To St Antony's College, Oxford this afternoon for a presentation by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn of their latest book, Poetry of the Taliban, (Hurst, 2012). Alex and Felix have lived on and off in Kandahar for some years and have immersed themselves in the culture of the city and its people.
In this fascinating book they have edited a selection of poems they collected from the Taliban's official website. The translations themselves were done by Mirwais Rahmany and Hamid Stanikzai. They divide the poems into those written before 9/11, poems of love and pastoral subjects, religious poems, poems of discontent, those that are explicitly war-related ('The Trench') and those that measure The Human Cost.
It may at first seem curious that a movement that banned television and singing should be so fond of poetry, but there is no contradiction. Poetry has been a fundamental part of Pashto and Dari-language culture for hundreds of years, as well as being an art form allowed and encouraged by radical Islamists, as long as certain rules were obeyed. Even Osama bin Laden wrote poetry.
This point appears to have been lost on some people, not least Col Richard Kemp (rtrd.), commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2003, who told the Guardian: "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, and of course are killing our soldiers. It doesn't do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country."
His views would not be recognised by Major Henry George Raverty, a British Indian Army officer who fought in Swat in 1850 and was later garrisoned in Peshawar. Raverty, who was clearly somewhat more enlightened than Kemp, wrote Selections from the Poetry of the Afghans (1862) and The Gulshan-i-roh: being selections, prose and poetical, in the Pashto, or Afghan language (1867). Like many Army officers of the time, Raverty believed in knowing your enemy and not forgetting that they too were humans.
None of the animosity towards the book was visible at St Antony's where the audience made clear their appreciation for the book and the boldness of the editors in making it happen.