In Afghan culture, poetry is revered in high literary circles; however, there is a form of spoken poetry that is steeped deep in Afghan tradition called the landay, which is not highly revered. The landay is a couplet which is often sung to the beat of a hand drum. Music was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, and in some places, still is. The landay typically has 22 syllables: nine in the first line, 13 in the second and ends with the sound “ma” or “na.” They often do not rhyme. Landays, within their two lines, poignantly convey love, grief, and despair. They are created and sung by Pashtun women who reside between the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“You sold me to an old man, father.
May God destroy your home, I was your daughter.”
The Pashtun people are often illiterate, and the landay is often anonymous. The couplet is very powerful which contradicts our thought of a muted woman beneath a heavy burqa, but it is not only the subject matter which make them risqué. Singing, in the Afghan culture, is linked to licentiousness. Often a woman who is caught singing is considered a prostitute. Poetry, especially poetry about love, is off limits to Afghan women: it implies dishonor and free will. The use of the oral tradition allows women to remember and recite poems that are not only their own, but others have written and are relatable to them. The fact that these poems are not written down means that they cannot not be destroyed by anyone and can continue to be passed down throughout the generations. The landay is a way for the Pashtun women to express their feelings toward family, love, war, and living conditions they face.
“I’ll make a tattoo from my lover’s blood
and shame every rose in the green garden.”
Today, with technology, landays have seen some changes, but they are still standing strong. Young women are able to share their landays on social media and the words of their work reflect the changing times. However, this does not mean that it is acceptable in their culture for them to create or sing them.
“How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged now. Text me.”
Author Eliza Griswold, and photographer Seamus Murphy, are working to collect landays from the Pashtun women so they may be shared with the world. You can learn more about their endeavors and read some of the works collected at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/media/landays.html.