Swans Commentary » swans.com April 22, 2013  



Taliban Hearts And Flowers


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Poetry of the Taliban, edited and introduced by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, translated by Mirwais Rahmany and Hamid Stanikzai, preface by Faisal Devji, 2012, London, Hurst & Company, ISBN: 978-184904-111-9, 247 pages.


"But suddenly a guest came;
I let him be for two days.
But after these two days passed,
The guest became the host.
He told me, 'You came today.
Be careful not to return tomorrow.'"
—Najibullah Akrami


(Swans - April 22, 2013)   The United States and its dragooned NATO coalition are in full retreat from Afghanistan. The eleven-year war has failed to obtain its trumpeted goals. These, the righteous pap scraped away, were to defeat the Taliban and set up a stable client government in Kabul that was free of too conspicuous corruption. The planned pull out for 2014, revised in panic to 2013, will of course not affect the larger project of American-led domination of the Middle East. The US will remain bunkered down in Afghanistan behind the thickest walls taxpayers' money can buy. Military spokesman James Williams recently assured TomDispatch that "the ability of American soldiers to remain on giant fortified bases eating pizza and fried chicken into the distant future is not in doubt."

Western governments desperate to go home assure us that Afghanistan's future is secure. The rest of the world and serious analysts beg to differ. The Carnegie Endowment is categoric: "After 2014, the level of US support for the Afghan regime will be limited and after a new phase in the civil war, a Taliban victory will likely follow." The International Crisis Group says that the government could implode if the 2014 presidential elections are fraudulent. Hamid Karsai has to leave office so he will put in a brother -- he has several in waiting -- or else simply declare a state of emergency that will continue until the Taliban come for him as they did for former president Mohammed Najibullah, beaten, shot, and hanged in 1996. That will complete the circle of Karsai's "Enduring Freedom," which valiant Operation adopted him in 2001. One anonymous poet says:

The reasons we always fold our mustaches upwards
Is because we break the necks of our enemies.

The NATO coalition has been negotiating with the Taliban for some time. Washington thought best to shelter the public from the news. Explaining how last week's inhuman beasts are today's partners in a rational conversation isn't easy. At the same time there is no doubt at all that the Taliban will be important players in the new Afghanistan. It's imperative then to forget the action movie view of them and enquire who they really are. Reading Poetry of the Taliban is a useful and rewarding step in that direction. The book includes a bibliography and a helpful glossary of unfamiliar names and terms.

In his preface Faisal Devji points out that Taliban poetry isn't all blatant propaganda. Its sectarian side is softened by an autonomous aesthetic that whatever their politics all Afghans are at home in. Poets of the Pashto language, its vehicle, have always looked beyond Afghanistan. For centuries Pashto has developed in touch with Persian and Urdu, and its verse tradition is shared with Iran and India. Taliban poetry doesn't exclusively or even primarily express the religious and political views of the movement that bears its name. Its roots are in the mystical and erotic literature of the past and have taken on the twentieth century corrections of nationalists and Marxists. Devji finds that the freedom Taliban poetry embodies is internal: "Looking at the moral order from outside its own demesne, the individual presupposed by this aesthetic can both uphold and escape it, which also means that he cannot be confined within the precincts of any ideology."

Devji also remarks that, as in the earlier Christian occident, human life in these poems is never an absolute. Life can be prized, inspiring, and delectable, but never the be-all and end-all. He notes that the poets treat the contemporary Western idea of "human rights" with biting irony. It has been used too often as an excuse for imperial incursions that ended up dispensing torture and death. The harbingers of civil rights in Afghanistan are now drones controlled from Nevada. Sensitive to pain and suffering, the Taliban poems decry cruelty and violence. However, they issue from a culture that has no confidence in or wish to regulate personal conduct by civil laws concocted abroad. One hopes that after the fiasco of attempting to impose the folkways of Indianapolis on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Washington will leave ancient civilizations to work out their own way forward. The poet Matiullah Sarachawal, for instance, is puzzled by the obsession of outsiders to empower women where everyone is poor and neither sex has any power:

How many are the NGOs!
It is not clear where these people come from;
A meddler strolls around with his bodyguards;
How many are the NGOs!

The tradition from which Taliban poetry springs spoke of warrior women and "poetesses." Ambiguity was at its heart and, says Devji, "stock characters include despondent lovers, cruel and beautiful mistresses, and a great deal of wine."

Woman writers are rare exceptions among the poets collected here, but Nastri, one of them, wrote the mighty lines:

Give me your turban and take my veil,
Give me the sword so that the matter will be dealt with.

The poet Khepulwaak is less concerned with girls' education than their death from the air:

With every strike girls die as well

The editors Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have lived and worked in Afghanistan. In 2010 they published Abdul Salam Zaeef's memoir My Life With The Taliban and in 2012 An Enemy We Have Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010. Their presentation of 235 Taliban poems in English is the first time readers have a chance to look into the minds of what affiliates and sympathizers of the movement are feeling and thinking on a personal level. What's striking is how much of those sentiments are shared by Afghanis generally.

Emotions run strong and poetry is a feature of everyday life in the country. The editors report cases of political opponents of the Taliban singing along with their tarana ballads, "the main aesthetic product associated with the movement." On music the editors bring needed clarification. The 1996 prohibition did not outlaw all music, but only that which the Taliban didn't approve of officially. The regimes in place before them had also enforced their own taste in music. There is the significant anomaly of Mullah Mohammad Omar, head of the movement, playing cassettes of forbidden but rousing Afghan tunes as he cruised the country in his Toyota.

The truth is that the Taliban are not some freakish and alien growth in Afghanistan. They share most of what Afghans consider essential to their way of life. Their distaste for foreign occupiers, for instance, is widespread. When Karsai's army and police turn their guns on NATO big brothers, it's wishful thinking always to blame the Taliban. When our TV displays girls going to school again in NATOs' and Karsai's Kabul, we shouldn't forget that outside the city in areas completely free of Taliban control, the local people rarely favor schools for girls, and women are in the main treated as they always have been. If change comes, it won't be thanks to the mocked NGOs, another "surge" or more marauding drones. It will have to come from Afghans themselves.

A few of the poems translated come from print publications or cassettes of the 1980s and 1990s. Most of them, however, are from the Taliban website after 2001, and especially between 2006 and 2009. The authors are not officially approved. Some are only vague affiliates of the movement and others quite outside of it. Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn strive to give samples of the various styles and themes. These range widely. There are political poems, but fewer than one would expect. Many naturally touch on the warfare that has ravaged the country for the last thirty years. There are poems of stiff piety but, once more, fewer than expected in light of our stereotypic view of the Taliban. This again is enlightening. Seeing themselves as Muslim -- simply of a sterner breed -- they have no need to promote Islam to their countrymen. They do feel the need, however, to urge them on in the jihad of resistance to foreign occupation.

Personal touches abound. A poet reflects on the beauty of a flower. Others squirm in love's pangs. The religious poems aren't doctrinal but address the Almighty personally, like a respected grandfather. A whole category entitled "Discontent" lets rip with miscellaneous gripes. Fellowship in battle replays the love theme without roses. Poems detailing the human cost of the Afghan resistance to foreigners suggest that the daily body count in our media of "insurgents" killed will never still the Taliban.

We are of course dealing in translations. These have been carried out in workmanlike fashion, but the translators are not English poets. What we read leaves out much of what we prize in poetry. The emphasis falls on content in a narrow sense which serves the editors' purpose of learning what the Taliban are thinking in broad terms. Their full artistry as poets is still to be revealed.

Both the preface and the introduction dwell on the rootedness of the Taliban in Afghan soil and history along with a poetic tradition than spans much of South Asia. It would be a pleasure to hear some of these poems recited in the Kremlin and the Pentagon, if only to learn whether the hardheads there can still blush. Faisal Devji tells us:

Apart from demonstrating the patriotic rather than planetary dimension of the Taliban's struggle, therefore, the role played by the Anglo-Afghan Wars in this literature makes of the British an enemy so obdurate as to reduce both Russians and Americans into the palest of their imitators. So if Britain could be vanquished, the reasoning goes, neither Russia nor America ever had much chance of victory. Entailed in this story, of course, is the view that the British in our own time are of no consequence, as the Taliban authors do not make the mistake of confusing their imperial glory during the Raj with today's politics, in which the United Kingdom is seen merely as an adjunct of the United States.

When Poetry of the Taliban appeared in Britain, alert readers noted how it resembled Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets, a collection written by British soldiers and their families. (John Jeffcock editor, 2011, London, Ebury Press, ISBN-13: 978-0091946647, 176 pages.) In both books the exhilaration of combat is accompanied by fear. In both, souls are riven by grieving and painful farewells. However, waging a distant war for geopolitical reasons is not defending home soil and makes for a sense of futility. The British poets, read in the original and working in a different and more direct tradition can stir our emotions. Here is Corporal Danny Martin's memory from Iraq, Haddock of Mass Destruction:

Brain bored and arse numb
Finally the blades spun and we lifted
Skimmed the palm trees and popped flares above the Euphrates
We swooped low over the target truck
Then landed in its path

We charged in our Storm Trooper costumes
Blinding faceless shapes through dirty glass

I dragged the driver from his seat
Slammed his face into hot tarmac
Held it there with my suede boot
Steadied my hands long enough to cuff his

We searched his packed pick-up
Boxes stacked four deep five wide
Emptied in the dust on the roadside
The first box revealed ice and fish, and the next
And the next, and the last

Intelligence had said he was armed and dangerous
Armed with melting ice and defrosting cod
No match for our guns, our bombs,
Our good intentions, our morals
Our God

We cut his cuffs, and his wife's
And left them to their ruined stock
I should demand commission
From the Taliban
For every recruit I've converted to their lock.

For his part, Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan was outraged when Poetry of the Taliban came out: "It doesn't do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country." Kemp, who sounds like no poetry fancier, probably didn't read Corporal Martin's poem. He would have no time at all for Traveller Friend by Khalid Haidari, one of the Taliban poets he calls "fascist, murdering thugs":

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.
The tender Talib Jan,
The one with long hair,
The young Talib Jan.
Who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 22, 2013