Poetry of the Taliban
Edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten 
and Felix Kuehn
Hurst Books
Poetry of the Taliban Edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn Hurst Books

Poetry of the Taliban offers valuable insights

It is tempting to sidestep the poetry itself in favour of debating this book's right to exist. Online debate has tended to take a "political correctness gone mad" tack, as if the publication of a work were a kind of literary award in itself, the study of a group's cultural output an immediate legitimisation of all they stand for. Would we publish or read a collection of, say, white supremacist poetry? No, in fact it's hard to imagine anything less edifying. But the Taliban are more than the sum of their prejudices, and while the fundamentalist brutality of their regime is presented without embellishment or apologia in the introduction, we are also shown a more complex picture than the clear-cut enemy it is comfortable to create. In an invasion of somewhat debatable purpose, with its attendant civilian casualties and economic, political and moral destabilisation, it is inevitable that many are called to resistance.

Poetry of the Taliban contains a wide variety of themes and voices from a largely oral tradition that is as popular today as it was in the antiquity it draws on for reference.

As Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn write in the introduction, "Poetry remains part of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan's younger generation, something that cannot be destroyed, unlike the Buddhas of Bamiyan, a literary phenomenon marked by idealism and strong convictions." In this anthology we find love poems, religious devotional verse and many moments of intense pastoral lyricism, such as this couplet from Sunset: "Evening the twilight arrives slowly with its lap full of red flowers; / pink rays are spreading over the blush of sky." These are juxtaposed with calls to arms ("They smash the foreheads of our people without guilt") and, elsewhere, broad satires of the George W Bush administration that could have come from any western open-mic night from the last 10 years. One is called How Many Are the NGOs, wryly subverting a romantic refrain.

Many of the shorter lyric pieces are in the form of the ghazal, presented as an exotic form (in which rhyming couplets and a refrain explore the theme of pain and loss - or the love which endures in spite of that pain and loss), but the ghazal will be familiar to anyone engaged with the pluralist, globalised field of contemporary poetry who will likely have read Sarah Maguire's The Pomegranates of Kandahar or Mimi Khalvati's The Meanest Flower, both celebrated recent collections. Although many of the anthologised poems are characterised by abstract declarations - "I am looking for wishes in the darkness of life ..." - there is an equally strong tendency towards the sensory concrete detail we tend to value in the western poetic tradition: "O Shepherd / Your old hair and dusty beard look very heavy, / O shepherd unaware of time." (from The Troubled Shepherd).

On its publication the book was denounced as enemy propaganda. It is curious to present this as a revelation: several dozen of the 235 tarana anthologised here are openly propagandist, presented as such, written about as such in the introduction and unmistakably the incendiary, one-sided cant their authors clearly set out to write. "We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour; / That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists. / We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners; / We circle their names in red on our lists", from The Message of a Devoted Mujahed, cannot really be taken any other way. Neither could it really convince anyone who wasn't already to join the cause.

The Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001 in Afghanistan, during which time they violently oppressed any form of music other than the dai'ira frame drum and unaccompanied chanting.

As in any other cultural revolution, this was presented as a return to the nation's artistic roots. Poetry replaced music on the radio, in public performance, blaring from cars, mobile phones, soundtracking films, and so on. It is not so much the central means of cultural expression as the only one left unpersecuted, and while instruments and visual art are allowed again now, the tarana are no less popular. It may be that the branding of the book is slightly mischievous - placing it alongside innumerable other poetry anthologies or treasuries selected along national, political, gender or cultural lines. It is different, not least in its poems being "of the people" rather than by established literary figures, populist or erudite. Some of the poets here are anonymous or write under a pseudonym, those who don't are nonetheless personal and, one presumes, autobiographical: "There is no place for me in this world. / A small house I had from father and grandfather / in which I knew happiness, / My beloved and I would live there. / […] But suddenly a guest came." (from Poem by Najibullah Akrami). The concerns range from a heroic self-mythology based upon Afghanistan's history of invasion and resistance, to a lament for the true conditions of war and insurgency. The patriotic country and western song, the censored letter home. We learn in the introduction that the poems are more often downloaded as audio files than published in slim volumes or read silently, and that it is more likely to be the chanters of the taranas who achieve fame or recognition - the poets are just the scriptwriters.

The anthology is divided into six sections by theme: Before September 11; Love & Pastoral; Religious; Discontent; The Trench; and The Human Cost. While it's true that the poems here draw on "a relatively standardised canon of imagery", there is also a remarkably contemporary note of self-consciousness.

Poetic Competition is an admonition to younger poets to write not for personal gain, but for the good of the cause. The poets, at their most rhetorical, often refer to themselves in the third person: "Turab is speaking to all the kuffar / I cannot allow you to remain in my country." (from Warning by Turab). It is, perhaps, this framing of the Taliban as the victim that is seen as manipulative by some of the anthology's more outspoken critics; although it's hard to imagine how else one might feel were one's country invaded. This itself is addressed in the bitter self-reference of Sa'adullah's I Was Afghan; That's Why I Wasn't The Hero.

Elsewhere we run the gamut from religious devotional poetry to (slightly creepy) paeans of unrequited love. The section that seems most faithful to its own advice "Always write the truth, O Poet" is The Human Cost. Here we find consistent, poignant laments for the degradation of humanity in a war zone, where your hometown smells permanently of gunpowder, your family home lies in rubble. And yet there is a unilateral sense of the dehumanising effects - that there are no heroes, just a tragic mess of recrimination upon recrimination. "God knows better where the wise and clever people have gone / In this city a few mad people walk around exhausted. [...] / O Majnun, better to escape from this city now / Because humans are being cut into pieces." (from Golden Pages). It is worth taking a moment to praise the translation here, which is crystal clear, makes no effort to force a rhyme scheme and preserves the poetic diction while avoiding syntactical gymnastics.

The war propaganda in Poetry of the Taliban is like First World War poetry before the horrors of trench warfare were encountered. It is well and truly trumped by the overriding sense of sadness and frustration, the calls to arms and patriotic pastorals leavened by a profound, decentring insight into the plight of the invaded. Along with a self-subversive element the Taliban administration was either oblivious to or ignored.

The debates over the morality of its publication will continue, but the fact is Poetry of the Taliban doesn't need defending in this way: it is not as if a group of Taliban poets submitted a collection of poetry via a literary agent and have been granted the legitimisation of publication; the work is already massively popular; it exists and is distributed, like it or not.

This anthology is a significant cultural artefact and an insight into a culture we know relatively little about, not a literary award. Perhaps the profoundest message to take from it is that of Nairiz, a radio singer from Kabul who was forced to record tarana: "He chose specific lyrics, however, which he said the audience understood properly but that the Taliban failed to decipher: 'Remember the poor are protected by God / One day he will answer their cries / And their oppressors will be punished'."

Propaganda has always been the opposite of literature, but even within the most benighted context there is the potential for humanity, in all its fierce compassion, to assert itself.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.

Company Profile

Name: Direct Debit System
Started: Sept 2017
Based: UAE with a subsidiary in the UK
Industry: FinTech
Funding: Undisclosed
Investors: Elaine Jones
Number of employees: 8

Electric scooters: some rules to remember
  • Riders must be 14-years-old or over
  • Wear a protective helmet
  • Park the electric scooter in designated parking lots (if any)
  • Do not leave electric scooter in locations that obstruct traffic or pedestrians
  • Solo riders only, no passengers allowed
  • Do not drive outside designated lanes
The biog

Favourite book: Animal Farm by George Orwell

Favourite music: Classical

Hobbies: Reading and writing


The burning issue

The internal combustion engine is facing a watershed moment – major manufacturer Volvo is to stop producing petroleum-powered vehicles by 2021 and countries in Europe, including the UK, have vowed to ban their sale before 2040. The National takes a look at the story of one of the most successful technologies of the last 100 years and how it has impacted life in the UAE.

Part three: an affection for classic cars lives on

Read part two: how climate change drove the race for an alternative 

Read part one: how cars came to the UAE

The story of Edge

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, established Edge in 2019.

It brought together 25 state-owned and independent companies specialising in weapons systems, cyber protection and electronic warfare.

Edge has an annual revenue of $5 billion and employs more than 12,000 people.

Some of the companies include Nimr, a maker of armoured vehicles, Caracal, which manufactures guns and ammunitions company, Lahab


A Round of Applause

Director: Berkun Oya
Starring: Aslihan Gürbüz, Fatih Artman, Cihat Suvarioglu
Rating: 4/5


1. Black holes are objects whose gravity is so strong not even light can escape their pull

2. They can be created when massive stars collapse under their own weight

3. Large black holes can also be formed when smaller ones collide and merge

4. The biggest black holes lurk at the centre of many galaxies, including our own

5. Astronomers believe that when the universe was very young, black holes affected how galaxies formed


Uefa Champions League semi-finals, first leg
Liverpool v Roma

When: April 24, 10.45pm kick-off (UAE)
Where: Anfield, Liverpool
Live: BeIN Sports HD
Second leg: May 2, Stadio Olimpico, Rome


Lightweight 10 rounds:
Bader Samreen (8-0-0) v Jose Paez Gonzales (16-2-2)

Super flyweight 10 rounds:
Sultan Al Nuaimi (9-0-0) v Jemsi Kibazange (18-6-2)

Cruiseweight 8 rounds:
Mohammed Bekdash (25-0-0) v Musa N’tege (8-4-0)

Super featherweight 8 rounds:
Bishara Sabbar (6-0-0) v Mohammed Azahar (8-5-1)

Welterweight 6 rounds:
Marwan Mohamad Madboly (2-0-0) v Sheldon Schultz (4-4-0)

Heavyweight 4 rounds:
Youssef Karrar (1-0-0) v Muhammad Muzeei (0-0-0)

Welterweight 6 rounds:
Benyamin Moradzadeh (0-0-0) v Rohit Chaudhary (4-0-2)

Featherweight 4 rounds:
Yousuf Ali (2-0-0) (win-loss-draw) v Alex Semugenyi (0-1-0)


Best Men's Player of the Year: Kylian Mbappe (PSG)

Maradona Award for Best Goal Scorer of the Year: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)

TikTok Fans’ Player of the Year: Robert Lewandowski

Top Goal Scorer of All Time: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)

Best Women's Player of the Year: Alexia Putellas (Barcelona)

Best Men's Club of the Year: Chelsea

Best Women's Club of the Year: Barcelona

Best Defender of the Year: Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus/Italy)

Best Goalkeeper of the Year: Gianluigi Donnarumma (PSG/Italy)

Best Coach of the Year: Roberto Mancini (Italy)

Best National Team of the Year: Italy

Best Agent of the Year: Federico Pastorello

Best Sporting Director of the Year: Txiki Begiristain (Manchester City)

Player Career Award: Ronaldinho


Name: Xpanceo

Started: 2018

Founders: Roman Axelrod, Valentyn Volkov

Based: Dubai, UAE

Industry: Smart contact lenses, augmented/virtual reality

Funding: $40 million

Investor: Opportunity Venture (Asia)

The five pillars of Islam

1. Fasting

2. Prayer

3. Hajj

4. Shahada

5. Zakat 

What is an FTO Designation?

FTO designations impose immigration restrictions on members of the organisation simply by virtue of their membership and triggers a criminal prohibition on knowingly providing material support or resources to the designated organisation as well as asset freezes. 

It is a crime for a person in the United States or subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to knowingly provide “material support or resources” to or receive military-type training from or on behalf of a designated FTO.

Representatives and members of a designated FTO, if they are aliens, are inadmissible to and, in certain circumstances removable from, the United States.

Except as authorised by the Secretary of the Treasury, any US financial institution that becomes aware that it has possession of or control over funds in which an FTO or its agent has an interest must retain possession of or control over the funds and report the funds to the Treasury Department.

Source: US Department of State

Mercer, the investment consulting arm of US services company Marsh & McLennan, expects its wealth division to at least double its assets under management (AUM) in the Middle East as wealth in the region continues to grow despite economic headwinds, a company official said.

Mercer Wealth, which globally has $160 billion in AUM, plans to boost its AUM in the region to $2-$3bn in the next 2-3 years from the present $1bn, said Yasir AbuShaban, a Dubai-based principal with Mercer Wealth.

Within the next two to three years, we are looking at reaching $2 to $3 billion as a conservative estimate and we do see an opportunity to do so,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Mercer does not directly make investments, but allocates clients’ money they have discretion to, to professional asset managers. They also provide advice to clients.

“We have buying power. We can negotiate on their (client’s) behalf with asset managers to provide them lower fees than they otherwise would have to get on their own,” he added.

Mercer Wealth’s clients include sovereign wealth funds, family offices, and insurance companies among others.

From its office in Dubai, Mercer also looks after Africa, India and Turkey, where they also see opportunity for growth.

Wealth creation in Middle East and Africa (MEA) grew 8.5 per cent to $8.1 trillion last year from $7.5tn in 2015, higher than last year’s global average of 6 per cent and the second-highest growth in a region after Asia-Pacific which grew 9.9 per cent, according to consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG). In the region, where wealth grew just 1.9 per cent in 2015 compared with 2014, a pickup in oil prices has helped in wealth generation.

BCG is forecasting MEA wealth will rise to $12tn by 2021, growing at an annual average of 8 per cent.

Drivers of wealth generation in the region will be split evenly between new wealth creation and growth of performance of existing assets, according to BCG.

Another general trend in the region is clients’ looking for a comprehensive approach to investing, according to Mr AbuShaban.

“Institutional investors or some of the families are seeing a slowdown in the available capital they have to invest and in that sense they are looking at optimizing the way they manage their portfolios and making sure they are not investing haphazardly and different parts of their investment are working together,” said Mr AbuShaban.

Some clients also have a higher appetite for risk, given the low interest-rate environment that does not provide enough yield for some institutional investors. These clients are keen to invest in illiquid assets, such as private equity and infrastructure.

“What we have seen is a desire for higher returns in what has been a low-return environment specifically in various fixed income or bonds,” he said.

“In this environment, we have seen a de facto increase in the risk that clients are taking in things like illiquid investments, private equity investments, infrastructure and private debt, those kind of investments were higher illiquidity results in incrementally higher returns.”

The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, said in its 2016 report that has gradually increased its exposure in direct private equity and private credit transactions, mainly in Asian markets and especially in China and India. The authority’s private equity department focused on structured equities owing to “their defensive characteristics.”

The Pope's itinerary

Sunday, February 3, 2019 - Rome to Abu Dhabi
1pm: departure by plane from Rome / Fiumicino to Abu Dhabi
10pm: arrival at Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport

Monday, February 4
12pm: welcome ceremony at the main entrance of the Presidential Palace
12.20pm: visit Abu Dhabi Crown Prince at Presidential Palace
5pm: private meeting with Muslim Council of Elders at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque
6.10pm: Inter-religious in the Founder's Memorial

Tuesday, February 5 - Abu Dhabi to Rome
9.15am: private visit to undisclosed cathedral
10.30am: public mass at Zayed Sports City – with a homily by Pope Francis
12.40pm: farewell at Abu Dhabi Presidential Airport
1pm: departure by plane to Rome
5pm: arrival at the Rome / Ciampino International Airport

The Specs

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