‘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.

An Afternoon with Two Poets

(NOTE: I interviewed my friends Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih on July 15, 2006 as part of some work that I was contemplating. I have since published two essays on them and their poetry, one in EPW and the other in JSL, the JNU journal.But I wrote a personal piece first as a way of preserving some of the things I had heard, thought and felt one afternoon in Shillong. That’s also the reason why, after all this time, I have dredged it up from the bottom of my hard disk to post it here.) 

Teaching a course on Indian English writing made me want to take a closer look at the some of the work that is being done in the Northeast. So when I went to Shillong for the summer holidays I decided to interview Robin S Ngangom and Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih. I called up Kynpham and suggested we meet. ‘I’d like to talk to you and Robin about your poetry,’ I said. ‘We can meet in my office on Saturday’, he replied. ‘I’ll call Robin and get back to you.’

On Saturday I took a taxi to Don Bosco Square. I was early for the meeting which was at twelve o’clock. But I wanted to walk around a bit looking at places that were once so familiar. I walked past the Don Bosco bus stop. It was from here I took the bus every day after school got over at three. There was a Chinese shoemaker’s shop near the bus stop. No sign of it now. Laithumkrah was a mixture of the old and the new. In some ways it was the same as it was in the late seventies and early eighties. But to imagine one was back in the past would have meant ignoring the shops selling mobile phones and the college kids in their new T-shirts and jeans. I walked past a restaurant called Kalsang wondering if it is the Kaizang in Dhurba Hazarika’s A Bowstring Winter. Dhruba’s descriptions are spot on. I think he has captured the atmosphere of those little Laimo restaurants, where we boys went to for our momos, very well. But if I entered Kalsang now I would have done it with some of the deference due to a hallowed place. Sometimes writing seems to change things.

To me Laithumkrah is inseparable from another poet-friend, Ananya Guha.  You were almost always sure of meeting him at his house, ‘Mitali’, opposite the drycleaners. If he wasn’t at home all you had to do was walk a few steps to Jalpan restaurant, his favourite haunt. Ananya is now at the IGNOU headquarters in New Delhi. Even the most casual of his poems at times has a resonance for me which has much to do with the fact that we were classmates and have shared some common experiences.

Kypham’s office is in NEHU’s Bijni Complex in Laithumkrah. The campus is next door to the house Sumanyu Satpathy used to live in. He moved to Delhi University in 1997. Another change.

Kynpham was busy sending copies of a press release to various newspapers and TV channels. The NEHU foundation day was round the corner and he had ensure the celebrations planned received due publicity since, in addition to being Deputy Director of NEHU Publications, he was the university’s PRO in charge. ‘I want to give up the PRO job,’ he said. ‘Too much work.’ Kynpham looked much the same as he did when I saw him last. That was ten years ago when Robin, Kynpham and I were doing a Refresher Course in Gauhati University. Kynpham later told me that for a moment he hadn’t recognized me. ‘You were a handsome young man,’ he remarked. ‘Now you look like ______!’ (He named a common friend.) Poor______. And, of course, poor me.

As Kynpham signed letters and gave instructions to his subordinates, I sat and looked out of the window. Polo Grounds was visible in the distance. But it was not nearly as far away as I thought it was. I could see buses parked near the stadium and cars climbing up the road to Golf Links. I suppose my perspective of my hometown is a bit wrong. At any rate, it is coloured by the fact that to go to Laithumkhrah from my house in Oakland (near Polo Grounds) I would take the most used route: a taxi or bus to Don Bosco or Laithumkhrah. A shorter way of going to Laithumkhrah from Polo Grounds would be take the road that goes past Bajoria School. But for some reason nobody seems to use that road and years of travel, especially during my school days, had conditioned me to follow the longer route – and to have a picture of Shillong that varies from the map.

Robin came in just as Kynpham had finished his official work. Kynpham invited us to the sofa set and we settled down to our chat. I was struck by Robin’s jet black hair. Robin has a somewhat craggy face. He is calm and gentle and soft-spoken. Mention poetry and he at once becomes animated.

Robin’s maiden book of poems was published by Writer’s Workshop but his second collection, Time’s Crossroads, was brought out by Orient Longman. Jayanta Mahapatra was an early champion of his poetry. Makarand Paranjpe included Robin (and Desmond Kharmawplang) in An Anthology of New Indian English Poetry. Recently Robin and Knypham’s poems were chosen by Jerry Pinto and Arundhati Subramaniam for their collection, Confronting Love. I remembered a review in which one of Kynpham’s poems was singled out for complete quotation along with poems by Vikram Seth and Eunice de Souza. Established poets like Keki Daruwalla have praised the quality of Robin and Kynpham’s work. They are sought-after poets, often invited to give readings, and their poems have been translated into a number of languages.  Each of them has won several poetry awards. There is also some flattering material on the two on the Net.

Robin began the conversation by remarking that some people don’t consider Kynpham and him to be poets. Robin was thinking in particular of Jeet Thayil. Thayil has recently edited an anthology of Indian English poets for Fulcrum, a poetry journal from Boston. The anthology includes the work of fifty six poets who write in English. Thayil included Mamang Dai and Anjum Hassan from the Northeast, but ignored Robin and Kynpham (as well as Ananya and Desmond).  Penguin India will soon publish the anthology (with four additional poets) as Sixty Indian Poets. Earlier Ranjit Hoskote left out Robin and Kynpham from Reasons for Belonging, his collection of the work of fourteen poets.  For poets inclusion in anthologies is important. The Penguin India book will claim to be the most comprehensive and important anthology of Indian English poetry superseding existing anthologies by Oxford University Press and others.

Robin spoke of how the emotional, politically engaged poetry he and Kynpham write contrasts with the intellectual, differently crafted poetry of the Bombay poets. ‘We don’t use playful language,’ he said.  ‘Of course we can use playful language if we want to!’ Kynpham cut in. Robin and Kynpham believe their kind of poetry flows from the situation in the Northeast. In the Editors’ Note to their Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast, they have argued that the expressive concerns of the writer from the Northeast cannot be the same as that of a writer from elsewhere in India: ‘The writer from the Northeast differs from his counterpart in the mainland in a significant way. While it may not make him a better writer, living with the menace of the gun he cannot merely indulge in verbal wizardry and woolly aesthetics but perforce master the art of witness’.

Robin has written poems lamenting the human and social costs of terrorism and violence in Manipur, as in ‘The Strange Affair of Robin S Ngangnom’:

Maybe the land is tired

of being suckled on blood

maybe there is no peace

between the farmer and his fields,

maybe all men are tired of being men,

maybe we have acknowledged death.

But wasn’t the situation different in Meghalaya? Surely terrorism wasn’t as much of a problem here as in Manipur? ‘The difference is one of degree,’ replied Robin. Kynpham agreed. He thinks there is a lot of anger at politicians and corruption in the poetry of the region and that this anger often finds expression in satire, as in his poem, ‘When the Prime Minister Visits Shillong the Bamboos Watch in Silence’. Kynpham, incidentally, believes there is more humour in his poems than in Robin’s.

I found it striking that the English poets mean almost nothing to Robin and Kynpham though Robin teaches English literature at NEHU and Kynpham too worked for several years as a lecturer in English at Shankardev College. Robin gently but firmly dismisses the work of English and American poets. He says he finds their work ‘insipid’ and ‘impersonal’. He and Kynpham prefer the work of Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski, Mahmoud Darwish, Yehuda Amichai and some contemporary Chinese and Vietnamese poets. This list, which has several poets who are (or were) displaced, suggests that the poets Robin and Kynpham like are those who have an intimate connection with their land and people. It also suggests that they believe poets should sing in the dark and not reflect in private. Neruda seems to be a particular favourite because of his versatility and because he wrote of political oppression. Robin mentioned how in Manipur truth is distorted a lot by terrorists as well as the security forces and the government. That is why he insists it is the poet’s duty to ‘witness’ and speak the truth about public realities. Robin and Kynpham stress the point that Neruda’s poetry is rooted. (They disapprove of Siddharth Deb for choosing to live in New York though he has written of Shillong and the Northeast in his two novels, The Point of Return and Surface.) That their own poetry belongs to a specific location hardly requires demonstration, even if it needed a Jayanta Mahapatra to see this rather than a Nissim Ezekiel (with his curiously reference-less Bombay poems). Indeed, all the Shillong poets give you a sense of being rooted. One of Desmond’s poems, a rather disturbing one for an ‘outsider’ like me, even begins with the ringing statement: ‘I never get tired talking about my / hometown.’ (Of the Shillong poets, it is only Anjum Hassan who seems to want to be elsewhere.) While Robin and Kynpham appreciate Neruda for being rooted, they also think of him as a well-informed poet who was concerned about events elsewhere.

They like the fact that he wrote love poetry too. Robin and Kynpham have their own take on the poetry of the Northeast but they are quick to concede that there are other possible ways of looking at it (there is the work of the women poets, for example). They themselves have written on a variety of subjects. One of Robin’s earliest poems was a poem on his mother. Adil Jussawala published it in Debonair many years ago, and it was the poem that convinced me that Robin had the makings of a poet. The poem still haunts me with its tenderness.

Teaching my course on Indian English writing had left me with a fresh sense of its cultural complexity. Ironically enough, it was in Indian English writing that one was increasingly hearing the marginal voices of Muslims, Parsis, Indian Jewish people, and others. Also, my reading of The Travels of Dean Mahomet, published in 1794, had made me newly aware of a cosmopolitan strand. I was therefore pleased when my poet-friends agreed that Indian English writing has a composite quality and that it is arguably more complex than the writing in the Indian languages. As poets, editors, and commentators on the situation in the Northeast, they realize that our world is a world in which the contextual determinants are many. They have written of ‘the uneasy coexistence of paradoxical worlds’ in the Northeast, of the parallel existence of ‘the folk and the westernized, virgin forests and car-choked streets.’ In a time of such social and cultural confusion myth can be a powerful attraction. Kynpham talked of the use of myth in the poetry of the Northeast. ‘But not in an escapist way’, he was careful to add.

I was curious to know what the two thought of Mamang Dai’s poems. Daruwalla had called her one of the best poets of the Northeast. He had described her outlook as ‘half-animist, half-pantheistic’. Though at first I had found some of her poems quite striking I was now beginning to feel her poems merely strengthened stereotypical images of Arunachal Pradesh and the Northeast.  I tried to get Robin and Kynpham to confirm my feelings but did not succeed in drawing them out. I have never known Robin to disparage the work of a fellow poet and Kynpham no longer seems to make the impetuous comments he sometimes did when he was younger. Of course, it is quite possible that they like Mamang Dai’s poetry. After all, they have published her in their anthology.

Robin, Kynpham, Ananya, and Desmond have supported each other and other poets in Shillong (and the Northeast). From the first these Shillong poets realized the need to create a climate conducive to the writing and reception of poetry. They have organized poetry readings, brought out poetry magazines and anthologies, and interacted with other poets whenever it was possible. In 1992 the Welsh poet, Nigel Jenkins, visited Meghalaya to research a book based on the life of Thomas Jones, the first missionary to work among the Khasis. Robin, Desmond, Ananya, and Kynpham facilitated Jenkins’s visit (Jenkins’s book, Through the Green Door, has interesting portraits of the four poets) and the results were mutually beneficially. Robin, Desmond, and Ananya published the work of five important Welsh poets in Lyric, the journal of the Shillong Poetry Society. And Jenkins was able to arrange a grant that made it possible for Robin, Desmond, and Kynpham to visit Wales and present their poetry to a new audience.

There is none of the tension that exists between Indian English writers and Indian language writers in Robin and Kynpham’s circle of poet-friends. When making a point they naturally and appreciatively refer to the poetry of the Shillong-based poets Tarun Bhartiya and Pijush Dhar, who write in Hindi and Bengali respectively. Robin has said that he would like his poems to read like translations and Kynpham even calls himself a Khasi poet. Some of Kynpham’s poems have appeared as Indian English poems and also as Khasi poems. He claims to write in Khasi and simultaneously translate into English (‘to go singing through the world’, he says quoting Neruda).  When he told me this, my silent reaction was: ‘Oh no, this is going to be tricky!’ But what may be a problem for the literary scholar (and the librarian!) need not be so for the creative artist – who of course must have his freedom to write.

I felt I had taken up too much of my friends’ time. A young man had come in and was sitting patiently. I thought he had come to see Kynpham on some official matter. I therefore brought the conversation to an end. However, Robin and Kynpham protested saying they could have carried on longer since they love to talk about poetry. ‘Even our wives don’t care about our poetry’, said Kynpham. ‘We can write anything we want!’ he laughed.

After leaving Bijni Complex, I hesitated a little. I was tempted to walk back home by the road leading past Bajoria School to Polo Grounds. But I had promised to take my son to Police Bazaar and did not have time for a leisurely stroll. There was a sense of quietness in Laithumkhrah, as though everyone had gone to Police Bazaar. It was a Saturday afternoon feeling, familiar from my school days.

But Robin and Kynpham stayed back to make a few phone calls: they are editing their next anthology of poetry from the Northeast, this time for Penguin India. In the last ten years I had become absorbed in my own little world and had called or emailed them only occasionally. While some of my other friends had busied themselves offering tuition, so that they could buy cars and flats, Robin and Kynpham had believed in poetry and had stuck to it. I promised myself I would make more of an effort to keep in touch with the two.