The Taliban are known not only in the West, but in much of the Muslim world, too, for their strict conservatism rather than for any delicate feelings of humanity, yet the poetry associated with them is replete with such fine emotions.
Drawing upon the long tradition of Persian or Urdu verse as much as Afghan legend and recent history, it is an aesthetic form that includes unrequited love, powerful women for whose illicit favors competitors vie, and descriptions of natural beauty among its themes.
Indeed a common claim in this poetry is that the simple humanity of rural Afghans, nourished by the loveliness of their mountains, meadows and streams, is under attack by coalition forces with their drones, air strikes and heavily armed soldiers.
This is of course a literary trope, whose distance from reality does not, however, mean that Taliban poets and their audiences have no genuine feeling for such things as natural beauty. Indeed the contrary is probably true, with the Taliban's aesthetic doing as much to heighten an Afghan's appreciation of flowers, birds and the landscape as of turning him against American troops.
But the concern in this literature for humanity is more complex, with some writers sorrowfully acknowledging its loss among the Afghans themselves.
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;
In our houses, even the oil lamps are turned off.
Khepulwaak, On Eid
The contrast drawn in the lines above between Americans celebrating Christmas in the Bagram Air Base and Afghans commemorating the Muslim festival of Eid outside is so simple as to be unanswerable.
However slanted it might otherwise be, this brief description represents a truth beyond the politics of good intentions that characterizes the international community's actions in Afghanistan. Ultimately it is likely to be such descriptions that come to define the war in that country, and not the complicated arguments of those who would rescue it from the depredations of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
Now that coalition forces are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan without achieving any of their goals, such arguments are about to fall silent in any case, and a new society will have to be built from the kind of consciousness that is on display in this and other poems that may be said to constitute the literature of the Taliban.
Even when the large store of poetry produced by the Taliban or their supporters has been noticed, which is more often than not by American military analysts, it tends to be seen merely as propaganda and thus folded back into the instrumentality of politics.
Yet it might well be the autonomy of this aesthetic, or rather its general and broadly human character, that links the Taliban to a wider world outside their ethnic and doctrinal limits. And such a link, of course, is as capable of diluting the movement's integrity as of reinforcing it.
Why should the Taliban's aesthetic be so removed from the opinions and practices that define them both religiously and politically? To account for such a division by invoking ideas about hypocrisy or propaganda is unsatisfactory, because their very possibility would have made Taliban verse controversial and perhaps even impossible.
Instead of which it both draws upon and finds acceptance within a poetic tradition that links the movement to a world outside its own. The Taliban's aesthetic is marked by a consciousness external to their movement, one that moves beyond the limits of ideology to make for a thoroughly individual sense of freedom which can manifest itself in obedience as much as defiance, fidelity to a cause as much as its betrayal.
Taliban verse is full of statements decrying as hypocrisy all invocations of human rights by coalition armies. And the violation of such rights by the Americans or British is viewed as being so egregious as to empty the category itself of any meaning. The accusation of hypocrisy, in other words, is not matched by any desire among Taliban poets to recuperate some authentic form of human rights, and in this way they diverge fundamentally from the rhetoric of international politics.
Yet we have seen that these men and women are also capable of expressing their utmost horror at the exercise of cruelty, even when it is perpetrated by their own side, and regularly sing about the virtues of peace, love and harmony in the name of humanity.
The great question as well as opportunity sounding out from this literature is how to establish such virtues in a post-war Afghan society without enclosing them in the legalistic carapace of human rights that has been marred from its origins by an association with imperialism. For in the absence of rule by consent, it was often humanitarian considerations that gave Europe's colonial empires their legitimacy in the past.
From its origins in the Soviet invasion of 1979, the war that continues to wreck Afghanistan has also given rise to an extraordinary aesthetic consciousness. By weaving it into carpets, photographing it in secret studios and commemorating it in song and verse distributed by way of CDs and cell phones, Afghans across the political spectrum have struggled to humanize a long and destructive war in an effort that bears comparison to the cultural productivity of the First World War in Europe.
Poetry, which was probably the most important aesthetic medium of traditional Afghan society, has played a crucial role in this effort, and the Taliban verse collected in this volume represents the melancholy beauty of the old lyric as well as the moral outrage and call to action that is characteristic of modern literature.
This piece is was edited from the introduction to The Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Strick Van Linschosten and Felix Kuehn (Columbia University Press/Hurst, $24.50)
Read some of the poetry of the Taliban here.
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