Taliban poetry and the lone fighter

  • 10 July 2012
  • From the section Magazine
A Taliban fighter who laid down his arms and joined Afghan government forces during a ceremony in Herat
Image caption The image of the lone fighter is lionised in Afghan poetry

Given the infamous ban on music by the Taliban in Afghanistan, many might be surprised to learn that poetry and singing were actively encouraged. And as Nato forces prepare to leave, these arts are being used to reawaken the mythology of the lone warrior.

There is something of the bard in every Afghan, even Taliban fighters.

Despite the ban on music and songs while they ruled the country, the militants understood early on that poetry is cherished at the very heart of Afghan culture cutting across ethnic and language boundaries.

Epic songs and battle hymns have for centuries lent fortitude to tribal warriors.

But as international forces begin winding down their operations, the Islamist militants are redoubling efforts to take ownership of this treasured cultural tradition and use it for their own ends.

They believe poetry converted to chants will help them recruit new fighters and inspire existing ones.

Earlier this year the Taliban launched a new website called Tarani (meaning chants or ballads). It provides links to hundreds of chants by dozens of different singers.

A book of Taliban poems has even been translated into English and published this year.

Taliban-endorsed "poetry" or chants, in both the Pashto and Dari languages, are rhythmic, passionate and hypnotic, and mostly without instrumental accompaniment.

They first found voice in the front line during the Soviet invasion in the 1980s - Afghan mujahideen guerrilla fighters used patriotic and religious chants to motivate fighters.

When they were in power, between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban Department for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice punished those who sold, played or listened to music. But they encouraged poetry and allowed singing without music.

Now the Taliban even has a department dedicated to the production and distribution of this material - a sort of ministry for the propagation of chanting. It commissions, produces and distributes the chants.

There are no official figures, but it is clear that this has become big business, involving millions of US dollars. Some albums are sold in the hundreds of thousands.

Image caption The Taliban attack at Lake Qargha was condemned as an assault against defenceless civilians

Most of them are reportedly produced in Pakistan, but copies are also made in Afghan cities. One music shop owner in Peshawar, Abdul Rahim, told me that although cassette production had declined "now anybody with a computer and simple equipment can make copies".

The Taliban are also making use of mobile technology and exchange MP3s via Bluetooth; many even upload chants as ring tones.

"Taliban chants are very effective," says Professor Qibla Ayaz at the University of Peshawar in north-west Pakistan.

"Their poetry is simple and very powerful which resonates with many local people."

Central to this is their use of a symbol embedded in the Afghan psyche - the image of the lone and fearless young Afghan fighter striving against an enemy.

The motif of the David-like figure, battling against a more powerful external force, has long been a feature of Afghan verse and been integrated into the country's history of conflict.

One figure who embodied this was Khushal Khan Khattak, a Pashtun poet, warrior and tribal chief who in the 17th Century wrote poems exhorting Pashtuns to unite and rise up against what he saw as the foreign and oppressive Mughal rulers.

"The enemy is stranded by the valiant youth/The enemy is in agony, he is in grief," reads one recent poem by a Taliban writer using the female pseudonym Hanifa Zahed.

Such sentiments are likely to strike a chord with many men in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Taliban poetry carries little mention of attacks in which civilians, including women and children, are targeted.

Such attacks are usually condemned by the Afghan media and the public as cowardly.

The Afghan authorities say the messages in the verses "are mostly baseless and incorrect", but they are still concerned about their inspirational aspect.

Major General Abdul Manan Farahi, senior adviser to the interior ministry, says these "might motivate ordinary Taliban members to go to the next level in violent activities".

Image caption Music was banned under the Taliban

The authorities have banned the sale of Taliban chant cassettes and DVDs, and carry out raids on houses and shops where such chants are sold.

But, Maj Gen Farahi adds:" I don't think they inspire outsiders to join the Taliban or insurgency."

To the untrained eye, it may appear as if Taliban chants have replaced music in parts of the country to become a key source of entertainment. The militants are are certainly trying hard - some chants are even based on popular film song styles.

But there is another explanation to the apparent popularity of the taranas.

"If the Taliban have any influence at all, it is through violence and fear and intimidation and not by the quality of their argument," says Jamie Shea, Nato's deputy assistant secretary-general for emerging security challenges.

A number of residents in the southern and eastern provinces have complained about Taliban intimidation for listening to music or songs they consider vulgar.

"Taliban have told us to listen to jihadi chants instead of other songs and music," says Khushal, a villager in eastern Nangarhar province.

In order to evade intimidation, more Afghans are uploading chants and ringtones to pretend to be Taliban sympathisers.

Haji Mahboob, from south-eastern Ghazni province, where the Taliban are prevalent, says they randomly check mobile phones.

"They stopped me once to see what I was playing in my vehicle...They told me to listen to jihadi and religious chants, then I wouldn't be bothered," says Niamatullah, a driver from the east of the country.

And for all the fighting talk, some Taliban insurgents have laid down arms to join the government side as part of Afghan peace efforts.

Many analysts argue that the militants may prove to be their own worst enemy as the threats and intimidation they deploy distributing the chants alienate people caught between the militants, the government and foreign troops.

In the end, Afghans are more likely to find inspiration in the words of the original warrior poet Khushhal Khan Khattak who, despite being in war for most of his life, advised to use the sword carefully.

"Why seek war when harmony is at hand/ When life could be lived in peace, [then] what is the necessity of swords and arrows."