Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review: The Poetry of the Taliban

In the Sunday Guardian last weekend, my review of The Poetry of the Taliban.

The Poetry of the Taliban.
Edited by Alex Strick Von Linschoten & Felix Kuehn
with a Foreword by Faisan Devji.

Hachette India Rs. 499 Pp. 247.


Quick: tell me what names come to mind when you hear the words ‘War Poetry’. If you said ‘Wilfred Owen’ or ‘Siegfried Sassoon’, you wouldn’t be wrong. We can be certain though, that nobody said ‘Abdul Basir Ebrat’ or Shirinzoy. At the very outset, this ought to tell us something about ourselves as readers and as consumers in the economy of literature.

As citizens of a post-colonial state, it is shaming but unsurprising that we should know more about the poetry and the poets of the First World War than we do about the poetry of our near neighbours in Afghanistan. So much of what Anglophone India reads or considers worthy of reading is mediated by the West’s narrative of its own literary history that a book like The Poetry of the Taliban demands a serious effort on the part of the reader.

 The Poetry of the Taliban is a collection of poetry published on the Taliban’s website over the last decade, though there are also poems dating from the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and 90s that are included in the book. The editors, Alex von Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have chosen 235 poems and arranged them roughly thematically into ‘Love and Pastoral’, ‘Religious’, ‘Discontent’, ‘The Trench’ and ‘The Human Cost’. So far, so universal.

But I had to remind myself that it was not the Taliban that had edited this book or had it published; they certainly had poetry on their website. Someone even curated it – after a fashion – though it is not clear that everyone who contributed a poem necessarily approved of the Taliban. At any rate the poetry was reaching, without translation, those it was meant to reach.

 I had to ask who this book was for, even while ruefully taking note that the poems are now being studied by American military analysts for what insight they might provide about the Taliban. It’s hard not to think of Vietnam and the US military’s efforts to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese.

For a South Asian reading the book, therefore, there is a good chance that she is going to feel strangely displaced: this is clearly a poetry that has deep cultural roots that seem intensely familiar to us on the subcontinent, as when the poet says, ‘The ignorance of the dark turned to light when you came’ [‘Prayer’, Abdul Basir Ebrat]; or when a poet signs off with a takhallus – ‘I wish I could tell Mohammed Stanikzai about myself;/I wish my voice reached the wind though my mouth is closed’ [‘I wish’, Mohammed Stanikzai]. There are also familiar tropes of the Beloved, of intoxication and there is the symbolic power of colour or landscape.

And yet the poetry is often strident and so radically ‘other’ in its invocation of God, jihad, bravery, sacrifice and reward that it takes some effort to realise that this is not uncommon to nationalistic or patriotic poetry; and to see that beyond the tone of the poems lie a complicated web of identities and loyalties – to history, tribe, language, region, culture and ideology.

I suspect that if the poems in this collection had uniformly sounded remorseful or at least displayed a decent war-weariness, it would be easier for the Western reader to empathise. It is to the credit of the editors that they have refused to simplify anything. Their Introduction is, of course, a way in to the poetry and its history, but it also becomes significant for what aspects of Afghan society they emphasise and what they elide over – the near-total absence of women poets from this collection, for instance.

I could only wish that they had chosen better translators than Mirwais Rehmany and Hamid Stanikzai. So much of the poetry reads as if it could have been eloquent in different hands. In the poem ‘Sunset’ by Abdul Hai Mutma’in for instance, the translation reads:

‘The fast wind makes the branches of the trees hit each other;
Rays of sunlight go back and forth, they don’t remain in one place.”

If a poem from the section ‘Love & Pastoral’ can sound so clunky, it’s not hard to think how badly served the political poems are by the translation. In fact, for a project of such significance, a good translation should have been the first priority. Sadly, it seems to have been almost an afterthought.

The book is a useful, if not an entirely satisfactory one in the South Asian context. Perhaps one day, some poet from the subcontinent will translate contemporary poetry from Afghanistan, not in order to explain or humanise the people to anyone, but in the way that Faiz Ahmed Faiz translated Nazim Hikmet: as an act of homage and exchange.


km said...

This is fascinating - it really is. I had no idea that the Taliban would allow poetry on its website. But it raises another question: who were these poems written for? Are they propaganda?

(And is browsing the Taliban website for poetry a bit like scouring through an issue of Playboy for the articles? I kid, of course.)

"Rays of sunlight go back and forth, they don’t remain in one place.”

Pretty sure all mystical and profound teenagers attempting to master the haiku form in one evening have written that very line in their journals. Not that I am comparing the youth to the Taliban or anything.

Space Bar said...

km: The Introduction has a lot of fascinating anecdotes and incidents - it's worth reading for that alone.