“Your eyes aren’t eyes, they’re bees
I find no cure for their sting”

enter image description hereThe above is a “landay,” or a folk couplet, common among the Pashtuns living on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This particular one was written by one of the twenty million women. The creators and listeners of landay, which are meant to be sung aloud, do not have to be literate, and in Pashtu the landays rarely rhyme. The only formal property of a landay is that it consists of 22 syllables, nine in the first line and 13 in the second. The poem ends with the sound “ma” or “na.”

The story of the landay, the above selection, and many others written by predominantly Afghan women, were compiled, collected, translated, and then published by Poetry Magazine in the United States. The author of the volume, Eliza Griswold, traveled across Afghanistan collecting them. The result is an evocative collection that allows a glimpse into the private world of Pashtun women, one largely unavailable for public consumption. There are landays about lost loves, landays about drones, landays about emotional misgivings, and personal ones. As Griswold narrates, collecting them was difficult; the women were often afraid. In one instance, when she tried to take a picture of the gathering with her iPhone, they took it from her and hid it. In Pakistan, everyone would know why; we bury women for transgressions caught on cell phones all the time.

There is something sorrowful about reading the account in an American magazine, much like learning of a neighbor’s illness from the mouth of a distant, faraway acquaintance. But such is the reality of our estranged proximities. In the decade of fighting the Taliban, from the days when they were a mysterious faraway force marauding Kabul, to the present when their names, faces, and ravages are well known, Pakistanis have never really learned much about either Pashtun or Afghan culture. As the Tehreek-e-Taliban have usurped the rhetoric of religion – appointing themselves the arbiters of authenticity, of righteousness, and of faith – there has been protest. Many mourn and question this; Islam must not be lost to the Taliban.

Fewer have mourned the loss of Pashtun culture, of poetic forms such as the landay, of traditional music, of storytelling. The politicisation of Pashtun identity has meant that the loss has been constructed in entirely political terms, cultural appreciation thus neatly equaling ethnic segregation. Pakistan’s aging but persisting ethnic enmities have dictated that any appreciation of cultural tropes associated with ethnic identity must be celebrated only by those who either ascribe to that identity or who have forgotten it completely. Add to this that the loudest, brashest, and most violent claimants of culture usually win, and you have a rout in which the Tehreek-e-Taliban own Pashtun culture.

The dynamics above, the language of geopolitical maneuvering, and strategic balancing has dominated Pakistan’s understanding of its next door neighbor. Any remaining space has been filled by images of an encroaching refugee horde, in the 80’s and the 90’s and recently as a result of the Nato invasion. The dark grays and blues and beards and burqas of the men and women that live on the outskirts of our cities add to this stark and dehumanised palette. There is no room for culture here, no room for understanding. Humanising the Pashtun and the Afghan is thought to impose costs far too dear for us to bear. After all, our bloody cities, our bombed schools have given us enough to mourn and little left; looking to the pain in another’s poetry may impose still more costs, and we are all emotionally bankrupt.

So it is left to others to celebrate the landay. In the Pakistani imagination, Afghanistan remains a black hole of mystery populated only by worn images of fighters perched on mountain promontories and nameless, faceless women in blue burkas. What we have in common, the Pashtuns that live here and there, has been understood only in terms of the political liabilities they impose or, on good days, the strategic gifts they can bestow. The state is dismal and it can best be captured by the landay that begins the essay published in Poetry magazine. Written by a teenage poet who goes by the name Rahila Muska, from Helmand in Afghanistan, it simply says:

“I call, You’re a stone
One day you’ll look and find I’m gone.”

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