Poetry requires upheavals (and women)

From Slyvia Path to Kamala Das, from Maya Angelou to Katherine Austen, history is rife with examples of women using poetry for a larger cause. Today, in Afghanistan women are once again using this personal craft for political purposes. Dhanya Nair observes.

And the Mountains Echoed

 

As a prolific story teller, Khaled Hosseini’s biggest strength perhaps lies in how he builds his character. In Kite Runner, he gave us Hassan, the soft-spoken China-doll faced Hazara boy who is sodomised violently by antagonist Assef. In A thousand Splendid Suns we were introduced to Mariam, an illegitimate ethnic Tajik girl who tries to pursue her relationship with her father only to suffer abuse. In  And the Mountains Echoed, Hosseini once again sketches many memorable characters but the one character who is going to stay with me is Nila Wahadati.

Cigarette smoking, sleeveless mini- dress wearing Nila is a stylish, gifted yet condemned poet who writes passionate poems about love, desire, freedom, loss and sex. The time was 1950s when Kabul was a rather cosmopolitan society. According to a 2002 article in the Journal of Middle East Studies, the literature coming out of Afghanistan at the time was influenced by both American and European writers (like John Steinbeck and Maxim Gorki) as well as ancient Middle Eastern texts.

Poetry has held a pivotal place in Afghan culture. Interestingly, Afghanistan was noted for its poetic language even before its Islamic conquest in the 7th through 11th centuries. Prominent female poets include Rabia Balkhi and the 17th century Nazo Tokhi among others. But due to political unrest and wars in the country, many women poets remained hidden.

Yet Nila who wrote about female desire, about “lovers whispering across pillows, touching each other,”  is scorned by her own people in her native land as a result of which she maintains a rather turbulent relationship with her own craft.

The rebellious Nila Wahadati might be a fictitious character but female poets have held a silent yet commanding position in Afghan literature. Poetry has held a pivotal place in Afghan culture. Interestingly, Afghanistan was noted for its poetic language even before its Islamic conquest in the 7th through 11th centuries. Some of the famous poets from the region include Rumi, Rahman Baba, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Timur Shah Durrani, Shuja Shah Durrani and many others. Prominent female poets include Rabia Balkhi and the 17th century Nazo Tokhi among others. But due to political unrest and wars in the country, many women poets remained hidden.

In fact, Hosseini writes in the book, “Even the graffiti artists in Kabul spray-paint verses of Rumi on the walls.” With such rich legacy there is no reason why women could not resort to poetry. So, while like Nila they used poetry to speak about freedom and identity unlike her they do it secretly. At Mirman Baheer, a women’s literary society in Kabul several girls secretly call to recite their poem. While in Kabul, this society whose members comprise educators, scholars, government officials and professional writers, can get away without any subterfuge in the outlying provinces of Khost, Paktia and Kandahar many women secretly defy their fathers, brothers and husbands for poetry.

Kamala Das (Suraiyya)
Kamala Das (Suraiyya)
Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou

Poetry is often considered as a personal craft yet history is rife with examples of women who have taken the recourse of poetry to challenge patriarchy. Noted American poet Slyvia Path, in her famous poem “Daddy”, subtly compares patriarchy with a superior father figure and states how it infantilises women, preventing them from reaching their full potential. Feminist African-American poet, Maya Angelou, in her poem, “Caged Bird,” compares women to a caged bird who is terminally trapped in a man’s world. Exuberant poet Kamala Das, from South India, who started a revolution in India by writing poems in English in the early 1900s, wrote about sexual freedom and liberation from domestic oppression. There was an unbridled intimacy about her work that challenged the notions of gender superiority.

In Afghanistan, poetry written in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun ethnic group has a particularly interesting legacy. Pashtun poetry has long been a form of rebellion for Afghan women, defying the notion that they are submissive or defeated. Landay which means “short, poisonous snake” also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, raging, and often tragic, landay are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landay; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers yet not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women.

Noted American poet Slyvia Path, in her famous poem “Daddy” states how patriarchy infantilises women, preventing them from reaching their full potential. Feminist African-American poet, Maya Angelou, in her poem, “Caged Bird,” compares women to a caged bird who is terminally trapped in a man’s world.

A landay has only a few formal properties. Landay is distinctive not only for its beauty, bawdiness, and wit, but also for its piercing ability to articulate an unpalatable truth about war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. Within these five main tropes, the couplets express a collective fury, a lament, an earthy joke, a love of home, a longing to end separation, a call to arms, all of which bother Afghan women.

For many Afghan women, especially those from rural areas, poetry which they hear from each other or secretly from the radio, is the only way which to gain any form of education. As young girls are often married to older men those who secretly follow their passion for poetry are often doing so at a great risk. In the book, Nila flees the country with her adopted daughter in 1955 but many Afghan women unabashedly engage in poetry because for them that is the only road to freedom.

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