Snakes That Strike

Photos of Afghanistan at UA Poetry Center illuminate a subversive form of women’s poetry

Not long before her death by suicide, a teenage girl in Afghanistan composed a poem. It was just 22 syllables long, in her native language of Pashto, but each syllable was packed with rage and despair.

Here's what it looked like in English:

I call. You're stone.

One day you'll look and find I'm gone.

A short time later, the girl called a women's poetry collective in Kabul to tell her fellow poets that she was dying. Her brothers had beaten her after discovering that she was writing poetry, and she had set herself on fire in protest. She died in the spring of 2010.

The poem survived her. So did her story.

Photographer Seamus Murphy, whose work is on exhibit in "Shame Every Rose" at the UA Poetry Center, and journalist Eliza Griswold had long reported on Afghanistan. They'd been frustrated by the shallowness of the war coverage, Murphy said in a lecture last month at the center, and had been looking to collaborate on a story that would dive deeper than this day's bombing or that day's maiming.

When they heard about Zarmina, the dead poet, they pitched her story successfully to the New York Times Magazine. Traveling twice to Afghanistan, they not only learned more about Zarmina, but about the form of poetry she practiced.

Her work was a landay, a subversive oral poem created by Pashtun women living in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The landays are usually sung, and women who compose them are mostly illiterate; they share their works secretly with other women. Murphy noted that the age-old landays deal with age-old subjects: war, love, separation from the homeland, suffering.

Griswold managed to collect landays from women in their homes (she herself wore a burqa so neighbors wouldn't suspect that a foreigner was about). The women were nothing like the "mute ghosts in blue burqas" that westerners suppose them to be, Griswold reported in Poetry magazine. Their conversation, like their landays, was witty, explosive, and even ribald. One woman changed an old poem about a man distracted by his books: he now is obsessed by his gun.

Tell my beloved

To put down his gun

And come here.

As a man, Dublin-born Murphy was excluded from these furtive sessions, so instead of photographing female poets in their homes, he shot the teeming life they encountered everyday on the streets. Working in both color and black and white, he made vivid photos of throngs bustling between bicycles, little girls' dresses hanging for sale in market stalls. He found women invisible in their blue burqas to be sure, but he also found smiling young girls, their faces as yet uncovered.

And inevitably, he found signs of war. In one grisly color photo in the show, a young women lies wounded on a bed in a medical tent, bright red blood pouring from her face and staining her shirt. In another, shot in black and white, women and children cower behind a fence, hiding from what appears to be a battle raging in the distance. One landay comments on the war:

My darling, you are like the Americans

Even though you are guilty

I must apologize.

Murphy and Griswold expect to publish a book combining his images with her text (she translated the landays herself), but the show at the Poetry Center focuses mostly on the photography. Murphy did not pair particular landays with particular photos. Instead, he tried to reflect the poems' sharp point-counterpoint by showing his images in pairs. (The landays have been called snakes because the final line strikes out at the listener.)

In one pair of photos, blown up to life-size, a veiled woman bows her head and mourns at the crumbling wall of a destroyed building. This image, on the right-hand side, is in subdued black and white.

But at left, in full color, is the side that strikes. A woman, her face uncovered, stands in rubble-strewn street. Her uncovered face shows her anger and in her hand she holds a weapon, a knife whose blade is long, shiny and sharp.

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