What is a Landay?

An examination of the history, form and use of Landay, a short style of Afghan poetry.

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Landay is a short form of Afghan poetry consisting of a single couplet, much like a Ghazal.

History

The Landay is believed to have been first brought to Afghanistan by Indo-Aryan nomads around 1700, though some claim the form has been in the region for many thousand years. At best guess, the form is older than the religion of Islam, and most closely resembles the Slokas—couplets used to make up the Hindu Vegas.

The form may have first been used as a type of song to communicate between distant nomadic tribes, hence their brief length. Its name translates in Pashto—a regional dialect—to “short, poisonous snake,” referring to its short length and heavy use of sarcasm.

In Afghan culture literature is highly revered, though from 1996 to 2001 Landays (or Landai), along with most music, was banned by the Taliban. In some places this ban still exists, and has led to a poetry subculture, mostly populated by women.

Mirman Baheer is an organisation that has helped to fuel this scene, arranging poetry readings and literary lectures in the capital Kabul, as well as a dedicated hotline where women can call in and read their poetry and share stories with each other. Because of the ban and religious control, many women face violent response when their poetry is found, as in the case of Rahila Muska who was hospitalised when her brothers overheard her reading her poetry on the telephone and beat her. Once out of hospital, she was caught on the phone again and another attack followed, after which she set herself on fire in a suicide attempt. Her final call was placed from a hospital bed. She didn’t survive.

I talk of this not to shock, but to show the importance of poetry. The sense of connection is vital to humanity; whether to distant voices on the telephone, or another tribe miles away, called to from across the desert. The Landay is intrinsically a call to others.

Form

A Landay features a single couplet, with nine syllables in the first line and thirteen in the second.
In their original Pashto language, the lines tend to end in ma or na sounds, though they are considered not to rhyme.

However, as Landays are adopted by the younger generations, these rules are becoming less concrete. Examples can be found with five syllables in the first line, all that truly matters is that the second line remains longer.

Use

Landays are used to connect; to share deep, harsh truths about the world. To this end they can be sorrowful and critical, though they can also be funny and full of satire.

The Landay need not strictly be political. Tales of grief and loss or love are just as worthy of being called a Landay, all that matters is they are true. The truth may not always be pretty but it is always worth sharing.

I believe the purpose of poetry is to share and connect the human experience, and the Landay accomplishes this beautifully. I would fully encourage people to pick up the Landay and use it as Mirman Baheer have: to build community and connection.

Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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