Taliban poetry, mourn the dead boy, curse the naked “daughter of the west”

May 24, 2012

“A calamity has emerged from the Western gloom,” we are told. “The Crusader world has come out… The red daughter of the West has come out; she dances naked.”

“O hunter! why did you hold the arrow in your bow? You opened your closed eye slowly. It looks like you started watching my youth. Yes, I am that deer in this forest.”

“And, the tender Talib Jan; The one with long hair, The young Talib Jan,  Who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan…  You would not ask me why I am crying.”

Those lines are from three poems in the newly published “Poetry of the Taliban”, a collection that is as maddeningly confusing as it is revealing. The hatred of the west. The intimacy between the hunted and the hunter. The dirge for the dead boy. The collection, edited by Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, is a map of sorts into the inner thinking of the Taliban movement, yet one that is painfully hard to follow. Such is the diversity of these poems that you cannot read them and stereotype the Taliban movement either as an enemy which must be crushed or, equally perversely, as a coherent movement that just needs to be coaxed into a peace deal to end the Afghan war. They are poems which deserve to be studied closely.

But first let’s dispense with some misconceptions. It should not come as a surprise that the Taliban like poetry – anyone who failed to notice Mullah Zaeef’s reference in his memoirs, My Life with the Taliban, to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar reciting a ghazal should either read, or reread his book. Nor should we be surprised that the insurgents are as prone to human frailty as any other group of people, especially after fighting a war in their own country for nearly 11 years.

But we should not romanticise them either – the temptation, particularly for war-weary western countries seeking a way out of the Afghan war is to read whatever we want into these poems. If the insurgents can be humanised as latter-day Wilfred Owens, all the better for those looking to salve their consciences while pulling out troops, with or without any guarantee of peace in Afghanistan. Too often, western policy prescriptions have preceded rather than flowed from an understanding of the people affected by them. Those people are then assumed to be made to fit, as though they have no agency of their own. Thus if we are to make war with the Taliban they will be unyielding fanatics; if we are seeking a peace deal, they become poets. “Poetry of the Taliban”, selected from poems published on the Taliban website, provides an opportunity to reverse that process, 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.

My own impression – limited by the fact that I don’t read Pashto and therefore find it harder to imagine the poems in the original – is that the Taliban is essentially a subversive movement without a coherent political platform. The only common theme is a fiercely nationalistic love of Afghanistan and a desire to see foreign troops out. “O my homeland…” reads one poem from 2008. “You are my pride, you are my dignity. You are my world’s paradise. I will sacrifice everything of mine for you.”

Often you feel that the writers want nothing more than to be left alone to return to their villages. The occupiers are, in the words of one poet, the uninvited guest who left him homeless: “The guest became the host. He told me, ‘You came today. Be careful not to return tomorrow.’” Yet with that attitude comes a traditionalist idealism – all we want, the poet writes, is to return to the “the great beauteous times” before the war began. For a movement that had its roots in rural southern Afghanistan, that pastoral idealism  makes sense. But it sits awkwardly with those Afghans who might choose a different existence – just as the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996 jarred when rural tradition met urban expectations.

At times the lack of insight in some of the poems can be maddening; as is the reactionary romanticisation of history which draws its inspiration from the defeat of the British in 1842. These are not the poets of World War One, ready like Wilfred Owen to ask why anyone should die for one’s country.

Yet just at the moment you have decided to consign the Taliban movement to rusticity, you come across a poem which displays an incredibly shrewd grasp of why the U.S.-led project in Afghanistan has gone so badly wrong. The comic “How many are the NGOs!” lampoons all the aid poured in so ineffectively – distorting the local economy with inflated dollar salaries and fuelling corruption. “Wasting time, they merely sit in their offices. How many are the NGOs! Their salaries, more than ministers. How many are the NGOs!”  It should have been published as a policy paper years ago.

As we should have expected (even if we did not), there is little evidence of sympathy for al Qaeda’s world view of global jihad. Yet let’s not ignore the distaste for the west. The insurgency is not just about freeing Afghanistan from foreign troops. They don’t like us, and it would be foolish of us to pretend otherwise. The Afghan exile writing about “London Life” describes such bleakness that “brother to brother and father to son, there is no affection.” In “Daughter of the West”, that distaste is translated into a sexualised view of women as a symbol of western culture. “The red daughter of the West has come out, she dances naked. They seek logic from the barrels of guns, This speech has come from the Western culture’s text.” It is propaganda of the most troublesome kind given the extent to which the treatment of women has been, throughout history and across cultures, one of the easiest ways of asserting political power.

The poem “Hunter” is perhaps the nearest we can find to Wilfred Owen’s understanding in “Strange Meeting” that his opponent is a man like himself, where he can say “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” (For those who complain of eurocentric references, this is a language issue – if I could read Chinese or Sanskrit I would find different comparisons).  In “Hunter”, we have the intimacy between the American soldiers and the insurgents on the frontline, as so often happens between conventional enemies in war. “It looks like you started watching my youth. Yes, I am that deer in this forest.” But that same poem also includes a hatred which does not transcend. “If a dog comes to this forest from somewhere, We count him as a dog and treat him as a dog…Your homeland is being controlled by the pigs…”

And yet if you are angered by that, read “Traveller Friend” – one of the best poems in the collection. It is one of many that shows the Taliban are weary of war too. “You would not ask me why I am crying,” it begins. “The tender Talib Jan, The one with long hair, The young Talib Jan, Who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan…You would not ask me why I am crying.”

And then read the penultimate line of this poem which says everything we need to know about why the Afghan war has gone so badly wrong; and about how the political and economic corruption on all sides has left such little hope:

“Death has a contractor working in my village.”

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