‘If Assam is wronged’: Poetry and Jihad

A couple of years ago I bought a book called Poetry of the Taliban.  The title intrigued Poetry Talibanme. The Taliban and poetry? Wasn’t it a contradiction in terms? Poetry requires sensitivity but this was a quality I could hardly associate with men who in their lunatic quest for religious purity treated women inhumanly. Also, the Taliban had blown up, in 2001, the Bamiyan Buddhas, an act of cultural vandalism that I still find hard to believe or accept. But poetry, I reminded myself, is basic to human beings and can express our deepest hopes and best feelings. The book seemed a good source, if one wanted to hear the other side of the story. After all, a good deal of one’s reading tends to be of the comfortable, even complacent, kind which confirms a shared humanity or ‘universality’. As a window onto a worldview very different from my own, this book promised to be challenging. (It says something about my naiveté that it didn’t occur to me that Poetry of the Taliban could be, as some have suggested, a propaganda ploy.)  And so I ordered it.

But the book lay on my bookshelf as a curiosity, and would no doubt have continued to do so, if it were not for the recent New Yorker piece, ‘Why Jihadists Write Poetry’, by Robyn Creswell, Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, and poetry editor of The Paris Review, and Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. One of the poets Creswell and Haykel quote is ‘the Poetess of the Islamic State’, Ahlam Al-Nasr:

My homeland is the land of truth,

the sons of Islam are my brothers. . . .

I do not love the Arab of the South

any more than the Arab of the North.

My brother in India, you are my brother,

as are you, my brothers in the Balkans,

In Ahwaz and Aqsa,

in Arabia and Chechnya.

If Palestine cries out,

or if Afghanistan calls out,

If Kosovo is wronged,

or Assam or Pattani is wronged,

My heart stretches out to them,

longing to help those in need.

There is no difference among them,

this is the teaching of Islam.

We are all one body,

this is our happy creed. . . .

We differ by language and color,

but we share the very same vein.


A cartoonist’s representation of a Taliban poet. (Image source: theday.co.uk)

The reference to Assam is less alarming than one might think. ‘Al-Nasr’s empathy for Muslims in far-flung places,’ write Creswell and Haykel, ‘is a central feature of her literary persona… These moments of internationalist ecstasy are common in jihadi verse. The poets delight in crossing their imaginations borders that are impassable in reality. ’

Creswell and Haykel have been praised for drawing attention to a cultural and social discourse generally ignored by political experts and for avoiding a major pitfall: religious text-centric analysis that gets mired in discussions of ‘real’ and ‘inauthentic’ Islam.  Their focus on the performative aspects of jihadi poetry allows us to see how it ‘involves the creation of an ethos and character, or to use a more Islamic term, an adab (way of comporting oneself.)’ As in many non-western societies, including India, poetry enjoys great cultural prestige in the Arab world. Osama bin Laden was an accomplished jihadi poet (he wrote an elegy for the 9/11 hijackers); apparently, a large part of his appeal came from his effective use of classical eloquence. Jihadi poets draw on the rich poetic tradition of Arab verse (they use classical forms and metres) but their poetry is delivered largely through the internet. This poetry, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, is not made for foreign consumption but is an integral part of jihadi social life: ‘Videos of groups of jihadis reciting poems or tossing back and forth the refrain of a song are as easy to find as videos of them blowing up enemy tanks.’ This means the jihadi poet is not the solitary, alienated figure familiar from our reading of modern Anglophone poetry, but someone writing on behalf of a community. (Creswell and Haykel however think that by positioning themselves ‘as cultural actors with deep roots in Arabic Islamic tradition, the militants are attempting to assuage their fears of not really belonging.’) Other significant aspects of jihadi poetry that Creswell and Haykel note are its romantic longing for a return to a caliphate and its deeply ideological nature. (‘The Poetess the Islamic State’ has written a 30 page essay defending the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh.)

Poetry of the Taliban makes available a wide range of jihadi verse. Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors, are graduates of the School of Oriental and African Studies. They have been in Afghanistan since 2006 when they founded AfghanWire.com, which they describe as ‘an online research and media-monitoring group to give a more prominent voice to local Afghan media.’  They are co-editors of My Life with the Taliban (2010), a memoir of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef who was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, and An Enemy We Created (2012). It was while working on Mullah Zaeef’s memoir that they became aware of Taliban poetry. Though this poetry was ignored by foreign analysts, it seemed to offer a new perspective on the Taliban. So began their project of collecting the 235 poems in the book, translated by Mirwais Rahmany and Abdul Hamid Stanikzai. Unlike the poems in The New Yorker, the poems in Poetry of the Taliban, written in Pashto and Dari, are distinctly Afghan, and make little or no reference to such staples of jihadi propaganda as fighters on steeds. And as the editors’ claim, there indeed a diversity of themes: elegies, love poems, religious poems, nationalist ones, as well as poems that speak of the experiences of ordinary villagers. Much of the poetry can be seen as criticism of human rights abuses by the enemy (incidentally, the enemy is often referred to as the English, rather than American, because the Anglo-Afghan wars continue to dominate the Afghan imagination.) The forms used are the ghazal and the tarana (the Taliban’s infamous ban on music did not include a cappella performances or melodic recitations of poetry.)

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (2003), about Afghanistan incidentally, I found soap operatic. But it had led me to an examination of my readerly habits. Hosseini’s story of the twelve-year old Amir and his Hazara servant Hassan (the kite runner) took me three months to complete.  (Amir watches quietly as Hassan is raped by the half-German Assef, who becomes a Taliban leader when he grows up. Amir’s family, uprooted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, moves to the United States. Later, Amir learns that Hassan was actually his half-brother and that Hassan, now dead, has a son, Sohrab. Amir, who has established himself as a novelist, returns to Afghanistan via Pakistan to rescue Sohrab.) I distrusted the emotional tug of the novel but it made me understand that there is a mind-body split in our institutionally sanctioned ideas of reading which has turned it into a mental, reflective, and calm experience. Such an approach excludes the fact that books (and reading) can affect our emotions and our bodies – as when they frighten and arouse us, ghost and horror stories and pornographic and erotic texts being obvious instances. (Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading, published in 2006, discusses this.) So when I read Poetry of the Taliban, it was, I think, with an open mind. I expected and wanted to be tested.

Reading Poetry of the Taliban turned out to be a disappointing experience. Poem after poem is premised on a binary – Muslims versus the rest. To be sure, there are a couple of poems that lament all violence and suffering, as, for example, this one by a poet going by the pen name Hairan (the poem is singled out by Faisal Devji in the Preface):

End cruelty so that

An ant won’t die by someone’s hand


No traveler will be bitten by someone else’s dog.

And nobody’s dog will be killed by someone else’s hand.

There is also ‘How Many are the NGOs’ by Matiullah Sarachawal, which will resonate with readers in most parts of the developing world:

                Wasting time, they merely sit in their offices,

                        How many are the NGOs!

            Their salaries, more than ministers’,

                        How many are the NGOs!

But all the other poems of suffering and grief are about Muslims’ suffering and grieving. Perhaps it was unfair on my part to apply Wilfred Owen’s great lines from ‘Strange Meeting’ as a touchstone to poems from quite a different place and time:

‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.

I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned

Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.

I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.

Let us sleep now. . . .’

A popular Hindi film starring Balraj Sahni as the Pathan in Tagore's short story was released in 1961.

A popular Hindi film starring Balraj Sahni as the Pathan in Tagore’s story was released in 1961.

But I was thinking too of Tagore’s   Kabulliwala’. Though the first Afghan traders are said to have started coming to Kolkata around 1839 (the Anglo-Afghan wars had opened up the route to India), Tagore’s story indicates that they were still alien in 1892 when he wrote it. The story is related by a novelist-narrator who has a five-year old daughter, Mini. When Rahmun, the Afghan fruit-seller, first appears, Mini is terrified of him; she thinks that he will kidnap her. However, Rahmun succeeds in befriending Mini who reminds him of his daughter back in Afghanistan. Mini’s mother is uncomfortable with the friendship that develops between her daughter and the Afghan but her father (the narrator) has a more open attitude. Rahmun is imprisoned when he kills a man during the course of a quarrel. Released eight years later, he comes to Mini’s house to see her. But Mini has grown up; in fact, she is about to be married (Yes, a child-bride. Tagore too married off his daughters when they were still children. Great men aren’t always able to transcend their times):

I remembered the day when the Kabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad… Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her, as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

I took out a bank-note, and gave it to him, saying: ‘Go back to your own daughter, Rahmun, in your own country, and may the happiness of your meeting bring good fortune to my child!’

Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military band, and the ladies of the house were despondent at it. But to me the wedding feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant land a long-lost father met again with his only child.

I am glad I read The Poetry of the Taliban and the poems in Creswell and Haykel’s article since they humanize the jihadis. As poetry of witness, the work of ‘the black turbaned Wilfred Owens’ (William Dalrymple’s phrase) is important. But (barring one or two notable poems) I didn’t find sentiments of the kind expressed in Tagore’s great short story or in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’.  Al-Nasr’s concern for the Muslims wronged in Assam clearly excludes me. And so, almost in relief, I found myself turning to a pre-Taliban poet very popular in Afghanistan (where he is known as Mawlana or Balkhi), Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī (1207-1273).  Of course, the trouble with reading Rumi is that you lean a little too heavily on the crutch of translation. Besides, there is a faddish quality to the enthusiasm that that his poetry evokes: he is said to be the bestselling poet in the US. But Rumi’s poems are inclusive. Jihadi poetry is not – and does not wish to be.