The Tumultuous History Behind And the Mountains Echoed's Female Poet

Nila Wahdati, the morally complicated writer in Khaled Hosseini's latest novel, represents a rich, controversial tradition of women's poetry in Afghanistan and the surrounding region.

Women visit a record store in Kabul in the 1950s or early 1960s. (Wikimedia / Mohammad Qayoumi)

There's a character in Khaled Hosseini's expansive new novel And the Mountains Echoed who has stayed with me ever since I finished it: Nila Wahdati, the gifted, stylish, condemned French-Afghan housewife who writes impassioned poetry about love, sex, desire, and loss in 1950s Kabul. Nila, who marries a wealthy heir and later adopts a daughter by way of the child-selling scheme that sets the book's many interconnected plots in motion, finds herself and her poetry the objects of scorn among some crowds in her native Afghanistan—but the objects of high praise and admiration among others. As a result, she maintains a tragically conflicted relationship with her writing throughout her life.

In creating Nila Wahdati's story and its backdrop, Hosseini seems to have drawn inspiration from a real, far-reaching historical saga that deserves a novel or two of its own: the centuries-long, ongoing struggle of Afghanistan's female poets, who have enjoyed eras of flourishing freedom of expression and endured eras of forced secrecy. Today, female poets hold a special place in the canon of Afghan literature.

Poetry has always been a cherished form of expression in Afghanistan and its surrounding area for both the literate and the non-literate; as Hosseini writes in And the Mountains Echoed, even the graffiti artists in Kabul spray-paint verses of Rumi on the walls. The centuries-old Persian written tradition boasts some of the great poets of Iran, India, and Central Asia, and among these poets are a few women—like the 10th-century poet Rabe'eh Qozdari, who wrote bitter, satirical poems about suffering and unhappiness in love. And though the work of male poets has been better preserved over the years, the works by surviving female poets have, as Nancy Hatch Dupree put it in a 2002 article in Third World Quarterly, "pleaded for the right of women to be seen as individuals freed from societies' inequities."

Poetry written in Pashto, the language of the Pashtun ethnic group, has a particularly rich legacy of women's poetry: The landai, a short, vitriolic verse form that takes its name from a Pashto word meaning "short, poisonous snake," became the chosen form centuries ago for women who railed against the widespread notion that the female sex was inferior or submissive. According to a 2012 New York Times story by Eliza Griswold,

The word also refers to two-line folk poems that can be just as lethal. Funny, sexy, raging, tragic, landai are safe because they are collective. No single person writes a landai; a woman repeats one, shares one. It is hers and not hers. Although men do recite them, almost all are cast in the voices of women. "Landai belong to women," Safia Siddiqi, a renowned Pashtun poet and former Afghan parliamentarian, said. "In Afghanistan, poetry is the women's movement from the inside."

Traditionally, landai have dealt with love and grief. They often railed against the bondage of forced marriage with wry, anatomical humor. An aging, ineffectual husband is frequently described as a "little horror." But they have also taken on war, exile and Afghan independence with ferocity. ...

Like most folk literature, landai can be sorrowful or bawdy. Imagine the Wife of Bath riding through the Himalayan foothills and uttering landai so ribald that they curled the toes of her fellow travelers. She might tease her rival: "Say hello to my sweetheart/If you are a farter [tizan, one who farts a lot], then I can fart louder than you." She might make a cutting political joke: "Your black eyelashes are Israel/and my heart is Palestine under your attack." She might utter an elegiac couplet: "My beloved gave his head for our country/I will sew his shroud with my hair."

Hosseini's novel, though, takes place in the 20th century, and Nila's story unfolds (at first) in the cosmopolitan Kabul of the early 1950s. By then, Kabul had become profoundly Westernized, in sharp contrast with the rest of the nation: Beginning in the 1920s, the sons and daughters of the wealthy were often educated at secular international secular schools (often called lycées) opened by French, German, English, and American teachers, so students in these schools often studied literature in their teachers' native languages and in Dari (Persian) and Pashto. According to a 2002 article by Anthony Hyman in the Journal of Middle East Studies, the literature coming out of Afghanistan at the time was heavily influenced by both Western and European writers (like John Steinbeck and Maxim Gorki) and ancient and contemporary Middle Eastern texts.

And in the mid-20th century, according to Dupree, "educated men and women adopted Western dress... Many group-identifying symbols began to fade as a result, particularly in matters of dress."

So Nila, with her fluency in French, her love of literature, her high heels, sleeveless pastel mini-dresses, and white-framed sunglasses, is a recognizable product of that particular place and time in Afghanistan. But Nila's outward expressions of female desire (both poetic and otherwise) remain somewhat controversial in the story—even in an era that was, historically, a progressive one in Kabul. Nila's husband's family doesn't approve of their marriage, and when the subject comes up in a discussion between the immigrant household helpers of their neighborhood, the following exchange ensues:

He said it was well known in Kabul that she had no nang and namoos, no honor, and that though she was only twenty, she had already been "ridden all over town" like Mr. Wahdati's car. Worst of all, he said, not only had she made no attempt to deny these allegations, she wrote poems about them. A murmur of disapproval spread through the room when he said this. One of the men remarked that in his village they would have slit her throat by now.

Later in life, Nila bitterly remembers her Afghan father's reaction to her poetry: "No one in Kabul considered me a pioneer of anything but bad taste, debauchery, and immoral character. Not least of all, my father. He said my writings were the ramblings of a whore. ... He said I'd damaged his family name beyond repair."

And yet, when she hosts parties for her wealthy friends, Nila's guests beg her to recite some of her poems. In the presence of the Kabul elite, she recites arresting poetry about "lovers whispering across pillows, touching each other," about "pleasure."

"I had never heard language such as this spoken by a woman," the narrator—an immigrant from a small village a day's walk from the capital city—marvels.

So maybe the varied reactions to Nila's gift for self-expression are meant to reflect the divergent social norms and attitudes toward women that were developing in the various areas of Afghanistan at the time. After all, Dupree writes, it wasn't even until young female broadcasters appeared on the nationwide radio station Radio Afghanistan in the 1950s and 1960s that "the stigma attached to female voices being heard outside family circles" in parts of Afghanistan began to lessen.

Today, the tradition of women's poetry lives on—and so does its uneven reputation. As Griswold wrote last year, post-Taliban Afghanistan's largest women's literary society, called Mirman Baheer, has "no need for subterfuge" inside Kabul, where its hundred members include educators, scholars, government officials, and professional writers. "They travel on city buses to their Saturday meetings, their faces uncovered, wearing high-heeled boots and shearling coats," Griswold wrote. "But in the outlying provinces—Khost, Paktia, Maidan Wardak, Kunduz, Kandahar, Herat and Farah—where the society's members number 300, Mirman Baheer functions largely in secret."

Female poets in rural Afghanistan (where, as Griswold writes, only five women in 100 graduate from high school, and a majority of whom are forced into marriages by the age of 16) often phone in to meetings and recite their poetry for women on the other end of the line to transcribe. Some are illiterate, others are simply afraid of their written poetry being found; as both Griswold's story and the Al-Jazeera report below explain, girls and women who have been discovered writing sensual poems or love poems have been punished, beaten, and even killed by their husbands and families.

In Hosseini's novel, Nila takes advantage of an opportunity unavailable to many Afghan women: She flees the country in 1955, leaving her husband and part of her family behind, and enjoys a moderately successful career living abroad in Paris. But in creating the complex, conflicted Nila Wahdati, Hosseini likely drew from the bravery and the struggles of centuries' worth of female poets in Afghanistan, whose fight to be heard continues.