Poetry of the Taliban
Edited by Alex Strick Van Lindschoten & Felix Kuehn
Preface by Faisal Devji
London: Hurst & Co. / New York: Columbia University Press, 2012
Hardback. 160p. ISBN 978-1849041119 / 978-0231704045. £14.99 / $24.50
Reviewed by SMSteele
University of Exeter
Poetry of the Taliban is a curious, deeply interesting, but somewhat overwhelming anthology of 235 poems gathered and edited by “Afghan hands” Alex Strick Van Lindschoten and Felix Kuehn. While living in war-torn Afghanistan as researchers, writers and academics, the two began collecting Taliban poetry from magazines, cassette recordings, newspapers, and significantly, from the Taliban’s official website. Their stated hobby developed into this collection of poems written over several decades, from the Soviet era, to as late as 2008, and is divided into six themes: Before September 11; Love & Pastoral; Religious; Discontent; The Trench and The Human Cost. And while the concept and scope of such an anthology is laudable, the editors’ methodology of collection proves to be its central weakness, a challenge they acknowledge—how exactly does one, can one, define and identify Taliban, and how is it possible to divine the provenance of all the poets or poems within?
Oxford Islamic Studies Online defines the Taliban as a ‘Militant group of students and religious leaders who established the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in 1994-96 in order to end the lengthy civil war following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the region in 1989’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Taliban as ‘a fundamentalist Muslim movement whose militia took control of much of Afghanistan from early 1995, and in 1996 took Kabul and set up an Islamic state’. Indeed, how one identifies the Taliban remains a perplexing challenge to both the officially elected Afghan government and to ISAF, the NATO coalition forces invited into Afghanistan by the Afghan government to enhance national security and mentor the Afghan police and armed forces in 2003. To deem publication on the official Taliban website as criteria for the designation “Taliban poetry” is deeply problematic, particularly in the no man’s land of copyright-free websites where anyone can take any words and reproduce them without permission or correct attribution. There are several unattributed poems in the anthology, and at least one poet has possibly been misidentified as Taliban. Jamal Shinwari, an Afghan researcher writing in the May 18th, 2012 issue of Veteran’s Today: Military and Foreign Affairs Journal, questions the inclusion of the poet Ezatullah Zawab in the collection. Shinwari argues that the journalist Zawah should not be identified as Taliban simply because he is a critic of the ‘US-led invasion of Afghanistan’, and states that to identify Zawab as Taliban is not only incorrect, but ‘may potentially risk the life of Mr. Zawah’. The editors acknowledge the possibility of these errors in their introduction.
In the preface to the collection, Oxford University Reader (St Antony’s College) Dr. Faisal Devji states that the Taliban are associated with poetry ‘replete with … fine emotions’. Devji states that Taliban poetry draws ‘upon the long traditions of Persian or Urdu verse as much as Afghan legend … an aesthetic form that includes unrequited love, powerful women for whose illicit favours competitors vie, and descriptions of natural beauty’. He cites a common theme being ‘the simple humanity of rural Afghans … under attack by coalition [ISAF] forces’, then concedes, ‘this is of course a literary trope, whose reality does not mean that Taliban poets … have no genuine feeling for such things as natural beauty’. Devji then writes, ‘If their pastoral idyll strikes us as being so familiar as to be almost universal, the same holds true for the Taliban’s aesthetic more generally, which eschews any of the factors that otherwise distinguish the movement, whether it be religious restrictions, sanguinary [my italics] punishment or the suppression of women’. The ‘pastoral idyll’ within the collection does share a catalogue of imagery and declamatory tonality with that written by desert fathers of earlier cultures, as the authors through their works call to prayer, celebrate natural beauty, despair, fear, lament, and imprecate.
In the introduction the editors state that ‘contrary to stereotype’—though they fail to articulate which stereotype—‘emotional resonance is extremely important for the Taliban’. They continue, ‘emotion can be a powerful motivating factor, even for the unaffiliated, and it is often discounted in analyses of who the Taliban are, or who among them does the fighting: their emotional response to the situation is a key part of that identity’. The reader may wonder whose analyses the editors refer to, and how the editors have determined emotional connections of the poems’ authors given that the poems have been collected from magazines, newspapers, old cassette recordings and the official Taliban website rather than from the poets directly. However, Van Lindshoten and Kuehn do identify the universal emotionality of all fighters, and how anger, justice, revenge, patriotism, indignation, hatred etc. can motivate and bond fighters across cultures. They acknowledge that several themes within Poetry of the Taliban are shared with those of Heroes, the poetry anthology written by British military veterans and serving personnel, published in Great Britain in 2011.
In their introduction, Van Lindshoten and Kuehn write of how ‘quite often, while sitting in a room [in Kandahar where they lived] with friends or acquaintances, passing the time, someone will inevitably pull out a mobile phone and show you the latest video of a Taliban attack or of a beheading, all set to the soundtrack of a tarana [a ballad]’. They report that these types of videos are ’an obsessive fascination’ with ‘groups associated with the Taliban’. This statement leaves the reader wondering how this anecdote serves the editors’ earlier observation, ‘contrary to stereotype’, on the nature of the Taliban, and begs to ask the question, who are these people, and what do the editors know of their Taliban affiliations?
The collection as an anthology is near relentless in bleakness and tone; poem after poem sometimes seem to blend into the next stylistically and in register, leaving the reader to wonder if the challenge faced by the collection’s editors might have been the sheer number of poems they included in the anthology. Had the editors concentrated on fewer poems, the translators might have had more time to translate or to collaborate with English language poets who are practised in the art of poetry translation. Or perhaps the challenge of the collection is simply that some of the authors are not poets—a challenge with non-professional writers and culturally focused or thematic anthologies—but are in fact authors who are part of what the editors refer to as ‘the formal messaging service’ of the Taliban. Despite the challenges, the translators Mirwais Rahmany and Abdul Hamid Stanikzai, whose “day jobs” include teaching English and translating legal or procedural documents, certainly managed the truly heroic task of translating 235 poems efficiently.
Reviewing William Jay Smith’s editing and translations of Selected Writings of Jules LaForgue, Elizabeth Bishop famously comments on the difficulty inherent in reviewing translated poetry, and with the art of poetry translation:
By now everyone knows how to review a book of translated poetry. First, one says it’s impossible. Second, one implies that the translator is an ignoramus, or if that’s going too far, that he has missed the plays on words; and then one carps about the inevitable mistakes. The first objection is still true: it is impossible to translate poetry, or perhaps only one aspect can be translated at a time, and each poem needs several translations. (1)
Ultimately, the Poetry of the Taliban is a deeply interesting cultural artefact of a time and a place, or as an army officer commented to me rather darkly, “great fun”. It takes close and patient reading but sometimes a tiny breeze of lyric rewards the reader, such as the following excerpt from Amanullah Nasrat’s ‘Great Guiding Star’. It is then that one gets a taste for what an unfettered Afghan poetry might look like, and one is given hope for not just for a heightened poetic voice, but for a lyric of less suffering and imprecation.
When you were born, time brought changes;
Stars were falling on the earth, beauty brought colour.
Spring arrived everywhere, red blossoms hugged each other
As you brought the love from love’s world …
You brought the bells of the way for life’s caravan …
To end on a housekeeping note, for greater ease of use, an index of first lines and authors would be recommended should a second printing be published.
(1) Lloyd Schwartz & Sybil P. Estess (eds.) Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983 : 283.
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