Militant Poetics: What the Taliban’s Verse Says About Them and Us

Faisal Devji in The Wire:

A journalist I know had the opportunity of meeting Mullah Mohammad Omar early in the Taliban’s career, just as they were embarking upon the conquest of Ghazni, in February 1995. The Taliban leader, he told me, extracted the gilded wrapping-paper from an empty pack of Silk Cut cigarettes and penned instructions for his army on the back of it. In a region where Silk Cut is known as a “woman’s brand,” this image is curious enough. More interesting, however, is the possibility that the shiny cigarette paper served as an impoverished descendant of the gilded edicts or farmans of past monarchs. Did Mullah Omar, I wondered, possess a collection of empty Silk Cut packets for his official pronouncements?

If nothing else, this story tells us how important the aesthetic dimension is for even the most utilitarian militant practices, and how intertwined it is with all that is modern, western and indeed “quotidian” about the world. There is no easy way of distinguishing tradition from modernity here.

The aesthetic dimension of Taliban life is even clearer in these verses from a poet named Sayyed:

I keep the arrows of expectation in my heart like flowers;
My friend, I keep the lamp of hope lit for your coming.
I incite many lovers’ hearts to dance to the sound of my voice;
Always, like the nightingale, I keep the melody of grief in my heart.
Yet it is too young to be hurt; I am afraid it may hurt itself;
I will certainly safeguard this lion from the forest.
Even if time brings the ugliest revolutions,
I will keep the fold of my turban pious.
Sayyed! Even if I am destined to live in far away cities,
I will remain the rough Pashtun of the mountains.

Taken from a collection of Taliban poetry put together by the Kandahar-based researchers Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, and published under the title Poetry of the Taliban by Columbia University Press, these lines force us to think differently about a group that otherwise receives a great deal of attention, though for different reasons and along very narrow lines.

More here.