June 2013 Discussion Guide

Capturing a Foreign Land

Poems and Pictures of Contemporary Afghanistan

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Eliza Griswold
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The June 2013 issue of Poetry explores the dusty plains, towering mountains, and powerful poetry of contemporary Afghanistan. Writer Eliza Griswold hunted for indigenous lyrics called landays in that country's private houses, refugee camps, and wedding ceremonies; Seamus Murphy's photographs provide an ongoing counterpoint to the poems she found. The landay, Griswold explains, 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."

Each poem includes only two lines—the first features nine syllables, the second thirteen—but their brevity belies the breadth of their themes, "war, separation, homeland, grief, or love." They are generally shared in private settings, partly because they are traditionally sung, and Afghan culture links singing with sin: "Women singers are viewed as prostitutes," Griswold notes. During one clandestine session of landay-sharing, women were so concerned that Griswold would record landays on her iPhone that they buried the phone under pillows: "They felt recording would violate their honor, and possibly get them in trouble with men."

How does knowing this cultural background affect your response to the landays in this issue? Do they seem like privileged information that we are lucky to access? Does all poetry feel that way, to some extent, when we encounter it in a journal or book—private utterances at odds with the public forum where they appear, even as they rely on that forum for their dissemination?

Griswold describes a society where women are themselves often hidden—kept in houses, shrouded under burqas—and it's fitting that some of these landays focus on interior spaces:

In Policharki Prison, I’ve nothing of my own,
except my heart’s heart lives in its walls of stone.

This poem describes a disjuncture between the external and the internal: within the stone prison walls resides the speaker's "heart's heart." Policharki Prison, Griswold tells us, is "an infamous prison built by the Russians in Kabul"; we might understand it metaphorically, as any loathed enclosure—an unwanted marriage, a repressive society—within which humanity persists. Notice the turn in the landay's second line: "nothing of my own," the speaker says—except, that is, for her "heart's heart." Such surprising juxtapositions characterize many of these landays:

My body belongs to me;
to others its mastery.

The first line is a declaration of independence complicated—and nearly canceled—by the second. The body belongs to its owner, yet others control it. That contradiction mirrors the disorienting experience of many Afghan women: their bodies are theirs, and yet fathers can elect to keep girls indoors, and arranged marriages are common. "When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others," reads the second line of one landay. Not all landays traffic in serious themes. This light-hearted poem plays with juxtaposition to a decidedly sillier effect:

Send my salams to my lover.
If he’s a farter, I fart louder.

The first line seems to belong to a traditional love poem—but the second changes the landay's course, transforming it into a gesture of bawdy defiance. "Among Afghans, farting is far more embarrassing and shameful than it is in the West," Griswold explains, and so the woman's description of her lover as a "farter" is a deep insult. Whatever he has done to deserve this title, she hints, she can repay in kind.

If landays let us hear Afghan women, Seamus Murphy's photographs let us see them. Many of these images serve as rebuttals to the all-concealing burqa: they display the particularities of girls and women, inciting our curiosity about their lives. On page 202, a girl stares at us, dark circles under her eyes, premature lines marking her face. She's frowning, brows furrowed, as though we've caught her in a moment of trouble. But her painted fingernails accent the bitterness with sweetness, like a cube of sugar in coffee. What's behind the seriousness of her gaze?

What about the girl in the bottom photograph on page 229 who stares at us, eyes large, mouth drawn into a line parallel to the cut of her bangs? Is she curious? Amused? Is the fabric fluttering from her head about to blow away? The young woman on the following page glances at us over her shoulder like an Afghan version of Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring," while her male companion looks away from us, toward a fountain. Here she, not he, is the center of attention; she, not he, is exposed to the public eye. But what are they doing there? What is their relationship? Lacking captions, these photos remain open to interpretation, rather like the poems themselves. And, like the poems, they make use of juxtapositions: nail polish and headscarves, girls and boys, gazes that meet our eyes and gazes that avoid them.

Murphy captures covered women, too; on pages 194, 266, and elsewhere, burqas ripple with a surreal beauty. Our questions about those women are even broader: are they young or old, smiling or frowning? What landays would they recite, if we could hear them speak?

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