Poetry of the Taliban

Chris Jones is discomfited by the extraordinary fruits of a troubled and troubling literature

June 21, 2012

"When the soul does not leave the body it shakes.

Like a flower withering in the autumn,

Autumn has now come to my love."

What do "we Westerners" (I am one) know of the cultural traditions of the Taliban and of their inner lives and those of other Afghans? This extraordinary collection of startling Pashto poetry has been translated into English, with a preface by Faisal Devji and an introductory essay that addresses members of the English-speaking world with little specialist knowledge of the Taliban, or of Afghanistan more generally, other than the impression we receive from our media. This volume, then, aims to deepen and complicate understanding of the cultural dimensions of the Taliban movement for readers such as myself.

To that extent it succeeds: writers of "Taliban poetry" are certainly humanised by the kind of sentiment Shahzeb Faquir expresses above. Indeed, to foreground "the humanity" of members of the Taliban is one of Devji's preoccupations in the prefatory essay. There is an oddly old-fashioned liberal-humanist attitude towards poetry at play here: that to be engaged in acts of violence is somehow tempered or even mitigated by the "delicate feelings of humanity" (Devji's phrase) that are presumed in the composition of poetry. Whether or not poetry's business is the expression of "fine emotions" is another matter, but it certainly is true that the non-specialist reader will have some of her preconceptions shocked by this body of work.

More than 200 poems are translated here, mostly collected from those published on the Taliban's website between 2006 and 2009 (although a "Before September 11" subsection includes some Afghan poetry not officially sanctioned by the party). It is a pity that a more detailed account of the forms and genres employed was not given by the editors (who make general remarks about "rhyme and rhythm"), especially as the translations stand alone and not in facing-page versions with their originals. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that Taliban-aligned poets have drawn on a rich legacy of oral and written traditional poetry, including forms such as the ghazal love-lyric and the sung tarana (loosely equated here to the Western ballad). Their work circulates commonly in MP3 format on mobile phones and is popular among the Afghan people, as well as serving party political interests.

One issue raised by the presentation of these poems as Poetry of the Taliban is the extent to which our reading of them is, or should be, changed by the context that rubric invokes. To some degree the volume risks essentialising the Taliban, even as it sets out to do the very opposite. This tension plays out in the prefatory matter, with Devji identifying "the Taliban's aesthetic" while the editors strive to avoid monism by emphasising the "variety" of voices on offer. Such tensions are inevitable in a book so groundbreaking in its aims. But how differently do "we" read poems (mostly by male poets) collected under the section title "Love and Pastoral" when we know they have been sanctioned by a party whose treatment of women is so unconscionable? Pordal Burstan, for instance, writes:

"Your eyelashes never miss

When they are turned against someone.

Your looks have grabbed my heart,

Its heart's habits are like that of a thief."

In some ways this motif is familiar to English speakers from the tradition of European love-lyric, in which the male lover pleads sickness or injury as a result of the beloved's beauty. Although self-presentation of the lover as victim should by now trouble us all, to some the trope nevertheless still seems an expression of intense romantic feeling; it is the kind of idealisation of female beauty that many readers find attractive in the work of Keats, for example. But how changed the trope is when it is published under the auspices of a party that punishes women physically for displaying their bodies. It is hard not to read the weaponisation of the woman's eyes and the declaration of the heart as stolen as accusations. The effect is extremely discomfiting. Perhaps the correct way to accommodate such a poem into one's own pattern of reading is to realise more clearly that all poetry dealing in the false currency of passive victimhood commits a violence on the beloved, regardless of the legislative culture in which the poet lives.

There is much shock and some awe in this mixed collection, and the editors are to be applauded for beginning "our" education in this troubled and troubling literature.

Poetry of the Taliban

Edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn

Hurst, 160pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781849041119

Published 24 May 2012

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