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Pashtun women are typically thought of as being the most voiceless of all Afghan communities, but they are also composers of one the most vibrant forms of poetry in the country – the landay. Landay is the Pashto word for a small venomous snake, and these poems follow suit: short, but with a lot of bite. Like haiku, landay is a stylised poetry with a set number of syllables. The authors are usually unknown, but in almost all examples the woman addresses the man. Touching on the universal themes of love and war, the landays reveal a strong thread of pride, passion, longing and anger from beneath the burqa. Unrequited love and illicit love affairs are used by the women to taunt the weakness and virility of their men, for it is the women alone who carry the risks and conse- quences of their love. Some landays have even reached into history, such as Malalai’s taunt to her menfolk credited with inspiring a famous Afghan victory over the British army in 1880: ‘My love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand/Someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!’ Here are some of our other favourites:

‘My beloved returned unsuccessful from battle I repent the kiss I gave him last night’

‘May you turn into a riverside flower So that I may come on the excuse of taking water and smell you’

‘O passing traveller! Are you satiated with my sight or should I turn my face again?’

‘You started loving, not I Now the scandal has come into the open you blame me’

‘Call it romance, call it love, you did it I am tired now, pull up the blanket for I want to sleep’

The Pashtun name spells honour and glory

Without that what is the

Afghan story?


when Afghans were struggling against Mughal and Safavid rule. Abdul Rahman Baba was a mystic, whose poems meditated on the divine and the yearning of the soul to be reunited with its creator. Such longing is a classic feature of Sufi poetry, and Abdul Rahman Baba’s work sits neatly alongside much of the Persian poetry written in Afghanistan and Iran at the time. His contemporary, Khushal Khan Khattak, also wrote on the divine, but his poems were more visceral, dealing with love and war in a more epic style. Khattak led tribal rebellions against the Mughals, and for many he continues to be the model of the Pashtun, at once a poet and warrior. His best poems shoot barbs at dictators and mullahs and sing paeans to the beauty of Pashtun women and (no false modesty here) his own glory as defender of his people. He wrote over 45,000 poems and in his own words ‘gave the Pashto language much of beauty that it lacked before’. Pashtun poetry stills exists largely in his shadow. Writers in Dari (in this context usually referred to as classical Persian)

have touched on many of the same themes as Abdul Rahman Baba, and form part of the same canon of Sufi poets from Iran. The classic poetic form is the ghazal (rhyming couplet) used almost exclusively on the subject of unattainable spiritual love, a subject rich in both secular and spiritual allegory. Best known to Western audiences is Rumi, born in Balkh in 1207. In Herat, the Sufi saint Ansari was a prolific composer of ghazals in the 11th century, while 400 years later Jami was a famed poet at the Timurid court. At this time Herat was so richly endowed with poets that Babur joked in his autobiography that you couldn’t stick out your

leg in the city without kicking one. The tombs of both still attract many visitors in modern Herat (see p138 and p139 ). Afghanistan stakes a claim for the first woman to write classical Persian

poetry, Rabi’a Balki, who met a tragic end in 9th century Balkh ( p157 ). Afghans also lay claim to the Iranian national poet Firdausi, who com- posed his epic Shah Nama while court poet for the Ghaznavids in the 11th century. Iranian poets like Jami’s contemporary Hafez are equally loved. Afghanistan’s most celebrated 20th century poet is Khalilullah Khalili.

He died in 1987 and is buried in Peshawar, next to Abdul Rahman Baba. An Assembly of Moths is the best known of his collections translated into English. Poetry hasn’t been able to stand outside the currents of recent history.

Khalili was forced into exile after the Soviet invasion, and wrote poems about the resistance. Poets were also targeted themselves – the critic Professor Bahauddin Majrooh was assassinated by Hekmatyar’s men in Peshawar in 1988, while as recently as 2005 the popular female poet Nadia Anjuman was murdered in Herat.


Afghan carpets are the country’s most famous folk art. An important trade item, carpets also have a strong social meaning, and often com- prise part of a bride’s dowry. The number of carpets a family owns is a significant indicator of wealth, even if they are a poor rural family who can only afford a machine-made carpet from Pakistan. Northwest Afghanistan and its Turkmen population has always been the centre of carpet production. Carpets are hand-knotted, although modern Belgian wool is preferred these days to that from local sheep. Production is a home industry, mainly run by women who make them when not working in the fields. The most common design is the Tekke, with the rug divided into quarters containing stylised gul (flowers). Deep reds and ochres are the primary palette. These carpets are also known under the generic name Bukhara, the main place where they were historically sold for export. The filpai (elephant’s foot) is another


Carpet weaving isn’t a folk art stuck in aspic, never veering from centuries-old patterns and tradi- tions. Designs are regularly updated according the needs of the export market – in the 1960s and ‘70s many designs were aimed specifically at the hippie and Peace Corps market. These variants reached their apogee in the 1980s with the appearance of the Afghan war rug. Adapting the Baluchi convention of depicting plants and animals on their carpets, refugees in Pakistan started to weave in images of war – weapons, tanks and planes. These were sold in Peshawar, then awash with aid workers, spies, arms dealers and lots of money. The rugs caused ripples in the international carpet market, with some dealers decrying the corruption of a famous art form, others applauding the Afghans’ innovative adaptation to circumstance. Either way, the carpets were snapped up in a flurry of dollars. When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, carpets depicted the retreating military columns crossing the border, but as the world lost interest in Afghanistan, so did the carpet dealers. No one wanted to celebrate Mullah Omar in warp and weft. A resurgence only took place after the US routed the Taliban. Shoppers on Chicken St were surprised to find this quickly commemorated in rugs, with American flags and cruise missiles and – some were horrified to discover – depictions of the planes flying into the World Trade Centre on 9/11. They’re not to everyone’s taste, but the Afghan war rug continues to evolve.

Rugs of War (http://sts-dev is a great blog about Afghan war rugs run by art historians Nigel Len- don and Tim Bonyhandy.

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