Poetry of the Taliban: An oxymoron?

Published: July 17, 2012

The poetry aims to expound on romantic love, religion, politics, social discontent, the battlefield and the human costs of war.

“You read poetry during lunch time?” asked a colleague as he swallowed the few remnants of his sandwich.

“If it’s written by the Taliban, then any time of the day,” I replied.

His eyes gawked at my computer screen, as he uttered the following words;

Taliban poetry…that’s an oxymoron!”

Taliban: a coin with only one side – up until now

In May 2012, Kandahar-based researchers and writers, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, set out to play the devil’s advocates; they published a book titled Poetry of the Taliban in the UK, revealing the softer side of the militants whom we all claim to know so well. And each time I think about what may happen today, the date set for the publication of the same title in the US, a particular vein in my forehead pulsates frenetically.

Poetry of the Taliban is an anthology of 250 odd poems, edited and translated into English by Alex and Felix, and sourced mostly from the contemporary media. When I chanced upon this news, my immediate reaction was to bash the words “Amazon UK” on Google search for the relevant title, and hit the ‘buy’ button – there were absolutely no two ways about it. Now, as I anticipate its delivery, I sit here writing this blog, wondering what my state of mind will be after having gained insight into the lyrical souls of the kalashnikov-men.

The readers’ rhetoric

Diverse emotions are reflected in the reactions of the few who have made a conscience effort to purchase the book:

“I was surprised by the poems since they are very beautiful in their language and in their pictures”;

“I watched a snail, crawling along the edge of a straight razor”;

“I say this reluctantly, but perhaps the Communists should have won the war in Afghanistan”;

“Those who decry the publication of Taliban poetry have forgotten the axiom, ‘know your enemy’”;

‘Place the copies in public libraries next to Mein Kampf’, and so on.

My personal favourite was BBC’s retort –the article alludes to the proposition that the Afghani poems are in fact ‘hypnotic chants’, which possess the power to instigate the minds of ordinary readers who may naively end up sympathising with The Lone Warrior.

The Taliban apparently have a dedicated department, responsible for the production and distribution of their songs and it is a billion dollar business – this fact is enough to give westerners the screaming hab-dabs. The songs lack in the use of musical instruments, and are still popular enough to be set as ringtones by the majority of the Afghan civilians. However there’s a caveat to everything in life, and here, it is the fact that a BBC journalist managed to get hold of a Pashtun cab driver who claimed that the only reason he listens to these songs in his cab is because he was once stopped by the Taliban during one of his journeys and was forced (encouraged?) by them to play their songs. 

Sonnets of the Mujahideen

The poetry of the Taliban aims to expound on romantic love, religion, politics, social discontent, the battlefield and the human costs of war.

Here are a few verses (from various poems) that made me clench my jaw;

May I be sacrificed, sacrificed for you; I will sacrifice my head and property for you,
I will give you my body’s blood in order to make you fresh and thriving

-Habibi – transcribed from a recording made in 1990s

Your love aside, what else is there?
It is like approaching the desert.
Like the dust on your footsteps.

-Unknown (Dec 23,2007)

What complaint can you make of the Red, this is their rule;
The forest wolves will always eat meat.
What else should humans expect from the wolves?
They have hit my mount and Hamun’s as well.
Who made a night raid on my home again?

-Unknown (Aug 8, 2008)

Unsurprisingly, what seems to baffle the readers is how it is the Taliban who appears as ‘the deer’, ‘the hunted’ and ‘the victim’ in most of the poems.

Truth will always be nuanced when it emanates from a source that is privy to multiple-agendas

I am in absolutely no position to decide whether or not this (book) is social propaganda– what I do know from personal experience, is that when a poet’s pen and paper make union, the exposition of truth becomes inevitable. Poetry gives us the key to unlock the manifold worlds obscured within the human brain – and for those of us who have a ravenous desire to recognise human instinct, five hours of reading poetry might just prove to be more valuable than reading the headlines accumulated over the next fifty years.

Read more by Khadija here

Khadija Ali Zai Khan

Khadija Ali Zai Khan

Is the author of "The Mind of Q". A young Pakistani currently based in London working for Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Bank, after having graduated from The London School of Economics in Finance.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • waseem

    great step….good to know about the talibans behaviour…..they fought for their countryRecommend

  • Hashmi

    This plus countless other facts only prove how distorted the imagery of Taliban has come down to us by the mainstream media. they are being suprssed, killed.. their homes razed their infants slaughtered.. and on top of this a negative media campaign against their name..Recommend

  • Awans

    I have read some excerpts from Apparent Taliban Poetry but sorry they are of no match with the Poetry of the Saints and their poetry is more intense and have more depth. It is a shame that in Pakistan our younger Generation never knew any Great names like Sachal Sarmast, Waris Shah, Baba Farid, Bullay Shah ,Shah Abdul Latif Bhattai and many others like Amrita Pritam etc. Atleast the Government should officially translate the books of our saints and poets to English and should teach them in schools so our inspirations could be from these great people who talked about humanity and sanity rather than boasting about superiority about one’s own intellectualism all the time. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Credit goes to you for digging up something unusual.
    Anyone who reads a bit knows that the Taliban have a soft side simply because they too are human and so the Taliban and poetry or music or sport or romance should really not astound people. I suppose the Taliban and violence and extremism in the name of religion makes it hard to reconcile the two and so the oxymoron as uttered by your friend.Recommend

  • Mujhay hay hukm e Azaan

    Is there any published poetry by American Soldiers searching for weapons of mass destruction in iraq. I would like to see if they have any soft corner. Recommend

  • Ali tanoli

    Other side of the coin freedom fighters and Ghairathmond…Recommend

  • http://Turkey Zalmai

    @Awans

    Nobody is comparing Pashto poetry here with Pakistani/Urdu poetry. Pashtun poetry is an oral tradition going back hundred of years long before your country or language was created. Pashtun poetry of the Taliban is conveying an ethos that you would not understand unless you speak Pashto and you cannot put it into any context because your lack of knowledge about Pashtuns and Pashtun culture.

    Here is a Pashto poem written by Ahmad Abdali in honor of the motherland.

    Sta da ishq la wino dak shwa zigaruna
    Sta pa lara ki bayli zalmi saruna
    Tal ye azaday ta zalmo ishi di saruna
    Dero atalano qurban kari tre zanuna

    Translation

    For your love my heart bleeds
    On the road towards you, the youth sacrifice their heads
    For your liberation the youth have always given their heads
    Many heroes have sacrificed their lives for you. Recommend

  • umar

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBAEk2dBm4E&feature=share

    Watch this interview……What Media has done and how they portray Taliban . I think they are fighting for their homeland against foreign occupation.Recommend

  • AFGHAN

    Hello!…this is not only the poetry of good Taliban (as some sobbing commentators here think so), the poetry is about the dedication of the holy Mujaheddin embarked on their journey to make every Muslim a pious and Jannati both in Pakistan and Afghanistan.Recommend

  • Awans

    @Zalmai: Well i dont know which languages you are talking about that are recently created but A small Information for you that the people i mentioned Like Baba Farid who existed 1100 years ago in 11th century when other than his Poetry no one can find anything in written form in this region. So kindly enhance your knowledge about other cultures and then comment. Also I know Pashtun culture very well as I was raised in Peshawar so there is nothing new for me but when you say that Our language even did not existed that time then it is clearly a lack of knowledge portrayed.
    Also you simply disowned Urdu and call it our language which shows that how much affiliation you have with the country where most of you are raised and then call it an Alien Language not related to you at all. Recommend

  • http://bigsaf.newsvine.com bigsaf

    What a cop out. Of course it’s propaganda to manipulate sentiments and boost recruitment.

    Even tyrants and criminals have their bleedin’ hearts moments. Doesn’t mean you throw away all reasoning and sympathize with them.

    No amount of romantic poetry and it’s ink will wash away their brutal bloodshed, be it in the unmentioned kidnapping, brainwashing and wasting a young teenager’s future and the civilians around him in a suicide bombing, beheading a Pakistani soldier, shooting dead of an accused adulteress, etc, in the name of twisted nationalist, tribal, religious perpetual warring hate ideology. Recommend

  • EyesWideOpen

    I wonder, did the two Afgan Taliban commanders read poetry to the woman they pursued romantically and then killed because they could not agree who should get her?Recommend

  • http://LA Arian

    @Awans

    I have never heard of Baba Farid but I have heard of Jalal Al Din Rumi from Balkh whose work is the most translated in the world. Urdu is a derivative of Farsi and Hindi as such it is a fairly new language compared to Pashto and Farsi.

    How can one disown a language that they don’t consider as their mother tongue and for your information most Afghan refugees are raised in Khyber Pashtunkhwa, which is an extension of Pashtun lands so it is not alien to Afghans and Urdu is not the language of KP Pashto is.

    As a matter of fact Urdu is an imported language from India not native to Pakistan. Most Pakistanis speak their own regional languages, notwithstanding the Mohajirs that came from India. Recommend

  • Bangash

    After observing the many years of.murder and pillage the Taliban have committed against Muslims I am not interested in their poetry. Taliban began during Afshan civil war and are fighting for money and power.Recommend

  • sherry

    brilliant pieceRecommend

  • Awans

    @Arian: Mr Arian if your never heard of Baba Farid then it is your own Ignorance. Baba Farid poetry existed 100 years before Jalal ud din rumi and also why the works of Baba Farid and other Sufi Saints were not translated the reason is simple that Arian races have a problem to read the work of Non Arian people who existed in the fields of Punjab and in Sindh that time. Also When you simply say Urdu is not associated with you then in fact you are really hamporing the Unity in Pakistan as Urdu is a a tool for Inter Communal harmony as otherwise so many languages exist here that it will be another problematic region then. Also please dont connect Urdu with So called Invented Term Muhajir ( I really hate this term as for me no one is Muhajir now). Many People in Punjab and in Sindh do speak Urdu as an Alternative language too and they know their mother tongue is different.
    Also i think KPK dont have one language as in KPK many Hindko Speakers live there and their language should be recognized as in my view Peshwar and its suburbs have Half Hindko Population now so their language must be recognized as well. Recommend

  • BlackJack

    @Arian:
    @Awans:
    Dear both, first of all Baba Farid wrote in Punjabi which is a much older language than Urdu. It is also a native language of Pakistan, so Awans is correct if he was referring to Punjabi and not Urdu. Second, Urdu is not an amalgamation of Hindi and Farsi, it is a dialect of the region around Delhi/ W. UP called Khariboli with many loan words from Farsi – pls understand the difference. Hindi and Urdu have only started taking divergent paths in the last 150 years with different scripts and each began to adopt more loan words from Farsi/ Sanskrit causing further differentiation – otherwise they are the same language. Third, Baba Farid lived in the late-11th to mid-12th century, which (if you do the math) is 800 years or less – not 1100 years.Recommend

  • Ali tanoli

    Irony is Afghans of Dehli and U.P start it 1857 freedom war against B, Raj and now Mr Arian
    trying to make us diffrent than them…..
    @Black Jack,
    I agreed with u and with Mr AWAN.Recommend

  • http://Turkey Zalmai

    @Blackjack
    @Kalchaakra

    The Urdu language would be an incomplete language if you take Farsi out of the equation. Urdu spoken in Pakistan is almost entirely Farsi and Arabic. As a matter of fact the Pakistani national anthem is entirely written in Farsi and the average Pakistani or Indian probably does not understand most of it.

    Decipher the following and tell me if there is anything remotely resembling Khariboli in there or Punjabi or Sindhi. Except for the word Ka in the second stanza, which is a modifier from Hindi/Urdu the rest is entirely Farsi.

    pāk sarzamīn shād bād
    kishwar-e-hasīn shād bād
    tū nishān-eazm-e-alīshān
    arz-e-pākistān!
    markaz-e-yaqīn shād bād

    pāk sarzamīn kā nizām
    qūwat-e-ukhūwat-e`awām
    qaum, mulk, sultanat
    pā’inda tābinda bād!
    shād bād manzil-e-murād

    parcham-e-sitāra-o hilāl
    rahbar-e-taraqqī-o kamāl
    tarjumān-e-māzī, shān-e-hāl
    jān-e-istiqbāl!
    sāyah-e-khudā-e-zu-l-jalālRecommend

  • BlackJack

    @Zalmai:
    The Pakistani national anthem is written in Farsi – there is hardly any Urdu in it and my understanding is that most Pakistanis don’t know what it means. The national anthem of India is written in Sanskritized Bengali. I don’t see how either of these points adds any value to the Urdu/ Hindi debate. If you study linguistics, you will understand the difference between loan words and logical structures; a language is a tool to convey a particular kind of information and has a certain construct. If you remove replace specific words in Urdu with their Sankritized equivalent, you will get Hindi; if you replace words in Urdu with the equivalent Arabic or Farsi words, the language will still be highly distinctive from either Arabic or Farsi. This is similar to using English words as replacements for complex vernacular terms – it does not make the other language into English. You can choose not to agree but I urge you to read up on this in your free time. Note: There is nothing called Khariboli now, it used to be a dialect like Awadhi/ Bhojpuri/ Maithili.Recommend