The teenage poet who uttered this folk poem called herself Rahila Muska. She lived in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and one of the most restive of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces since the U.S. invasion began on October 7, 2001. Muska, like many young and rural Afghan women, wasn’t allowed to leave her home. Fearing that she’d be kidnapped or raped by warlords, her father pulled her out of school after the fifth grade. Poetry, which she learned from other women and on the radio, became her only form of education.
In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But the poem above is a folk couplet — a landay — an oral and often anonymous scrap of song created by and for mostly illiterate people: the more than twenty million Pashtun women who span the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Traditionally, landays are sung aloud, often to the beat of a hand drum, which, along with other kinds of music, was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is.
A landay has only a few formal properties. Each has twenty-two syllables: nine in the first line, thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” Sometimes they rhyme, but more often not. 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 the piercing ability to articulate a common truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing for the end of 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.
From the Aryan caravans that likely brought these poems to Afghanistan thousands of years ago to ongoing U.S. drone strikes, the subjects of landays are remixed like hip-hop, with old words swapped for newer, more relevant ones. A woman’s sleeve in a centuries-old landay becomes her bra strap today. A colonial British officer becomes a contemporary American soldier. A book becomes a gun. Each biting word change has much to teach about the social satire that ripples under the surface of a woman’s life. With the drawdown of American forces in 2014 looming, these are the voices of protest most at risk when the Americans pull out. Although some landays reflect fury at the presence of the U.S. military, many women fear that in the absence of America’s involvement they will return to lives of isolation and oppression, just as under the Taliban.
Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of war has diluted a culture, as well as displaced millions of people who can’t return safely to their villages. Conflict has also contributed to globalization. Now people share landays virtually via the internet, Facebook, text messages, and the radio. It’s not only the subject matter that makes them risqué. Landays are mostly sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Women singers are viewed as prostitutes. Women get around this by singing in secret — in front of only close family or, say, a harmless-looking foreign woman. Usually in a village or a family one woman is more skilled at singing landays than others, 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 to be and who she is.
These days, for women, poetry programs on the radio are one of the few permissible forms of access to the outside world. Such was the case for Rahila Muska, who learned about a women’s literary group called Mirman Baheer via the radio. The group meets in the capital of Kabul every Saturday afternoon; it also runs a phone hotline for girls from the provinces, like Muska, to call in with their own work or to talk to fellow poets. Muska, which means smile in Pashto, phoned in so frequently and showed such promise that she became the darling of the literary circle. She alluded to family problems that she refused to discuss.
One day in the spring of 2010, Muska phoned her fellow poets from a hospital bed in the southeastern city of Kandahar to say that she’d set herself on fire. She’d burned herself in protest. Her brothers had beaten her badly after discovering her writing poems. Poetry — especially love poetry — is forbidden to many of Afghanistan’s women: it implies dishonor and free will. Both are unsavory for women in traditional Afghan culture. Soon after, Muska died.
After learning about Muska, I traveled to Afghanistan with the photographer Seamus Murphy on assignment with the New York Times Magazine to piece together what I could of her brief life story. Finding Muska’s family seemed an impossible task — one dead teenage poet writing under the safety of a pseudonym in a war zone — but eventually, with the aid of a highly-effective Pashtun organization called wadan, the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, we were able to locate her village and find her parents. Her real name, it turned out, was Zarmina, and her story was about more than poetry.
This was a love story gone awry. Engaged at an early age to her cousin, she’d been forbidden from marrying him, because after the recent death of his father, he couldn’t afford the volver, the bride price. Her love was doomed and her future uncertain; death became the one control she could assert over her life.
Although she didn’t write this poem, Rahila Muska often recited landays over the phone to the women of Mirman Baheer. This is common: of the tens of thousands of landays in circulation, the handful a woman remembers relate to her life. Landays survive because they belong to no one. Unlike her notebooks, the little poem couldn’t be ripped up and destroyed by Muska’s father.
On that trip in the winter of 2012, I also began to collect landays. One afternoon in Helmand, our search for the dead poet led us to an agricultural seminar where women were learning to grow vegetables rather than the more lucrative cash crop of poppy. When I asked if anyone knew a landay, one woman named Gulmakai leapt to her feet and uttered the following poem.
The room of maybe sixty women gasped and burst into laughter, but I didn’t understand the Pashto, and because the poem was about sex, neither did my unmarried translator, Asma Safi, who was earnest and twenty-five. 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. It wasn’t until later when Asma’s uncle drew us a picture of a healthy, young cornstalk next to a decaying, blighted one that we — or rather, I — understood what the landay meant. I tried to contact Gulmakai again — she had given me her brother’s phone number — but she didn’t have his permission to speak.
Nine months later Seamus Murphy and I returned to Afghanistan with the sole aim of collecting these poems. For years we have wanted to collaborate on a collection of words and images that capture the humanity and humor of Afghan life. I wanted to gather poems from women before the U.S. pulled out and their voices were lost. Like many long-suffering people, Afghans have learned to use laughter as a survival skill. This is especially true for Afghan women. However, finding, collecting, recording, and translating these little poems word by word posed an extraordinary challenge. Gathering them led Seamus and me through the pages of out-of-print collections, and in secret into refugee camps, private homes, a horse farm, and several weddings. Since landays belong to the hidden world of Afghan women, many won’t share them in front of one another out of fear they’d later be gossiped about. Some requested that their names be changed or that I not record how I came by the landays that they whispered to me. One husband hurried up to me after I’d had tea with his wife and asked the subject of the landay that she’d given me. “Separation,” I told him. The poem was about sex.
To find these poems, we started in refugee camps as the poet and intellectual Sayd Bahodine Majrouh did when he collected landays during the civil war of the 1980s*. Since landays belong to a rural tradition, and the rural Pashtun heartland is a war zone, traveling to remote villages would endanger women as well as us. In some cases, women asked that I come to their houses dressed in a burqa so as not to be seen by spies or nosy neighbors. Slogging away in the same fashion that we have for the past ten years as journalists, Seamus and I joked that this was investigative poetry.
In one refugee camp, I was sneaked into a wedding party made up solely of women. As is the custom, in order to demonstrate her extreme modesty — read virginity — the bride sat entirely covered with a heavy white veil and crouched against a wall while guests pressed money into her fist to pay to see her face. Someone brought out a drum and the women began to sing poems about nato bombing raids. I recorded their singing on my iPhone, which alarmed them so intensely that on my next visit they took my phone from me and shoved it in a corner under a stack of pillows. Refugee camps in the capital of Kabul were followed by private homes, schools, and government offices in and around the eastern city of Jalalabad, a centuries-old center of poetry and landays. Where I couldn’t travel to meet the women of remote villages, I asked local leaders, teachers, and others to collect landays and bring them to me. These proved to be some of the most interesting, since many such places were under siege by predator drones, and I discovered that drones — called bipilot, without pilot, or remoti tayara, remote control flights — had entered the language of landays.
*In 1988, Majrouh was assassinated by religious fanatics who would later become the Taliban. In 1994 one of his French colleagues, André Velter, published these landays in French under the title: Le Suicide and le chant. In 2003 this collection was translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager and published as Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women’s Poetry (Other Press, 2010). Curiously enough, “suicide” is absent, and yet today, as thirty years ago, death and song are still the two forms of rebellion and self-determination readily available to Pashtun women like Rahila Muska.
Much has been made recently of so-called “Taliban poetry”: poems that express rage at the Americans or loyalty to the militants’ cause. Yet these sentiments have little to do with love for the Taliban. Instead, they reflect a fed-upness with foreign occupation and a deepening terror of living under the threat of drone strikes. What I found, especially among women who’d had to flee bombing raids, or lost family members, whether Taliban fighters or farmers, is that they were singing about their hatred of Americans and support the Taliban merely in reaction to all they’d endured in our twelve-year war. These scraps of anthems were more about Afghan identity than religion, although the two are often intertwined. I wanted to explore the impact that the last decade of war has had on Afghan culture and to share the sex and earthiness and outrage at military occupation, especially bombing, that these pressurized poems barely contain. Yet here’s the paradox: without the U.S. presence, the plight of women in Afghanistan will be even more dismal.
Translating these poems was an intricate process. I collected most of them in person with two native Pashto speakers, both of whom were, of necessity, young women. Over gallons of green tea at the cozy house that wadan occupies in Kabul, we transcribed the poems in Pashto, which has the same characters and sounds as Arabic, so I could sound out words although I had no clue of their meaning. On the fly, we’d rough out an English version in the car or during lunch to gauge whether the landay merited the time it would take to render properly in English. Then, along with a translator, I translated the selected poems word by word into English. Working from that frequently nonsensical literal version, I sat with a handful of native Pashto speakers — academics, writers, journalists, and ordinary women — and went over each poem to make certain the translations made sense. My versions rhyme more often than the originals do, because the English folk tradition of rhyme proved the most effective way of carrying the lilt of the Pashto over into English. The most useful note on translation came from Mustafa Salik, one of Afghanistan’s leading novelists: “Don’t worry so much about being faithful to the Pashto. Get them right in English so that people can enjoy them.”
Of the many remarkable and generous individuals who made this project possible, the first was the translator Asma Safi, who, despite the risk and scandal of traveling with foreigners as a Pashtun woman, accompanied Seamus and me to Helmand to find Rahila Muska’s family in early 2012. To ensure her safety and honor, her armed uncle, Safiullah, traveled with us. Asma Safi was planning our next trip into the field when she died of a heart condition in a taxi on the way to the Kabul hospital during the fall of 2012. This collection is dedicated to her.
This landay is attributed to an Afghan folk hero, Malalai, a Pashtun poet and woman warrior who fought alongside the commander Ayub Khan to defeat the British at the Battle of Maiwand on July 27, 1880. Its themes: war — jang; a woman’s pride in her lover’s courage and in his willingness to sacrifice himself for homeland — watan; love — meena; separation — biltoon; grief — gham, are the five most common currents that run through these poems. In addition, this landay mentions a tattoo — khal — which women used to receive at birth to ward off the evil eye. These days, baby girls are much less likely to be tattooed, as the practice is considered superstitious and un-Islamic. The faces of older Pashtun women, however, are dotted with these rough-hewn circles, moons, and flowers: living reminders of another time.
Many landays use sex and war to tease men about their cowardice in bed and in battle. This is one of the ways in which Pashtun women undermine the social code through these folk poems: simultaneously seducing men and mocking their weakness at the very skills with which they’re supposed to display the greatest strength. In the second landay here, the woman speaker is shaming her cowardly lover, saying that she’d rather be blown up than have him lie that she’s afraid to kiss him. Pashtun women are proud to be afraid of very little.
This a very old landay that has been remixed: the word “sleeve” here has been replaced by “bra strap” in Pashto. Old and new, both speak to the salty nature that these poems have possessed for centuries. But what’s ironic now is that the southeastern city of Kandahar, the home of Afghanistan’s most famed pomegranates, is also the birthplace of the Taliban. Despite the rigidity on the surface, women’s rebellion simmers underneath. Landays are its foremost form of expression. Since they are collective and anonymous, a woman can’t be held responsible for repeating them.
In the second couplet, the man responds by saying that he can’t afford to touch the woman’s bra, since that would require that he perform ablutions afterward to purify himself. Who, he asks, will pay the fee for him to use the bathroom? It’s a clever ripost to a bold woman’s dare.
One leading theory of landays’ origin traces back to the Bronze-Age arrival of Indo-Aryan caravans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India around 1700 bce. These poems could have evolved out of communication through call and response back and forth over a long caravan train. Many of the poems refer back to this nomadic way of life, as well as to the moon, flowers, nature. As ancient songs, they are thought to be related to the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures at least five thousand years old and comprised of couplets called slokas, not unlike landays, except that they are sixteen rather than twenty-two syllables long.
Traditionally in landays and in Pashtun society the riverbank, or godar, where women gather water is the place of romance. Men are forbidden from going to the godar, but they frequently sneak looks at their crushes coming and going from the riverbank. Many rural Pashtun women believe that the internet’s sole purpose is for matchmaking. The second landay here refers to another burgeoning technology: an estimated seventeen million Afghans — out of twenty-five million total — have mobile phones. Torpekai Shinwari, a woman from the district of Rodar, gathered these poems from the girls of her village.
The nomadic life of Pashtun herdsmen, called Kuchis, continues today. Kuchis still migrate between Afghanistan and Pakistan with their livestock. Depending on the time of year, their white and black goat-felt tents dot the roadside between Kabul and Peshawar.
Sanga, a sixteen-year-old girl who’d gotten engaged to her cousin about a month before I met her in the eastern city of Jalalabad, told me this landay. Her cousin approached her on the walk to school and recited a landay to declare his love: “My mother loves me and God loves my mother / so God will reward you with being my mother’s daughter (my wife).” Then he sent her the landay on the facing page by text message, to which she responded via landay, saying that he’d better hurry up and send his family to ask for her hand in marriage since others were already coming to her home. The young couple corresponds by landays.
Sanga and her older sister Salma asked me to wear a burqa when I came for tea so that neighbors wouldn’t gossip, which could lead to scandal for their family or, worse, reprisal at the hands of the Taliban for hosting a foreign spy. Salma is a radio host and teaches literature at the local university. She was worried about the fate of professional women after the U.S. left. “What will happen to us?” she asked.
For a fee, such as a goat, Muslim holy men used to write spells, love charms, and hexes. With the rise of stricter forms of Islam over the past several decades, this practice, like facial tattoos, has fallen out of favor.
The call and response nature of landays has morphed into teasing and sparring love poems between men and women; a kind of stichomythia that rivals that of ancient Greece. Although it’s possible that a woman might sing one part and a man another, they’re not really antiphonal. It’s more likely that one singer will recite the entire series to the beat of a drum. Then, in friendly competition around a fire in the evening — or on a couch in a sitting room in Kabul over after-dinner tea — a spirited rivalry will spring up between singers who try to outdo one another with poems.
Among Afghans, farting is far more embarrassing and shameful than it is in the West. There’s a folktale about a man who farts by mistake in front of his family and out of shame leaves home for twenty years. When he returns, he stands outside the door and hears his wife exhorting his children never to be farters like their father. He leaves home for another twenty years. Beneath the raunch and humor, the idea here is that a woman can be as vulgar a teaser as a man.
The second landay was posted by Eimal Dorani on his Pashto Landay Facebook page, which now has more than twenty thousand “likes.” Dorani, like many young Pashtuns, lives outside of Afghanistan. The members meet online to share poems as a means to speak Pashto and to trade jokes and landays about missing home — Kabul-jan, dear Kabul — and being separated from it. One of the most often repeated words in landays is musafir — traveler — which essentially describes anyone far from home, including Afghans who leave the country for education, to make a living, or to escape war. On Facebook the landays are frequently wistful both for the country itself and for a time before war when men and women were free to interact openly. Along with the landays that readers send, Dorani posts pictures. He has devised a method to swap landays with Pashtun strangers, most of whom are fellow exiles living outside of the country. One posts a landay and then, in the comments, others respond with their own. Within a matter of hours, landays morph and are remixed by different readers: a process that used to take decades, even centuries. This has become a virtual competition and trading site. These are landays of love, separation, and homeland. Here’s the link: facebook.com/pashtolanday.
These come from a mother, Marhabo, and her teenage daughter, Sabergul, in Khushal Khan refugee camp in a Kabul suburb of the same name. Khushal Khan Khattak was a famous seventeenth-century warrior and poet who mobilized Afghan resistance to the Mughals. To collect landays in the camp, I gathered all the women and asked who knew landays. Of course everyone knew them, although some women pretended not to since I wasn’t Pashtun and it’s embarrassing and dishonorable to sing, even in front of other women. Realizing that this method of collection wasn’t going to work, I announced that any woman who didn’t know a landay or wouldn’t share one had to leave the room. No one wanted to go. Maybe it was the bag of candy sitting beside me, or just the curiosity and pride of the women. Eventually, after about a dozen women had attempted to offer poems, one mother and daughter took the lead in reciting. Once everyone else left, Sabergul recited the first poem here to the uproarious laughter of her mother. The poem makes reference to a particular kind of men’s Bollywood hairdo — a bob — that had been the fashion a couple of years earlier. Once she grew comfortable enough to start to joke, Marhabo, mother of eleven children, made up the second landay on the spot to tease the photographer, Seamus Murphy. Pashtun women aren’t shy about teasing men — as long as they’re not going to get caught doing it.
For Pashtun women, romantic love is verboten. Even at her wedding a good Pashtun girl scowls to show she has no interest in the man she’s about to marry. If she’s discovered to be in love, she can be killed or wind up killing herself, like Zarmina, the dead poet from Helmand. The second landay here comes from an ancient folktale, “Talib-jan and Gulbashra,” which belongs to a largely forgotten oral collection called the Milli Hindara, a fantastic version of which has been recently translated by David Pate. (It is as yet unpublished.) A Talib simply means a religious student. In this story, a Talib falls in love with a beautiful woman who distracts him from his studies. Almost every woman I interviewed knew this landay, but not where it came from. Since the rise of the Taliban regime and their religious edicts against women, this poem is associated with Taliban hypocrisy: they pose as pious while raping women and boys.
These landays reflect how the poems have shifted over time. The first is oldest. It used to go: “My lover is fair as a British soldier,” from the nineteenth-century British occupation in Afghanistan. In some places, the word Angrez, or English, is still shorthand for any foreigner. Slowly the word American is taking its place. The second is popular on the radio and Facebook now. All soldiers, be they Spanish, British, Italian, are called American. In an earlier version of the final poem, the word “American” was “liar.”
Ashaba, an elderly woman in Samar Khel Tagaw, a refugee camp about ten miles east of Jalalabad, repeated this landay to me. Her husband lay dying in the next room and she was terrified of what would happen to her after his death. Without him she feared she would lose her place in the world. Like most Afghan women, she had no idea of her age. When I asked, she replied, “I’m fifty.” Her daughter replied, “Mom! I’m fifty. You’re at least seventy.” The tiny mud room of maybe twenty women huddled cross-legged together on the floor cackled gleefully. Afterward, we went to meet Ashaba’s husband: a ghost of a man tucked into a wooden bed in an empty room.
Grief, or gham, brings with it experience and wisdom. A bride, her hand woven with henna designs, shared this landay with me as we waited for her husband’s family to fetch her on her wedding night. We sat in a small room with all of her sisters on the second floor of her father’s home and listened for the husband’s family to come up the stairs. Although it was a happy occasion, the poem’s ambivalence speaks to her anxiety at leaving her childhood home. In her husband’s house, she will serve her mother-in-law.
This is a lament of an unmarried girl who is growing older and fearful of becoming unchosen, unmarried, and therefore anathema and valueless in Pashtun society.
This second landay also came from the Samar Khel Tagaw refugee camp. A woman named Ghotai sang it tunelessly through clenched teeth. She had come to the camp that day to search for a place to live. She and her husband had just been kicked out of their home by her husband’s brother, she said, and she was enraged at her husband for not standing up to his brother. Because her husband was too weak to protect her, she wished him dead. Like candy or sweets, popcorn is a treat in Afghanistan, much as it is in America.
Policharki is an infamous prison built by the Russians in Kabul. More recently, it has housed insurgents, American military contractors (accused of running a private prison for profit), and a motley array of thieves and murderers. Basbibi, who sang this poem and the two that follow, told me, “I am the mother of landays.” She lives in Char-i-Kambar, a Kabul refugee camp where more than two dozen people froze to death in 2012. One was her husband.
In the camp, there was also an ongoing war over water: who had the right to use the one pump. Basbibi’s brother was sent to Policharki Prison for killing a fellow refugee over water. The women who gathered in secret to listen to Basbibi sing for me were afraid that I would try to record the landays on my iPhone, so they covered the phone with pillows. They felt recording would violate their honor, and possibly get them in trouble with men. The only “school” any had attended took place in the camp where the women learned to sew and how to push the buttons on a mobile phone.
Basbibi was missing their village in Sangin, a rural district of Helmand province, which they’d fled under heavy nato bombing.
In Pashtun society, the village mullah is all-powerful and his word can doom any villager. The metaphor in the second landay is that separation is also all-powerful and unjust.
After Osama bin Laden attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, President Clinton retaliated by launching cruise missiles on Tora Bora and Khost. The first poem here grew popular at the time.
Remoti, which means remote control, applies to both remote control bombs and to unmanned aircraft, or drones. The second landay, scrawled on a metal fragment, was posted on Facebook with a comment saying that this was a piece of an mrap, a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle used by the U.S. military, a modern-day tank. According to the Facebook post, the Afghan Taliban left this landay on the torn-off door of an mrap that they’d blown up in Tangi Valley in 2009 for U.S. forces to find.
The first landay could be seen as an example of “Taliban poetry,” the anti-American verse that’s widely popular in Afghanistan. However, as noted in the introduction, not all poems that oppose the Americans belong to the Taliban. The rage against the international forces, especially in the southeast of the country, which has borne much of the brunt of war, is such that anti-American landays are fairly commonplace. Drone attacks make it worse. Because of their omnipresence in the skies above the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, drones have now entered into landays. Psychologically, their noisy presence and seemingly indiscriminate missles have taken a heavy toll on those who live beneath their flight path, waiting for the drones to strike. Even for those who hate the Taliban, the fear of drones has helped to drive support for the militants, as they’re seen as the only ones brave enough to fight the occupation of land and now sky.
The second landay was sung by Chadana, the mother of a Taliban fighter who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Zormat, in the southeastern province of Paktia, in 2011. Chadana had three sons: two became Taliban fighters and the third a policeman. She sang this landay about Nabi at a wedding where it was recorded on a cell phone and sent to her cousin, a businesswoman named Sharifa Ahmadzai, who repeated it to me in her home in Jalalabad.
Fighting jihad is a point of pride — as is, for men as well as women, oiling one’s hair. Thus this landay pokes fun at the arrogance and “borrowed glory” demonstrated by the Taliban female relatives, asking why they are so arrogant, since it is the men who are fighting, not the women.
Haram Bibi, sixty, is the mother of a forty-six-year-old man named Allah Mohamad who, along with his son Shahidullah, had been taken prisoner during a raid on their home in the village of Dawlatzai, in the province of Chaprihar two years earlier. She came from the mountains to tell me his story and to see if I could be of service in helping the family contact a lawyer. For six months the family had no word of where the men were. They assumed it was Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Haram Bibi began to sing landays during that time. Eventually they learned through the International Red Crescent Society that Allah Mohamad and his son were being held by U.S. forces at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. Soon after, they spoke to him via video conference. The family believes that he’s being held unjustly — that a jealous cousin set him up by telling the Americans rumors about him. They explain that they were in a land dispute with this cousin, and Allah Mohamad was the head of the village. Now that he’s in prison, the rival has taken his place and claimed the plot of disputed land between the two houses. “Why don’t the Americans ask what the relationship is between people in these kind of cases?” one family member asked when I met them. Whether or not their claim is accurate, this is a common problem, in which fellow family members or rivals accuse one another of links to the Taliban in the hope that the international forces might imprison their enemy.
This newer, remixed landay speaks of the rumored death of Mullah Omar, Emir of the Taliban — who is in fact most likely alive and well in Pakistan.
The first poem holds a double meaning, as the best landays do. Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan since 2001, is a hugely unpopular figure among Afghans. He’s widely seen as corrupt, even among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns, who also believe that he has sold the country out to American interests while promoting only his own. Here dollars are both a brand of clothing and a form of corruption. “Dollar,” like “Hillary Clinton,” “Bush,” and even “Titanic,” is a popular clothing label that Kabul tailors sew into suits.
As for the second landay, much of the Afghan heroin trade travels through Iran. Addiction rates are skyrocketing. In 2010, at least eight percent of the Afghan population — double the global average — was addicted to opium or heroin. In many places where food is scarce and medicine doesn’t exist, poppy is the cure-all.
In Gareshk, the rural hometown of Zarmina — the poet who’d set herself alight with heating oil — the hospital parking lot teemed with a parade of men, new mothers, and their swaddled babies on a warm February day in 2012. None of them looked like the teenage girl with whom I was hoping to meet. She, too, was a poet and she called herself Meena Muska, which means love smile. It looked like she’d stood me up, which was hardly surprising since at first she’d refused to see me. Muska was also a secret member of Mirman Baheer, the women’s literary circle. Although she’d never met any of the others, she phoned in regularly to read her fledgling poems. On the phone she called herself “The New Zarmina,” yet she’d never met the girl who’d recently died. Like Zarmina, she’d been pulled out of school by her father. Like Zarmina, poetry was her only link to ongoing education and the wider world. Like Zarmina, she seemed to be careening toward a family disaster which they were powerless to stop.
This alarmed the members of Mirman Baheer in Kabul, who feared that she too might kill herself. But as with so many young Afghan girls, it was too hard to tell, over a patchy phone line, whether she was simply prone to drama or under serious threat. When I asked (with the help of my translator Asma Safi) if I could meet her, Meena refused. It was dishonorable, Meena claimed, for a Pashtun to meet an American given the havoc that the U.S. had wreaked on Afghanistan. It was also impossible for her to leave her home without her father’s permission and even more improbable that I would be able to pay a visit. With Asma’s help, the two devised a plan on the phone: Meena would tell her father that she was sick and had to go see the doctor at the hospital. I would meet her there.
Now, here we were in the midst of a market town thick with militants, sweating under burqas and waiting. “She didn’t come,” I lamented to Asma. “Wait,” Asma said, “I think that’s her.” In front of our Toyota station wagon, a pair of rhinestone slippers poked out from beneath a mountain of jade cloth and it was clear that the woman was struggling with something. “She’s making a phone call,” Asma said. Sure enough, seconds later, Asma’s phone rang and the voice instructed her to go around the side of the building to a withered garden of matted grass and petrified roses. Meena wasn’t alone; she’d brought a chaperone, her meira, or second mother, her father’s second wife. Meena explained that in the end she’d whispered to her mother where she was going, in case we kidnapped her. Her mother had sent along this junior wife to keep her daughter safe.
The four of us — Meena, her meira, Asma, and I — sat in a circle on the grass and pulled back our burqas enough so that we could see each others’ faces without anyone wandering past being able to see us. With dark curly hair and pale green eyes, she was a beauty, probably about fifteen, she guessed. Like Zarmina, she’d been engaged since birth to a cousin, but he’d recently been killed by accident in a roadside bombing, and now she would have to marry either his much younger brother, or a much older one. Both repelled her, but this was the custom.
She pulled out a thin notebook with an apple tree on its cover. Here were her poems, which she didn’t want me to write down. They were no good, she said, plus she didn’t want them rendered in English, the enemy’s language. Instead, aloud, she shared the popular and ancient landay above (p. 288) because she too was separated from her dead fiancé. As Asma scribbled the Pashto down in my notebook, Meena pulled two combs from her purse. On them perched rhinestone butterflies. She gave one to me and one to Asma. I wanted to give her a book of my poems, but such a thing would endanger her should her father or brothers discover it. So instead I took the scarf from my neck.
For more than a year, I haven’t spoken to her. Her numbers (she had three mobile phones in her purse — clearly, a well-heeled girl) don’t work anymore, and after Asma’s heart failed on the way to the hospital in Kabul this past fall, it seemed all the harder. I suppose I could keep trying to reach her through Mirman Baheer, but no one could bridge our two worlds as Asma did. And I don’t want to have to explain to Meena that Asma’s dead. So our shared memory remains that one hour in the winter garden.
Eliza Griswold, a Guggenheim fellow, is the author of a collection of poems, Wideawake Field (2007) and a non-fiction book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault-line between Christianity and Islam (2010), which was awarded the Anthony J. Lukas Prize in non-fiction. Both books are published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She has had the pleasure to work with Seamus Murphy in Africa and Asia for more than a decade. She lives in New York City.
Seamus Murphy began photographing Afghanistan in 1994, leading to the book A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan (Saqi Books, 2008), a focus on the Afghan people through the turbulent years 1994–2007. His film of those experiences was nominated for a 2012 Emmy Award and received the 2012 Liberty in Media Prize. Murphy undertook three trips to Syria in 2012. His multimedia film Syrian Spring was nominated for a Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Reporting. Other accolades include seven World Press Photo Awards. He has made films for musician P.J. Harvey and a film on the London Olympics for the New Yorker. He is publishing a book of photographs on America in 2014. “Photography is part history, part magic,” says Murphy.
In Kabul: The people of wadan, including Mohammad Nasib, Jean Kissell, Inayat Niazi, also Z.S., Nancy Hatch Dupree, Taous Sajed and his brother, Kamran, Sulieman Laeeq, Gulistan Shinwari, Eimal Dorani, Mustafa Salik, David Pate, Mahmood Marhoon, Sahera Sharif and the women of Mirman Baheer, Rasool Sekandari, Habib Sekandari. In Helmand: Asma Safi, Ghulam Mohammad Safi, Abdul Rahman Zahir and Abdul Bari Roman, and Sharifa Ahmadzai. In Nangarhar: Zia-ul-Haq and Ghulam Mohammad Safi, Ihsanullah Safi. In addition: The Poetry Foundation, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the New York Times Magazine, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Pulitzer Center.
Note: All photographs in this issue were taken by Seamus Murphy between November 1994 and December 2012. Most of the photographs do not correspond to the people described in the adjacent prose.