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The tender poetry of... the Taliban?

Since the Soviet occupation, Islamist fighters have used poetry to express their passions, doubts, and determination. 'The Poetry of the Taliban' was released in the US this week.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / July 17, 2012



Taliban poetry. The very idea may make some people snort. How can a group of mountain fighters who spent weeks shelling the face off stone Buddha statues and ordered millions of Afghan women to cover their faces under burqas, have anything of value to say about beauty?

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You’d be surprised.

Following a release in Britain a few months ago, "The Poetry of the Taliban" has been released this week in the United States, published by Columbia University Press.

I will let the literary set decide what is good poetry or bad poetry, although the estimable New-Delhi-based British historian William Dalrymple did have this to say:

“This extraordinary collection is remarkable as a literary project – uncovering a seam of war poetry few will know ever existed, and presenting to us for the first time the black turbaned Wilfred Owens of Wardak. But it is also an important political project: humanizing and giving voice to the aspirations, aesthetics, emotions, and dreams of the fighters of a much-caricatured and still little-understood resistance movement that is about to defeat yet another foreign occupation.”

For those who have spent any length of time at all in Afghanistan, it will come as no surprise that Afghans are a poetic people.

As a young war correspondent in Jalalabad, one of my keenest memories was not a night of bullets flying and prayers spoken, but rather a night of poetry. We had just eaten a meal of rice and lamb, and my host and his cousins and friends were passing around a watering can to wash their hands.

And then it began: One gentleman among us recited a love poem of startling romantic sincerity. Then came another poem about the feebleness of human character. Then another about a fickle lover. Then another about the terrors of battle, and the loss of a loved one. Some of these poems were ancient, but most had been written by the men who were reciting them, all doctors and merchants and political science students. And there wasn’t a cheap and dirty limerick in the lot.

My hosts turned to me, and I had nothing to offer, except appreciation for the beauty of their words.

Today, the release of this Taliban poetry book is an odd echo of that evening session. Odd, because I had probably assumed that poetry only occurred among the semi-elite, and especially those of the enlightened democratic sort who would have been fighting against the Taliban. But poetry is a potent weapon that only gets stronger in the hands of someone faced with an impossible cause and a powerful enemy.

One doesn’t have to agree with the Taliban worldview to appreciate the haunting power of this poem, written in 2007 by Taliban poet Shahzeb Faqir:

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