taliban poetry

Poetry of the Taliban

by James Caron

Since there is already a substantial discussionsurrounding this compilation of poetry “of” the Taliban, it seems important to review the work within a series of broader contexts.

Writing on Afghanistan has recently enjoyed an upsurge, but this is not the first such spike of western interest in Afghanistan. Amid a major catalog that has emerged over the past decade, there is a slowly growing subset of work that examines representations of Afghanistan from colonial to contemporary times as part of its project. We might cite recentedited volumes, alongside work by Shah MahmouHanifiJamil HanifiMagnus Marsden and Ben Hopkins, and others. A picture that repeatedly surfaces is a historical feedback loop of policy interests, Orientalist scholarship, and popular market expectations that have produced remarkably durable and static conventions, as several have pointed out.

Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are independent Kandahar-based researchers and analysts, and highly-respected members of the Afghan NGO sector. Along with other primary-source work, their compilationPoetry of the Taliban fits into a contrary tradition alongside such largely ignored works as H. G. Raverty’sSelections from the Poetry of the Afghans (1862), and especially James Darmesteter’s Chants populaires des Afghans (1888). The latter is perhaps the sole repository of self-expressed non-elite perspectives on anticolonial activity in nineteenth-century eastern Afghanistan. It contextualizes those sources in a universe of contemporary discourse: love lyrics, satire, and folktales. The result is so removed from conventional wisdom that I have never seen it cited in histories of the events its poets comment on.

Recently, Taliban literature has received attention at the US Naval Postgraduate School among other places, sometimes embedded in wider studies. Unlike works seeking policy lessons in poems, though, Strick and Kuehn’s book arises from the same multidimensional curiosity regarding sociocultural history that Darmesteter harbored, shorn of stereotype and rooted in primary sourcesPoetry of the Taliban translates a survey of poetry from published collections and recordings of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as from contemporary media, especially the Taliban’s official website. Presented with minimal commentary, the poems are categorized by theme: “Love and Pastoral”; “Religious”; “Discontent”; “The Trench”; and “The Human Cost.” The result is both an anthology and a larger phenomenon. What can we learn from it?

The editors’ introduction and Faisal Devji’s preface situate these texts in their media universe. To a greater extent than in the work of Pashto’s classical philologists, Strick’s and Kuehn’s social science training benefits both the reader and the exercise. Few researchers can speak with as much authority regarding the social domains of insurgent cultural circulation. It is importnat to note, then, that they are satisfyingly agnostic here, stopping short of concrete claims about the production, or the producers, of most of the poems. We learn that their composers come from a wide cross-section of society; and that many identifiable authors have no affiliation with the Taliban movement. Instead of documenting “The Taliban,” it seems, many of these words simply resonated with individuals who interact with a piecemeal Taliban media infrastructure, and who decided to submit poems, whether their own or other people’s, to a Taliban website, just as they might share something with a Facebook group. This revelation of a decentered, mostly anonymous authorship is a valuable insight, one that the editors explicitly call attention to but also underplay.

Underplaying it is problematic for individuals, as some have pointed out: what if careless readers imagine that any poet who protests NATO’s presence, in a volume titled Poetry of the Taliban, also supports any number of Taliban ideas or actions? Might such slippages have potential real-world consequences, if such imagined “support” is viewed as “material”? But also, if reviews are any indication, underplaying this decentered provenance distracts even thoughtful readers from the book’s larger, very substantial value. Like Darmesteter’s compilation, it is a cross-sectional archive, however selective. If we read these poems with sensitivity to that reality, then the book offers a view of permeable social domains, and complex, layered worlds of aesthetics and opinion from multiple Pashto publics, not just Taliban ones.

Numerous jingoistic anthems throughout the book celebrate militaristic domination. Some from other genres probably voice approval of the Taliban cadre’s ideas in some respects, if vocabulary like “crusaders” is any indication, but also incorporate a deep skepticism regarding violence. In such cases, poetry is hardly a “fram[ing of] violence in higher ethics“; rather, it is a ceding of key terms of discussion, by the Taliban’s archival gatekeeper, to a public that disapproves of their actions. Finally, some poems express only devastated bewilderment, a sense that all the forms of violence (including the Taliban’s) surrounding the poems’ speakers have caused such irreconcilable rupture that history itself is on hold.

If history is suspended, do we gain any sense of delinked pasts in this collection? Certainly, if we know where to look. Occasionally we recognize allusions, or even poets, like Gul Pacha Ulfat, a leader of the underground pro-democracy “Awakened Youth” movement of the late 1940s. Ulfat, an elite religious scholar, died in 1977 and was one of twentieth-century Afghanistan’s most socially progressive thinkers. His fiction spoke of social justice and the sufferings of the rural poor, especially women, and many of his didacticghazals cryptically yet (to Pashtuns) unmistakeably interrogated hegemony: mutually-implicated structures of autocracy, lineage patriarchy, and corruption. The mere presence of Ulfat’s name reactivates his “counter-Taliban” memory for those who recognize it—and who are many and varied, at least within Afghanistan. As an opinion trend, his movement spread through concerted, hybrid literate and oral-poetic campaigns that bridged gaps between urban and rural, between society’s most formally educated and its least educated, rendering meaningless any facile pronouncement on Pashto “folk” poetry’s rustic or vernacular nature. In these respects, the movement presents a strong parallel to the Taliban in their war of ideological position, even while its core leadership was characterized by radically opposing sensibilities.

Such texts return us to the present via multiple bridges from the past. Rather than a coherent picture of self-contained ideological beliefs held by a definable activist group (or an undifferentiated horde of low-tech land-drones), this collection, carefully read, looks more like the deeply conflicted ecology of an archive, one much deeper than advertised. It is an archive of insurgent and other Afghan expressions of experience, opinion, and occasionally critique, an archive that is interconnected by the curatorial practices of a fissiparous social movement (and of the volume’s editors) as much as by external reality.

Even despite the selection process, the lines between insurgent, ambivalent Taliban sympathizer, skeptic, and Ulfat sometimes become so blurry here as to be invisible even to the specialist. In fact, most of the poems in the final section, “The Human Cost,” to me resemble neither the militarized anthems nor martyrdom songs ubiquitous on YouTube, but rather a rising trans-regional print genre of anti-war poetry, equally damning of all parties to ongoing violence, that has been discussed approvingly in the western media. Lacking specific contexts for specific works, why wouldn’t a reader focus only on the collages of individual ideas and images in particular poems, and privilege disjuncture on the level of the corpus over any unity? Might any attempt to read unified characteristics from isolated selections betray one’s own preoccupations, as much as any external reality?

As one might imagine, this has not been the prevailing approach to the book. Some have scolded the book: is it nothing more than “self-justifying propaganda” that “gives oxygen to the enemy?” Others have agreed, while derisively sniffing that it is “bad poetry” too. But what is accomplished by dismissing a book that replicates the speech not only of a militia, but of a cross-section of other parts of society too? Given these poems’ scattered provenance, dismissing the book means rejecting the everyday traumatic experience of millions of people, just because their experience first sits alongside that of a faction that contributes to that trauma and selectively edits it, and is then edited further by the label on the cover. And, in addition to rejecting the Taliban’s manifold, and manifest, violence, a blanket dismissal involves willfully ignoring the trauma that has resulted from foreign intervention too; as well as the fact that for many Afghans, ongoing events fit into a much longer collective memory of intervention. Just because western readers feel distant from, or reject their inheritance of, this shared history, it does not follow that recalling it always involves a triumphalist celebration of violence and domination in the occasional historical Afghan victory; nor need it imply that a critical poet identifies with the Taliban.

Indeed, dismissing the volume wholesale would mean disregarding the complex imaginations that inform everyday people’s very ambivalent relationships with this social movement surrounding them. And it would mean pushing from attention one thing that this volume suggests: such ambivalence exists, and the Taliban’s cultural gatekeepers themselves have had no choice but to acknowledge it, even at the cost of ceding parts of their own message. The more censorious among the volume’s western detractors might take this point to heart.

On the other hand, dismissing the volume’s scope—including reading it only for “Taliban”—would just be business as usual: further marginalizing the richer, more humane, yet increasingly-forgotten sociocultural histories that are clandestinely archived in ghostly traces throughout. They are histories that many across the region, of any and all backgrounds, yearn to revisit, but that recede further into obscurity and impossibility with each act of negligence or ignorance. In dismissing this, as earlier generations dismissed Raverty’s and Darmesteter’s work, one dismisses the varied experience of millions, under the label “enemy of my tribe”—or even, with flippant charges of illiterate, weak poetry, dismisses their ability to properly voice their experience at all.

egypt 1919

Music of the Egyptian Revolution

by: Elizabeth Blair


Musicians have not been silent in the movement that brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Perhaps the most popular song of the Egyptian revolution is by Mohamed Mounir, a singer so revered, he’s known as “The Voice of Egypt.”

The song is called “Ezzay,” which means “How come?” Dalia Ziada, a blogger and human-rights activist in Cairo, says Mounir compares Egypt to a lover in the song.

“He’s telling it, ‘I love you, and I know you love me, too, but you have to appreciate what I’m doing for you. I will keep changing you until you love me as I love you,’ ” Ziada says, adding that that’s exactly how Egyptians feel about their country. Mounir’s song was not played on Egyptian state radio, but the video is online, and it’s been watched hundreds of thousands of times.

Artists can often express the feeling on the streets better than anyone else, says Hani Almadhoun, who writes the blog Hot Arab Music. He says you can hear this phenomenon in Haitham Nabil’s “Sefr,” one of the first protest songs to be released. Sefr means zero; Almadhoun says Nabil’s message is that “Egyptians’ dignity became the equivalent of zero.”

A lot of songs have been inspired by the protests in Egypt. Almadhoun, who goes by the name Hanitizer online, says some songwriters are exploiting the opportunity.

“But the majority of the stuff,” Almadhoun says, “has been really good and drives the message home.”

One song that’s been very popular with Arab-Americans in the U.S. is called “January 25,” or “#Jan25,” after a trending topic on Twitter. Arab-American and African-American musicians living in different parts of North America contributed to the song. The first verse, which was written by rapper Omar Offendum, begins, “I heard them say the revolution won’t be televised / Al-Jazeera proved them wrong / Twitter has them paralyzed.”

“I wanted to open up that way because it symbolizes how a lot of people were hearing about this revolution,” Offendum says.

“#Jan25″ has been viewed more than 100,000 times online. Offendum says he’s proud of the song, but that the real music that defines the revolution in Egypt was created on the streets there.

“The protesters were coming up with amazing call-and-response songs and chants on the fly, as Egyptians do, because they’re so creative,” Offendum says. “And to me, that’s the real true music of this revolution: the voice of the people.”

Ammar al-Beikh

An Ode to Islam

Upon Ali’s pillow drew odes from farmers of the Oikumene,

they whose dirges lamented silence.

Curious hands dug and sought the seeds of heaven,

they whose omens split open silence.

Jesus summons Joseph through colour of time,

to coat Potiphar’s rhyme,

draw God’s dream to deign

and thread open silence.

His majesty, the Mehdi slumped, bored with waiting.

“My progeny!” Quipped Ibn Abbas, “who will herald open heaven’s silence?”

The whirling dervish, that punch-drunk lover,

tale spinner, under wool cover.

Shari’a she does not,

the Prophet’s prayerful plot,

capriciously interpret open silence.

Today there is Islam’s infidel,

they who say he’s jihad’s occupation,

and Leila’s infidelity.

She whose intifada espouses no open lovers,

and He who built Majnun’s settlements,

though ilk of monoclonal caste,


a time to break the silence.

LIghts on Tahrir

The Poetry of Revolt

It is truly inspiring to see the bravery of Egyptians as they rise up to end the criminal rule of Hosni Mubarak. It is especially inspiring to remember that what is happening is the culmination of years of work by activists from a spectrum of pro-democracy movements, human rights groups, labor unions, and civil society organizations. In 2004, when Kefaya began their first public demonstrations, the protesters were usually outnumbered 30 to one by Central Security Forces. Now the number has reversed—and multiplied.

No less astonishing is the poetry of this moment. I don’t mean “poetry” as a metaphor, but the actual poetry that has played a prominent role in the outset of the events. The slogans the protesters are chanting are couplets—and they are as loud as they are sharp. The diwan of this revolt began to be written as soon as Ben Ali fled Tunis, in pithy lines like “Yâ Mubârak! Yâ Mubârak! Is-Sa‘ûdiyya fi-ntizârak!,” (“Mubarak, O Mabarak, Saudi Arabia awaits!”). In the streets themselves, there are scores of other verses, ranging from the caustic “Shurtat Masr, yâ shurtat Masr, intû ba’aytû kilâb al-’asr” (“Egypt’s Police, Egypt’s Police, You’ve become nothing but Palace dogs”), to the defiant “Idrab idrab yâ Habîb, mahma tadrab mish hansîb!” (Hit us, beat us, O Habib [al-Adly, now-former Minister of the Interior], hit all you want—we’re not going to leave!). This last couplet is particularly clever, since it plays on the old Egyptian colloquial saying, “Darb al-habib zayy akl al-zabib” (The beloved’s fist is as sweet as raisins). This poetry is not an ornament to the uprising—it is its soundtrack and also composes a significant part of the action itself.

A History of Revolutions, a History of Poets

There is nothing unusual about poetry playing a galvanizing role in a revolutionary moment. And in this context, we might remind ourselves that making revolution is not something new for Egyptians—having had no less than three “official” revolutions in the modern era: the 1881 Urabi Revolution which overthrew a corrupt and comprador royalty; the 1919 Revolution, which nearly brought down British military rule; and the 1952 Revolution which inaugurated 60 years of military dictatorships under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak. The first revolution succeeded in establishing the second parliamentary government on the African continent before it was crushed by foreign military intervention. In the aftermath of defeat, the British established a rapacious colonial rule over Egypt for more than 70 years. The second revolution was a sustained, popular uprising led by a range of pro-democracy activists from a range of civil institutions. Though savagely repressed, it did force the British to grant some concessions. The third revolution officially celebrated in Egypt stands apart from the first two in that it was a coup d’etat that went out of its way to circumscribe popular participation. In any case, it was accepted in the moment since it finally ended the rule of the royal family first overthrown in 1881 and initiated a process of British withdrawal from Egypt.

Besides these three state-commemorated events, Egyptians have revolted against the corruption, greed and cruelty of their rulers many more times in the last 60 years. On January 26, 1952, Egyptians emerged onto the streets to protest an array of issues—including the corruption of the monarchy, the decadence, power and privilege of foreign business elites, and the open-ended British occupation. The revolt was quickly suppressed, though the damage to property was massive, and it set in motion an exodus of foreign elites—and the military coup months later. In 1968, Egyptian students launched huge and daring protests against the repressive policies of Nasser’s police state. In the early 1970s, Egyptian students engaged in sustained mass protests against the radical political reorientations of the new Sadat regime—and eventually forced the state to re-engage in military confrontation with Israel. On January 18-19, 1977, Egyptians rose up en masse to protest against IMF austerity measures imposed on the country by the corrupt, inept and ruthless regime of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian President was already on his jet ride into exile before the Central Security Forces and Army finally gained the upper hand. In Egypt it is the Central Security Forces rather than the military who deals with civil unrest and popular protest. Yet, even this “solution” to the problem of recurring popular revolt has proven at times uncertain. As in the military, the CSF has been the site of mutinies, one of which, in late February 1986, involved 20,000 low-paid conscripts who were put down only when the army entered the fray. During the early 1990s, Islamist protests against the authoritarian rule of Mubarak escalated into armed conflict, both in the slums of the cities and in Upper Egypt. Hundreds of militants, soldiers and innocent civilians were killed before the revolt was finally suppressed. This list leave out other significant moments of mass civil protest and contestation—like the massive protests against the First Gulf War, the US invasion of Iraq and Israel’s attacks on Lebanon and Gaza—but even so, the tally is impressive: no less than 10 major revolts and revolutions in 130 years. In other words, despite what commentators might say, modern Egyptians have never passively accepted the failed colonial or postcolonial states that fate has dealt them.

Many of these revolts have had their own poets. 1881 had the neo-classical qasidas of Mahmoud Sami al-Baroudi. 1919, the colloquial zajals of Bayram al-Tunsi. Salah Jahin became one of the leading colloquial poets of the 1952 Revolution, and his patriotic verse became core material for Abdel Halim Hafez, who pinned his career to Nasser. From the same period, Fu’ad Haddad’s mawwals also stand out—and are still sung today. Since the 1970s, it has been Ahmed Fouad Negm who has played the leading role as lyricist of militant opposition to the regimes of Egypt. For forty years, Negm’s colloquial poems—many set to music by Sheikh Imam—have electrified student, labor and dissident movements from the Egyptian underclass. Negm’s poetry ranges from praise (madh) for the courage of ordinary Egyptians, to invective (hija’) for Egypt’s overlords—and it is no accident that you could hear his songs being sung by the leftist activists who spearheaded the first day of revolt on January 25. Besides these poets, we could add many others—Naguib Surur, Abd al-Rahman al-Abnoudi, Tamim Barghouti—who have added to this literary-political tradition in their own ways.

But beyond these recognized names are thousands of other poets—activists all—who would never dare to protest publicly without an arsenal of clever couplet-slogans. The end result is a unique literary tradition whose power is now on full display across Egypt. Chroniclers of the current Egyptian revolt, like As’ad AbuKhalil, have already compiled lists of these couplets—and hundreds more are sure to come. For the most part, these poems are composed in a colloquial, not classical, register and they are extremely catchy and easy to sing. The genre also has real potential for humor and play—and remind us of the fact that revolution is also a time for celebration and laughter.

How to Do Things With Poetry

The poetry of this revolt is not reducible to a text that can be read and translated in words, for it is also an act in and of itself. That is, the couplet-slogans being sung and chanted by protesters do more than reiterate complaints and aspirations that have been communicated in other media. This poetry has the power to express messages that could not be articulated in other forms, as well as to sharpen demands with ever keener edges.

Consider the most prominent slogan being chanted today by thousands of people in Tahrir Square: “Ish-sha‘b/yu-rîd/is-qât/in-ni-zâm.” Rendered into English, it might read, “The People want the regime to fall”—but that would not begin to translate the power this simple and complex couplet-slogan has in its context. There are real poetic reasons why this has emerged as a central slogan. For instance, unlike the more ironic—humorous or bitter—slogans, this one is sincere and states it all perfectly clearly. Likewise, the register of this couplet straddles colloquial Egyptian and standard media Arabic—and it is thus readily understandable to the massive Arab audiences who are watching and listening. And finally, like all the other couplet-slogans being shouted, this has a regular metrical and stress pattern (in this case: short-LONG, short-LONG, short-LONG, short-SHORT-LONG). While unlike most others, this particular couplet is not rhymed, it can be sung and shouted by thousands of people in a unified, clear cadence—and that seems to be a key factor in why it works so well.

The prosody of the revolt suggests that there is more at stake in these couplet-slogans than the creation and distillation of a purely semantic meaning. For one thing, the act of singing and shouting with large groups of fellow citizens has created a certain and palpable sense of community that had not existed before. And the knowledge that one belongs to a movement bound by a positive collective ethos is powerful in its own right—especially in the face of a regime that has always sought to morally denigrate all political opposition. Likewise, the act of singing invective that satirizes feared public figures has an immediate impact that cannot be cannot be explained in terms of language, for learning to laugh at one’s oppressor is a key part of unlearning fear. Indeed, witnesses to the revolt have consistently commented that in the early hours of the revolt—when invective was most ascendant—protesters began to lose their fear.

And having lost that fear, Egyptians are showing no signs of wanting to go back. As the Mubarak regime has continued to unleash more violence, and as it steps up its campaign to sow chaos and confusion, the recitation of these couplet-slogans has continued, as if the act of repeating them helps the protesters concentrate on their core principles and demands. Only hours ago, as jets and helicopters attempted to intimidate protesters in Tahrir Square, it seemed as if the crowd understood something of this—for with each sortie, their singing grew louder and more focused. It was difficult to determine whether the crowd sustained the words, or the words the crowd.

Poetry and Contingency

Anyone who has ever chanted slogans in a public demonstration has also probably asked herself at some point: why am I doing this? what does shouting accomplish? The question provokes a feeling of embarrassment, the suspicion that the gesture might be rote and thus empty and powerless. Arguably, this nervousness is a form of performance anxiety that, if taken seriously, might remind us that the ritual of singing slogans was invented precisely because it has the power to accomplish things. When philosophers speak of “doing things with words,” they also remind us that the success of the locutionary act is tied to the conditions in which it is performed. This is another way to say that any speech act is highly contingent—its success only occurs in particular circumstances, and even then, its success is never a given. Success, if it is to occur, happens only in the doing of it.

Since January 25, Egyptians been leaping into the uncertainty of this revolutionary performance. They have now crossed multiple thresholds—and each time, they have acted with no guarantee of success. This is, I think, the core of their astonishing courage: at each point it has been impossible to say that victory is already theirs. Even now, six days into the revolt, we still cannot say how things will eventually turn out. Nor are there rules of history and previous examples that can definitively tell us. Certainly, revolutions follow patterns—and those who rise up tend to be the most diligent students of past uprisings. Activists in Cairo ask comrades in Tunis about tactics, while others try to glean Iran’s Green Revolution for lessons that might be applied now. Yet, in the end, each revolution is its own moment.

Those who decide to make their own history are, in the end, not only required to write their own script and build their own stage, they are also compelled to then play the new roles with enough force and conviction to make it cohere, even in the face of overwhelming violence. We have already seen one example of this re-scripting in the extraordinary, original pamphlet from Egypt entitled, “How to Revolt Intelligently.” The poetry of the streets is another form of writing, of redrafting the script of history in the here and now—with no assurances of victory, and everything in the balance.