Taliban poetry collection hits British shelves

The launch of a new poetry anthology is causing controversy in the UK. The reason? The poems were written by fighters from the notorious Afghan Taliban.

When John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields in 1915, he gave voice to a tragedy. ‘We are the Dead. Short days ago / We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow’ he wrote. ‘We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders Field.’ Years after the end of World War One, those blood-red flowers are still potent symbols of loss.

Today, poppies are symbolic of another conflict. In Afghanistan, the flower is harvested to produce opium – a powerful narcotic that is sold to fund the Taliban. That notorious insurgent group has been locked for ten years in a brutal war against Western forces – and has created a poetry of its own.

Now, a book called Poetry of the Taliban is being published in the UK. Its editors have noble ambitions: the 240-page anthology, they hope, will help Western readers understand who the Taliban are.

What do the poems tell us about these enemy soldiers? Many mourn Afghanistan’s traditional culture, which they feel has been corrupted by American invaders. The writers see themselves as fierce defenders of their homeland. ‘I know the black ditches’, says one, ‘I always carry a rocket launcher on my shoulder.’

But even amid the war-torn poppy fields, the fighters have feelings that all of us can recognise. One poem describes the arrival of sunset ‘with its lap full of red flowers’; a time when ‘everyone becomes a spectator.’

And there are moments of vulnerability and doubt. One poem describes a fighter who says goodbye to his mother before a battle, unsure if he will ever return. ‘It is a pity we are wandering vagrants,’ another reflects. ‘We did this all to ourselves.’

In the eyes of some critics, these ‘black turbaned Wilfred Owens of Wardak’ have created important and sensitive work, that deserves to be listened to. But others are less impressed by their literary efforts. ‘What we need to remember is that these are fascist, murdering thugs who suppress women and kill people without mercy if they do not agree with them’, said Richard Kemp, a former British Army Commander. The poetry collection, he believes, is little more than ‘self-serving propaganda’ for enemies of the state.

Poetic justice

Does it matter if Taliban fighters have a softer side? Some people say these poems should remind us that even enemies have feelings and fears and families; that the Taliban are fellow human beings, not monsters to be killed without a thought.

Others disagree. Feelings are cheap, they say. Action is what counts. A Taliban soldier may believe he is defending his homeland, but what he is really doing is supporting a movement responsible for oppression, torture and murder. Such actions should speak much louder than any words, however poetic.

You Decide

  1. Should a volume of Taliban poetry be published?
  2. Does being cultured and thoughtful make someone more moral?

Activities

  1. Write a poem based on your own feelings about the Afghan war.
  2. Read the poemSunset, included in this story’s online links. Write a paragraph explaining how the writer uses images of nature to communicate his feelings of doubt.

Some People Say...

“A poem can tell you more than any news report.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Have Western soldiers explored war through poetry?
War has been the subject of poetry for a long time. The First World War produced some of Britain’s most important poets. Siegfried Sassoon, for example, was a young officer who made his name writing about the horrors of war, and supposedly threw away theMilitary Cross he was awarded for his bravery in the trenches.
What about modern wars?
One reason WWI produced so many poets was the fact that men from almost every walk of life were drawn to fight in the conflict. The recent war in Afghanistan has affected a much smaller proportion of the population. But soldiers fighting in it have still produced some great writing – some of which has been published in the anthologyHeroes.

Word Watch

Opium
Opium is a powerful drug, harvested from the seed pods of poppy plants. It is frequently injected or smoked, and has a depressant and hallucinogenic effect.
Wilfred Owens of Wardak
Wardak is a province in Afghanistan. Wilfred Owen was a World War One poet. His work includes Strange Meeting, and the famous Dulce et Decorum Est, in which he attacks the Latin phrase ‘it is sweet and honourable to die for your country’ as an ‘old lie’. Of his work, Owen famously said ‘my subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.’ He was killed on 4th November 1918, at the age of 25, one week before the end of the war.
Military Cross
The Military Cross is a military award, given for bravery in the field of action. It was created in 1914, and can be awarded to all ranks. Sassoon was given the award for rescuing fallen comrades in a hail of enemy fire. His bravery throughout the war allegedly earned him the nickname ‘Mad Jack’.

Subjects

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