Landay: An Introduction to "Snake," a Film by Seamus Murphy

Women walking in an underground pedestrian corridor in Kabul. Image by Seamus Murphy. Afghanistan, 2012.

I discovered landay poetry through the book, Songs of Love and War, a collection sourced and edited by the eminent Afghan poet and philosopher Sayd Bahodine Majrouh. Landays were couplets that had the ache and anger of simple truth. They barely or rarely mentioned God and left me feeling I was being profoundly changed. That they reportedly came from mostly illiterate Pashtun women leading oppressive lives in rural areas made them even more remarkable. A hidden world opened up; it was like rediscovering Afghanistan.

The country had been a source of wonder to me since my first trip there in 1994. In quiet contradiction to the violence and destruction of war were the Afghan people themselves, dignified and maintaining a polite decency in ways far beyond my imagination. I have tried in the intervening years to understand that strength, and this poetry offered insight.

Poet, writer and friend Eliza Griswold and I went searching for landays – scratching and digging in cities, villages and refugee camps in Kabul, Parwan, Helmand and Nangrahar provinces. Eliza worked on the words and I worked on the imagery. We had long talked about collaborating on a project about Afghanistan that would satisfy our curiosity for the place. This was it.

Portraits of the majority of the women poets were not possible – for reasons of security or a strict adherence to tradition. Apart from women living in the relative freedom of Kabul city, portraits were neither possible nor had any great relevance. Landays are oral and anonymous, offering their authors the protection of secrecy. They belong to no one and everyone; personalizing their creators in images would have been counter to that. A group of women from Helmand discussing landays in a refugee camp insisted on burying Eliza's mobile phone in a sea of cushions to ensure no recording could be made of their voices. They didn’t want recognition. They said they could be murdered if their husbands knew what they were discussing with outsiders. The significance of this separates our worlds.

Moving and still pictures for this project are about the world the women inhabit. I wanted to shoot the drama, emotion, humor and darkness of their poetry. The only commentary in the film is the voice of their poetry. Watch the film here.