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Taliban poetry book denounced by former British commander

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Guardian

Anthology of war, love and nature poetry called 'self-justifying propaganda' but publishers say it reveals universal experiences

Julian Borger

The UK publication this month of a book of translated Taliban poetry has been denounced as enemy propaganda by a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan.

The publishers have been accused of "giving voice to terrorists", but the book's editors argue that its 235 poems, including love poems, verses exulting in the Afghan landscape and patriotic ballads, provide a unique insight into the human side of the Taliban.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, one of the two editors of Poetry of the Taliban, which will be released on 17 May, said: "The poetry shows that the Taliban are people just like we are, with feeling, concerns, anxieties like ours."

He made a comparison with Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets, a British anthology published last year. "Just as there is a soldier bidding farewell with his mother in a poem in Heroes, so there is a Talib saying goodbye to his mother before going off to fight. There is a universality to the experience."

Richard Kemp, the former commander, cautioned against "being taken in by a lot of self-justifying propaganda".

"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," Kemp said on Friday. "It doesn't do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country."

The retired army colonel acknowledged that the legal right to print the book in the UK should be respected. But Michael Dwyer, managing director of the publishers, Hurst and Co, said there had been some angry reaction to the publicity, and the company had received an expletive-filled anonymous call accusing it of "giving voice to terrorists".

The verses in Poetry of the Taliban are drawn from both the period before and after the Taliban's fall in 2001, and are by known Pashto poets as well as anonymous writers. All the poems were published online by the Taliban website and so received the movement's imprimatur.

In the collection there are many Tarana ballads, translated from Pashto, about fighting and dying, often dripping with contempt for the foreign enemies and their Afghan allies, led by President Hamid Karzai. But more surprisingly, there are many love poems, drawing on pre-Taliban poetic traditions, harking back to a 17th-century golden age in Pashto poetry.

Journalist David Rohde, who was held hostage by a Taliban faction for more than seven months, said poetry was part of his captors' daily lives. "They would sing and recite poems every night after dinner," he said, who is now a commentator for the Reuters news agency. "Privately they would sing love poems, but when their commanders were around, they would only sing war poems. It shows the tensions within the movement. The question is which way it will turn in the end."

In an anthology filled with bravado, there are occasional flashes of doubt and self-criticism, as in a 2008 verse called Self-Made Prison, in which the poet writes: "It's a pity that we are wandering as vagrants/We did all of this to ourselves".

"I find these poems very moving and the whole project fascinating and important," said Ruth Padel, a British poet who presents BBC Radio 4's Poetry Workshop. "Here's a uniquely rich oral tradition of poetry in the eye of an international political storm."

One of the ironies of the book's publication is that when it was in power, the Taliban went to great lengths to obliterate Afghan culture it did not accept, blowing up the giant stone Buddhas in Bamiyan and banning all music except that written in approved Tarana form without instrumentation. Meanwhile, the book's introduction notes, the movement's leader, Mullah Omar, loved music and songs and kept a stock of CDs in his car.

"It's just like politics everywhere," Van Linschoten said. "Politicians take strong positions in public life but don't necessarily follow them in their personal life."

John Jeffcock, the former army captain who edited Heroes, said: "It does not surprise me that the Taliban write beautiful poetry, as they are equally soldiers of a cause and will experience the same or similar emotions to a British soldier.

"The British soldiers who wrote in Heroes probably have much in common with the average Taliban soldier, arguably more so than the members of parliament who send them to Afghanistan. I can imagine a British soldier, as I did, feeling empathy to the individual but not their cause, as we would have done in the Falklands and throughout our military history."

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