Review of Poetry of the Taliban

Book Review: Poetry of Taliban

Will the Taliban’s war poetry be accepted as a literary find, lending voice to a deeply conflicted movement?

Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna

IN the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen were photographed as bearded, rugged fighters with Kalashnikovs and Stinger missiles, surrounded by mountains. They made

romantic subjects under the caption ‘freedom’. I vaguely remember an American photographer from that time, recuperating in Karachi after travelling with these fighters as they attacked Russian convoys. Mesmerised with their ‘heroism’ and desire for freedom, their passion for reciting poetry and singing at night, he had taken hundreds of photographs.

Those years were witness to few reports on the mujahideen’s brutal hold on power, the infighting among warlords surviving on CIA dollars, the rape of Afghan women. Their Western benefactors ignored all of that — until the rise of the Taliban, when Mullah Omar’s regime was severely ostracised for its medievalist rule and treatment of women. Under the Taliban (1996-2001), severe punishments were the norm for daring to go against their edicts

banning music and dance.

Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors of an English-language anthology of 235 poems titled Poetry of the Taliban, try to

provide a window into this ‘other’ world known only for its violent insurgency. With translations of Pashtu and Dari poems written by the Afghan Taliban, the book has stirred the emotions of many, with some decrying it as “self-satisfying propaganda”. In their introduction, the editors claim that these are uncensored voices allowing the reader to “appreciate those who comprise the Taliban as human beings (regardless of what actions they might have taken)”. Mostly poems selected from the Taliban’s official website, this anthology also comprises older verses taken from magazines, newspapers and recordings dating back to the 1980s and 1990s; some are not written by those associated with the Taliban and only one poem is by a woman.

As much as one might want to agree that this is not a political undertaking but a lyrical project, the often dark and desperate outpourings of sorrow, anger and accusations (directed at the West) and the expressions of love, war, nationalism and religious zeal contradict that reading. It is also hard to forget that the poetry (or at least some of the poems) belongs to Taliban insurgents who continue to pose a longstanding threat to secularism and democracy with their version of Islam.

The introductory note points to an interesting contradiction between official Taliban

edicts preventing the playing of music, except taranas or ballads, on Afghan radio stations between 1996 and 2001 and Mullah Omar’s

personal preference for playing songs by Saraji, his favourite Taliban singer, while riding in his SUV. Neither this preference, nor the centuries-old heritage of poetry and music, eased the ban on musicians until after 2001. But the editors remind us that hosting poetry and music sessions in the southern provinces is welcomed, adding that Mullah Omar would “sing after battle during the 1980s jihad”.

Focused on the conflicts that have shaped Afghanistan for the past three decades, these poems would have been recited to motivate fighters. With diverse themes and emotional appeal, they instantly draw the reader. The use of pastoral imagery and references to Afghan warriors from history are common to most of them. Political messages couched in repetitive verses urge Afghans to expel foreign occupiers in the religious and nationalistic poems mostly written after 2006. Others are love poems where the grieved poet talks of bombs, graves and revenge. Written as classic war poems for the most part, using regional poetic forms, they talk about modern war tactics.

“The Trench” draws on Taliban war songs. Fighters write about experiences from the frontlines, saying goodbye to families, descriptions of the enemy, of night raids, drone attacks on weddings, the loss of comrades. Most poets are critical of the changes brought through the sociopolitical structure supported by the international community. They critique the dollar inflated economy: “This is the land of Muslims/This is the land of great Afghans/This has the mark of the paradise/This is the land of the holy Quran/Don’t sell yourselves to the Americans”; condemn the role of non-governmental organisations: “Most people who broke with the government move to NGOs/ The reason is, salaries are in dollars/How many are the NGOs!”; decry the ‘Western’ influence on Afghan women and their dress. They deride the corruption of the Karzai government, often making direct references: “Don’t spread your dollars around/I have a revolutionary religion/You best be leaving now/I have sons born of Malalai”.

Written in December 2008, in the poem “Good News”, the young mujahideen is

advised to take revenge for night raids that ‘disgrace’ Afghan families. Other poems — with descriptive titles such as “The Message of Devoted Mujahid”, “O Eid of the Trench”, “The Cries of Forty-One Countries Reach the Sky” — confirm the Taliban’s conservative worldview while glorifying nationalism and bravery in war. They make direct references to suicide bombers, RPGs and jihad as a legal obligation: “We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour/That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists/ We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners/We circle their names in red on our lists.”

The poems express determination that the most recent foreign invaders — referred to as 41 countries — will be sent packing, just like the Russians and British occupiers before them. A chilling compliment in an undated poem that reveres the mujahid for “playing football with the heads of infidels” and for “[sounding] out the Islamic kalima to the world” could be a reminder about the beheading and stoning of alleged spies and those accused of ‘immorality’ in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium between 1996-2001.

Today, the official face of the Taliban does not openly reflect its anti-culture, anti-women, anti-West past, with ‘reformed’ members occupying key ministerial positions. But the reality is not much different from what happened during their regime. Earlier in the summer, a young woman was shot by Taliban commanders in Parwan province on the outskirts of Kabul on the pretext that she had committed ‘immoral’ crimes. Spectators gathered to witness the execution. And as recently as last week, Taliban insurgents beheaded 17 civilians, including two women, in Helmand province, a long-time Taliban stronghold; some reports state they were part of a music and dance evening while others explain the men were informers for the government.

Such incidents reflect that the Taliban’s ideology remains unchanged. Poet Nasery laments that, “We did all of this to ourselves”. But his is a solitary line in a collection where those “Heroes of the Maiwand battles/Those strict Pashtuns” are eulogized as fighters on a religious mission.

Poetry of the Taliban is full of admonitions, complaints against ‘infidels’, disgust at Afghans earning dollars, descriptions of suffering at the frontlines and the loneliness of widows, orphans and mothers, but without reference to engaging meaningfully with the outside world or even with the government to find a peaceful solution to the future. The solution for most lies in fighting the invaders until they leave. The poem “Slave” satirises the Karzai-Bush

alliance, accusing the former: “Karzai! You sold the country for a few dollars.”

As much as these poems may explain the reasons behind the Taliban’s unrelenting ideology and their resentment towards foreign occupiers, there is  still that lingering question of whether they merit the space accorded to them. Should the Taliban’s political ideology of violence, perpetuated under the guise of religious belief, be circulated? Moreover, when a shooting or a beheading is recorded to the soundtrack of a tarana and that same tarana is used for propaganda

videos showing attacks on American and Afghan forces, one is left wondering about the contradiction: violence to the tune of music. Has their ban on cultural activities and music always been selective to suit political purposes and to show the world their dogmatic façade?

Last year it was reported that the Taliban have about 40 singers on their payroll, each producing an album a month. These songs, explains a Taliban spokesperson, “give a lesson in bravery, manliness and protecting the country from the invaders”, a familiar theme in this collection. Today, most Afghans travelling out of Kabul have insurgent songs about suicide bombers and teenage martyrs on their cell phones because if stopped at a Taliban check post with Indian or Afghan ring tones, their phones would be smashed and they would be beaten. If the Taliban privately recite poetry, listen to music and even resolve to change — “We are not animals/I say this with certainty/But/Humanity has been forgotten by us/I don’t know when it will come back” — is there space for that? Or is Poetry of the Taliban another publication revealing more of what we know about a resilient insurgent movement?

The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly Herald

Poetry of the Taliban


Edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten

and Felix Kuehn

Translated by Mirwais Rahmany and

Hamid Stanikzai

Hurst & Company, London

ISBN 1849041113

247pp. Rs1,595



Book Review: ‘Taliban Cricket Club’ is a novel with a twist

Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012


“The Taliban Cricket Club” (Ecco), by Timeri N. Murari: Writing a novel about Afghanistan can be a difficult, unenviable undertaking. Continue reading

The Meadow: Kashmir, Where the Terror Began, By Adrian Levy & Cathy Scott-Clark

Barack Obama has pledged to “finish the job” and bring an end to combat in Afghanistan on the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. But the authors of this book – a veteran investigative reporting duo – suggest that the job is unfinished on the part of the rebels who started a mission of international terror from one corner of the Kashmir hills 17 years ago. Bin Laden may be buried deep beneath the sea, but Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark point out that Masood Azhar, the Pakistani mujahedin leader around whom the central events of this book revolve, is still out there, preaching on YouTube. Continue reading

Talking to the Taliban

Reviewed By Razeshta Sethna

AS the US engagement in Afghanistan winds down — similar to the late 80s when the Soviet Union found it had exhausted its resources and political acumen — building an Afghan government (with diverse factions), making peace with the very Taliban forces that America has fought for over a decade, and leaving behind a sustainable infrastructure and economy seems near to impossible. The future configuration of the Qatar peace talks, expanding them beyond the US-Taliban channel, and the Chicago conference in May will further clarify Afghanistan’s position. But at present, with Hamid Karzai demanding Nato troops pull back to their main military posts and the Taliban refusing to engage in negotiations, all of this doesn’t bode well for the stakeholders. Continue reading

Greg Mortenson to be sued by tribesmen he said kidnapped him | World news | The Guardian

Three Cups of Tea author to have lawsuit filed against him by Mansur Khan Mahsud, who says his story is ‘lies from A to Z’

Greg Mortenson to be sued by tribesmen he said kidnapped him

Greg Mortenson poses with schoolchildren in northeastern Afghanistan. The author has been accused of fabricating his autobiography. Photograph: Ho New/Reuters

Greg Mortenson, the author and philanthropist accused of fabricating large parts of his autobiographical writings, is to be sued by the Pakistani tribesmen he claimed kidnapped him.

In his bestselling books about building schools in Pakistan andAfghanistan, one of the most startling stories tells how he was kidnapped by the Taliban and held hostage in Waziristan, the most dangerous part of Pakistan’s western tribal border area with Afghanistan. A photograph in one book showed him with a dozen tribesmen, some armed, who were supposedly holding him captive.

However, as with much else in the books, Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools, the tale is unravelling, following a US television exposé earlier this week.

Mansur Khan Mahsud, who featured in the photograph, said that Mortenson came to his village of Kot Langer Khel, in the Laddah area of South Waziristan, in July 1996. Mahsud, who is the research director of a thinktank in Islamabad that specialises in the tribal area, said that the Taliban did not appear on the Pakistani side of the border until 2002, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

“Greg Mortenson came with a relative of mine and he was a guest of the village. He stayed for about 10 days. He was living in the village, sightseeing, taking photographs. He had a really good time,” said Mahsud, adding that some of the tribesmen carried guns to protect Mortenson.

In Mortenson’s account, his hosts from the Mahsud tribe have been turned into the then better-known Wazir tribe, while the location has morphed to Razmak, North Waziristan.

“It’s lies from A to Z. There’s not one word of truth. If there had been a little exaggeration, that could have been forgiven,” said Mahsud. “The way that he’s portrayed the Mahsuds, as hash-smoking bandits, is wrong. He’s defamed me, my family, my tribe. We are respected people in my area. He’s turned us into kidnappers.”

Mahsud said that he had decided to file a lawsuit against Mortenson and was in contact with a lawyer in the US.

“I am looking into how to sue him,” said Mahsud, who only found out about the story in the book when he was contacted in February this year by a whistle-blower, Jon Krakauer, who was featured in the US investigative show 60 Minutes on CBS News.

The programme raised serious doubts over how many schools Mortenson had actually built in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and even his original story that he vowed to build his first school, for a Pakistani village, after its inhabitants rescued him when he got lost mountaineering. It also questioned the use of the millions in charitable funds he collects each year for the schools.

Mortenson, whose charity is now under investigation by US authorities, has defended his work, admitting to only “some omissions and compressions”.

Journalist`s book examines rise in extremism | DAWN.COM |

ISLAMABAD, Nov 13: In his second book launched on Saturday, journalist Zahid Hussain argues the war against al Qaeda and the Taliban, particularly the US drone strikes killing civilians, has spurred number of new recruits to the extremist cause.

“The war has come to Pakistani heartland with terrorists targeting cities with impunity. I think for Pakistan the turning point came with the Red Mosque siege when the military operation crushed radical movement right in the heart of the country`s capital,” he said at the launch of The Scorpion`s Tail – The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan And How It Threatens America at Kuch Khaas . “The incident led to declaration of war by the militants from Swat and South Waziristan.”

For him, the militants were not stronger. “It was the weaker state unable to provide protection and justice to the people.” But he added it was a great turnaround when the government showed some resolution to fight back. “I saw how people got back to their lives immediately after the militants were flushed out. That showed a remarkable resilience in Pakistani people,” he said. The author explained that Pakistan could not be separated from war in Afghanistan and the US policy in the region. “It is a blowback of the war in Afghanistan. It is the longest war Pakistan has ever fought and it cannot be won.”

Admiring the author`s field experience, Khaled Ahmed, a journalist and writer, said the book attempted at understanding why Pakistan was moving towards extremist Islam. “It reminds of self correction and how otherwise the state would continue to gradually erode.”

Director Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) I. A. Rehman said the book asked the right kind of questions. “How are we in this mess? How it escalated and created facilities for rise of militants.” But he said the author was `generous` to Ayub Khan for demonising politicians that paved the way for extremists and how Cold War `knights` reconverted Pakistan into an extremist state.

The book has come at a pivotal moment, said Maliha Lodhi, former envoy to the US and the UK. “It comes just before the much anticipated US review of the Afghan war in December.” She said it has also come at a delicate moment for Pakistan`s counter militancy efforts when the crucial transition has to be made from `hold` to `transfer` to consolidate recent gains.

The book`s central thesis that killing senior leaders has little effect on their operations raised questions whether militarised approach dispersed the threat rather than neutralize it?

“Secondly, this is the first book that catalogues the blowback effects of what has become a weapon of choice for the Obama Administration, an approach that ignores lessons of history, inspires more attacks and unifies militant groups,” she said, describing the drone campaign a tactic and not a strategy.

Riaz Mohammad Khan, former foreign secretary, found the book meticulous. “It takes us through high marks since 9/11 – early uprisings, pursuit of al Qaeda leadership, break down of deals, and how they shaped our present shape,” said the former bureaucrat who thought the book allowed to grasp challenges with clarity.

This article was published in Dawn and was written by Jamal Shahid.

Scorpion’s Tail is available at all leading bookstores in Pakistan and can be ordered here.

Afrah Jamal: BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef (Translation by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn) Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Afrah Jamal: BOOK REVIEW: My Life With The Taliban Author: Abdul Salam Zaeef (Translation by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn) Reviewed by Afrah Jamal.

Daily Times – Site Edition Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Afghan Taliban’s claim to fame: obliterating 6th century monuments at Bamian, reactivating a medieval code of conduct and hosting the US’s most wanted man. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has been lambasted for grooming this force of nature and further accused of aiding and abetting it after 2001, but if one founding member is to be believed, they have little to do with the set up. The Taliban were already in their gestation phase and simply moved in to fill the (moral) void left by outgoing invaders and incoming outlaws.

This is the story of the singing, dancing mujahideen that evolved into a dreaded inquisition squad which ran Afghanistan for five years, as told by Mullah Zaeef — who was once a high profile member of the said squad. But he is neither a defector nor an apologist and remains an ardent supporter of his former colleagues. Originally written in Pashto, his memoir has been translated by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn — permanent residents of Kandahar and apparently the only two westerners brave enough to live there sans elaborate security measures.

The man, who went from being a veteran and Talib to ambassador before ending up as Prisoner 306 at Guantanamo Bay prison, has a selective memory. “The Taliban had given beauty to the region,” he gushes, hastening to add some feel good stories and touching imagery to the terrifying mythology. He contrasts the world he inherited as a child raised under the shadow of the Soviets with the land he defended as a jihadist, and one he helped forge as a young Talib.

Though Zaeef will paint his movement in the brightest possible colours, casting the Taliban as saints and Pakistan as the sinner, the Afghan nation can testify to the Taliban’s bleak history after 1994.

Ironically, both Pakistan and the US are hauled over the coals for failing to uphold basic human rights. As for the Taliban’s appalling record, the only two instances included are intended to convey their open-mindedness and sense of fairplay. Where does the destruction of Buddhist statues fit in all this? He believes that act to be legally sound but unnecessary. And other atrocities? A heartening portrayal of “life returning to normal” is preceded by the casual observation that “women are no longer working and men are growing beards”. He did not issue these controversial edicts but continues to endorse them. The West’s fear of madrassas (which stems from a real enough place) invokes his ire. At one point, he argues that efforts at giving equal rights to men and women prove that Americans are the enemies of Islam. Such pronouncements merely demonstrate that, while the Taliban may not be seeking an al Qaeda-style new world order, they are also not the kind of people that sustain life as we know it.

Zaeef’s description of an Afghanistan under occupation is no paradise either and unnerving details of a common man’s plight have the power to widen the gulf between the Afghans and the rest of the world.

While the latest news about improvement in the quality of life at infamous ‘Gitmo’ may be reassuring — apparently they can now watch the World Cup, use Skype and read Twilight (!) — the sobering reality as seen through the inmates’ eyes will dismay many.

As ambassador, he had issues with Pakistan’s way of doing business. No doubt, some of these grievances will be legitimate — Pakistan’s law and order is nothing to be proud of. But, as far as the refugee crisis is concerned, Zaeef can barely contain his displeasure at Peshawar’s governor who rightfully points out that these people should not have been around in the first place, given that Afghanistan had a government and security. There is a portion where Zaeef is warned by the ISI against assassinating Musharraf and he, in turn, suggests that they were merely trying to find a scapegoat, but soon after mentions the fatwa he read out where assassination is the central idea and Musharraf appears to be the primary target. This man got burned by Pakistan, which explains away some, but not all, of the hostility towards his former mentors and benefactors.

Zaeef, when he is not monitoring the spin cycle or adjusting the lighting around this carefully crafted narrative, does have lucid moments as he speculates about the future of his country and the demerits of American-Afghan policies. The Taliban and al Qaeda are on the same wavelength but not necessarily the same (war) path. Have the Taliban been mislabelled? Not really. But have they been mishandled? Perhaps. A tribal leader famously asked the commander of British troops, “I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in but what I do not understand is how you are planning to get them out.” That was 1892. The classic tale of ‘immovable object meets an unstoppable force’ is in its umpteenth season. Nine years into the war, the Taliban are not a spent force but an active threat. This book helps people understand what keeps them ticking.

Columbia University Press; Pp 360; Rs 995