The writer on translating Pashto landays, the faces of violence in conflict zones, and why poetry offers a form of liberation that journalism cannot.
Image by Antonin Kratochvil
“News isn’t designed to talk about daily life in its nuances, but poetry is,” says journalist and poet Eliza Griswold. The 2012 Guggenheim Fellowship-winning journalist and author of the 2007 collection Wideawake Field: Poems has spent the last decade and a half reporting on global conflict, and interpreting its impact through poetry—often using religion as a lens.
Griswold’s interest in faith stems from her upbringing as the daughter of a presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. “When I was reporting in the wake of September 11th in Iraq and elsewhere, I felt I had the capacity to talk to people whose beliefs might sound outlandish to more secular journalists,” she explains in the interview that follows. “I felt like I could be a translator between those two worlds.”
It is this inclination toward interpretation that inspired Griswold’s most recent work, I Am the Beggar of the World: Landays From Contemporary Afghanistan, published this spring by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In the book, Griswold showcases what she and her translators spent two years collecting, transliterating, and translating: landays, two-line, twenty-two-syllable poems that emerged from an ancient oral tradition among Afghan women. The collection’s couplets convey a blend of romance and sass, rage and fear, strength and solidarity. They reveal that, contrary to prevalent Western perceptions, Pashtun women are “brutally aware of their station” in the wake of Taliban rule.
Griswold’s exploration of Afghan poetry derives from her extensive work in the region as a journalist. She began her career as a stringer in 2001, reporting on the global war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and others. She has also covered Islamic militant groups, among them, Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. “I’ve reported on Boko Haram since before Boko Haram was Boko Haram,” she told the New York Times’s 6th Floor blog; in 2007, she narrowly escaped a near-death encounter at the hands of the organization. Her research on Islamic fundamentalism eventually inspired her New York Times-bestselling nonfiction book The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam, which examines the geographical line of latitude on which Christianity and Islam so frequently collide.
Griswold recently returned to reporting on Boko Haram for her June 2014 New York Times Magazine cover story “Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat?” She maintains, “Terrorism flourishes in places of injustice rather than in places of poverty,” and in her journalism, poetry, and translations, strives to capture the implications of oppression in the world’s most war-torn regions.
—Yaffa Fredrick for Guernica
Guernica: You are both a poet and journalist, and in your latest work, I Am The Beggar of the World: Landays From Contemporary Afghanistan, you combine both sets of skills. How did these two distinct crafts inform the book?
Eliza Griswold: I see the world in both ways—and at the same time. The book arose from being in Kabul and knowing that so much of the meaning of daily life gets missed in the headlines. News isn’t designed to talk about daily life in its nuances, but poetry is.
With the photographer Seamus Murphy, I came across this book of landays that had been gathered by Sayd Majrouh in the ’80s, during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. These were poems told by women in refugee camps on the Pakistan side of the border. In English, the book’s title translates to Songs of Love and War, but the French title—which is closer to the Pashto title—is Songs of Love and Suicide. There is this reality for many Afghan women whereby suicide is a form of self-expression.
For many years, I would sit and Google the word “landays,” thinking nobody was ever going to send us to Afghanistan to collect poetry. But one day I came across this story of a young woman who had killed herself, and she killed herself because her family wouldn’t allow her to write poems. That’s as much as this little news squib said, and the one poem that survived her was one of these landays. The reason it survived was because they are anonymous. They’re collective, they’re oral, there is no crushing or burning. Her father had ripped up her notebooks, but he couldn’t destroy this poem.
Seamus and I set off to tell the story of this young woman, but at the same time to figure out if it was feasible to collect these poems. And what we found was that it was indeed feasible. These poems were more alive and prevalent in Afghan life than we had understood. So we went back for another trip to simply collect the poems as purely as we ever could from women—not those living in exile and refugee camps in Pakistan but those who were as close to their own villages as possible. Some were living in exile in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.
Guernica: Landays have traditionally been part of an oral tradition rather than a written one. Did you ever feel as though you were violating this custom by recording and documenting these poems?
Eliza Griswold: One of the things about landays is that they thrive in a modern context. Early on I went to this incredible Pashtun novelist, Mustafa Salik, who is a bestselling novelist in Afghanistan and works for the BBC in Pashto. With the question of the sanctity of the poems in mind, I asked him, “Aren’t you worried? They’ve been posted on Facebook and such.” And he said, “Just the opposite. This is a folk form; they survive and thrive as people share them.” And I asked what he thought was most important to translate into English, and he said, “The poems that work. If they don’t work in English, leave them.”
There’s a wonderful article by Susan Stewart about the crimes of the ballad, about what it means to take them out of what is essentially ceremonial space and into literate space. That’s a question people have with folk poetry in general. But I think that space has been violated so many times, I didn’t think about it once.
I worked with two young women translators. One died and the other received a death threat from the Taliban.
Guernica: Can you explain your process of translation from Pashto to English?
Eliza Griswold: I don’t speak Pashto, but it’s relatively easy to pick up the language of these poems. The poems are about nine words long, and the words that they feature repeat: janan, janana, “my love”; topak, “gun”; kitaab, “book”.
I worked with two young women translators. One died and the other received a death threat from the Taliban. That’s the reality of life for young women in Afghanistan. I would travel with them over the course of this project, and we would sit with the poets. By the way, neither of the translators were particularly interested in poetry. The translators—one I’ll call Z and the other Asma Safi, to whom the project is dedicated—would write down the nine-or-so-words-long poems. I wouldn’t even get the translation. All I’d know is that one’s about Hamid Karzai and chas, which means heroin. I can hear “Hamid Karzai” and I can hear “chas.” Or I’d hear “ Guantánamo” and “Barack Obama.” The ones that were particularly relevant I could pick up on, at least a bit.
So we’d collect the poems in real time, and it was so time-consuming just getting the women to slow down enough so we could repeat the poems. And we would follow up with them; frequently, there were mistakes. But because they’re oral, the idea of mistakes is somewhat suspect.
We’d sit down, and I’d create with these women a translation. These poems typically have nine syllables in the first line and thirteen syllables in the second. Most of them appeared to say “of by with” because they used prepositions a lot to make the syllable count right. And then it would go something like, “Moon, my darling.” And the next line would be, “By with my darling gun.”
I’m thinking of the one that says, “Send my salaams to the mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his book and come home.” That’s a very old landay. The contemporary landay, which is a riff on that and also a criticism of the Taliban is, “Send my salaams to the mullah. Tell him to let my beloved put down his gun and come home.”
From our transliterations, I sat with a journalist, a few literary guys, and Pashtun women, and we would play with the translations until they were right. I felt I had a lot of latitude in translating them because they have a lot of latitude in oral presentation.
Guernica: As a poet yourself, have you been inspired to compose any of your own landays? And how would a Western landay compare to an Afghan landay?
Eliza Griswold: I haven’t tried, but maybe I should? In terms of the Western landay, I think the closest thing we have is rap music. The power of the voice in rap is about the expression of truth, rather than the expression of some kind of artifice. Landays, they’re about love and pleasure and oppression and levels of oppression within a family. And because of that, I think rap music is probably closely related.
If we think about folk forms, they belong to disenfranchised people, people who have not been allowed access to the poetry of literature or the leisure time that comes with the pursuit of poetry. Instead, this is ceremony. This is a highly charged way to create a sacred space that isn’t necessarily about God, but is about human experience at its most profound levels—whether that’s love or grief, separation, or homeland. All are altered states.
If we were to see Western landay poems, we’d see them out of disenfranchised populations, maybe out of the legacy of slavery. Spirituals, rap music—that would be the space we’d find American landays in.
That being said, I’m very humbled by the idea of writing them. I think most good poetry is about suffering; I think that’s what underlies the love in these pieces—suffering and longing.
Guernica: How did you choose the title I Am the Beggar of the World?
Eliza Griswold: Not everyone loves the title. I love the title because I love the poem that it comes from: “In my dream, I am the president. When I awake, I am the beggar of the world.” I also love the moment from which it came—a woman sitting in a refugee camp, a de facto group of houses beside the road. She had arrived that day, and she was so angry and bitter.
When I would ask women to tell me landays, and they were comfortable enough to do so, they’d tell me ones that reflected the state of their own lives. And this one poet was very pissed off, as it says in the book, because her husband’s brother had kicked them out, so she’d had to come to a refugee camp. And that poem, her poem, reflects a kind of self-conscious doubleness of life for Afghan women.
I really wanted to make sure that self-consciousness was part of the project itself. For me, that was probably the greatest lesson in this project. Seeing the Afghan women in their burqas, it’s easy to say, “Well, they’re not as fully aware as I am, so why do I have to worry so much about their plight?” But that’s a misunderstanding. They are brutally aware of their station.
Guernica: Most of these women are illiterate, uneducated, and raised under strict Taliban rule, and yet poetry is the medium through which they choose to express their feelings. What about poetry makes it so accessible?
Eliza Griswold: In most of the world, poetry has such a different reputation than it does in Western culture. Poetry is a popular genre in Afghanistan. If you turned on the radio, there would be a poetry program that would be as popular as The Real Housewives. People aren’t listening to poetry as if they’re taking their vitamins. Instead, it’s a popular vessel you can fill with anything. You could fill it with sass. You could fill it with rage. You could fill it with political statements.
Poetry isn’t as relevant in the Western world as it is in Afghanistan. And not many people make time for something that doesn’t feel relevant.
I can’t imagine how Afghanistan’s fall isn’t going to be ten times faster than Iraq’s.
Guernica: One of my favorite sets of landays explores the hate Afghan women have for both the Taliban’s oppression and the American occupation. How were you hoping these poems would affect readers?
Eliza Griswold: If these poems reach a housewife in Ohio who was turned off by Afghanistan because it’s too sad, and she then reads some landays that are sexy and funny—if these poems help puncture a deliberate rejection of political awareness, then that would be ideal. That’s what I hope they can do.
It’s not about restoring individuality, because these poems are not about individuality; that’s in itself a Western concept. But maybe they can restore the humanity to a group of women who’ve been painted with a very broad brush in mainstream media.
Guernica: Once America withdraws from Afghanistan, how do you think the shift in power will impact these women’s lives?
Eliza Griswold: The future of Afghanistan is incredibly dark, and decisions are happening incredibly quickly. Speculation is a fool’s game, but I’ve seen many political projections that look like the Taliban could hold most of the country, and possibly Kabul, within perhaps a short time. I can’t imagine how Afghanistan’s fall isn’t going to be ten times faster than Iraq’s.
The role of women in that space is terrifying, and the idea of retribution is a nightmare. The reason one of my translators received a death threat is not because the Taliban really cared what she was doing with us but because there was a fight over land in her family. Her cousins sold her out and informed local Taliban members that she was working with Westerners in order to undermine her family’s claim to the land. The local Taliban fed that information to the big boys in Quetta on the Pakistani border, and then the big boys got interested and sent down this death threat. What looks from a distance like a patriarchal move by the Taliban is actually a family dispute, and that frequently happened with the detainees in Bagram.
In the book, the poems sung about a couple of Bagram detainees are explained through one of those land disputes. It’s not just the idea of the Taliban taking over, or the safe haven that would allow for Al Qaeda and its mushrooming affiliates. It’s the opportunity for violence—and that violence will come down disproportionately on women, which I find the most frightening.
Guernica: In your first nonfiction book, The Tenth Parallel, you mention that you were brought up by a prominent, liberal Episcopal bishop. I’m curious to hear more about your upbringing. How did it shape what you wanted to cover as a reporter?
Eliza Griswold: My upbringing was pretty interesting. It was a rigorous, intellectual upbringing, but with the idea that we were a part of an important and legitimate enterprise. What that meant was sitting around the dinner table from a really early age with people from all different backgrounds who believed in God. When I was reporting in the wake of September 11th in Iraq and elsewhere, I felt I had the capacity to talk to people whose beliefs might sound outlandish to more secular journalists. I felt like I could be a translator between those two worlds. So I embarked on The Tenth Parallel.
It’s important to understand that violent Islam is only one face of violent religion.
Guernica: I understand you developed an interest in militant and terrorist groups while you were reporting in Africa. What led you to cover Al Shabab in Somalia and Kenya or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
Eliza Griswold: I was examining what religious identity meant in Africa. Along the edge of the Islamic world, what patterns were shaping identity? And the truth is, when I looked at the rise of violent forms of religion, no single identity was prevalent. It’s central to note that in Nigeria, that tree is rooted primarily in Christianity. Before Boko Haram, there were Christian militants. It’s not just Islamic militants in the Middle Belt, where the two religions meet. And though the Christian militants are certainly not the cause of Boko Haram, it’s important to understand that violent Islam is only one face of violent religion. What one Christian bishop has said is, “Islam doesn’t have a monopoly on violence in Africa.” And violence plays a particularly critical role in places where statehood is weak at best, such as the Maghreb.
Eliza Griswold: The most dangerous thing I’ve ever encountered was a run-in with Boko Haram around 2007 in a small town in Nigeria. I got caught along with the photographer I was working with, the same one I worked with on the Afghanistan book, Seamus Murphy. We were caught in an attack by a mob after Friday prayers. And the level of violence was so extreme. It was more violent than any other mob violence I have ever seen. Now, I don’t know if that incident happened to be an outlier or whether it had to do with us, two foreigners in this small town. It was pretty intense.
Guernica: Can you talk about your recent New York Times Magazine cover story, “Can General Linder’s Special Operations Forces Stop the Next Terrorist Threat?”?
Eliza Griswold: It’s about American special forces in Africa and about the degree of rising threat. The truth is, terrorism flourishes in places of injustice rather than in places of poverty. As I mentioned, I was almost killed by the African Taliban—now known as Boko Haram—so this is not a new issue. But the connective tissue between African terrorist groups is a new dilemma.
My feeling is that the United States has to engage. And that doesn’t mean just more water projects; in many cases, the US military does water projects better than USAID does. It’s not 2002. We know what war means, and we know what poverty means. We need to develop a better model for reaching out to the world than we have. Most of the work I’ve been most committed to as a journalist has come out of Africa, and so I returned to that with this piece.
Guernica: In discussing that article, you said of Special Ops, “Our Hollywood image of them is of door-kickers…. That’s how Hollywood has sold them to us. That is a major distortion.” What else surprised you in covering that story?
Eliza Griswold: One surprise was the level of sophistication among African militants, which has really skyrocketed since I was last there, doing reporting for my book in 2007. Their sophistication, the intricacy of their networks, the links between them—established partly in Mali—really surprised me.
But I would also say I was surprised by the level of sophistication of the Special Operation forces. Among them were anthropologists and PhD candidates. I felt because I understand the patterns of nineteenth-century jihad in West Africa that I was definitely going to be more advanced than they were in comprehending what the militant rallying cry was. And the truth is they not only understood the history of jihad in the nineteenth century, they could pinpoint exactly what groups were operating where and why. They were way more in touch with what was happening on the ground than I had assumed they would be.
Guernica: How do you see the relationship between your two careers: poetry and journalism?
Eliza Griswold: They overlap in that they are based on paying close attention to what is going on around you and what is going on a world away. But one form of writing does liberate me more than the other: poetry allows me to write about what I don’t know, whereas journalism demands a higher level of certainty to be worthy of being written. You can’t be wrong in journalism. Take a wrong turn in journalism, and you are writing fiction. You can take a wrong turn in poetry, and something wonderful can happen.
To contact Guernica or Yaffa Fredrick, please write here.