Friday, June 12, 2015

I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan translated by Eliza Griswold, Photographs by Seamus Murphy

Landays, Afghan two-line poems, some centuries old, have an ephemeral quality, like a scrap of smoke in the air, or a remembered scent, hardly there. They are sung, or recited accompanied by a drum to keep time. Landays began among nomads and farmers and were sung around a campfire, though now both men and women use them in their daily life, as humor, as riposte, as an expression of grief or protest.

Eliza Griswold travelled to Afghanistan with the photographer Seamus Murphy when they’d heard a young woman was persecuted, and died, for writing poems. Her name was Zarmina. Zarmina also recited ancient landays, perhaps changing a word or two to reflect her own life. Griswold began to collect landays and with the collection she has shared with us, we are allowed deep into the national psyche.

Griswold explains her translation process, for which she won the 2015 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. First the translation would be literal and then she would work with academics, writers, journalists to achieve something in English approaching the power of the poem in Pashto. By every measure, she has succeeded.

It is extremely rare for a journalist to manage to portray with such depth, honesty, clarity, and humanity a culture foreign to readers. Griswold manages it in a slim book of poetry. On two facing pages she has placed one of Seamus Murphy’s photographs, and a two line poem. On the overleaf she explains the context of the poem and its meaning. Griswold’s restraint highlights the power of the landays.

A favorite photograph among the collection that are reprinted in this book I share with you here:

Some landays are just about the length of a tweet:
Your eyes aren’t eyes. They’re bees.
I can find no cure for their sting.

Some landays recited or sung at celebrations are recorded and shared with relatives or friends. Landays are commonly heard on the radio, or are shared now via Facebook or texted on a phone. What was a form of entertainment around a fire during a celebration has lingered in the national consciousness and become a coveted means of self-expression.

What makes this book so precious is the fact that it could have been nothing--a failure. It must have felt that way many times during the time Griswold and Murphy were working on the collecting, translating, polishing of the landays they present to us. But they really did something here: we get a sense of popular culture, and of the centuries-old richness of Afghan ancient culture. We see, finally, the rich internal life under the burqa.

The final landay and story in the book is extremely affecting: a fifteen-year-old calling herself “the new Zarmina” agrees to meet the author in a market town teeming with militants. She is unwilling to have her landays recorded or translated into the “language of the enemy,” though she has several written in a thin notebook with an apple tree on its cover. She instead recites an ancient landay:
Separation, you set fire
In the heart and home of every lover.

Griswold herself is a poet and a journalist. Some years ago I reviewed her account of the area in Africa where the clash of religions seems to originate, called The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam. The concept of that book also showed Griswold’s instinct to finger the pulse of a hotspot and take a reading. Griswold is more experienced now and she has gotten very good indeed at finding life where many others cannot. Congratulations to Griswold, Murphy, and the publisher Farrar, Strauss & Giroux for taking such a chance on a risky endeavor.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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