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Story Publication logo June 20, 2013

Pulling Back the Burka: A Glimpse of Afghan Life Through Poetry


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Anonymous and spoken, landai, two-line Pashtun poems, have served for centuries as a means of self...

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A still shot from PBS Newshour's 'Short, Potent Poetry Offers Bite of Afgan Life' in which Seamus Murphy narrates a slideshow of some of his favorite images.

This article by Mary Jo Brooks was published by the PBS Newshour Art Beat blog to accompany the broadcast above by PBS Newshour on June 18, 2013.

For 10 years, journalist Eliza Griswold reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan for publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker. But she was frustrated that in pursuit of the headlines, some of her most interesting stories were left on the cutting room floor. Too often, she felt, she wasn't able to convey the humanity and humor of the Afghan people who were living with the daily realities of war.

Last year, she embarked on a project to tell those stories by collecting oral folk poems shared mostly among Pashtun women.

I dream I am the president.
When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.

The poems are called landays. Just two lines long with 22 syllables, they carry a bite. (One meaning of the word landay is short, poisonous snake.)

"This is rural folk poetry. This is poetry that's meant to be oral. It's passed mouth to mouth. Ear to ear. And the women have recited these poems for centuries," said Griswold.

A poet herself, Griswold collaborated with photographer Seamus Murphy to document Afghan life through the prism of these landays. Poetry Magazine is devoting its entire June issue to their work.

As with poetry everywhere, many of the themes deal with love and lust.

Slide your hand inside my bra
Stroke a red and ripening pomegranate of Kandahar

"Pull the burka back and she will talk to you about the size of her husband's manhood. She will go right for it: sex, raunch, kissing, rage. She will talk about the rage of what it is to be cast in this role of subservient, in a way that is really startling," says Griswold.

The landays are a way to subvert the social code in which women are prohibited from speaking freely. Since the poems are collective and anonymous "women can claim they just overhead the poems in the marketplace," says Griswold, "not that they authored them."

You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.

Over the past decade, many of the landays have also expressed anger about the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan:

May God destroy the White House and kill the man
who sent U.S. cruise missiles to burn my homeland.

Others are filled with sorrow:

In battle, there should be two brothers:
One to be martyred, one to wind the shroud of the other.

Collecting the poems wasn't easy. Griswold had to essentially go "under cover," wearing a burka and meeting women in secret locations. And photographer Murphy was never able to accompany her. "It was impossible for him as a man to witness women or singing the landay. The women would be killed if they were found out," says Griswold.

Mother, come to the jailhouse windows.
Talk to me before I go to the gallows.

Although the tradition of landay poetry goes back centuries, they are kept very up-to-date with modern references. While the river was typically the place where men could interact with women who were gathering water, this landay mentions the way men and women now meet (at least in other countries).

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

Griswold had worried that these modern terms would mean the death of the landay, but was assured by one of Afghanistan's leading novelists that just the opposite was happening.

"They are being traded and changed and remixed like rap music. People love them," said Griswold. "The landay is supposed to communicate, in the most natural language, the truth of Afghan life. So I found my assumptions about the death of the landay being absolutely confounded by what Afghans said themselves."

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



war and conflict reporting


War and Conflict

War and Conflict



Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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Gender Equality

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