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Interview by Katelyn Beaty


Shouts from Beneath the Burqa

Eliza Griswold's translations of Afghan folk poems.

I am shouting but you don't answer—

One day you'll look for me and I'll be gone from this world.

Such was the landay—a two-line folk poem repeated over centuries among Afghan nomads and farmers—that Rahila Muska recited over the phone to fellow Afghan women in 2010. A women's literary group, Mirman Baheer, meets every Saturday afternoon in the capital, Kabul, and hosts a call-in hotline that attracts young poets from rural provinces. After Rahila's sister caught her reading love poetry, Rahila's brothers beat her and destroyed her notebooks. Two weeks later, Rahila set herself on fire, then died.

Journalist and poet Eliza Griswold told Rahila's and other Afghan women's stories for The New York Times Magazine in 2012. Griswold's newest book—I Am the Beggar of the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), featuring photography by Seamus Murphy—is a collection of landay translations, which provide a window into the often unseen, surprising dimensions of Afghan women's lives. Many of the landays are bodily and bawdy. One memorable example from the book's opening section, on Love:

I'll kiss you in the pomegranate garden. Hush!

People will think there's a goat in the underbrush.

Others are brazenly confrontational, challenging husbands and fathers (most of Afghanistan's 15 million women are married by age 16; three out of four are forced marriages) as well as the political forces that shape their future:

May God destroy your tank and your drone,

You who've destroyed my village, my home.

Griswold read many of the landays aloud at this year's Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. Later, she spoke with Katelyn Beaty about the work of translating them as well as the ways they connect to Griswold's other work: The Tenth Parallel, a journalistic look at Christianity's and Islam's collision along the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator, and Wideawake ...

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