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.”
The poems express determination that the most recent foreign invaders — referred to as 41 countries — will be sent packing, just like the Russians and British occupiers before them. A chilling compliment in an undated poem that reveres the mujahid for “playing football with the heads of infidels” and for “[sounding] out the Islamic kalima to the world” could be a reminder about the beheading and stoning of alleged spies and those accused of ‘immorality’ in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium between 1996-2001.
Today, the official face of the Taliban does not openly reflect its anti-culture, anti-women, anti-West past, with ‘reformed’ members occupying key ministerial positions. But the reality is not much different from what happened during their regime. Earlier in the summer, a young woman was shot by Taliban commanders in Parwan province on the outskirts of Kabul on the pretext that she had committed ‘immoral’ crimes. Spectators gathered to witness the execution. And as recently as last week, Taliban insurgents beheaded 17 civilians, including two women, in Helmand province, a long-time Taliban stronghold; some reports state they were part of a music and dance evening while others explain the men were informers for the government.
Such incidents reflect that the Taliban’s ideology remains unchanged. Poet Nasery laments that, “We did all of this to ourselves”. But his is a solitary line in a collection where those “Heroes of the Maiwand battles/Those strict Pashtuns” are eulogized as fighters on a religious mission.
Poetry of the Taliban is full of admonitions, complaints against ‘infidels’, disgust at Afghans earning dollars, descriptions of suffering at the frontlines and the loneliness of widows, orphans and mothers, but without reference to engaging meaningfully with the outside world or even with the government to find a peaceful solution to the future. The solution for most lies in fighting the invaders until they leave. The poem “Slave” satirises the Karzai-Bush
alliance, accusing the former: “Karzai! You sold the country for a few dollars.”
As much as these poems may explain the reasons behind the Taliban’s unrelenting ideology and their resentment towards foreign occupiers, there is still that lingering question of whether they merit the space accorded to them. Should the Taliban’s political ideology of violence, perpetuated under the guise of religious belief, be circulated? Moreover, when a shooting or a beheading is recorded to the soundtrack of a tarana and that same tarana is used for propaganda
videos showing attacks on American and Afghan forces, one is left wondering about the contradiction: violence to the tune of music. Has their ban on cultural activities and music always been selective to suit political purposes and to show the world their dogmatic façade?
Last year it was reported that the Taliban have about 40 singers on their payroll, each producing an album a month. These songs, explains a Taliban spokesperson, “give a lesson in bravery, manliness and protecting the country from the invaders”, a familiar theme in this collection. Today, most Afghans travelling out of Kabul have insurgent songs about suicide bombers and teenage martyrs on their cell phones because if stopped at a Taliban check post with Indian or Afghan ring tones, their phones would be smashed and they would be beaten. If the Taliban privately recite poetry, listen to music and even resolve to change — “We are not animals/I say this with certainty/But/Humanity has been forgotten by us/I don’t know when it will come back” — is there space for that? Or is Poetry of the Taliban another publication revealing more of what we know about a resilient insurgent movement?
The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald
Poetry of the Taliban
Edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten
and Felix Kuehn
Translated by Mirwais Rahmany and
Hurst & Company, London