Poetry of the Taliban offers valuable insights

Denounced as propaganda by its critics, this new anthology of poems features a wide variety of themes and voices from an ancient oral tradition on Afghanistan's fierce culture of resistance.

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