Poetry of the Taliban: An oxymoron?

Published: July 17, 2012
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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.