The Poetry of Al Qaeda and the Taliban
May 18, 2012
Faisal Devji / The New York Times
Readers going through the cache of letters that were released early this month from Osama bin Laden's hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan, may have been taken aback by a reference -- in the midst of discussions of tactics, regional politics and exchange rates for ransom money -- to poetry.
OXFORD England (May 11, 2012) -- Readers going through the cache of letters that were released early this month from Osama bin Laden's hideaway in Abbottabad, Pakistan, may have been taken aback by a reference -- in the midst of discussions of tactics, regional politics and exchange rates for ransom money -- to poetry.
One letter written by Bin Laden and perhaps an associate went from criticizing the news media's coverage of Al Qaeda to commenting on a pre-Islamic tradition of satirical poetry called hija, which Arab tribes once used to mock their enemies. It's easy to imagine that counterterrorism analysts wondered how to interpret that one.
In fact, poetry has long been a part of Muslim radicalism; the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, for example, was the author of a large collection of verse. Today, the Taliban's Web site features poems written by the group's members and sympathizers, both men and women. Recitations are frequently recorded and stored on cellphones and transferred from one person to another by way of Bluetooth technology.
Many Afghan and Al Qaeda poems -- which come from distinct but hybrid literary traditions -- are, as might be expected, political. In a statement broadcast on Al Jazeera in December 2001, Osama bin Laden quoted the following verses from one of his favorite contemporary poets, Yusuf Abu Hilala, changing the last line and replacing the word "castles" in the original with "towers," as a reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center:
Though the clothes of darkness enveloped us and the poisoned tooth bit us,
Though our homes overflowed with blood and the assailant desecrated our land,
Though from the squares the shining of swords and horses vanished,
And sound of drums was growing
The fighters' winds blew, striking their towers and telling them:
We will not cease our raids until you leave our fields.
If Al Qaeda's writers tend to be preoccupied with what they see as Islam's long and global history of conflict with Christendom, from the Crusades to the war on terror, Taliban poets tend to refer to the literature produced in their part of the world by nationalist and socialist movements over the course of the 20th century.
And if Al Qaeda poems are characterized by the swords, charging horses and fiery deserts of pre-Islamic lore, Taliban poets praise more recent warriors like Malalai, a 19th-century battlefield heroine. The chief examples of historical conflict in Taliban poetry are the Anglo-Afghan wars, of which today's United States-led war in Afghanistan is seen as a pale reflection.
That conflict figures in a poem on clouds, ducks, turbans and the White House by a poet known as Janbaz, one of many contemporary writers whose works have been translated into English for "Poetry of the Taliban," an anthology edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.
White clouds and white hills in the sky;
White, white dew had descended from there.
Sometimes, it came to our place;
It was the Kunar river's white, white duck.
This became a martyr's shroud in the Laili desert;
It was the Talib's beautiful white, white turban
That survived this attack.
The cunning enemy's palace was white, white.
Another, by a poet called Jawad, is more explicit:
Hot, hot trenches are full of joy;
Attacks on the enemy are full of joy.
Guns in our hands and magazine belts over my shoulders;
Grenades on my chest are full of joy.
However, violent ideological conflict is far from the sole, or even the most popular, subject of militant poetry. In fact, explicit political statements are a recent adaptation. They are absent from Ayatollah Khomeini's more traditional work, in which mystical couplets portray God as an alluring woman and divine knowledge as intoxicating wine.
Although the arid piety of cleric and mosque are rejected in these poems for the pleasures of the bedroom and tavern, they do not display a prurient interest in sin but rather an exercise in freedom, where even the most observant Muslim can adopt a critical distance from the regulations of his faith.
Most contemporary poets are as interested in pastoral landscapes and love as in revenge and war. Abdul Hai Mutmain, who has been a Taliban spokesman, writes of the wind in the trees:
It is late afternoon and the wind speeds up and then stops;
It brushes against the pine needles and makes a low noise....
The pine tree with its strong structure bows and straightens its head back;
It hangs its branches loose down its face, and dances while standing on one leg.
These poems are not merely propagandistic; they move beyond the hard politics of the Taliban to form a bridge to the world outside the movement. And the rest of the world would do well to pay attention, because their ideals are more likely than any Taliban communiqué to survive the insurgency and to play a role in the remaking of Afghanistan.
These poets criticize the idea of human rights that coalition forces are supposedly fighting to protect in their country. Instead, they voice notions of humanity that are linked to private duties like generosity, compassion and, indeed, nonviolence. In the collection of Taliban poetry, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi has this to say about what he takes to be the hypocrisy of humanitarian intervention:
The cloaked magician wanders like a beggar,
Trying to find some more forces to kill me.
The green parrots of the United Nations are mute;
Those who talk of human rights have sealed their mouths shut.
And here is the poet Samiullah Khalid Sahak on the way the war has dehumanized all its participants, including the Taliban themselves:
We are not animals,
I say this with certainty.
Humanity has been forgotten by us,
And I don't know when it will come back.
May Allah give it to us,
And decorate us with this jewelry.
By excluding the aesthetic dimension from our analyses of militant texts like those recovered from Osama bin Laden's Pakistani lair, we miss a crucial opportunity to confront the humanity of their authors.
As the poet Sadullah Saeed Zabuli put it in a recording made during the 1990s, comparing the desire for freedom to that of a famous literary lover for his mistress: "The beautiful Laila of freedom is shining in her beauty,/The Talib is half-drunk for her, approaching like Majnun."
The author is a fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, and the author of the preface for the forthcoming anthology "Poetry of the Taliban."
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