Amid recent election controversies, Bashir Sakhwaraz writes about Afghan women's poetry, the modern political verse about the Taliban, and 'Landai', anonymous love poems shorter than Haiku, all of which give voice to those who've been silenced or forced to speak in a man's name
Poems translated by Bashir Sakhwaraz
It has never been acceptable for women in Afghanistan to write poetry on any subject. But to write a poem expressing love for another has been considered a sin deserving capital punishment, not necessarily enforced by the authorities, but by the poet’s own relatives. One historic example is the poetry of the legendary Rabia Balkhi (910) – daughter of a powerful ruler of Balkh – which she dedicated to her lover Baktash, a commander in the army. Rabia’s brother Haris found out about this secret love affair through Rabia’s poetry. Her wrists were slit, leaving her to bleed to death. She wrote her last love poem in blood on the wall as she died:
I am captured by your love
trying to escape is not possible
love is an ocean without boundaries
a wise person would not want to swim in it
if you want love until the end
you must accept what is not accepted
welcome hardship with joy
eat poison but call it honey
Sadly, history repeats itself, most recently in 2005, when Nadia Anjuman, a young married woman and a well-known poet and journalist was killed by her husband in Herat, reportedly for writing poetry, any type of poetry.
Such cruelty towards women poets forces them to hide their talents, or, for the brave ones, to use male pen-names to conceal their identity. There are many ‘George Eliots’ in Afghan literature who have maintained a male identity until death. We find out about such women poets years after they have been buried, when the dust has truly settled. I would like to look at a few contemporary female poets, and admire their poetry, although some might say that yet again it is a male voice which addresses these issues…
There is another type of poetry in the Afghani Pashtun tradition, called Landai, anonymous and daring. Landai is a poem with two verses, shorter than a Haiku. It expresses forbidden erotic words and feelings, and often criticises authority and rigid religion. Even married women on occasion have resorted to Landai to declare their forbidden love with invitations like ‘come to the spring where I collect water. My husband is away.’ This type of poetry, no matter how disturbing to society, is tolerated, as entertainment, even though it often addresses serious subjects. Since nobody claims ownership of these poems, no reaction is required. There is no known target to hang or to stone to death.
It is not clear whether the women who wrote these erotic poems were really brave enough to have affairs with their lovers, but it is clear that they were brave enough to produce poems like these in a country where strict rules prevent women from having lovers:
The name of my lover is written on my body
I don’t want to wash
in case his name disappears.
Tomorrow is a celebration day
everyone wears clean clothes
I wear the same unwashed ones
they carry the scent of my lover.
Kiss me with your lips
but let my tongue be free
I want to tell you so many untold stories.
One night I dreamt of your death
in the morning my lips were cracked with dryness.
While women poets in Afghanistan still live in fear of being punished for describing their feelings, Afghan women who live in the West do not face such a fear. The internet has created opportunities for Aghan women to write freely, to write about explicit matters that even some Western women might not dare to address. Is this a reaction to centuries of not being able to write freely and not even having the basic right to a formal education?
Bahar Saied is one of the poets who lives in the West. She published her poems in Iran before the Iranian revolution, in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion, and in the West after she had left her homeland. Her poems are direct in criticising a society in which women have almost no role and where everything is decided by men. They attack religious leaders for using religion as a tool to suppress the voice of women. Here she expresses her feelings towards her lover without fear:
He kissed me once and stole my lips
and robbed me from sleep
I am scared if he touches my body
my patience will be invaded.
I have come to you to taste your body
my lips fall on yours, tasting your mouth
with my fingers I tear off your shirt
I taste the nakedness of your chest.
I am inhaling the perfume of your breath
and touching your body with my breast
tasting the burning of your body on mine.
Come and carve me, my body is yours
carve me in your heart in the night of dreams
come and carve me until morning
with beautiful touch and kiss.
I love the buttons on your collar
which ask me to open them
and throw myself on you.
Sanam Anbarin is another poet who has published a book of poetry titled, I Was Writing About You:
When my shirt
does not feel the rhythm of your heart
stops in my heart.
It is not a sin
if my lips are red with love
laugh at me or not
open the window or not
I don’t believe in winter’s subject matter
I know my way
If you come with me or not
I know my way alone
I know how to build a bridge between dawns.
Anjila Pagahi, who lives in Germany, is a revolutionary poet, standing against the violence of the Taliban and fighting for a better Afghanistan:
With the words Allāhu Akbar on your lips
you shed blood this way
your hands have the smell of hell
I know you follow Satan, you barbarian.
After the Taliban planted a bomb, concealed in a copy of the Quran in a mosque, Pagahi wrote:
You have made bomb out of the Quran
you cause so much misery.
Roya Zamani Hareva, an Afghan woman who lives in the UK, writes about social matters:
is not superiority
difference is beautiful
that I am woman
and you man
you will be lost with ecstasy
in the waves of my hair
I seduce you with my gaze
why can’t we accept
and enjoy our difference?
The Afghan women poets who live in the West have been able to write openly, but that doesn’t mean that those women who live in Afghanistan have been quiet. The fall of the Taliban has given women the space to address social issues, criticise injustice and to write about the evil of the Taliban era.
Karina Shabrang writes about the soldiers fighting with the Taliban:
I found you again soldier
in your own country
like the lost unity
I found you again soldier.
The political situation in Afghanistan can be blamed for much of the misery in the country. Samira Popalzai, a poet from Kabul, writes about the politics of Afghanistan:
The shadows of politics
once again raised their flag
colourful with blood of our young men
this endless cruelty
breaks our bones
and deceives us.
These women poets encourage the Afghan people to participate in a democratic process, to establish a stable Afghanistan for the future. Their poems in support of the current elections can be seen in Afghan papers, magazines and online. The Taliban have been trying hard to disrupt the electoral process and prevent people from participating. Rahela Yar, a poet who lives in Germany, has published three poetry books entitled: Bud of Songs, Why the River Doesn’t Talk About our Cries and The Sadness of Songs. Here she is on the subject of the latest elections:
Someone brings material for explosion
someone is a suicide bomber
someone has cut off my finger for voting
God would you listen to my pain?
And Karima Shabrang, a poet from the northern province of Afghanistan, writes about her pride in being a woman:
I am a woman
a woman who is not unable
a woman who lives with pride
a woman who fights for her rights
I am a woman who would never surrender.
No one denies the fact that Afghan women haven’t yet gained the freedom to be able to shape the future of their country. The fear of the Taliban is strong enough to force women in the city to hide their faces behind veils, in contrast to what women were wearing between 1960-1990. However, this fear no longer silences women, who are becoming ever more vocal in expressing their personal feelings, as well as their feelings for a country that belongs to them too.