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Safia Saddiqi reads from her work this spring in Kandahar.
Safia Saddiqi reads from her work this spring in Kandahar. (Globe Photo / Wahkil Kohsar)

The tale of the Pashtun poetess

KANDAHAR--In a mirrored marble banquet hall in this dusty southern Afghan city in the former heartland of the Taliban, where an ancient tribal code still ensures that women are rarely seen or heard in public, Safia Siddiqi is rallying a gathering of raptly attentive men.

With a black veil secured tightly below her chin, the 41-year-old woman with a pleasantly cherubic face is extolling the glories of Pashtun culture while a phalanx of severe, elaborately turbaned elders on the stage stare out at the audience. Siddiqi is the only female speaker at this two-day seminar on Pashto poetry, where her audience this hot spring day consists of about 1,500 men and a grand total of four women.

''In this country, there are many problems, but despite all the problems, the culture is alive," she thunders. ''This year, after many years, a real spring has dawned on Afghanistanespecially Kandahar," she adds to whoops of approval from the home crowd. ''And I want spring to cover all of Pakhtunkhwa," she concludes dramatically, referring to the border regions across modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran where the Pashto language is spoken.

At a time when Pashtun culture is associated abroad with the Taliban, terrorism, and jihad, a quiet cultural renaissance is slowly taking root in the still troubled southeastern provinces of Afghanistan. ''The past three years are being called the golden years,"' says Lutfullah Mashal, a well-known Pashto poet who also holds the title of chief spokesman at the powerful Afghan Interior Ministry. ''The people are spearheading a cultural resurgence."

And poetry, by all accounts, is leading the way. In an overwhelmingly illiterate country, oral poetry is a means of preserving and transmitting knowledge through the generations. Increasingly that poetry is also being written down. According to Mashal, more than 90 books of Pashto literature have been published here in the last two years, most of them funded by Afghans living abroad. The new poetry collections include traditional ghazalslong poems comprised of a series of couplets following a particular rhyme schemeas well as contemporary Pashto free verse known as azad nazem.

If the image of fierce Pashtun men composing love poems may seem incongruous, the idea of a Pashtun woman writing about war, exile, love, and sex in verse is extraordinary.

But Siddiqi is hardly an ordinary woman. A former deputy chair of the constitutional loya jirga that ratified the new Afghan constitution last year, she is contesting the upcoming Afghan parliamentary elections as an independent candidate from the southeastern province of Nangahar. And as one of only a half-dozen published Pastho poetesses in Afghanistan, she is intent on appearing at poetry readings across the region.

''I feel [Pashtun] women have to break the barriers and I feel this is my responsibility," she said in an interview. ''I believe as a woman from Pashtun society, this is my responsibility to my culture, my language, my people."

Women have traditionally played a rolealbeit an anonymous onein Pashto poetry. For centuries, rural women have been composing and singing impromptu landais, or traditional non-rhymed couplets, which are sung at weddings, harvest festivals, and bedtime. Landais are often incorporated into the more ''literary" ghazals that are popular across Afghanistan, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent and dominated by maleswho often ''sign" their work by incorporating their name into the last couplet.

Under the Taliban, Pashto poetry was not banned, but experts say the work was uninspired. ''Their poetry was like their mentality," says Mashal, referring to the Taliban. ''It was conservative, full of religious slogans, and terrible. And of course they did not allow women to participate in mushairas [poetry readings]."

The official barriers have been lifted now and Siddiqi is making the most of it. At a mushaira on the second day of the Kandahar seminar, she is frequently forced to take little pauses as rounds of ''Wah! Wah!"the regional equivalent of ''Bravo"go up.

''Safia Siddiqi is a pioneer among women literary figures in the Pashto language," says Mashal. ''Although she writes traditional ghazals and lyric poems, I personally think she's best known for her azad nazem [free verse], which is getting popular among women writers."

Born in the southeastern Afghan city of Jalalabad into a family of judges and lawyers, Siddiqi began writing poetry during her teens. Her first book, ''Dupatta" (''Veil"), was published in Kabul in the late '80s during the Soviet occupation. Using the veil as a metaphor for protection, against the sexual advances of strangers but also against foreign invaders and ideology, the collection soon ran afoul of the Communist leadership, forcing her to flee to the Pakistani city of Peshawar in 1988. Two years later, however, Siddiqiwho considers herself a devout Muslimran into trouble with Mujahadeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's powerful Islamic Party in Peshawar, which branded the book anti-Islamic.

Despite harassment and intimidation Siddiqiwho holds degrees in literature, law, and business administrationrose to prominence as a poet and human rights activist in Peshawar. In 1999, she migrated to Canada before returning to Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban. Fluent in Dari, Pashto, and English, she has since held high-ranking positions in the Afghan Ministry of Women's Affairs and currently works as a gender advisor at the Ministry for Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

While a ''transgressive" western poet like Sylvia Plath was hailed for her rejection of the genteel world of feminine circumspection for a more muscular, masculine tone, Siddiqi's work raises eyebrows in Pashto literary circles for doing the opposite. ''Most of the women poets in Afghanistan are expressing the feelings of men," explains Mashal. ''For example, if you read the works of other [Pashto] women would think it's written by men."

Indeed some of Siddiqi's new poems are considered sensual, even sexually explicit by Afghan female standards. ''My dear, I don't know/How to make you mine," she writes in a 2003 poem, ''I am Telling the Truth." '' [I want] to press my lips to your lips/And to smother you with kisses/To put you in the swing of my lap/And to cover you/With the wings of my hair."

Siddiqi is aware she's pushing the envelope. In Afghanistan, she says, women ''can talk about the country, war, honor, and pride, but you have to hide the whole picture of love because it's a very tense subject in this culture."

At the Kandahar seminar, a line of male fans gather to express their admiration for her work. ''Four women at this seminar is a good sign," says Siddiqi. ''I've been to seminars where it's been worse. May be next time, we'll have more women."

Leela Jacinto is a New York-based journalist currently reporting from Afghanistan.

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