love, oppression, war, and politics are the prime topics. Along with Seamus Murphy's photographs, translator Griswold's commentary decodes the messages, which are not always this clear: "Darling, come down to the river/ I've baked you bread and hidden it in my pitcher." Griswold recounts her difficulties collecting the landays and relates a horrific story of one suicide. Less grim is the fascinating mix of old and new: "Daughter, in America the river isn't wet./ Young girls learn to fill their jugs on the Internet." VERDICT Following up on a New York Times Magazine article ("Why Afghan Women Risk Death To Write Poetry"), Griswold and Murphy, along with their heroic Afghani interpreter, Asma Safi, have documented an artistic movement that is at once delightful and courageous. [See "What's Coming for National Poetry Month in April?" Prepub Alert, 11/18/13.]—Ellen Kaufman, New York
From the Publisher

"Eliza Griswold brings a poet's sensibility, a folklorist's skills, and a journalist's savvy to these startling and incendiary folk poems by Afghan women, which she has so daringly collected and translated. With its arresting photographs and heartbreaking two-liners, I Am the Beggar of the World enlarges our sense of the work that poetry does in the world."

"This is poetry of a rural tradition that is as world-wise, war-wise and uniquely sophisticated as any collection of writing by women, anywhere."

but to describe it only that way is to neglect how carry in their hearts. This is an important book

"I Am the Beggar of the World is a revelatory book about Afghanistan, one sure to turn all the stereotypes about the country's women on their heads. The poems, equally art and reportage, are often poignant, more often witty, even pungent. They, along with the accompanying text and photographs, illuminate the beauty of the country and its culture, the sadness of its history, and the humor, the hopes, the bitterness, and even the contradictions its women--no different than women anywhere
Sahera Sharif

I Am the Beggar of the World is a great and satisfying work. I applaud Eliza Griswold and Seamus Murphy. It is an essential look at the women of Afghanistan and the voices of dissent at risk of being suppressed when the American forces withdraw.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Landay is a Pashto word, the language spoken by the Pathans. It means a short, poisonous snake. It also means a short, lethal poem. Or a short, bawdy poem — or saucy, rebellious, elegiac, daring, earthy-as-a- truffle poem, though short in any case. A candent poem, flashing, diminutive, and sharp: a couplet with a total of twenty-two syllables; the first line of nine, the second of thirteen. Landays are found in the borderlands spanning Afghanistan and Pakistan, created (mostly) by and for women, in a region where women are rarely behind the wheel. Traditionally, the landay is a distillation of love, grief, homeland, separation, or war, so there is poignancy. But there is laughter, too, laughter as a survival skill as important as building fire or shelter.

I Am the Beggar of the World is a gathering of landays from today's Afghanistan — both hoary and spanking new, some tinkered with, others morphed by the changing world — translated by the journalist/poet Eliza Griswold, accompanied by photographs by Seamus Murphy. A word about the photographs: They are not only transporting, they are atmospheric disturbances — breathtaking in their contemporaneity — independent of the poems and text but feeding off one another.

I Am the Beggar of the World was not easy task to realize. Griswold was first drawn to the landays when one young woman — who was part of a Kabul-based writers' circle but lived far away and communicated secretly by telephone and who had been writing landays - - self-immolated when confronted with a marriage she could not abide. Griswold learned the woman's village and decided that if she was going to write about the woman with veracity, she had to go there and experience it for herself. That was dangerous. Kabul, the country's capital, is one world; the provinces, where 80 percent of Afghan women live, altogether another. Afghanistan is a loose — very loose — confederation of regions: village-states, valley-states, which can be tough customers, where some consider a splash of acid to the face as an appropriate rebuke for teenage girls with the temerity to speak of literacy as a valuable resource, let alone a right. Griswold, being a woman and an American, was not exactly an unbeatable combination. To find the landays required hard travel to distant places — the norm when looking for precious stones: "into camps of startled nomads, rural backyards to private homes, a muddy one-horse farm, a stark refugee wedding, and a glitzy one in a neon-lit Kabul hall." And secretly; when not secretly, then very quietly.

Landays are typically sung, and today singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. But the singing goes on: "Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled than the others at singing landays, yet men have no idea who she is. Much of an Afghan woman's life involves a cloak-and- dagger dance around honor — a gap between who she seems and who she is." The landays are anonymous, clandestine but with feet to get around, and collective; they protect the composer. They are a look through the keyhole into a sensorium, a way of seeing and being. They are a play on the silence of women in a man's world. For all their folk origins, they are world wise, and sensuous in their brevity, the bareness of things being what they are, sometimes caustic, sometime gay balloons, made delirious by the helium in their words.

Translating the landays was an intricate process, roughed out over gallons of green tea, "word by word into sometimes nonsensical English," literal versions that Griswold reworked with native Pashto speakers. "My versions rhyme more often than the originals do because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved the most effective way of representing in English the lilt of Pashto." Intricate and fascinating. In an article Griswold wrote for The New York Times Magazine, a springboard for the book, one landay is translated, "Making love to an old man is like / Making love to a limp cornstalk blackened by fungus." By the time it made it in Beggar of the World, it read, "Making love to an old man / is like fucking a shriveled cornstalk black with mold." The wonders of the pickling process. "Sex, marriage, love — all can be the same thing, so a literal rendering of this poem goes something like this: Love or Sex or Marriage, Man, Old / Love or Sex or Marriage, Cornstalk, Black Fungal Blight. In other words, mystifying."

But Griswold's end products here have been vetted enough to yield magic out of mystery. On sex, there are rough exhortations and the mocking of weakness: "Is there not one man brave enough to see / how my untouched thighs burn the trousers off me?" Or, "You'll understand why I wear bangles / when you choose the wrong bed in the dark and mine jangle." In a pique of jealousy "God, turn my lover into a fox / and make my rival a chicken." (Griswold provides annotations to help guide you through the more brambly associations.) There are the shape- shifters, where a "common joke is that the Internet has replaced the riverbank as a prime spot for wooing." Grief: "In my dream, I am the president. / When I awake, I am the beggar of the world." And hypocrisy: "You'll never be a mullah, talib, no matter what you do. / Studying in your book, you see my green tattoo." There is no room for slackers — "Be black with gunpowder or be bloodied / but don't come home whole and disgrace my bed" echoes the Roman exhortation with- your-shield-or-on-it — while sadness is like an occupying army: "My love gave his life for our homeland. / I'll sew his shroud with a strand of my hair." They speak to war, invaders, and interlopers of many stripes — British, Russian, and American — while invoking an elemental heartache, fragile, impermanent, swift, and wrapped in a winding sheet.

Landays speak of something else elemental: the life of the mind and the heart that goes on under the cover of the chadri. These verses testify not only to the existence of Afghan women, but to their shrewd instincts, deep emotions, their dignity and humanity.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374191870
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2014
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 440,008
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Eliza Griswold, 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.

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