Taliban Poetry and the Enemy Text

The forthcoming collection Poetry of the Taliban, which contains some 200 poems translated from the Pashto, is getting a little buzz in the UK. The Talibani literary tradition is not related to the Arabic, according to the book’s editors, but, “draws upon Afghan legend and recent history as much as upon a long tradition of Persian, Urdu and Pashto verse.”

Still, it’s relevant here, as there has been similar (voyeuristic) interest in poetry recited by Osama bin Laden and whatever nonsense Saddam Hussein called literature and scuttled about.

So I was half-intrigued by the debate, and half by a comment on Twitter from NYTimes correspondent Rod Nordland:

Rod Nordland ‏ @rodnordland
@cathjam @talibanpoetry @AP Poetry? Considering the source, stupid drivel is closer to the mark.

In fact, editors Felix Kuehn and Alex Strick van Linschoten don’t suggest they’ve put together this collection for its aesthetic value (” a fascinating insight into the minds and hearts of these deeply emotional people”…cough) and surely they were aware of its potential shock value.

Indeed, Strick van Linschoten tweeted yesterday: “@strickvl
‘Poetry of the Taliban’ currently #1 in the war poetry section of Amazon,” and not, “critics rave, sensitive translation of ‘Poetry of the Taliban’.”

No, I don’t find myself agreeing with retired army colonel Richard Kemp, who was not particularly nuanced when he told The Guardian, “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” and, “It doesn’t do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country.”

Nor can I agree with Rod Nordland, who decides that, “considering the source,” the poetry must ergo be drivel. It would be a much tidier sort of world if bad mean people wrote bad poetry, and good and genteel people wrote good poetry. And I suppose that it’s highly unlikely that the editors found anything like “good” poetry, since they weren’t necessarily on the lookout for that — rather, to show off the “minds and hearts” of these “deeply emotional people.”

Also, as our friend Zora notes below, literary translators are usually sympathetic readers. In this case, of course, that’s less likely.

I suppose it’s not the end of the world if this collection is translated for its “anthropological” value, (with perhaps a good shake of “shock and titillate”). I guess worse things have happened, although one would prefer better.


  1. Sorry to tell you, but Richard Kemp is right about the Taliban.

    1. I know next to nothing about the Taliban (beyond the stereotyped images from TV news), but I don’t doubt that their group is made up of some fairly unsavory fellows. What I question is the statement that an unsavory, cruel, censorious context must only produce worthless art.

      Now, I guess since they weren’t looking for art, it’s unlikely that they found any.

      1. Thanks, Marcia, for your reply, and I too found comic relief in Zora O’Neill’s response to your piece. I think we’re all in agreement about the likely quality of the “art” in question, though I haven’t read it either and I’m willing to be surprised. My comment had more to do with your seeming blithe dismissal of Kemp’s views of the Taliban, which are not based merely on media stereotypes, but his own actual experience in the field. Unfortunately, their ideology and behavior are extremely well-documented. There is little to be “nuanced” about in this case. In his statement that you quoted, he does not comment on the character of the verse itself, but decries giving this vicious group any unnecessary publicity. Whether or not one agrees, his view is quite understandable, at least to me. That said, the study of modern jihadi poetry, like that of its precursors in the verse of the khawarij and other militant groups throughout the history of Islam, is valuable in itself, and not only for the light its sheds on their beliefs, but for what if reflects of the contemporary state of poetry–and of humanity. This new book of Taliban verse may (or may not) fall into that category. We’ll see.

  2. Taliban poetry presents an interesting translation challenge, I’d imagine. Ordinarily a translator is the ultimate sympathetic reader, a real advocate for the work–which might induce the translator to smooth over some rougher patches of the original and try not to make the material feel so foreign. Here, I wonder if the translators will have done that? I have a feeling it’s going to read a lot like Hallmark cards–creepy Hallmark cards. I’d be curious to know more about how the translators got involved in the project.

    1. Haha, “creepy Hallmark cards” pretty much sums up my expectations for it, too.

  3. Hi. I’m one of the editors of the volume. Would be happy to send you a review copy of the book if you’d like. Alex.

    1. This seems awfully foolish to post on the Internet, but my mailing address is:

      New Cairo
      Al-Rehab City
      P.O. Box 188

  4. And I love the foreward by the ever insightful, Faisal Devji.

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