Smoke Blooms: Poems inspired by Nadia Anjuman
Nadia Anjuman (1980-2005) was born and lived in the city of Herat, Afghanistan. She showed poetic inclinations from a young age, and was encouraged by her family, but in 1995 the city was taken by the Taliban, who bore very little respect for the education of women, and culture and literature in general. Their arrival in the city forced many women scholars and artists into hiding.
Nadia was fourteen or fifteen at this time, and she and a group of friends formed ‘the Golden Needle’ a group at which they would meet under the guise of learning to sew, but were secretly studying literature and learning to write. They met at the house of Herat University professor Ustad Rayhab. The whole operation was dangerous – if caught there would have been dire consequences, but they continued anyway.
This first poem is a response to this group, and the idea of poetry as a quiet resistance; that even carrying a line of it with us in our heads is an act of defiance. I believe that poetry and the act of writing can help us maintain the hope we need to keep going, giving us a little bit of power in situations where we are powerless. I used a line from Nima Yooshij / Yushij, as he is considered to be the father of Persian poetry, and would have been one of the poets studied by the Golden Needle group. In learning about Nadia’s life and work I have come across many new poets and poems whose work I am intrigued by and still investigating.
The Golden Needle
with a line from My House is Cloudy by Nima Yooshij
My bright days that slipped through my fingers
whispers the woman in the market, checking the onions
to see if they’re firm. My bright days that slipped
through my fingers, she taps on the pavement
as she walks home, as a soldier in dark clothes
waits for another on a street corner
and neither of them hear what her feet are saying.
My bright days, she says to herself as she cooks
and no-one overhears.
In the house next door, a room full of women
bring their sewing baskets every day, unfolding
notebooks and pens from bright fabrics
the professor’s wife on standby, she’ll rush in
and teach them stitches if someone knocks.
They all sew well, but they’re here for the words
of Hafez, Sepehri, Farrokhzad, Shakespeare
words that breathe only in hiding
words which rise to warm the room,
which stick like melodies in their heads,
keep them singing in the smoking streets.
Once Herat was free of the Taliban, Nadia was able to enrol at the university to study literature and write poetry, and join the local literary society, Anjuman-e-Adabi, which is where she took her pseudonym from. She was the first woman poet to publish a book in Herat after the Taliban, in 2005.
Nadia’s death at the hands of her husband Majid Nia took place the same year, after an argument about visiting family over the upcoming holidays. He went to prison for only four months, despite Nadia’s family being assured he’d be sentenced to five years or more. The city’s literary world erupted with outpourings of grief and poems in memory of her talent. Her death highlights the ongoing brutality of domestic violence that still affects many women.
This second poem is a ghazal, which Nadia Anjuman was an absolute master of, and I am not (this is the first one I’ve ever written). Mona Arshi describes the ghazal as ‘long trembling lines’ that can ‘bear holding [the] lyric music’ (How To be a Poet, Nine Arches Press, 2018). It’s not an easy form to wrangle with, but I wanted to try it in tribute to Nadia and her work.
As with the previous poem, this one is peppered with words and phrases that aren’t my own. Several are taken from Nadia Anjuman’s poems ‘Makes No Sense’ and ‘Smoke-Bloom’. I wanted to see Nadia as a presiding spirit of learning and creating, ever-present somehow in the places she lived and worked, her words and story always echoing in the heads of the students there.
Ghazal – Smoke
after Nadia Anjuman
If Nadia could return to Herat and walk the corridors as a ghost
She’d wear the dark clothes she always wore, like a column of smoke
She’d bring her fury for justice, that waterless boiling
now a sealed tongue wailing and singing without sound or hope
Watching the young men and women talking in courtyards
of the pale iced-cake buildings where they gossip and smoke
She might want to give these women some advice
but all a spirit can do is watch petals fall and scatter smoke
A man is why she left this world at all
A man who looked over her shoulder as she wrote
A man who said he’d certainly die without her
and then one day beat her body until she disappeared like smoke
Marry your art, poets says the wind through classroom windows
Don’t let your peerless roses turn to smoke.
I’m grateful to two particular sources for information about Nadia Anjuman and her poetry: the anthology Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan edited by Farzana Marie, and the intranslation.brooklynrail.org webpage with translations by Diana Arterian and Marina Omar.
Suzannah Evans is a poet, creative writing teacher and tutor /mentor based in Sheffield. She is creative director of Sheaf Poetry Festival. She also works as a freelance poetry editor and publicist. Her debut collection Near Future was published by Nine Arches Press in November 2018. Suzannah was the winner of a Gladstone’s Library residency for this book, and she was in residence at the library in October 2019. She has taught courses for The Poetry School and workshops for Museums Sheffield, Leeds Museums, Hear My Voice Barnsley and at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds University, as well as workshops in schools. She has also been mentoring poets to develop their work since 2013.
You can follow her on twitter here: @SuzannahEvans
This creative response was commissioned as part of Suzannah Evans's resurrection of Nadia Anjuman, for a séance at DINA in Sheffield on 23 January 2020, on the Dead [Women] Poets Society national tour 2019-21. At the same séance, Warda Yassin resurrected Lucille Clifton - find her poem in response to Clifton here.
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This project is supported by Arts Council England. Illustrations by Lily Arnold.