Will the Taliban’s war poetry be accepted as a literary find, lending voice to a deeply conflicted movement?
Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna
IN the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen were photographed as bearded, rugged fighters with Kalashnikovs and Stinger missiles, surrounded by mountains. They made
romantic subjects under the caption ‘freedom’. I vaguely remember an American photographer from that time, recuperating in Karachi after travelling with these fighters as they attacked Russian convoys. Mesmerised with their ‘heroism’ and desire for freedom, their passion for reciting poetry and singing at night, he had taken hundreds of photographs.
Those years were witness to few reports on the mujahideen’s brutal hold on power, the infighting among warlords surviving on CIA dollars, the rape of Afghan women. Their Western benefactors ignored all of that — until the rise of the Taliban, when Mullah Omar’s regime was severely ostracised for its medievalist rule and treatment of women. Under the Taliban (1996-2001), severe punishments were the norm for daring to go against their edicts
banning music and dance.
Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors of an English-language anthology of 235 poems titled Poetry of the Taliban, try to
provide a window into this ‘other’ world known only for its violent insurgency. With translations of Pashtu and Dari poems written by the Afghan Taliban, the book has stirred the emotions of many, with some decrying it as “self-satisfying propaganda”. In their introduction, the editors claim that these are uncensored voices allowing the reader to “appreciate those who comprise the Taliban as human beings (regardless of what actions they might have taken)”. Mostly poems selected from the Taliban’s official website, this anthology also comprises older verses taken from magazines, newspapers and recordings dating back to the 1980s and 1990s; some are not written by those associated with the Taliban and only one poem is by a woman.
As much as one might want to agree that this is not a political undertaking but a lyrical project, the often dark and desperate outpourings of sorrow, anger and accusations (directed at the West) and the expressions of love, war, nationalism and religious zeal contradict that reading. It is also hard to forget that the poetry (or at least some of the poems) belongs to Taliban insurgents who continue to pose a longstanding threat to secularism and democracy with their version of Islam.
The introductory note points to an interesting contradiction between official Taliban
edicts preventing the playing of music, except taranas or ballads, on Afghan radio stations between 1996 and 2001 and Mullah Omar’s
personal preference for playing songs by Saraji, his favourite Taliban singer, while riding in his SUV. Neither this preference, nor the centuries-old heritage of poetry and music, eased the ban on musicians until after 2001. But the editors remind us that hosting poetry and music sessions in the southern provinces is welcomed, adding that Mullah Omar would “sing after battle during the 1980s jihad”.
Focused on the conflicts that have shaped Afghanistan for the past three decades, these poems would have been recited to motivate fighters. With diverse themes and emotional appeal, they instantly draw the reader. The use of pastoral imagery and references to Afghan warriors from history are common to most of them. Political messages couched in repetitive verses urge Afghans to expel foreign occupiers in the religious and nationalistic poems mostly written after 2006. Others are love poems where the grieved poet talks of bombs, graves and revenge. Written as classic war poems for the most part, using regional poetic forms, they talk about modern war tactics.
“The Trench” draws on Taliban war songs. Fighters write about experiences from the frontlines, saying goodbye to families, descriptions of the enemy, of night raids, drone attacks on weddings, the loss of comrades. Most poets are critical of the changes brought through the sociopolitical structure supported by the international community. They critique the dollar inflated economy: “This is the land of Muslims/This is the land of great Afghans/This has the mark of the paradise/This is the land of the holy Quran/Don’t sell yourselves to the Americans”; condemn the role of non-governmental organisations: “Most people who broke with the government move to NGOs/ The reason is, salaries are in dollars/How many are the NGOs!”; decry the ‘Western’ influence on Afghan women and their dress. They deride the corruption of the Karzai government, often making direct references: “Don’t spread your dollars around/I have a revolutionary religion/You best be leaving now/I have sons born of Malalai”.
Written in December 2008, in the poem “Good News”, the young mujahideen is
advised to take revenge for night raids that ‘disgrace’ Afghan families. Other poems — with descriptive titles such as “The Message of Devoted Mujahid”, “O Eid of the Trench”, “The Cries of Forty-One Countries Reach the Sky” — confirm the Taliban’s conservative worldview while glorifying nationalism and bravery in war. They make direct references to suicide bombers, RPGs and jihad as a legal obligation: “We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour/That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists/ We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners/We circle their names in red on our lists.”