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Soul of the Taliban
Poetry of the Taliban, co-edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Faisal Devji, was released in India on Friday. Van Linschoten, a Dutch freelance writer and researcher who lives in Afghanistan, has co-authored My Life With the Taliban which profiles the life of Abdul Salam Zaeef, a senior former member of the Taliban. Devji, who teaches in Oxford University, specialises in the intellectual history of South Asia and Islamic militancy. He is the author of Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics. Van Linschoten and Devji spoke on their latest book and why it has raised hackles.
'The Poetry of the Taliban' was released in the UK in May and received a controversial reception with a former commander of British troops describing it as "enemy propaganda". What's your reaction?
The controversy has been exaggerated but it is good it has produced some kind of discussion. The problem with what a lot of countries have done in Afghanistan since 2001 is that they have failed to understand the environment they are interacting in, but through these poems you can understand what goes on in people's heads. If you only think of the Taliban in terms of stereotypes, it will make negotiations very difficult and I don't think will get very useful results. Many of the poems we have published are already on the Taliban website and yes, a part of them might be propaganda, but that does not mean we should not try and understand them.
It surprised me initially because I did not think anyone would bother with a book on poetry but then I realised that people were not so concerned with the poetry, they were worried about the human side of the Taliban. I think that if you insist on making your enemies inhuman that's disturbing. One senior Taliban figure has written a poem about a pine tree - how that can be propaganda I don't know. It's too crude a way of typifying this. A number of people who are not Taliban and have no intention of becoming Taliban appreciate the poetry. The poems do not make you feel sympathetic towards the Taliban. I am not sympathetic towards them. It's a question of trying to figure out what kind of diversity of expression the Taliban possess and it allows one to envisage more than one way of communicating with them. The more you analyse the texts the more you understand the Taliban. I think people should at least come away thinking there is a diversity of experience among the Taliban. Even for military and diplomatic purposes it allows people in the West different ways of approaching the Taliban and I know the British and Americans are approaching them.
What drove you to compile this poetry collection?
We had translators translating local news into English for Afghan-Wire (An online research group which monitored the local news in Afghanistan aiming to give a more prominent voice to Afghan voices and issues. It closed down in 2008) and we were looking at the stuff the Taliban put out and we came across these poems no one else was translating, so we got them translated. The more time we spent in Afghanistan, the more we realised how much poetry was a part of the Taliban identity. The poems are split into those pre-2001 and those post-2001. The ones pre-2001 we collected for the book from old tapes, newspapers and magazines. Then the post-2001 poems were all taken from the Taliban's website and represent every poem published there between 2006 and 2009. Two Afghan colleagues did the raw translation and then Felix and I edited it. It took about five years.
My understanding is that poetry is
the lifeblood of Afghanistan?
Yes, Afghans will often use a couplet to make a point so it's no surprise that the Taliban have written poems. Poetry is more popular than prose in the region. Poems are oral and sung and easily memorised so you don't need to be literate.
Afghans often use poems to win an argument and there are many poetry contests on TV and poetry festivals.
These poems are part of a tradition of Pashtun poetry. What are the themes and genres covered?
Some of the poems encourage people to continue the war. Others have nothing to do with the war and are about things like flowers! Having said that, the parts on the human cost of the War in Afghanistan are by far the most powerful. I think the thing that comes out of this book is the whole idea of the Taliban being people and the whole human side of them. It does not mean you support their political and military aims.
These poems are not uniquely Taliban, they are drawing upon a tradition already prevalent. Some of them are ghazals. Others draw from say 20th century nationalist poetry, others fall under communist verse Some talk about love, which might refer to love between a man and a woman, homoerotic love, love of a subject to a prince or love of God. There are even poems about women and wine. These are images so for example the wine is divine knowledge, women can mean God.
A couple of the poems even talk about non-violence. Some of the poems are critical of NGOs operating in Afghanistan? Why is that?
Western aid has brought with it Western influences of money, corruption and discontent.
Nowadays NGOs are at the mercy of different governments because of the way they are funded and so they are viewed as part of the occupying forces.
What interest will these poems have for Indians?
Indians should concern themselves with the Taliban because they are allies of Pakistan. And I think the India-Pakistan problem is one of the major impediments to peace in Afghanistan because of Pakistan's fear of India and its propping up of the regime there.
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