by James Caron
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 Mahmoud Hanifi, Jamil Hanifi, Magnus 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 sources. Poetry 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.