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A Secret Life in Misspelled Cities & The Secret Lives of Misspelled Cities

Sahar Muradi and Zohra Saed are two Afghan American poets. This is a lyrical conversation between Sahar, who returned to retrace footsteps in Afghanistan and Zohra, who remained ensconced in longing for mythic cities of her birth.

A Secret Life in Misspelled Cities
Sahar Muradi


There was once. I remember. I think it must have been there. Just imagine.


I climbed your two vacuums and lost my breath. But I did not cry, seeing the women in the field balance pots on their wisdom bumps.


Malalai was taking me home. “There will be apple orchards,” she said. “And fighting,” laughed the driver, who was armed. I told him I was not scared, as we hemmed the narrow mountainside to the sound of something I could not name.


There is no explanation for it. No science or natural law. The story goes that if you take a single brick from this city, no scorpion will ever bite you. Father says, we kept ours with your mother’s gold.



Just stepping into the square, into the standing blue pool under the pulse of a thousand white wings, something happened. Something loosened, fell, or passed through me: a precision, a shudder, lightning, vivid as a heartbreak.


It’s true, I had a crush on the malang at the shrine, who marched in rags and tassels with a tail of children, calling, “Allah hu, Allah hu, Allah hu.” His hand never extended, but all of him untethered.


Better than a man: tarashak[1] on a hot a day.



We were three in the back in black scarves that were dusted white by the time we got there. And seeing the old hotel for the first time in 25 years, father, whose corners are always straight, confessed a drunken boyhood.


Please don’t tell anyone that we left work early that day and drove to the lake and ate kabobs and sour cherries and I lowered my scarf, being one with two beards and families peppered about and joy still in bad taste that I tried to be small, but there was the water just like that, wide and rare and like Florida, a clear sheet of possibility, of freedom and pleasure. And the whisper started, the itch spread, and grew and ballooned, and before I knew it—I leapt in—with everything on and with all abandon.



The difference between a poem and a lion is an alphabet. The difference between five poems and five lions is slight.


We walk to the hilltop that watches over the valley. We remove our shoes and continue to water his hands, now that he is under a green hat.


We creep past the stones marked white for mines. We kneel and spread out our picnic. An ant, a shoe, a rocket – all of it suddenly level.


[1] Tarashak is a homemade, flattened ice cream served with pistachios, almonds and rose water; specialty of Mazar-i-Sharif.

[2] In Farsi/Dari, Panjsher literally means “five (panj) lions (sher).” Sher is also the word for “poem.”

The Secret Lives of Misspelled Cities
Zohra Saed

Kandahar, Afghanistan

Behave or the sleeping Alexander will reclaim your lungs.

Kandahar –
Was once a cube of sugar
Refusing to dissolve in the sea.
It became a city from sheer stubbornness.

Alexander naively said,
“This is my land!”
causing the earth to giggle and birth him a wife
Rukhshana. (Roxanna if you prefer).
This wife refused to dissolve in his sea.

We know how the bright sun found him
The next day – snuffed by an ornate embroidered pillow –
The pillow and the three drops of Alexandrian blood
Have been preserved by the mountains.

Kandahar could never be Alexandria after that delicious murder.

Herat, Afgaunistan

Is a misspelled heart
A constellation of blue tiles
And the ever competitive molten blue domes
That the sky still envies.

Some say Emily would have had a better home here
Far from Amherst
Frolicking with sisters who also glitter their eyes with words.

And if you suddenly become poor in Herat
The folk cure for this affliction is to bite the air —
In the bleeding and biting of air
You’ll find at your feet a small puddle of rubies.

Jalalabad, Avgaunistan

Jalalabad is the mythic city of shine —
The whim of a Mughal King Jalal… with a penchant for citrus and fountains.
Jalal-abad has a mirror city north far north
A twin city dragged to the land of forty (kyrq now kyrghiz).

Reflectionless and abandoned
Jalalabad nurtures fresh springs beneath her skin.
At night, a peri appears for the sake of Jalal…
And wraps the city in her wing
A city perpetually guarded from frost
and percolating with inner wells.

Kabul / Cabool / Ca-pul, Affghunistan

Kabul is really bulbul
A nightingale disguised as a partial rubble city
Her night is the bat of an eyelash. The women here have almond skin
butter eyes and pluck their men from a secret tree
deep in the navel of the valley.

Mountains craft spines for these women so,
When they dance, they never bow their heads.

Qunduz or Konduz, Afghanistan

“The different between K & Q is the difference between the semitic Koff and Qoff”

Qunduz is otter and Konduz is daylight
if they are both one and the same
Otter daylight or utter dignity

Either way they robbed and were robbed
And one day the city decided to slip away
lose the human bone keys
And kidnap the sun to brilliance their caves
Stocked with diamonds and bits of brick for their wall against wars