The brutal Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan are known for many things – murder, torture, repression, burning, among others – one would not typically associate these vicious killers with the fine art of poetry.
However, these militant warriors – who have banned singing, dancing, television, movies and various other forms of entertainment and leisure pursuits within their domains – are passionate about verse.
One must consider that in the ancient warrior societies of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and especially Iran, poems – including those that celebrated love as well as the martial arts – are a cherished part of the culture.
During their reign over Afghanistan, Taliban officials actually encouraged poetry readings and singing (in the absence of musical accompaniment, of course).
BBC reported that earlier this year, the Taliban introduced a website called Tarani whereby listeners can link to songs and epic poems in the Dari and Pashto languages.
Afghanistan, which was heavily influenced by Persian culture over the centuries, boasts an illustrious list of so-called “warrior poets,” including Jahan Pahlawan Amir Kror Suri; Khushal Khan Khattak; and Pir Roshan Bayazid Khan. The Taliban are simply the inheritors of this rich linguistic legacy.
Taliban chants are very effective, Professor Qibla Ayaz at the University of Peshawar in Pakistan, told BBC.
Their poetry is simple and very powerful which resonates with many local people.
In May of this year, two western scholars, Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, earned widespread scorn by publishing an anthology entitled “Poetry of the Taliban.”
The Pakistani author Bina Shah condemned the publication, by declaring: If they [the Taliban] had their way, they’d be running my country. They’d destroy every girl’s school from Kabul to Karachi. They’d drive women out of their jobs, out of the streets, out of hospitals and everywhere else that women need to be, and confine them to the house; turn them into baby [making] machines and domestic slaves.”
Similarly, Richard Kemp, who served as commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the Guardian newspaper: What we need to remember is that these [Taliban] are fascist, murdering thugs.”
Kuehn defended the book.
“For some people, it's going to be offensive, yes — maybe very offensive, he said. “But we think it's a way to see how they [Taliban] see the world.
The Mughal empire, which at its peak ruled a vast expanse of territory from Bengal in the east to Baluchistan in the west, was deeply influenced by Persian culture and especially its poetry.
To this day, the Persian-inspired love of poetry has survived in the form of epic songs and ghazals in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Northern India.
Going further west, one finds that two of the most notorious “murdering thugs” in history – Joseph Stalin of Russia and Saddam Hussein of Iraq – were also keen admirers and practitioners of poetry.
As a proud Georgian, the young Stalin knew his country’s national epic, The Knight in the Panther's Skin, by heart. Later, he became an ardent fan of such western poets as William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Stalin, who was ultimately responsible for as many as 20-million deaths, was so besotted with romantic poetry, he even tried writing his own verse as young man. One such, poem, Morning, began: The pinkish bud has opened, Rushing to the pale-blue violet… And, stirred by a light breeze, The lily of the valley has bent over the grass.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore, the British historian who penned a voluminous biography of Stalin, wrote in the Guardian: “In 1895, aged 17 and studying for the priesthood in Georgia… [Stalin] took a selection of his poems to show to the country's most famous editor and national hero, Prince Ilya Chavchavadze. The prince was deeply impressed with both the poems and the poet… After looking through the verses, he chose five to publish in Iveria (an archaic name for Georgia), Russia's most fashionable and prestigious literary journal.”
Montefiore added: “When printed, [Stalin’s poems] were widely read and much admired. They became minor Georgian classics, to be published in anthologies and memorized by schoolchildren until the 1970s… Poetry remained a part of Stalin's life right up to and even during his three decades as tyrant, leading him to protect some poets and destroy others.” After he was captured, Saddam, the mass murderer of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, reportedly spent much of his time in custody writing poetry.
After he was sentenced to death for his many crimes, Saddam penned what was believed to be his final written document in the form of a poem. It was apparently a plea to his fellow Iraqis: “Unbind your soul. It is my soul mate and you are my soul’s beloved. No house could have sheltered my heart as you have. Unbind your soul. It is my soul mate and you are my soul’s beloved. No house could have sheltered my heart as you have.”
Saddam delusionally viewed himself as a “hero” of the Arab people and celebrated himself often though verse.
The warrior/poet notion is certainly familiar in the west as well. One of the most celebrated poets of the early 20th century was Rupert Brooke, who died in April 19015 during World War I.
Of course, Brooke was no mass murderer, but he ably united the notions of fighting and killing with the tenderest emotions of poetry.
His poems, like “The Soldier,” glorified war as a noble cause and painted the fighting man as an unvarnished patriotic hero.
The most famous words of this poem were probably: “If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.