Poetry of the Taliban
by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn C. Hurst and Co. (Publishers) Ltd.
- Pub Date:
- Hbk 176 pages
- AU$34.95 NZ$40.83
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Most Taliban fighters are Pashtuns who cherish their vibrant poetic traditions, which mirror those of song. While much has been written about the Taliban's military tactics, media strategy, and harsh treatment of women, scholars often overlook this cultural and less overt -- yet no less revealing -- political practice.
The poems in this collection are meant to be recited and sung, and this is the manner in which they are enjoyed by the wider Pashtun public. From audiotapes traded in secret in Kandahar's bazaars and mp3s exchanged via bluetooth in Kabul to video files downloaded in Dubai and London, Taliban poetry transcends demographic and geographic boundaries. These poems, or ghazals, remind their listeners of the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, when similar rhetorical styles, poetic formulae, and tricks with meter inspired and united mujahideen combatants and non-combatants alike. The poems in this volume feature 'classics' of the genre, which gained popularity during the 1980s and 1990s. It also contains a selection of recent odes and ghazals that reference the events of current conflicts. Ranging from nationalist paeans to richly symbolic dirges, these poems cover many themes and styles, intertwining the political with the aesthetic and celebrating life in the face of devastating loss. Two introductory essays culturally and historically contextualize these poems, relating their significance to Pashtun communities and their reflection of a culture inundated by thirty years of war. Faisal Devji, noted Taliban scholar, underscores the link between these poems and the Taliban's emotional and ethical character.
'Afghanistan has a rich and ancient tradition of epic poetry celebrating resistance to foreign invasion and occupation. 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 also an important political project: humanising 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.'
William Dalymple, author of The Last Mughal and the forthcoming, The Return of a King: Sha Shuja and the First Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42
'It is not simply that readers might gain perspectives 'from the other side' regarding international involvement in Afghanistan, perspectives that are sorrowfully defeated and ragefully triumphant, bitterly powerless and bitingly satirical. It is not simply that readers may vicariously experience things that are radically foreign to their personal lives but are nonetheless part of a shared twenty-first-century history linking the Atlantic world with the Hindu Kush, such as drone strikes, night raids, military incarceration, eroded personal sovereignty, and diluted national sovereignty. It is not even that these poems provide insight into the ethical worlds and the personal aspirations of a full range of today's Taliban, in which inchoate desires for freedom and deliverance and a longing for beauty sit alongside the authoritarian impulses more regularly seen by foreign audiences. These poems expose something of the full, textured, deeply conflicted humanity of those who actively consume and recirculate them, those who may be insurgents at the same time they are humans. In providing such a picture, the 'insurgent' is restored a sense of humanity and agency, and thus even (as the editors note) an accountability for violence that would be impossible to expect from a mere avatar.'
James Caron, University of Pennsylvania
'By turns angry, idealistic, or cynically witty, these Taliban poets leave none unmoved by verse conjuring Persian metaphysics, Muslim traditions, and a Pashtun quest for honor. Indeed, as enemies' triumphs and ruination in their mountain homeland tests these mujahedin's faith in God, some even echo the shock, sense of betrayal, and despair of Britain's First World War poets. Thanks to a clear and empathetic translation, Western readers will find a rare door to the emotions and motivations of Afghans trapped in bloody events far beyond their control, and will soon forget which side they are supposed to be on.'
Hugh Pope, author of Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East
'These are poems of love and war and friendship and tell us more about Afghanistan than a million news reports. Anybody claiming to be an Afghan expert should read this book before giving their next opinion.'
Mohammad Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes and of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti
'A remarkable and important book that reveals a hitherto concealed side to the harshly perceived Afghan Taliban. In Poetry of the Taliban, we see that within the movement there are warriors who have wounded hearts, lyrical souls, and a passionate love of language and ideas.'
Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, and author of The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan
'A highly original and extremely important book which by making the Taliban's poems available in English arguably sheds more light on the Taliban and its resilience than could any organisational chart or force assessment. More significantly, it draws attention to the crucial role that aesthetics and emotions -- as opposed to resources and doctrines -- play in military organisations. As such, this may be the first poetry book of strategic significance.'
Thomas Hegghammer, author of Jihad In Saudi Arabia and co-author of Al-Qaida in its Own Words
'This is an essential work. In compiling the poetry of the Taliban, these young scholars have preserved the intimate and the expansive, ranging from pastoral imagery of the Afghan countryside, to satire on global politics and rich references to Afghan, Muslim and biblical history. In the process they go beyond humanising the Taliban towards understanding them. The same Taliban, known to the world as cultural morons, turn out to have inspired a corpus of poetry which links to the finest civilisational accomplishments of Pashto, Farsi, Urdu and Arabic.... If anyone still wonders on which cultural resources the Taliban drew to inspire a people to resist a dull global plan to modernise them, read on.'
Michael Semple, Harvard University and former EU representative in Afghanistan