South Asian Heritage Month: the poetry of Afghanistan

Author - Lois Dale, Performance and Research Specialist: Rurality and Equalities, Business Improvement – Data and Business Intelligence, Resources Directorate - Shropshire Council

When I was growing up, the only cultural reference point I had for Afghanistan was “Carry On Up the Khyber”. I now know a little more about the history of Afghanistan, and I read with horror about the injustices that are being perpetrated there, particularly upon women and girls. During this South Asian Heritage Month, with its focus upon stories to be told, I therefore found myself thinking more and more about the women and girls of Afghanistan and what I might learn about their stories.

Here is what I found out, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation:

I call. You’re stone.

One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.

In Afghan culture, poetry is revered, particularly the high literary forms that derive from Persian or Arabic. But a folk couplet — a landay — is 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.

A landay has the following 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 Pashtu Pashtun woman as nothing but a mute ghost beneath a blue burqa.”

-Eliza Griswold, Poetry Foundation article, 2018.

Landays began among nomads and farmers. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. Decades of war have 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.

I’ll make a tattoo from my lover’s blood

and shame every rose in the green garden.

Eliza tells us that 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.

She also tells us that a working theory around the origins of landays traces them back to the Bronze-Age arrival of Indo-Aryan caravans to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. 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.

The oral tradition of these landays means that the words themselves evolve over time. Going back to colonial occupation by the British in the nineteenth century, the Poetry Foundation researcher found that a couplet that referred to a British solder now refers to an American soldier instead.

My lover is fair as an American soldier can be.

To him I looked dark as a Talib, so he martyred me.

And modern words enter the lexicon:

The drones have come to the Afghan sky.

The mouths of our rockets will sound in reply.

Come to Guantánamo.

Follow the clang of my chains.

But I would like to finish with an ancient one that resonates today.

Separation, you set fire

in the heart and home of every lover.

Page last updated 9 August 2023