Dawn News

When militants become poets

"Poetry of the Taliban" book cover“I would explain all my grief, dot-by-dot, point by point, if heart-to-heart we talk and face-to-face we meet,” this was Qurrat-ul-Ayn Tahira or Tahirih, as she is known in Iran. “To catch a glimpse of you, I am wandering like a breeze, from house to house, door to door, place to place, street to street.”

The original Persian version is so powerful that some of its lines have become proverbs, not just in Persian but also in Urdu.

She was a Baha’i. Her religion did not become the dominant faith in Iran. But her poetry won many hearts. It forced Allama Iqbal to confer on her the title of Khatoon-i-Ajam (Woman of the East) and to place her in the company of Mansur Al-Hallaj and Ghalib.

The book I am holding in my hands – “Poetry of the Taliban” – may have a similar impact, although intellectually, it is much inferior.

Poetry of the Taliban” is no Divan-e-Hafiz. There are no Khayyam, Ghalib or Iqbal among the poets included in this anthology. Not a single poem compares to Tahira’s “gar be tu uftadum nazar (translated above)” and yet this is a book that will outlive the Afghan war. It will pose a serious challenge to US efforts to depict the Taliban as wild warriors not worthy of any attention except that of drone operators.

It will also make life difficult for Afghan and Pakistani liberals who refuse to acknowledge that half-educated madressah students like the Taliban can also produce poetry.

While going through the book, one thing became obvious: this book will also have a major impact on how the future generations of Afghans define this war.

“At your Christmas, Bagram is alit and bright, on my Eid, even the rays of the sun are dead, suddenly at midnight, your bombs bring the light to our homes, even the oil lamps are turned off,” writes a Taliban poet named Khepalwaak.

This is a situation that many Afghans can relate to, without bothering to know who is responsible for what. The blame, ultimately, will go to the foreign occupiers. And this 247-page book, published by Hurst & Company, London, has ensured that the Americans and their Nato allies are seen as cruel occupiers.

“We love these dusty and muddy houses; we love the dusty deserts of this country. But the enemy has stolen their lights, we love these wounded black mountains,” this is Nasrat, a Taliban poetess.

With the help of such poems, Taliban poets have successfully linked their war against the Americans to past uprisings against the Soviets and the British and this is a narrative that most Afghans not only understand but also sympathise with.

“They do not accept us as humans, they do not accept us as animals either, and yet they would say humans have two dimensions: humanity and animality [sic]. We are out of both of them today.” This is Salimullah Khalid Sahak, a Taliban warrior, who very cleverly blames the Americans not only for what they did but also for “the animal behaviour” of the Taliban. Blame for all the atrocities committed during the Taliban reign is placed on the outsiders who are held responsible for turning” the Afghan warrior into an animal.”

As Faisal Devji of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, who wrote a lengthy introduction to this collection of poems, notes, the Taliban poets have chosen ghazal as their preferred form of expression, opposed to tarana that the Taliban leadership uses in its propaganda material.

Ghazal, as most South Asians familiar with Urdu and Farsi poetry would know, has its own vocabulary. As Devji points out, a ghazal’s “stock characters include despondent lovers, cruel and beautiful mistresses, and a great deal of wine.”

The Taliban obviously banned all such “lustful activities” while in power but there’s no better form of expression than a ghazal for deeply internalised emotions. Since each of these terms can also be interpreted as the love of the Divine, ghazal has always been a favourite form of expression among Muslims, particularly in Iran and South Asia. And the Taliban too were forced to embrace it.

“I stoned him with the stones of light tears, and then I hung my sorrow on the gallows like Mansur,” writes Khairkhwa.

“Like those who have been killed by the infidels, I counted my heart as one of the martyrs. It might have been the wine of your memory that made my heart drunk five times.”

A non-Taliban poet writing such poems in the Taliban reign would have been flogged publicly in Kabul or stoned to death in Kandahar.

But the insanity of a long war against an enemy far more powerful seems to have forced the militants to change their narrative as well.

The flogging and hanging – a common practice under the Taliban – does not inspire these poets. There is hardly any attempt to praise the Taliban’s attempt to impose Sharia laws or to force people to accept their interpretation of Islam. What motivated them while in power seems to have little significance in the harsh life of “hot trenches.”

Now they are the underdog, the martyr. And the underdog, at least in our culture, writes poetry. So here is one on a village mosque: “Traveller friend, you would not ask me what happened to the small congregation; the grey and dusty mosque, the one in the middle of the village, the pretty mosque without a door; and the Talib Jan, the one with long hair, the young Talib Jan, who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan.”

True to a traditional ghazal, the beloved in this couplet is a “Talib Jan with long hair,” not a woman and her ‘zulf’ as a modern Urdu or Farsi poet would write. So here the Taliban poet remains faithful to his roots.

A strong aversion to foreign occupation, which defines the Afghan history from the ancient times, is a recurrent theme in the Taliban poetry as well.

“A small house I had from father and grandfather, in which, I knew happiness, my beloved and I lived there,” writes Najibullah Akrami.

“But suddenly a guest came, I let him be for two days, but after those two days passed, the guest became the host. He told me, ‘You came today, be careful not to return tomorrow.”

And here is a poem on a mistaken drone attack on a wedding party: “The young bride was killed here. The groom and his wishes were martyred here. Hearts full of hopes were martyred here. The children were murdered; a story full of love is martyred here.”

Although one-sided – as it does not mention how the militants invite drone strikes on innocent civilians by using them as human shields – the poem is powerful enough to outlive US and Nato press releases explaining the strikes.

Obviously, there is no mention of 9/11, Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda in this book of the Taliban. The focus, instead, is on how ordinary Afghans are suffering under foreign occupation.

There is even a poem ridiculing President Hamid Karzai’s love for the former US President George W. Bush and his ‘tearful farewell’ to Bush after he completed his second term.

The picture that emerges is strong and powerful, not necessarily objective. In any war that goes on for so long, it is difficult to be objective. After the first few years, the reasons for the war are easily forgotten.

The narrative that remains, and occupies television screens, is that of everyday battles, of air raids and drone strikes, of ambushes and IEDs and of body bags.

And when this happens, it is time to withdraw.

This book of poetry makes it clear that there can be no clean end to the Afghan war. Things will remain muddy and unexplainable. Recent US public opinion surveys show many Americans also realise this. And this book will strengthen those who argue that in this situation, the best option is to quit Afghanistan.

The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.

Comments (45) Closed

May 26, 2012 09:50pm
What the author missed that poetry of few individuals can't change the bad tag. However, keep try to give more about Talibans, but remember they are part of Al qaeda.
dhiraj garg
May 26, 2012 02:07pm
a very good article!! i love your articles anwar sahab!! but by favouring taliban so-called human side in terms of ghazals/ poems, it has also slammed tightly the absurd practices and understanding of taliban and all radical islamists itself about islam and its following. the author himself accepts that for righting such thing, the talibans would have flogged or hanged such poets in their regime, so will taliban still do the same to their fellow taliban poets now?? after becoming underdog, does all you think is right becomes wrong and vice-versa?? doesn't it prove indirectly that by overpowering them justifiably or unjustifiably, you are taming these animals (proven by their acts and not otherwise) and now they started to turn into so-called human being to gain sympathy because they have started to feel the same pain they have given to others in the name of islam? where was this humanity when they were in power? PS:- I don't know whether Dawn would continue not to publish my comments !!
May 26, 2012 02:15pm
Those who destroyed 2000 years old Buddists statues, killed all humanity in women, talked of religion that defined killing children as fare game. Killing fellow human get you ticket to heaven. I mean Taliban with babble not poetry
May 26, 2012 03:02pm
I am a great fan of Qurrat-ul-Ayn Tahira poems. The following poem of Tahira shows that was way ahead of her time. The Morn of Guidance "Truly, the Morn of Guidance commands the breeze to begin All the world has been illuminated; every horizon; every people No more sits the Shaykh in the seat of hypocrisy No more becomes the mosque a shop dispensing holiness The tie of the turban will be cut at its source No Shaykh will remain, neither glitter nor secrecy The world will be free from superstitions and vain imaginings The people free from deception and temptation Tyranny is destined for the arm of justice Ignorance will be defeated by perception The carpet of justice will be outspread everywhere And the seeds of friendship and unity will be spread throughout The false commands eradicated from the earth The principle of opposition changed to that of unity." ~ Noghabai, Táhirih[33]
Abdul Samad
May 26, 2012 02:58pm
May 26, 2012 03:17pm
awesome, write up
May 26, 2012 04:54pm
There are militant poets around the world... Here's one from America....Ben Morea. http://e-blast.squarespace.com/ who was the organizer of the 1960s anarchist organization UAW/MF (obscene language... look here for information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_Against_the_Wall_...
dhiraj garg
May 26, 2012 05:05pm
a very good article!! i love your articles anwar sahab!! but by favouring taliban so-called human side in terms of ghazals/ poems, it has also slapped tightly the absurd practices and understanding of taliban and all radical islamists itself about islam and its following. the author himself accepts that for righting such thing, the talibans would have flogged or hanged such poets in their regime, so will taliban still do the same to their fellow taliban poets now?? after becoming underdog, does all you think is right becomes wrong and vice-versa?? doesn't it prove indirectly that by overpowering them justifiably or unjustifiably, you are taming these animals (proven by their acts and not otherwise) and now they started to turn into so-called human being to gain sympathy because they have started to feel the same pain they have given to others in the name of islam? where was this humanity when they were in power?
May 26, 2012 05:58pm
keep it up ......... mr poet
Ali Hamid
May 26, 2012 07:35pm
Hate multiplies hate. American got confused who to target in their war , either it should be Taliban or Al-Qaida. Historically, Afghanistan and part of Iran has been a troublesome area it was hard for every invader e.g. Alexander, Soviets or America, to control this area and rule these people peacefully. They are prone to resist. They will never surrender against oppression. It's their culture and that's the way they grow up. Even if you keep fighting with them for hundred years they will never give up. They are very hospitable people and respect their guests a lot. If you go and negotiate with them and they agree with you at something they will abide by that till the end. Chinese general Sun Tzu a has mentioned in his most popular book Art of War "If war is prolonging without any reason and you cannot control the situation then in real terms you are losing that war regardless of your power”. American should sympathise with ordinary, local Afghans and try to reconcile the situation through negotiation. They should also realise the miseries suffered by this nation.
Aamir Younis
May 26, 2012 08:34pm
Good composition. At least Taliban realized they were also wrong in their time of power, what appears that they have silently admitted this fact. As truly said, misery get one closer to God and truth. Those who rose to power with utter brutality finally found it wrong. This Afghan war is a true story of the Quranic fact that on every tyrant, Allah installs a tyrant one.
Desi American .
May 26, 2012 09:22pm
Each Society has its extremes....!! the softness here definately will over power the stark hard reality we all face today . The pen will always turn out to be mightier than the sword but the timing is an issue . Some where in all this Afghanis and its allies will have to take responsibility that they forgot which way was forward and started heading to previous centuries . Americans are no fools that they have their sons fighting and shedding their blood on some forlorn land where so many have wasted their lives in past moons . The option is either Afghanis find their way themselves or they get this GPS without soul which will sing the drone songs and hope the people of the land will find their way to the valley where mosques preach the lesson of brotherhood and poems are of kids skipping along the meadows to schools . All this is not rocket science and I hope the guy upstairs grant us all the intelligence to see thru these hard times. Afghans ,Americans and Pakistanis et al ..!
May 27, 2012 03:10am
Here are some examples of Taliban poetry : Soul The village seems strange; this is separation as if my beloved has left it. The grief of separation is so cruel that it is not scared of anyone; When the soul does not leave the body it shakes. Like a flower withering in the autumn, Autumn has now come to my love. I remain alone with my shaggy head of hair Uncomprehending; my heart has been sad for a long time. In a flash, it put a hole in my entire world; Each affair is like an arrow. Oh Faqir! Better be sad. Who told you that love is easy? Shahzeb Faqir, 23 December 2007 Sunset It is late afternoon and the wind speeds up and then stops; It brushes against the pine needles and makes a low noise. A yellow ray among a few branches of crowded tree, Will shine in the forest just like a candle. The fast wind makes the branches of the trees hit each other; Rays of sunlight go back and forth, they don't remain in one place. The nightingale sits on the last branch of the pine tree; He is very tired, has gone to sleep and is singing very slowly. The leaves of the trees make a simple music for him; The nightingale is singing and leaves are moving around in all directions. The pine tree with its strong structure bows and straightens its head back; It hangs its branches loose down its face, and dances while standing on one leg. Evening the twilight arrives slowly with its lap full of red flowers; Pink rays are spreading over the blush of sky. Everyone becomes a spectator of this scene for a few hours; The sweet moments of sweet life pass very fast. The last moment of this short ceremony is sunset; Participants at this gathering return when the sun has set. The sun is like a spirit in the colourful mixture of late afternoon; When the sun leaves it, they don't stay with each other anymore. This yellow late afternoon is an example of sweetness in life; When the spirit leaves, everything is left behind. Abdul Hai Mutma'in Extracted from Poetry Of The Taliban, edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn, published by Hurst & Company on 17 May at £14.99. •
May 27, 2012 05:44am
All the words written are coming straight from the heart. It is very unfortunate that the Americans can not read the lines. I hope some one can translate this script into English and surf it over the web. That will be a great service to the bleeding Afghans.
Tauheed Ahmed
May 27, 2012 11:18am
Until "educated" Pakistanis get their moral bearings and stop trying to romanticize the taliban, Pakistan will remain a lawless state and the economic basket case of South Asia.
May 27, 2012 11:23am
rythem-less beautiful thoughts.
p kumar
May 27, 2012 12:07pm
Poetry is welcome but there is a reason for an occupation to not look like one.During civil war,ethinc factions of afghans caused worse misery to each other.To unite,they(and pakistan) need tolerance first and tolerance does not come with putting religion before humanity.
Anwar Iqbal
May 27, 2012 12:52pm
The original Pashto poems are very much in rhythm. They are like all ghazals with radif and qafia and follow traditional bahars.
Abdullah Adil
May 27, 2012 02:41pm
Nice article,,,,,Americans should quit Afghanistan for the sake of humanity,,,,,,,,
May 27, 2012 04:12pm
Let us hope that fingers would long for Qualam and not for Guns. Let us hope that swords would turn into ploughs. Can the war lords cherish peace or it is only wishful thinking?
May 27, 2012 05:44pm
There was no need to bomb and occupy that poor country in the first place already destroyed the by the super powers. Alqaeda could have been taken care of in a much more easier way. But why would the military industrial complex let such a thing happen. As Ron Paul says, sooner we get out from there the better.
John Ernest
May 27, 2012 05:54pm
I would gladly translate this book if I have had the time and permission. Its words are like flowers blooming in the fields. All of it is meaningful. All of them beautiful. And all of them are great examples of the remnants of war.
May 27, 2012 09:03pm
This article is not about foreign policy or any other political matter. It seeks to identify the souls that exist within a movement whose political history illustrates intolerance, irrationality, and authoritarianism. There exists within this faction many men who romanticize their religion and national culture rather than viewing these symbols as means to elevate themselves into power. That is what Anwar is explaining as the underdog effect in their minds. One talib wrote about how a drone attack ended a story of love. Another, for write or wrong reason, sees his country's president as a brother of foreigners rather than his own countrymen. These are real emotions of real people when they are not engaged in ruthless combat. The parties to this conflict could communicate much more effectively to find solutions if they understood these sentiments rather than merely obsessing over the violent power struggles in this conflict. The people of each country are fed up with fighting.
Paco Marquez
May 27, 2012 11:57pm
Polarized demonization of a peoples is one of the main roots of massive war.
May 28, 2012 04:40am
Next they will be rewriting theory of evolution (or destruction).
May 28, 2012 07:22am
Theis poetry is good, as all poetry of love is. However, 'past is never past'. When the taliban are back, as they will be, the poetry will be replaced by the flog. The teasingly beloved of these Ghazals, woman or the Benevolent God, will be replaced by a cruel blood thirsty being. The women will be banished along with the loving God. Poetry will become a relic of the occupation. The poets will either repent or be executed.
Javed Aslam
May 28, 2012 07:27am
Yes they destroyed replicas of human beings( statues devoid of any feelings) but those who destroyed millions of real humans,what you say about them dear ymethink??They aslo do poetry,would you call that dabbling or would kiss that and bow down before that with all your humbleness.
May 28, 2012 12:39pm
"replicas of human beings( statues devoid of any feelings)"? You mean something like the cartoons by the Danish cartoons? Did *that* make you angry? Things devoid of any feelings can still arouse a lot of feelings. Like music, painting, books or religious symbols. Don't trivialize things that others hold important.
Urdu reader
May 28, 2012 02:13pm
A man who writes verse in the name of love and religion, while destroying the religious symbols of other men of religion and peace, is not a poet but a blind scribbler. Hitler also wrote poetry. The ghazals of yore were not written by saints and poets who would destroy the sacred works of other men.
Anwar Iqbal
May 28, 2012 02:55pm
Writing poetry does not wash away the sins of the Taliban. They have committed horrible atrocities against their own and others. Those cannot be forgiven. (Translation) Some suggested translating the poems. But this book is in English. So I don't know what they want to translate.
May 28, 2012 03:15pm
Afghans will never accept that it is their fault. They always refused to accept modernization, under any ruler. They are so addicted to their ways of life. You cannot believe that they were once upon a time under Greek and Buddhist culture.
May 28, 2012 04:29pm
They are not the problem for any country, we have corrupt leaders and corrupt nation. Multinational companies are getting benefits from WAR. TOday war is the most successful business. Like in Libya all super powers distributed the contracts among them so who cares... Be happy with corrupt leaders and supporters i mean we
Cyrus Howell
May 28, 2012 07:15pm
"Relative calm is returning to Pakistan's northwest after the government regained control from Taliban more than two and half years ago but the legacy of Taliban rule is still being felt, especially by professional musicians." Al Jezeera
Cyrus Howell
May 28, 2012 07:41pm
"We strongly differentiate between Islam in itself, and what people do in it's name." (Ibrahim al-Buleihi)
Cyrus Howell
May 28, 2012 07:43pm
Harsh words, but I tend to agree.
Cyrus Howell
May 28, 2012 07:52pm
"Uncomprehending; my heart has been sad for a long time." ( Because, somehow, he knows he has done wrong.) + "It is late afternoon and the wind speeds up and then stops; It brushes against the pine needles and makes a low noise." ( I too know that sound. As it becomes louder it is like the warning rattle of a poisonous snake.)
May 28, 2012 08:07pm
A poetry of human throat slitting -- how romantic!
May 29, 2012 05:50am
Dear Dhiraj Garr, Your comment post on the article is of far more value than the article itself. It is people like you that makes this Dawn paper so worthy for reading, Please keep it up and let such comments coming in!!
May 29, 2012 08:27am
Poetry is forbidden according to them, but encouraged when it is promoting their sick agenda. Deceptive liars and bigots.
May 29, 2012 11:14am
Americans overwhelmingly are against nation building in Afghanistan. Only some politicians are. And of course the arms industry in the US that profits from selling arms to the US armed forces. Afghanistan can be rebuilt only if Afghans pick up the courage and the will to rebuild Afghanistan. We have yet to see evidence of that. The Taliban in Afghanistan are Afghans. Just as Americans would give their last drop of blood to defend the US so will the Taliban even if their end goal is restore a 7th century political-religious devised for 7th century Arabia that oppresses women. This system will fail and modernity set in when Aghan Muslims fearlessly question the way of life. Until then there will be no progress in Afghanisatn. The US will continue to throw good money after bad.
May 29, 2012 12:20pm
I can't believe people are actually having this argument? Is Taliban bad or the USA? There's no one right answer because they're both pathetic. Pathetic like our government and that is the reason why we are in a dire need of a new government which knows how to deal with the pathetic sections of the society i.e. Taliban and the exteriors i.e. USA. Statistically the Taliban have killed far more than the USA, so no sympathies for Taliban here. I honestly get why some might support Al-Qaeda because they want to fight the outsiders, the Taliban however is the complete opposite, they're killing in the insiders for no apparent reason. Confused ideology.
May 29, 2012 12:36pm
If you still compare the much hyped "atrocities" and the "infringement of HUman rights" of tha Taliban, with the American you'll see the tantamount difference, like that of a stone and a mountain. Japan, vietnam, afghanistan, Iraq Abu ghuraib to name a few), but how enslaved is your mindset.
Anwar Iqbal
May 29, 2012 01:35pm
But destroying those statues hurt the feelings of millions of Buddhists. I met Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Tibet after that and they were all upset with what the Taliban had done to those statues.
May 30, 2012 01:41am
This is the problem with people with low self esteem - when they are in power, they are merciless; when they are the underdogs, they discover poetry.. And if they come back to power, the merciless ness comes back,, especially with women and other weaker people. People with a healthy self esteem give love and respond to love; those with a low self esteem give terror and respond only to fear.
Jun 02, 2012 10:10am
Poetry,prose,every written word makes whatever is being said in it immortal.These poems reflect the pain and suffering of people caught in a war ,if only of their own making.Once foreign powers leave this land,once more it will be all local warlords fighting and killing for power. Afghanis need to take a hold over their own lives,instead of letting some foreign power or a local one run by foreign powers run their lives. It is essential that these poems be translated and published world over to reveal the pain that atrocities can cause ,to the ones who suffer and those who cause it: eventually it's a loss at both ends as the history of wars clearly reflects.