Readers of major Western media outlets are familiar with articles about Central and South Asian women that tell tales of oppressive patriarchal forces, violence, and offer one-dimensional portrayals of damsels in distress. Above all, the stories read in the West about the countries in these regions and the people therein are dominated by war and religious extremism, effectively creating an overly simplistic, flattened image. Brooklyn residents and sisters Laimah and Wazhmah Osman, originally from Kabul, Afghanistan, chose a nontraditional tool to subvert these tired stereotypes and render a more complete portrait of the women who hailed from these regions many years before them: poetry.
This Saturday, December 1st at Smooch Café in Fort Greene, they’ll unveil a new hand-printed book of translated love poems written by Persian women, Ishqnama / The Book of Love. In 2010, Wazhmah returned from a trip to Afghanistan, bringing with her Persian literature and poetry books from the Old City in Kabul. “We flipped through one book, Glimpse of Woman at Taimorian’s Reign by Abdullah Kargar, and found some amazing poems written a long time ago in the Afghan region,” said Laimah. “I mentioned this to a friend, Marina Ancona of 10 Grand Press, and she suggested we make an artist book of the poems.”
From there, the Persian Poetry Project was born, growing to include Ancona, Lila Yomtoob, and Nooshin Rostami. Through the project, they hope to illuminate the Persian culture of Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan and India through the translation and representation of pre and post-Islamic poetry written by women of the region. “We wanted to share these awesome poems with everyone—so we decided to translate the poems to English and print both the original Persian script with the translation,” Laimah said.
Ishqnama / The Book of Love includes poems translated by Wazhmah and her father, which were then letterpress printed into the book from polymer plates using typography designed by Rostami. The rest of the book is screen-printed, and was a collaborative process, as Laimah explained: “The angles and patterns were copied, hand-drawn, then digitized and re-sized to make the films for screen-printing—this was a collaboration between Marina and I. We chose the colors and papers based on a lot of testing. We used lots of mica sparkles and some natural pigments like turmeric in our inks to make the colors richer.” The finished product is an accordion-style book with pockets that holds three pamphlets of poetry, and a colophon. The book will be on display and available for sale this Saturday at the book launch.
While Wazhmah and Laimah were drawn to these poems for numerous reasons, the genderless nature of the Persian language was especially appealing. As Wazhmah explained when we spoke about her translations, “Persian is one of those rare languages that is entirely genderless, meaning there is no masculine or feminine, no he or she. In the age of transgender politics where we are scrambling to find gender non-conforming pronouns and language to be inclusive of transgendered people, Persian is naturally transgendered. This makes the poetry subject to a multiplicity of interpretations…Due to the ambiguity of the language and the secret nature of some of these poems, we do not want to add to the speculation but rather invite people to read it as they see fit.”
The poems themselves work to defy stereotypes of submissive, repressed women under Islam that permeate our post 9/11 world. “These are the words not of victims, but of artists, intellectuals, poets, and lovers. They were powerful figures within their communities who were active in politics, economy, and culture. Through their defiant and unapologetic love poems, they take a stance and tone that also challenges the oppressive forces around them,” said Wazhmah.
“It feels good to know that women and sisters like these existed all along in the regions where we came from,” added Laimah. “Full spirits, almost reckless at times. And in making the books…we are channeling their fierce spirits so they can reach wide audiences.”