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.”

8 comments

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Taliban can recite poems. But they will be facing the music with their traditional non-Pashtun rivals when the US and its allies leave. It is important for these poets to drop their guns and learn to live with others in their country.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Myra,
Stop your patronised writing for the so called Talibans! Are you referring to Talibans, the Studentsß Or today’s Taliban well organised resistance against the occupiers! try to understand the dilemma of the American world, the problem is how to withdraw so that the viertnam debacle is not repeated for the viewers back home. And here we are, the Americans have messed it up by not apologising to the Pakistan Govt. for the death of Pakistani border guards! Unless Pakistan highway is opened up for the 100,000 odd batch of combat soldiers and thousands of security and civilian workers as well as their nitty gritty equipment would be scattered all over Afghanistan, once the Talibans collective onslaught starts. Afghanistan Govt is expected to run for cover in safe places across Afghan borders and the so called Afghan army shall have new commanders in less than days.
The Pashtuns ony friend in his loneliness is the song which he sings with a lyricin the lush valleys or the cold surface mountain.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Ah Rex

You make me laugh. First, you’re so obssessed with you’re writing dominating these pages that you must have the last word on everything. Congratulations. You’ve reduced the place to crickets. You still like hearing your own voice, I guess.

Next, the funny part is that you might actually believe what you say. Did you not read Myra’s earlier pieces? This is no Vietnam. It won’t be. The US cared only about Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. They got what they came for. The West had to pretend we cared about Afghanistan and it’s people and give the Taliban a good thrashing to remind them that if they let in terrorists again, we’ll be back for another decade. Do we care if the Taliban come back to power? Not really. Hopefully, they’ve learned their lesson and won’t be letting in another Bin Laden.

But just to keep them in check, the US can always send a billion or so to any group fighting the Taliban. Civil war in Afghanistan is ten times cheaper than counter-insurgency. Fewer dead Virginia farmboys too. At this rate, the yanks alone could keep Afghanistan going for generations.

And in the meanwhile, once the last Western soldier is out, well, there’s no need to pretend that Pakistanis are on the same page as us. Either Pakistan will bankrupt itself funding the Taliban (because the rest of us will be funding anybody and everybody fighting the Taliban) or they’ll abandon the Taliban. Either way, we win. Oh…and if the Taliban do come to power, Pakistan might actually have to go war with Afghanistan. Those crazy Pashtuns. They seem to think all Pashtuns should live in the same country. The Pak Army actually fighting the Taliban? Now that would make for some good youtube videos.

The sooner the West leaves the better. As you well know, war is just politics by another means. Once we wrap up the war, we can really get some nasty politics. Right now, all this fighting is just getting in the way of real politics.

You want to see how desperate Pakistan is? Just watch how quickly Dr. Afridi will be released. The White House probably spends more on dog food than the aid that just got cut for Pakistan because of Dr. Afridi’s imprisonment. But $33 million is a lot of Scotch for the boys in Pindi. And they can’t live without Scotch.

Posted by True.North. | Report as abusive

Myra,

Why are you surprised that the poems are confusing? The Taliban are scarcely cohesive. They work towards a common cause: kicking the West out of Afghanistan. But let them rule Afghanistan and they’d quickly devolve into little fiefdoms again. In reality, that’s what pre-2001 Afghanistan was. The Taliban central authorities dictated a few basic rules and demanded tribute from the local warlords who were allowed to rule and terrorize the locals.

Political prose? Hardly. Nothing any off-the-street Afghan would not tell you.

Posted by True.North. | Report as abusive

@True North
You are not with it, or perhaps you have the “scotty beam me trick” for the USA adminstration, which could show the escape route for the marines to pull out of Afghanistan? Vietnam scenario is the only alternatve for the great marines.
The fate of Afriis are decided by Afridi tribes! Even his own family shall disown him if what is alleged about him is true.You are just blowing too much hot air!

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

Rex Minor: “…which could show the escape route for the marines to pull out of Afghanistan?”

Ever heard of airplanes?

Supplies have been running into and out of Afghanistan for months with no real issues. Pakistanis routes might help save a few dollars. But that’s it. There’s no absolute necessity on them.

I worked on a project to help plan for a shut down of the Pakistani supply routes. That was years ago. NATO has long known that Pakistan was a reluctant ally at best. It planned for exactly this event. Afghanistan’ northern neighbours are more than happy to take the transit fees instead. Heck, other than the US, the Iranians give air transit rights to most NATO countries…for free. Pakistan is quickly proving itself irrelevant with its stunts.

Posted by True.North. | Report as abusive

True North.
If you are associated with the supply routes, then perhaps you should visit Afghanistan and see the amount of weaponry which is now amassed by the Foreign occupiers. America has not many choices, either the make a run and use the aeroplanes as you suggest or heicopters( as they did in vietnam) and leave the entire weaponry in the hands of Talibans or patch up with Pakistan, auction the current supplies which are stranded on Pakistan highways and have the equipment enough for several military divisions, and gradualy depart during the night in which they have the expertise. Simply, maintaining the cosmetic date of 2014 to mislead their public and themseves is not the answer. The French have had enough and broken ranks, they are even prepared to dump their heavy equipment for the Afghan forces, taking your tip to take out their forces gradualy by year end.
No one has the interest to witness the repeat of Vietnam debacle and the American equipment going on sale in the open bazaars of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Rex Minor

Posted by pakistan | Report as abusive

@Rex Minor,

Yeah. Cause some random Pakistani blogger from Germany has really seen tons of equipment lying on the side of highways in Pakistan. You’re full of it. The rest of us know it.

Posted by True.North. | Report as abusive