Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Taliban Poetry

So, the Taliban are poets.

This review of the book Poetry of the Taliban appeared in the Guardian a couple of days ago. Edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the book presents poetry written by Afghan men (and one woman) on a variety of subjects - according to the review, "There are poems of love, battle, transience, grief, enthusiasm, material deprivation and mystical astonishment. The voices are diverse and often surprising." This collection is an attempt to humanize people who have been vilified since the invasion of Afghanistan, and to bring their voices to a wider audience. 


I'm sorry, but I just can't.  I. Just. Can't.


I live in a country which was responsible for creating and training the mujahideen who fought the Soviets in the 1980s. Later, Afghanistan fell apart and the Taliban, also trained and created in my country, educated in madrasas funded by Saudi Arabia, took over. The litany of human rights abuses that the Taliban committed in Afghanistan could go on for pages; drunk on dreams of an Islamist Emirate, these men did things to their own people that breaks my heart every time I think about it. Then they spilled over into Pakistan and have been fighting what amounts to a civil war for the last ten years, mixing with other extremist groups, taking advantage of a porous border and many family ties on both sides to wreak havoc on innocent civilians and the Pakistani military. They've blown up girls' schools, invaded an entire region (Swat), kidnapped and killed foreign aid workers. 


Earlier this month, they beheaded fourteen Pakistani soldiers and strung two of those heads up on poles. 


If they had their way, they'd be running my country. They'd destroy every girls' school from Kabul to Karachi. They'd drive women out of their jobs, out of the streets, out of hospitals and everywhere else that women need to be, and confine them to the house; turn them into baby machines and domestic slaves. 


No girl would have the luxury of going to school, learning to read and write - in fact, education seems to be a particular target of the Taliban, girls' education in particular. So to ask me to read the poetry of the Taliban and consider that they too are humans with creative hearts and souls is just too much of a stretch. Especially when their ideology would mean that no girl or woman could write a poem or a book if that ideology played itself out to its logical end. 


It seems almost laughable to me that the people who have written these poems have used the form of the ghazal, that beautiful form of poetry so popular in South Asia, with its rhyming couplets and its expressions of love, sung to classical music and so adored by millions in the Subcontinent. The Taliban banned music in Afghanistan, destroying instruments, smashing cassettes and CDs, hounding and harassing and even killing musicians. They believe all art to be evil; an invention of the devil that distracts a man from his true calling: waging jihad. 


I suppose all this points to the complexity of the situation, the Afghan people's culture in a clash with the culture and values of Islamism. I'm also reminded of Gunter Grass, the great German writer whose Nazi youth makes many people believe that his literature doesn't deserve to be read, or to even exist. Some have pointed out that megalomaniacs like Stalin and Hitler had an artistic side. It makes sense to consider all of this - and it probably makes sense that the Poetry of the Taliban exists, as a creative experiment, as a project that illustrates humans are multifaceted and can wage war on the one hand and write poetry on the other. 


But for me, when I think of the Taliban, I think of that young girl in Swat being flogged mercilessly in a public square. I think of women starving because they can't work to feed their families. I think of women being whipped for wearing white socks with their black clothes. I think of women committing suicide in the droves because they became psychotically depressed. 


So excuse me if I can't bring myself to read the poetry of the Taliban with an open heart.


--------------------------


(Read Andrew Buncombe's blog post in the Independent here where he talks to me and the editors of the anthology about the project.)