Reed flute and gunpowder
14 January 2013
Understanding the Afghan Taliban through their poetry.
My return journey to Afghanistan in 1999 – after a decade – marked the third year of the Taliban regime. The international media was full of reports about their edicts: Women were not allowed to work in most places. Girls were not allowed to attend school. Flying kites, playing football, listening to music and watching TV were banned. Tapes torn out of cassettes festooned the Taliban check posts on the roads. Public executions were staged in stadiums or public squares like circus shows in Ancient Rome. The call to prayer had become a cue to close down your shop and rush to the nearest mosque.
Indeed the silence in the streets and the bazaars was striking. Shops adorned with loudspeakers – constantly blaring out music from winching tapes – were now a distant memory. But Kabul’s autumn sky was still full of kites. Football matches took place in stadiums and in parks. People constructed TV aerials from tin cans and hid music cassettes in their cars. The Taliban had given up on implementing many of the edicts they had sought to impose. As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
For me one of these moments occurred in Bamiyan, when the stillness of the crisp air was suddenly broken by the sound of a nai – the reed pipe of classical Persian literature – played by a shepherd’s boy hidden behind some willow bushes, near an ice-cold stream where women washed clothes. I found a very similar scene described in Poetry of the Taliban – a collection of verses written by fighters and sympathisers of the Afghan insurgent movement –edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, and published last year.
Your flute’s sound is nostalgic,
O shepherd, troubled with the world’s civilisation. …
May your songs’ poems not run out on the journey,
May you not be hungry in the desert, my dear.
The Taliban had banned instrumental music, but these lines made it evident that some of them missed it. Their interpretation of the Sharia allowed only for chants, and only those related to religion and war. Voice of Sharia, the renamed state radio, played the chants and cassettes of these were also available, though not very popular. Folk and pop music – circulated covertly to escape Taliban controls – held a greater appeal for the people. There were also official poetry recitals during which poets praised the spring blossom and avoided praising war and bloodshed.
In fact, the consumption and production of poetry within the Taliban is not at all uncommon. Taliban poetry is not a disjointed or sudden eruption but has roots both in the culture of poetry prevalent amongst all ethnic groups that make up Afghan society, and in the poetry of the anti-Soviet jihad. The Taliban movement comprises of a new generation of the Afghan mujahideen who had been fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. Later Taliban leaders like Mullah Mohammed Omar were young men and mid or low-level commanders back then. The Taliban poetry represents a new generation of what had earlier been dubbed ‘jihadi poetry’. According to scholars Mikhail Pelevin and Matthias Weinreich: “When the war intensified in the wake of the Soviet invasion, the poets’ defiant exhortations to moral, honour and bravery were augmented by lamentations for fallen friends and ponderings on the evil represented by the infidel occupants and their Afghan collaborators. All these themes are also present in the Taliban chants.”
The poetry of the Taliban has evolved both in terms of its content and the way it is disseminated. Apart from the traditional way of reading poetry publicly or among friends, Taliban poetry and tarana – laments – are now spread as MP3 files and ringtones over the Internet. Recent reports say that recruits for the Afghan security forces are screened for these ringtones, the possession of which leads to disqualification. The US military has been analysing Taliban poetry as a propaganda tool. Suggestions have even been made to create ‘counter-poetry’ in Pashto – although the idea has never taken off. Some PSYOP – Psychological Operations – specialists, however, have presumably written ‘Taliban night letters’ – usually flyers with insurgent messages to threaten the civilian population – to try and create rifts in the insurgent movement.
The editors of the book under review have lived in Kandahar for many years and speak fluent Pashto. They had earlier edited the first autobiography of a Taliban founder – Abdul Salam Zaeef – who was also the movement’s former ambassador to Pakistan. While that book was also controversial, it was widely read as one of the few primary sources from within the insurgent movement. The new book has caused an outcry. The anthology, which mainly includes works found on the Taliban website between December 2006 and February 2009, was criticised by some. “What we need to remember is that these are fascist, murdering thugs who suppress women and kill people without mercy if they do not agree with them, and of course are killing our soldiers,” a retired British military officer told the Guardian. “It doesn’t do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country,” he added.
In an informative foreword, the editors – a Dutch and a German – contend that the poems represent “uncensored voices from within the Taliban” movement. Such voices are rare. The movement, particularly its leadership, has been successful in isolating itself from adversaries. There are hardly any existing photographs of the leaders. Authentic knowledge about the inner lives of those involved in the Taliban movement is limited. The same can be said about the political aspirations of the movement. And even less can be said about the thoughts occupying the minds of the fighters in the battlefield. This limited knowledge about the movement has contributed to its demonisation. In this context, the poetry of these people can perhaps offer a different perspective for analysis.
Much of the Taliban poetry collected in the book reads like what ordinary, non-Taliban Afghans would write. Poetry is a part of the everyday experience of the Afghans, more so than in the Western world. Almost every Afghan can recite his or her Hafez, Bedil or Rahman Baba (a Sufi poet whose shrine in Peshawar was blown up by the Pakistani Taliban in 2009), Khalilullah Khalili, Gul Pacha Ulfat, and the lyrics of singer Ahmad Zahir. Many write their own poetry, sometimes published in obscure printing presses in Kabul, Tehran or Peshawar.
But many other poems read like propaganda and perhaps some of them are precisely that. There is a lot of belligerence and grandstanding. There is also, however, lamentation of the killings and destruction caused by the war, an expression of desperation and some humble prayer. Some of the poetry is reminiscent of what would have been said in the trenches of Verdun, Gallipoli and Stalingrad:
My throat is full of the bitter smoke of gunpowder.
Make the world sweet as sugar,
From the darkness and gloom,
Make this world light with your generosity.
Afghans feel the need to tell stories and convey how their homes have been raided by foreign troops. They want to express how wedding processions are bombed – mistaken for convoys of insurgents – by a drone operator working a joystick somewhere in a bunker in Nevada.
The young bride was killed here,
The groom and his wishes were martyred here.
The hearts full of hopes were looted here, …
The friends who were escorting them …
A bleak outlook for their country – after three decades of war and unfinished reconstruction – is a common theme:
The world today is better than yesterday,
Tomorrow will be better than today.
Alas, Afghans don’t know how to go forward;
They are slipping backwards into dust.
How long will people wander in disappointment? …
Most people are jobless, wandering around.
How long? You wander hungrily in deserts.
The wrecked economy deprives you of education. …
Pretending to carry our reconstruction; they establish personal businesses,
They enjoy life, and you?
Often, the tone can be defiant, reiterating the cliché of the proud Afghan who will not subside. The message resonates with that of the time when Afghans defended themselves against the British and Soviet occupiers in the 19th and 20th centuries:
I am a rough Afghan, I will not be deceived;
I cannot leave the circle of dignity.
If you slaughter more and more
I will not show up and become your servant.
Bush! Don’t get upset, just listen to a few words. …
You are neither God nor can the light of God be discerned in your face. …
Which village you are going to bomb with your red bullets?
All those who you killed will grab your collar. …
May you be killed so that your children will cry for you.
One famous poem, written by a lady named Nasrat Asefi, refers to a famous landai – the classical Pashtun couplet. During one of the Afghan-British wars, the legendary heroine of Kandahar – Malalai – had told her lover not to come back without the blood of the enemy on his sword, or lose his honour:
Give me your turban and take my veil,
Give me the sword so that the matter will be dealt with. …
You stay among the girls; may calamity fall down on your masculinity.
In the current era, sentiments remain the same, but swords have been replaced with more sophisticated weaponry. A rocket launcher is more standard in contemporary Taliban poetry.
There is also a dose of Kabul street populism evident in the criticism of non-governmental organisations and their proliferation. Such organisations have become easy scapegoats for shortcomings in the reconstruction process, which in fact have more to do with widespread corruption in the government, and international donors. Oftentimes even private businesses like construction companies and many other organisations that are not a part of the government, will label themselves as NGOs. A lot of these organisations are run by relatives of government officials.
Wasting time, they merely sit in their offices,
How many are the NGOs!
The editors’ reference to James Caron – a US scholar who has written about pre-war Pashto literature – discloses more unexpected facts. The taleb, it turns out, originally referred to a ‘romantic countercultural social type’, a critical voice who performed poetry at ‘taleb parties’ – often mocking the rich. Parallels can be drawn between the talebs and the wandering poets in pre-Islamic Arabia, loathed by the Prophet Mohammad and described so vividly in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses.
Caron extracts a story from the autobiography of Ajmal Khattak – a leftist Pakistani Pashtun politician – about a certain Ghwaye Mullah. Mullah ‘Ox’ – in translation:
“was a renowned jokester, and had oral and extemporaneous poets travelling with him too. … Usually it would be carefree [Pashto: mast, also for ‘intoxicated’!] students who would travel with him, of the sort who just studied so that they could say they were students. Their real job was joking, buffoonery, exuberant acting out, atan dancing [a Pashtun war dance], and eating the ready-made food that people gave them. … They’d take payment from the khans, maliks, and respectable people of the village and muse them …, with insulting poems about those who opposed them.”
Furthermore, Caron points out that the taleb – different from the ‘movement Taleb’ – had become the topos of Afghan literature, as a subject of love and longing. There is a romantic folklore about the love between a talib Jan – dear talib – and a girl, Gulbashara. A Pashtun landai goes like this:
The taliban have come, parties and parties of them,
But the talib of my heart has not come; I shall die.
The evolution of the poetry in the region has sadly turned away from the sphere of romance to that of belligerence. Caron points out “much poetry composed by higher-ranking ideologues in the Afghan Taliban regime … took pains to disavow the romanticised persona of the talib”:
I write poetry, but I won’t write poetry in love of my lover
I won’t write about my beloved’s little red lips or cheeks.
Such examples also can be found in Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn’s anthology:
Pick up your gun and sword, the time for martyrdom has come today;
Jihad is required for everyone.
Jihad is the Taliban’s slogan of the day. Consequently, there is a lot of ‘We are the soldiers of Islam’, ‘I made the Russians kneel’, ‘I will sacrifice myself for I have the Sharia of Mohammad’ and ‘The Pharaohs of their time will be drowning in their waves’. The literary value of those pieces seems to be limited. But this is not always the case. A ghazal written by a Taliban former Minister of Information and Culture Abdul Hai Mutma’in, has beautiful language despite its ideological undercurrent.
At a time when the tongue of songs grows mute and the musician becomes sleepy,
At a time when the Imam brings his faith,
At a time when the musicians lights up the night with the rubab and sleeps in ignorance,
At a time when the breeze joins in the call for prayer,
At a time when the sparrows sit in line on the mosque’s tree,
At a time when the child arrives with the Qur’an in order to learn it,
Some will keep their faith in the darkness of this test.
Some lose their faith and bring loss instead.
My favourite piece describes a scene in an Afghan village, a scene familiar to me even as the war was already raging:
You would not ask me what happened to the small congregation:
The grey and dusty mosque,
The one in the middle of the village,
The pretty mosque without a door.
The tender Talib Jan,
The one with long hair,
The young Talib Jan,
Whose used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan.
Apart from the missing Pashto or Dari originals – which would have made the anthology much more useful – the other major shortcoming of the book is that it contains verses by authors who are definitely not members of the Taliban. Pacha Gul Ulfat, a well-known Pashtun poet who died a few months before the Soviet invasion is one example. His gravestone in Laghman province carries his famous verses that predicted the upcoming occupation. Similarly, Sulaiman Laeq, a famous poet who became a minister in the communist government, is also present in the collection. While the editors do mention that the Taliban website has frequently published poems by non-Taliban authors, the contradiction is hard to digest – especially given that the book seeks to challenge mainstream conceptions of the Taliban specifically.
Overall, however, this collection of Taliban poetry is not only a remarkable literary and sociological project but also a reminder that normal life still exists in Afghanistan. Poetry is a big part of that sphere of normality. Perhaps an anthology of contemporary Afghan poetry, beyond those of the Taliban, would make for an interesting project for the future.
~ Thomas Ruttig is a co-director of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) based in Kabul and Berlin, see www.aan-afghanistan.org.