January 20, 2018

Afridi Love - A Documentary Poem

"It is a new note in English poetry, but it is not an English note...
These, after all, are not the accents of the races that rule the world."         

Would it be incorrect to say that Violet Nicolson's  "Afridi Love" and it's mate "This Month the Almonds Bloom at Kandahar" are two of the most violent poems produced in the Edwardian era? 

"Pathan Types" According to
the 19th Century understanding
۝ "The Afridi are Pashtuns, part of the Karlani tribal confederacy, who fought both against and with the  British in Afghanistan during all three Anglo-Afghan wars."

۝ "The Pathans or Pashtuns are the tribesmen of the North-West Frontier: tall, rangy, valiant, and unmistakable with their piled-up turbans, hawk profiles and insouciant mountain man machismo..."

۝ "The Pashtuns are a people apart; proud, loyal and fiercely independent, living by their own strict and bloody male-centered moral code, Pashtunwali....In the Pushtu language, the name Pashtun denotes honor, goodness, bravery, loyalty and dignity.  Pashtuns are renowned and respected fighters and will battle to the death over three things: wealth,women and land.  Inter-familial or tribal vendettas can continue for decades.  To fail to avenge a wrong is seen as cowardice..." 

These North West frontier hill tribes made continuous wars on the Mughal invaders long before the British arrived, and the overwhelming adherence of the Afridi to Pashtunwali (Pashtun law) for centuries has hardly softened even in the modern era.   The British admired them as the most martial group in India, and uniquely granted them self-governance according to their own system of tribal justice - which could end in shocking outcomes to Western eyes.
"Afridi Love" Byam Shaw, 1905
A depiction of honor killing on the Raj frontier
Laurence Hope chose to handle this hot potato of a tale quite differently than her usual approach.  It is set in the first person narrative, with no relieving chorus or moral platitudes, this poem is psychologically close and horrific. The scene is documented without discourse, presented as though shot through the eye of a camera.  Other than the ironic title, there is no editorializing regarding either the men or the victim.  Even the brother who will be soon coming home and committing his own required murder is introduced neutrality.   It is the Edwardian equivalent of a "Saw" movie, with a terrified female alive and struggling against ropes as her murderer mocks her, plays with her body and taunts her with her death.  In short, it is starkly modern for a work written sometime in the mid 1890s.

Stationed near the frontier, our poet Mrs. Colonel Nicolson would likely have been in contact and personally acquainted with Afridi tribesmen under her husband's command of the 3rd Battalion of the Baluch Regiment and his wider command at Mhow.  Perhaps Pashtun soldiers carried this tale, an old story and a warning to all men not to trifle with Afridi women.  Living in close proximity to these tribesmen, with her husband's military career a particular point of responsibility, this poem must have accurately depicted how the honor code worked.  To depict it inaccurately could have caused grave offense to some soldiers, allies and enemies alike.
Would Pashtun tribesmen in general find such material offensive?  It is hard to say.  They may have considered it an accurate depiction of their justice and shrugged, or even welcomed any realistic "understanding"  of their ways by outsiders.  In the end Afridi Love simply holds a mirror to serial honor murders, provoking every reader to answer the question, "Can you condone these acts as a form of justice?"

Perhaps the poet heard about this and similar incidents through the frontier grapevine, and became frustrated by the calloused attitudes of men, both British and native  - not all, but some - who shrugged off such events saying, "Women!" and "served them right" along with mumbled sounds of "got what was coming to them anyway."

Something must have ignited our poet's muse.  Personally I suspect that the title Afridi Love is ironic, and the work fleshes out an incident relayed to her by her husband or passed along the frontier by soldiers in awe of such a fatal code of blood honor.  The details of infidelity, torture, rape and multiple murder in this piece are too highly charged to commit to print without some factual basis to them, especially with a title so pointedly aimed at a particular native group.  Afridi Love is not a work of fiction or fantasy - it is the poet's documentation of a functioning tribal code and a real event - maybe a cluster of events - that were known to those who lived on India's North West frontier.

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.  The English have their own genre of Murder Ballads and Crime Ballads, a lyrical and song tradition popular long before they became a standard of 18th century broadsheets.  These tales generally relate a narrative of some colorful, baleful crime and its victim, usually with the criminal punished or killed in the end.  "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" is a popular example which was revitalized by Fairport Convention in the sixties folk revival as "Maddy Groves" and is still quite popular today.   
Honor Killing Today - Report
However, it is fairly apparent that aside from stanzas of rhyming quatrains, Afridi Love is a departure from this tradition and has more in common with modern cinema thrillers or demented Edgar Allan Poe narrators than old ballads.  

1.  It is in the first person
2.  There is no redemption for anyone
3.  The characters are nameless
4.  It has no chorus and cannot be mistaken for a "song"

We are not onlookers to the crime, but rather inhabit the mind of the tormenting rapist killer, with the poem opening right in the middle of his deed:

    Since, Oh, Beloved, you are not even faithful
        To me, who loved you so, for one short night,
    For one brief space of darkness, though my absence
        Did but endure until the dawning light;

    Since all your beauty - which was mine - you squandered
        On that which now lies dead across your door;
    See here this knife, made keen and bright to kill you.
        You shall not see the sun rise any more.

"Lie still!  Lie still!"  "What use to still be tender" and "I hurt?  What then?" indicate the speaker is in the act of violently raping the victim.  As the poem continues we find out that a dead male is somewhere in the room as "that dead thing lying yonder, I hated and killed".  Aside from reveling in the frothy blood of the first attack, the killer intends on murdering his tied up wife at some point and sleeping with the corpse whose "restless lips are silent, Grown chilly, even beneath my burning breath" - introducing the monstrous possibility of necrophilia.  

In Afridi Love Hope can not be accused as she sometimes is of catering to Western sensibilities, creating a romanticized pastiche or idealizing Eastern thought.  Even devotees such as myself must wonder - how does an extremely sensitive female poet find herself interested in shaping this scene of defilement through the speech of a male in the act of tormenting and horrifically murdering a tied up female after murdering another man, plus planning his own suicide by murder?

The answer should come immediately and is fairly obvious - it is possible for any modern writer to inhabit the mind and set down the impulses of a character who behaves anti-socially - the bad guy. This talent is the foundation of many a novel, play, short story, screenplay, etc to the point that audiences often identify with the villain's point of view creating an anti-hero.  However, Hope doesn't create an anti-hero in this case - there is no sympathy extended to the twisted desires of the Afridi perpetrator. 

Instead, this piece unflinchingly records the violent viewpoint of a frontier tribesman whose native creed has no place for God's mercy or human compassion. Afridi Love is vengeful, murderous and disastrous.  Afridi love is not "love" at all, but rather a twisted form of possession with nowhere to go but violence when the code is crossed.

On the surface, the argument may be made that the poem's subject is simply passion, the dark side of passion to be sure, but nevertheless one of Hope's leading themes.  It is passion that subsumes all reason, leaving only a hurt and annihilating animal awareness of emotional pain in the bearer, with a corresponding desire to escape life and end all sensation forever.

The trauma of the scene extends across the page to the reader, who is as helpless as the victim to stop the proceedings.  Though the reader may wish to escape the scene, they are probably already trapped into reading through to the gruesome end.  

The murderer's vengeance plan seems ridiculous and insane to any outsider - killing for honor may be primitively understood, but staying put and willingly allowing the victim's family to knife and kill you for their own honor seems one more giant step crazier.  Despite his murderous act, the seemingly insane narrator is actually abiding by the terrible dictates of the tribal code.  The victim's brother may well understand and even agree with his own sister's awful death, even as he slays the narrator in revenge, extracting his share of the warm red frothy blood.   Such is Afridi justice.  The poem says, such is "Afridi Love".  

The most important trick of the poet is witholding comment while showing how the Pashtunwali code unfolds.  The female victim is nameless, voiceless and hopeless - a sacrifice to a man's honor.  As we the audience gaze helplessly on, she is treated without a hint of mercy, worse than an animal killed for a supper in the halal manner.  Even the illustration by Byam Shaw depicts the victim naked, restrained, and without a face  Ultimately, she transcends her total lack of identity to become a symbol of every woman subjected to the harshest brutalities of Patriarchy.  

The Poet's Work 

 Telling the story from the male's position and leaving the female victim mute was a masterly move on Hope's part - male readers may not identify with a hapless female victim, but if they can identify with such a monstrous male voice, they might come to the realization that something is seriously off about their moral compass.

If Kipling had given the incident his poetic treatment it may have ended up sounding more like a quaint yarn, likely told from a third person perspective.  The tribesman would be reduced to a memorable name and the rough tale graced with a rousing chorus suitable for singing with a pint of cold at the pub.  The "folk-tale" treatment would have allowed the audience a very comforting distance from what was then, as now, a very gritty, bloody reality.  Kipling did not hold back almost ever on his chosen subjects, but I don't know if he treated any subject so close to women with the same violence he appropriated to the soldier's lot.   I welcome commentary and corrections on this ideas.

۝ As Politics  Afridi Love reveals the grim reality of a specific group's treatment of their women, tolerated in part because of their strategic geopolitical location and ability to self-govern amongst more "civilized" empires such as England and Russia.
۝ As History  the poem illustrates an antique form of patriarchal behavior relevant and current even in today's discussion of worldwide honor killings and male hegemony in general.   
۝ As Art the poem delivers a shocking view of reality and a message on behalf of females utilizing only a single male monologue.  Even after a hundred years and in rhyming stanzas, it is a striking achievement of early modernity which utilizes an unsentimental documentary technique to report true and traumatic material.

Afridi Love is a monument to Laurence Hope's mastery of her genre, a stunning achievement and one that could not have been entirely pleasant to have accomplished.   Let us believe that the poem's voiceless, unidentified Afridi tribal female and her nameless lover did not die in vain - their deaths vividly illustrate the senseless nature of honor killings in a day when they went mostly unreported.  This is thanks to the pen of the now largely unknown female ferengi poet named Violet, who lived for a time on the frontier of their homelands.

NOTE:  "Afridi Love" is recorded in the fourth section of India's Love Lyrics and may be listened to here.  This is a sneak preview, and will not be available  on Librivox until the entire book has been recorded

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