Taliban Poetry: Yes, They Write Poems, and They're Surprisingly Diverse

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The Afghan militant group's collected literary works provide a rare window into how they see the world.

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A young Afghan boy smells a flower in the Oshay Bazaar, Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, April 26, 2011. (DVIDSHUB/Flickr)

Poetry of the Taliban is an English language anthology of poems written by the Afghan Taliban that give an insight into the lyrical souls of the members of this miltant group. Kandahar-based researchers and writers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have translated and edited more than 250 poems, sourced mainly from contemporary media -- specifically the Taliban's official website. The collection also includes samples of older poetic works that date back to the 1980s and 1990s.

Rather than presenting a cohesive ideology, the poems represent a melange of voices. Going beyond political and militant propaganda, these poems reflect a diversity of emotions such as "unrequited love, bloody vengeance and the thrill of battle, religion and nationalism, even a desire for non-violence," that are expressed through "images of wine, powerful women, song, legend and pastoral beauty." This anthology presents a complex image of the Taliban, one that complicates our sometimes monolithic image of the Taliban. "It was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns," say the editors.

Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn have lived and worked in Afghanistan since 2006. Together they founded AfghanWire, a network for researching and monitoring Afghan media. Poetry of the Taliban is on sale in the United Kingdom and will be available in the United States on July 17, 2012.

Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn discussed their book over email from Kandahar.

Afghanistan has a rich tradition of oral storytelling, poetry and music. Why do you think this aspect of Afghan culture has generally been overlooked by the West when trying to understand the Taliban?

A certain narrative of the war in Afghanistan, or of the country itself, has existed for a few years now. The groundwork was laid long before the events of September 11, 2001, in part by journalists who travelled in the country during the 1980s. But the main themes became very clear from 2001 onwards. As part of this, the focus has been on the foreign involvement in Afghanistan, rather than on Afghanistan itself (i.e. on its own terms). Literature, or the cultural heritage of the country, has always been a hard sell to editors back in the United States or in Europe, especially when these more marginal stories have to compete with events that strike closer to home such as dead or injured servicemen and women. That said, there have been people working in this field for many years, regardless of whether they've been covered in the media or not. Their efforts are available online to browse through, from Afghan women's short story writing and poetry to paintings and music.

What kind of experiences do these poems speak about?

As you might expect from a collection of over 250 songs, there is a diversity of themes covered. We split it into five individual sections, covering love and pastoral themes, religion, politics and social discontent, the battlefield, and the costs of war in human terms. You will probably find all the things you might expect to be here, but sometimes not in the form you had imagined. In "Hunter," for example, the poet imagines that he is a deer in a forest, and thinks of the relationship between the foreign soldiers trying to kill him as if they are hunters trying to bag a deer. Or there is a poem written by a woman chastising the men around her for failing to fight properly.

What were your criteria for selecting the poems in the anthology? Were you trying to encompass a certain range of subject matter and styles, as well as a historical span?

We had two separate selection methods for this volume. The poems written pre-2001 were chosen to represent the thematic and authorial diversity of the period. The poems written post-2001 are an almost complete collection of everything published on the Taliban's website between December 2006 and February 2009. In this respect, it's a representative sample for that time period. We felt it was important to include the earlier (pre-2001) examples to show some of the context out of which this emerged; we could have gone back even further to examples of talibs writing poems in the 19th century, of course.

The anthology has already been criticized for promoting sympathy for the Taliban. How do you respond to such commentary?

We understand where these criticisms are coming from. Troops from 50 different countries are currently fighting in Afghanistan, and each week brings news of more injured and dead. At the same time, though, we would make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. This collection was not complied to garner sympathy for the Taliban. What it does give the reader is a new window on an amorphous group, possibly allowing one to empathize with the particular author of a poem, letting one see the world through their eyes, should one want to do so. For this collection, we felt these songs brought something new to the discussion, and added a perspective on where those who associate themselves with the movement are coming from. From our own experience, we knew how important and resonant these songs were for people living in Afghanistan, and we thought it would be useful to present these to a broader community of scholars, poets and the general public.

The average reader in the West probably regards the Taliban as being profoundly hostile to culture. How do we reconcile incidents like the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan with the outpouring of poetic sentiment documented in your book?

There is a difference between the formal pronouncements or edicts of the Taliban's leadership and the fighters on the ground. That is as true for the Taliban as it is true for the British Army. In our introduction we also note the contradiction between the formal edicts issued by Mullah  Mohammad Omar (banning most kinds of music) and his private consumption of those same songs that he had banned. This is to be expected. The Taliban are not a monolithic movement, with fixed and unchanging attitudes. In many ways, our difficulties understanding the movement say more about us than it does about the Taliban.

What implications, if any, does this anthology have for seeing an end to the war in Afghanistan?

This collection was not conceived or published with a political agenda. In fact, it was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns. If there is any wider point to be made, it is simply that this is not a conflict that has a military solution. The war will end when the political conflict is tackled, which possibly must begin by challenging and questioning our stereotypes about the Afghan Taliban as well as Afghanistan as a whole.

This article originally appeared at Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.

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Nadia Rasul is Senior Multimedia Intern at Asia Blog. She's pursuing a Master's in International Affairs at The New School.

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