Taliban poetry is changing its tone, but some say it’s a sham

The Taliban’s poetry was instrumental in the Islamist militant’s conquest of Afghanistan. It was a front largely ignored by the Afghan government and coalition forces.

But maybe it shouldn’t have been.

“The Taliban’s poetry was so effective,” said Hamdullah Wesal, a Pashto poet and literary analyst. “It would literally make a person tie bombs around his body and blow himself off.”

Struggling to govern, the former guerrilla fighters are now expecting the poetry to help them reach out to the public.

On Jan 29, the Taliban held their first major poetry recitation show, called “The Spring,” on the country’s national TV channel, attended by the so called caretaker government’s foreign minister, Amir Khan Mutaqi, and chief spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, among others.

The tone, however, had dramatically changed.

Abdul Aziz Azizi, a Taliban poet who used to encourage suicide bombers to “engulf” opponents with “fire and smoke,” sang a song about hope in the show. “The buds of hope have blossomed,” Azizi recited melodiously on stage, his words echoed by another chanter.

The Taliban’s poetry, sung voluntarily by the group’s members and their sympathizers, has shifted from mercilessness to compassion as they try to police the fractured country.

Ahmadullah Wasiq, the Taliban deputy spokesperson who is now the head of Radio and Television of Afghanistan (RTA), opened his remarks at the show with a famous line. “Life is even too short for loving,” he recited. “I’ve no idea how others get time to hate.”

For families whose loved ones were killed in the group’s indiscriminate suicide bombings, his words may well have sounded unconvincing.

Poetry and taranas, a kind of a cappella song charged with strong emotions, not only helped the Taliban communicate with the masses but they played a vital role in mobilizing youth against the coalition forces and the government they backed.

“We have a deep connection with poetry,” Anas Haqqani says of the Taliban at the poetry show. “It has played a nearly 70 per cent role in our fight.” Haqqani, a senior Taliban official, is also the younger brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the interior minister who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list with a bounty of $10 million (U.S.).

By stripping music from the songs and avoiding romance, the Taliban made their taranas and poetry accessible to everyone across the religious spectrum.

Religious conservatives, who shared the Taliban’s strict interpretation of sharia law, saw romantic poetry and music as provocative and un-Islamic. Yet they had no problem with the Taliban taranas — the melodious chants often produced by using Auto-Tune software.

The clerics and ultra-religious people substituted their cellphones’ ringtones with these taranas as they saw the former as a type of music.

“More people listened to the Taliban’s taranas than it was thought,” says Azizuddin Yousafzai, a professor in the language and literature department of Balkh University in northern Afghanistan. “They filled in the place of music for those with strong religious inclinations.”

The taranas and poetry were also a good way for the Taliban to communicate who they were and what they wanted, according to Yousafzai. “The poets cheered their comrades’ sacrifices, showed their commitment, and pointed out the mistakes the coalition forces and the government they backed made.”

“Drone has hit,” goes one tarana on a Taliban YouTube channel. “The kohled eyelashes and soil have mingled, burned.”

“It is the time of revolution,” chants a Taliban on YouTube, calling a friend to see him for the last time. “I know not if I will get martyred, injured, or enchained.”

Taliban poets also glorified their way of jihad and the simple deadly, tools they used in their conquest. “Break the pride of arrogant NATO, O antichrist-killer jug,” goes another tarana, referring to the cooking oil gallon which was used in improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The homemade bombs, made of fertilizers, a pressure plate and plastic cans of oil, were one of the most effective, yet indiscriminate, weapons of the insurgent group. Thousands of civilians were blindsided and killed by these IEDs.

Taking over the country at a lightning speed last August, following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, the Taliban has to rule the war-weary country of nearly 40 million. Ethnic and religious divisions, harsh economic sanctions, brain drain, unemployment and destitution, just to name a few, are among the challenges that caught them unprepared.

Poetry, whose power they know well, is something they hope to help them unify the country and garner people’s support.

“No one has to be alienated,” recited Haqqani at the poetry show. Haqqani, who was released in a prisoner exchange ahead of the Doha peace talks in 2019, calls himself a poet. “Why should anyone be forced into infidelity?”

“Whether it is a Pashtun or a Hazara, a Tajik or a Turkmen, an Arab or a Gujar,” recited Faqeer Mohammed Darvish, the iconic Taliban poet and tarana singer, at the show, referring to different ethnic groups in the country. “They have all become the true sons of the land,” he added, claiming that the country is now safe for everyone.

However, the Taliban’s words, whether a politician’s or a poet’s, do not match their actions. Their cabinet, for instance, has not given a single chair to women and ethnic minorities. Government ministers are almost all Taliban leaders and Pashtuns, members of the largest ethnic group in the country and the one to which most Taliban belong. The former Afghan forces are being killed or disappeared and women protesting for their rights are detained. They recently started a concerning house-to-house sweep.

The Taliban, meanwhile, fail to recognize that poetry could be a double-edged blade.

“My city turned into a cemetery,” recited Idress Zwak, who seemed to be the only bare-headed and clean-shaven poet in “The Spring.” “The cemeteries have gone bigger than the cities,” he continued. “How much more will we lose in the foreign war?”

“The foreign war” the Taliban brought home by providing refuge to Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader, who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.

The audience, composed almost entirely of Taliban, went quiet and froze.

Zamir Saar is a former lecturer of language and literature and a reporter of the Wall Street Journal in Afghanistan. He had previously worked for Pajhwok Afghan News. He is a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto.

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