'Poetry of the Taliban' – will it find an audience in the US?

Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the editors of the US edition of 'Poetry of the Taliban,' says many of the poems in the book deal with unexpected topics.

Tom A. Peter
Editor Alex Strick van Linschoten says Westerners who have a knee-jerk reaction to a book of poetry by the Taliban may be surprised how many of the pieces address topics like writing, flowers, and religion.

Ask most Americans to describe the Taliban – the militant Pashtun tribesmen who once ruled Afghanistan – and "poetic" probably won't be an adjective you'll hear frequently employed. But that's exactly the point of publishing an English edition of poetry by the group, says Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the editors of the newly released US edition of "Poetry of the Taliban." "Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well," he says.

Monitor correspondent Tom A. Peter recently spoke with van Linschoten about the book and his decision to publish it.

Q: How did you get the idea for this book?

A: We were running an organization to give voices to the debate and discussion happening in Afghanistan. As part of that project, we were monitoring the Taliban website and we saw that there were these Taliban poems in a very prominent location on the website. We started to have them translated because I was curious. We just kept on doing it even after our project had finished. Then, about a year and a half ago, we mentioned to our publisher that we had these 300 to 350 Taliban poems, and he said, "Let’s publish them."

Q: What first stood out to you about the poems?

A: There are the kinds of things that you would expect, like a poem called "Death is a Gift," and there’s a lot glorifying the war and the military aspect of the conflict. But then a very large number of the poems have nothing to do with the war. They’re about flowers, they’re about what it means to be a writer, they’re about religion and so on. There are self-critical poems about the destruction, but not glorifying it in the way that the others are. It was interesting that there were more in the way of these unexpected poems.

Q: What are your favorite poems?

A: There’s one quite interesting one where the Talib imagines himself as a deer running through the forest, and then he imagines the American soldier as the hunter who is trying to hunt him. I think this is an interesting image of the conflict. The final poem, which is about a widow visiting the grave of her husband every day, that’s quite a strong one.

Q: Do the poems have literary merit or are they only interesting because of who wrote them?

A: They’re really emotional. It’s not great art on the highest level, but still it has an emotional pull to it. I think you have a similar kind of dynamic here where people in Kandahar are listening to them, particularly the kind of writers and literary guys, they don’t necessarily think this is great literature, but it has an emotional effect on them.

Q: This book has been pulled into the political debate. Did you intend for that?

A: We didn’t publish the book with any sort of political agenda, but I’ve found it interesting how challenged people have been just by the idea that Talibs write poems, even regardless of the actual content. A lot of the negative responses we’ve had are by people who’ve never read the book; they’re just objecting to the pure existence of it. I think that says something interesting about how we view the Taliban. We don’t think of them as people who write poems. They’re the enemy, they’re terrorists, people who blew up the Buddha statues, they’re people who’ve done all these bad things to women. We have quite a limited frame of reference. If there was anything we were trying to do with the book, it was to try to offer an extended, more complex view of things.

Q: People have criticized you for over-emphasizing the Taliban’s humanity. What do you think about that?

A: It’s surprising that this is such an outrageous observation to have. Where do people think these guys come from? It’s not like they came from Mars in a spaceship. They’re Afghans and they’re engaged in this political conflict. Just like our soldiers have feelings and emotions, the Talibs do as well.

Q: Is this a book for Afghan experts or a general audience?

A: We tried to make it as accessible as possible to a general audience. There are a couple of introductions and forewords that explain the context of the poems. We footnote things that wouldn’t be understandable to a general reader. People who even just have a passing interest in Afghanistan or folk culture would find it interesting.

Q: Do you think this book will make people rethink how they view the Taliban?

A: Books are not the way to change the world, as I’ve discovered from other books I’ve written. Most of the discussion we’ve seen about the book has taken place without people actually reading it, but at least it generates some kind of debate.

Q: What’s your main hope for this book?

A: That people read it and there’s a discussion about it, and that they actually look at the poems rather than just talking about the idea of the book. You can’t engage with something without actually looking at it.

Tom A. Peter is a Monitor contributor.

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