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.

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?

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:

“The village seems strange, this is separation

As if my beloved has left it,

The grief of separation is so cruel that it is not scared of anyone;

When the soul does not leave the body it shakes,

Like a flower withering in the autumn,

Autumn has now come to my love.”

The ambiguity of those lines – who is this love: God, his wife, his country? – is what gives them power. And for a people who are supposed to be in the thrall of literalist mullahs, who deny the possibility of the Quran ever being open to interpretation, other than by the mullahs themselves, it should give us pause to rethink our prejudices about the Afghan people, and specifically about the Taliban.

The poems in this book are full of patriotism and exhortations to fight, as one would expect from people who have been at war almost constantly since the Soviet invasion of 1979, and the devastating civil war after the Soviets left in the early 1990s. A British man of a certain age might recognize in this collection a similar spirit to the quintessential Stiff-Upper-Lip poem of Rudyard Kipling, "If."

Taliban poems are war poems, to be sure. But they are also full of reminders of the reasons why people fight, for family, for honor, for freedom, for nationalism, for religious expression.

In this way, the Taliban are just following in a long tradition of Afghans who found words as a powerful weapon. One of the most famous of Afghan couplets comes from the mouth of a woman named Malalai. On the battlefield of Maiwand in the first Afghan war, faced with the prospect of annihilation at the hands of a superior British Army, Malalai used a poetic couplet to urge Afghan fighters to die with honor.

"Young love! If you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,

By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!"

Myra MacDonald, a former Reuters reporter in South Asia and now author of a book about the Siachen war between India and Pakistan, warns against romanticizing the Taliban. But she says that the value of reading the "Poetry of the Taliban" is to avoid the extremes of seeing the Taliban as either fanatics or poets, and instead “to study the insurgency on its own terms and in its own words and work backwards into what fits best. We might or might not like what we find.”

I think that says it pretty well.

Related: Who are the Taliban and what do they want? 5 key points

But let’s end with an entirely different poem, written by the anti-Taliban poet Rahmat Shah Sayel, and given to me by its publisher, Najib Manalai on my most recent trip to Afghanistan in March. In the poem called “Prediction,” Mr. Sayel writes this comment about the disappointments of many Afghan people with the wasted opportunities of the last decade.

“If upon our passing

Our new generations

Do not hurl stones at our tombs

Verily, they will be

The humblest, noblest people of the new twenty-first century!”

Wa wa, Sayel sahib, I can hear my poetic Afghan friends saying. Well said.

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