Poetry of the Women of Afghanistan

 A woman holds a ripped image to her face in the National Gallery in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 6, 2002. The picture, along with other art and artifacts depicting the human face, especially of women, had been destroyed or damaged by the Taliban during their regime. Photo by Seamus Murphy

A woman holds a ripped image to her face in the National Gallery in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 6, 2002. The picture, along with other art and artifacts depicting the human face, especially of women, had been destroyed or damaged by the Taliban during their regime. Photo by Seamus Murphy

Landays are two-line poems from Afghanistan; the word landay meaning short, poisonous snake. Reading them opens up the hidden world of Pashtun women. I hope the photographs conjured here from absorbing their wisdom and provocation can achieve something similar.

What makes landays even more remarkable is that the poetry comes from mostly illiterate Pashtun women leading isolated lives in rural areas. In the form of a 22- syllable couplet, they anonymously cover risky and taboo subjects; love, loss, exile, sex, drones, the Taliban, the weakness of men, being sold to old men, America.

Anonymity is the key to their candor, as it was the license I used to approach this as a photographer. As I couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t photograph the women, itfreed me to capture what they wrote about. Life, and their lives in Afghanistan.

Poet and writer Eliza Griswold and I had long talked about collaborating on a project about Afghanistan that would satisfy our particular curiosity for the place. Eliza worked on the words and I worked on the imagery. Poetry Magazine in the U.S. is devoting its June 2013 issue to the word and picture story we produced, the first time in 100 years of publishing they have given an entire edition to one subject.

I have made a short film on the subject, titled Snake, which will premiere on the Poetry site as well as screen at various scheduled events which will be listed on the VII site. The commentary in the film is the only relevant one; the voice of their poetry. A book of the work will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2014.

On two trips in 2012 we went in search of landays in cities, villages and refugee camps in the provinces of Kabul, Parwan, Helmand and Nangrahar. I also drew from my archive of almost 20 years work and travel all over the country. Moving and still pictures for this project are about the world the women inhabit. I wanted to show the drama, emotion, humor and darkness of their poetry, and thus their lives.

Photographs that were tricky enough for me to take just a few years ago would be now impossible. Afghanistan and its fortunes ebb and flow, the country opens and closes, usually at the behest of outside powers. It seems to be slowly closing down again, a darkness beckoning.

These will be the voices of truth and protest most at risk in the country’s future.

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