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When militants become poets

By Anwar Iqbal
May 26th 2012



“I would explain all my grief, dot-by-dot, point by point, if heart-to-heart we talk and face-to-face we meet,” this was Qurrat-ul-Ayn Tahira or Tahirih, as she is known in Iran. “To catch a glimpse of you, I am wandering like a breeze, from house to house, door to door, place to place, street to street.”

The original Persian version is so powerful that some of its lines have become proverbs, not just in Persian but also in Urdu.

She was a Baha’i. Her religion did not become the dominant faith in Iran. But her poetry won many hearts. It forced Allama Iqbal to confer on her the title of Khatoon-i-Ajam (Woman of the East) and to place her in the company of Mansur Al-Hallaj and Ghalib.

The book I am holding in my hands – “Poetry of the Taliban” – may have a similar impact, although intellectually, it is much inferior.

Poetry of the Taliban” is no Divan-e-Hafiz. There are no Khayyam, Ghalib or Iqbal among the poets included in this anthology. Not a single poem compares to Tahira’s “gar be tu uftadum nazar (translated above)” and yet this is a book that will outlive the Afghan war. It will pose a serious challenge to US efforts to depict the Taliban as wild warriors not worthy of any attention except that of drone operators.

It will also make life difficult for Afghan and Pakistani liberals who refuse to acknowledge that half-educated madressah students like the Taliban can also produce poetry.

While going through the book, one thing became obvious: this book will also have a major impact on how the future generations of Afghans define this war.

“At your Christmas, Bagram is alit and bright, on my Eid, even the rays of the sun are dead, suddenly at midnight, your bombs bring the light to our homes, even the oil lamps are turned off,” writes a Taliban poet named Khepalwaak.

This is a situation that many Afghans can relate to, without bothering to know who is responsible for what. The blame, ultimately, will go to the foreign occupiers. And this 247-page book, published by Hurst & Company, London, has ensured that the Americans and their Nato allies are seen as cruel occupiers.

“We love these dusty and muddy houses; we love the dusty deserts of this country. But the enemy has stolen their lights, we love these wounded black mountains,” this is Nasrat, a Taliban poetess.

With the help of such poems, Taliban poets have successfully linked their war against the Americans to past uprisings against the Soviets and the British and this is a narrative that most Afghans not only understand but also sympathise with.

“They do not accept us as humans, they do not accept us as animals either, and yet they would say humans have two dimensions: humanity and animality [sic]. We are out of both of them today.” This is Salimullah Khalid Sahak, a Taliban warrior, who very cleverly blames the Americans not only for what they did but also for “the animal behaviour” of the Taliban. Blame for all the atrocities committed during the Taliban reign is placed on the outsiders who are held responsible for turning” the Afghan warrior into an animal.”

As Faisal Devji of St. Anthony’s College, Oxford, who wrote a lengthy introduction to this collection of poems, notes, the Taliban poets have chosen ghazal as their preferred form of expression, opposed totarana that the Taliban leadership uses in its propaganda material.

Ghazal, as most South Asians familiar with Urdu and Farsi poetry would know, has its own vocabulary. As Devji points out, a ghazal’s “stock characters include despondent lovers, cruel and beautiful mistresses, and a great deal of wine.”

The Taliban obviously banned all such “lustful activities” while in power but there’s no better form of expression than a ghazal for deeply internalised emotions. Since each of these terms can also be interpreted as the love of the Divine, ghazal has always been a favourite form of expression among Muslims, particularly in Iran and South Asia. And the Taliban too were forced to embrace it.

“I stoned him with the stones of light tears, and then I hung my sorrow on the gallows like Mansur,” writes Khairkhwa.

“Like those who have been killed by the infidels, I counted my heart as one of the martyrs. It might have been the wine of your memory that made my heart drunk five times.”

A non-Taliban poet writing such poems in the Taliban reign would have been flogged publicly in Kabul or stoned to death in Kandahar.

But the insanity of a long war against an enemy far more powerful seems to have forced the militants to change their narrative as well.

The flogging and hanging – a common practice under the Taliban – does not inspire these poets. There is hardly any attempt to praise the Taliban’s attempt to impose Sharia laws or to force people to accept their interpretation of Islam. What motivated them while in power seems to have little significance in the harsh life of “hot trenches.”

Now they are the underdog, the martyr. And the underdog, at least in our culture, writes poetry. So here is one on a village mosque: “Traveller friend, 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; and the Talib Jan, the one with long hair, the young Talib Jan, who used to cleanse hearts with his voice when he called the azan.”

True to a traditional ghazal, the beloved in this couplet is a “Talib Jan with long hair,” not a woman and her ‘zulf’ as a modern Urdu or Farsi poet would write. So here the Taliban poet remains faithful to his roots.

A strong aversion to foreign occupation, which defines the Afghan history from the ancient times, is a recurrent theme in the Taliban poetry as well.

“A small house I had from father and grandfather, in which, I knew happiness, my beloved and I lived there,” writes Najibullah Akrami.

“But suddenly a guest came, I let him be for two days, but after those two days passed, the guest became the host. He told me, ‘You came today, be careful not to return tomorrow.”

And here is a poem on a mistaken drone attack on a wedding party: “The young bride was killed here. The groom and his wishes were martyred here. Hearts full of hopes were martyred here. The children were murdered; a story full of love is martyred here.”

Although one-sided – as it does not mention how the militants invite drone strikes on innocent civilians by using them as human shields – the poem is powerful enough to outlive US and Nato press releases explaining the strikes.

Obviously, there is no mention of 9/11, Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda in this book of the Taliban. The focus, instead, is on how ordinary Afghans are suffering under foreign occupation.

There is even a poem ridiculing President Hamid Karzai’s love for the former US President George W. Bush and his ‘tearful farewell’ to Bush after he completed his second term.

The picture that emerges is strong and powerful, not necessarily objective. In any war that goes on for so long, it is difficult to be objective. After the first few years, the reasons for the war are easily forgotten.

The narrative that remains, and occupies television screens, is that of everyday battles, of air raids and drone strikes, of ambushes and IEDs and of body bags.

And when this happens, it is time to withdraw.

This book of poetry makes it clear that there can be no clean end to the Afghan war. Things will remain muddy and unexplainable. Recent US public opinion surveys show many Americans also realise this. And this book will strengthen those who argue that in this situation, the best option is to quit Afghanistan.

Originally Published by Dawn Pakistan

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