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Taliban, the new Shakespeare

Oh, my homesick and exhausted lover! You still need to walk to reach your pretty house. This world full of darkness seeks your red blood’s hue.”  Shakespeare? No, Taliban member Abdul Basir Ebrat. “The Taliban listen to poems everywhere”, explains Felix Kuehn, a German researcher who lives in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. “They listen to it in their cars and on their phones. Even people who’re not Taliban, and who may even have fought against the Taliban, listen to Taliban poetry.”


A former Taliban fighter looks on after joining Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat province on March 26, 2012. Twelve fighters left the Taliban to join government forces in western Afghanistan. The Taliban, ousted from power by a US-led invasion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, announced earlier this month that they planned to set up a political office in Qatar ahead of talks with Washington. Pic/AFP Photo

The Taliban publish their poems on the Internet, too — in fact, their websites have entire sections dedicated to poetry. But when Kuehn and his research partner, Felix Strick van Linschoten, arrived in Kandahar several years ago, they noticed that while Western analysts poured through every sentence on the Taliban’s websites, they ignored the poetry. Now Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten have collected the best poems in the anthology Poetry of the Taliban, published in English this month [May].

Some of the poems are romantic: “Your love aside, what else is there? It is like approaching the desert.” Some are religious, while express despair over life. Yet others are true warrior poems. “They smash the foreheads of our people without guilt. I swear that I’ll bring earthquakes to your home”, writes a fighter named Nasrat. Taliban have been writing poems ever since their earliest days in the 1980s. “They’d fight a battle and sit down and write a poem afterwards”, says Kuehn. “In that way they’re not different from soldiers elsewhere.”

But a book with Taliban poetry is not uncontroversial. “It doesn’t do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country”, Britain’s former commander in Afghanistan, Richard Kemp, told a British newspaper. “But more often than not, the release of this kind of material sheds light how extreme, hypocritical or bizarre these groups are”, notes Dr Jarret Brachman, who advises governments on terrorist threats. “Sunlight is often the best disinfectant. Taliban poems offer a rich set of data that might help policymakers make smarter decisions.” And, insists Kuehn: “Poetry makes people have a conversation about the Taliban that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.” 

Good and bad Taliban?
The international community, lead by the United States, hopes to end violence in Afghanistan by dealing with moderate Taliban. The Taliban have even opened their first “embassy” in Qatar. “Recently the Taliban broke off the negotiations with the United States”, notes Dr Sajjan Gohel, an Afghanistan expert at the Asia-Pacific Foundation. “But it should have been the United States who ended the negotiations. You can’t negotiate with the Taliban, and even if you reach an agreement there’s no guarantee that the Taliban will honor it after international forces leave Afghanistan in 2014.” But, says James Dobbins, Bill Clinton’s and George W Bush’s special envoy to Afghanistan, “civil society, Afghan women’s groups and the international community will all press for women’s rights to be protected in any peace accord. I doubt the end result will fully satisfy these groups, but it will likely represent an advance upon women’s roles under most of Afghanistan’s previous regimes.

Warrior poets on the other side
Where there’s a war, there’s a poem. Soldiers wrote poems during World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Roman and Greek warrior poems, of course, remain a stable of Western literature. Today’s soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have poetic talent, too. “Politicians usually have much to say.

No sign of them near here this day. They hide away and out of danger, Much easier if the hero is a stranger”, composed one officer in Afghanistan after the death of eight soldiers. Injured, an anthology of war poetry by British soldiers, was published last year. Sarah Browning, poet; Director of Split This Rock

How good are the Taliban’s poems?
The strongest poems are the ones about human cost and discontent. They’re very alive, have plenty of imagery and a lot going on. The pastoral poems have a lot of clichés, while the ones about war and religion. When you “go to jihad with your pen”, as one of the poets writes, you compromise your art.

Isn’t it surprising that savage Taliban fighters would write poems?
Afghanistan has a rich poetic tradition, so if you’re born there of course you’ll be touched by it. There’s a line in one of the poems, “we love these wounded mountains”. We all have a strong attachment to our homes, and that comes through in the Taliban’s poems. Irony and satire comes through very well in their poems, too.

What about their love poems? The Taliban are known for their discrimination of women.
Most of the poems are by men, so that’s a shortcoming. On the other hand, that’s a shortcoming even in countries like the United States. The Taliban’s love poems have too many clichés and abstractions, but the fire references are good. There’s a very beautiful line in one of the poems: “The tongue of the nightingale is a flame.”

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