New Collection Anthologizes Taliban Poetry

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Taliban fighters stand with their weapons.
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Afghanistan has a long and rich literary tradition, particularly storytelling through poetry. This poetic heritage is well-known, and still often practiced, throughout the country, even by members of the Taliban.

A new collection, edited and translated by British researchers living in Kandahar, anthologizes 250 contemporary poems by members of the Taliban. The anthology collects poems from magazines and other published pieces from the 1980s and 1990s and features post-9/11 poetry from the Taliban's website. The poems venture beyond political extremism with themes of generosity, love, grief, and passion. The diverse topics explored include foreign invasion, from the Soviets in 1979 to the Americans and NATO forces today, to jihad, to the beauty of the Afghan landscape. 

Faisal Devji is a professor at Oxford University in England. An expert on the Taliban, Faisal wrote the preface to "The Poetry of the Taliban." He says that the poems cover a broader spectrum of topics than militancy, killing, and dying. 

"This is the kind of verse that not only tries to put the Taliban view, if you will, across to other people and other situations of life, situations other than militancy, but also in doing so makes itself vulnerable, opens itself up to other ways of conceiving life, religion, and politics as well," Devji says. 

These poems do not originate from any sort of propaganda institution of the Taliban, but instead come from the ground level — ordinary men (and one woman) who each have their own motives for fighting. 

"I think they're meant to be hard to take, and they're written to be hard to take by the enemies of the Taliban," Devji says. However, in his analysis of one particular poem, the professor indicates the presence of Judeo-Christian themes, in this case the story of Moses and the Israelites escaping from Egypt across the Red Sea. "The images of water, of blood, of tyranny, and of liberation are actually not so foreign," he says.