Friday, August 29, 2014

Booknote: Poetry of the Taliban

Alex Strick van Linschoten,, Poetry of the Taliban. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9780231704045.

This is an academic book that collects poetry of the Afghan Taliban. In addition to the poetry, it does contain a good amount of academic material (introduction, essays, and other explanatory items) for scholars and students. I picked it up mostly due to my interest in history and world affairs. I will not rate it as I do others books, but rather offer my reading notes. I do think academic libraries, especially ones with strength in Middle Eastern studies and history, will want to pick up this item. I would not recommend this for public libraries unless it is requested. This is not really a book you read for pleasure, and I do not say that as a bad thing.

"The garden of my imagination was baked in the oven of cruelty,
I am looking for pain in imagination"
--Abdul Basir Ebrat, "Thunder," 1994.

Reading notes:

The book deals with a topic that has received little attention, and from Americans the attention usually comes from military analysts who pretty much lump it into propaganda. And yes, there is some propaganda in the poems, but there is also a human character.

On the type of poetry:
"While it is the tarana or ballad that seems to be the favourite genre of the Cultural Committee's propaganda, a primarily oral form of literature that has also received most attention from those who study the Taliban, it appears to be the ghazal or love lyric whose themes if not always form dominate the movement's unofficial literature. Made up of interlinked couplets that do not have to possess any continuity of narrative or even mood, the ghazal is by far the most popular genre of poetry in the region, which can be sung and recited, but also dominates the written literature that was previously composed primarily by court poets and mystics" (15).
The poetry is overly Afghan in emphasis. There is a debt to Islamic militancy, but little specific mentions of Al Qaeda, bin Laden, or Mullah Omar (one of the Taliban leaders). There are many references to Great Britain, the United States of America, the White House, and G.W. Bush.

More on the character of the poetry:

"Poetry features in all spheres of life: on political occasions, for social change, for religions purposes, at home, for weddings, for funerals, for festivals, and even-- as we shall see-- on the battlefield" (33). 

Often, Taliban poetry is overlooked by those monitoring the Taliban's website, seen as lacking "operational" value when compared to other content.

"Yet it seemed to be such a prominent part of what the Taliban wanted to present about themselves to the wider world" (31). 

On the poetry:

  • "The 235 poems in this collection aim to showcase some of the diversity of thematic and stylistic content as well as offering three dozen older examples from the 1980s and 1990s" (31). 
  • Older poems collated "from magazines, newspapers and casette tapes, transcribed where necessary and then translated" (31).
  • Newer poems mainly from the Taliban website, and they date December 2006 to February 2009. 
  • Authorship varies. The poet and person who performs it on an MP3 are different. Authors often use pen names. Some are propaganda; others are simply submissions from poets and common people. 
  • "There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of Taliban poems in this sense: those with a clear propaganda message, officially sanctioned; those very close to the same line and inciting others to fight, but unaffiliated with the propaganda apparatus; and completely unaffiliated individuals" (46). 
Some themes and topics covered:

  • Pre- 9/11.
  • Love and pastoral
  • Religious
  • Discontent (regarding various topics)
  • The Trench (Taliban war songs)
  • The Human Cost

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