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'Poetry of the Taliban' elicits both anger, astonishment

KABUL, Afghanistan — War is an ageless poetic wellspring, yielding wrenching odes to the white heat of combat, the longing for lost loved ones, the dust of graveyards. Now a controversial new anthology unveils a collection of seldom-heard voices: those of Taliban fighters.

Denounced by some as propaganda by the enemy in America's longest war, hailed by others as a rare window on a largely hidden world, the verse assembled in "Poetry of the Taliban" is by turns bombastic and introspective, dark and mirthful, ugly and lyrical — and perhaps above all, surprising in its unabashedly emotional tone.

"I stoned him with the stones of light tears / then I hung my sorrow on the gallows.… / It might have been the wine of your memory / that made my heart drunk five times."

The collection's compilers, a pair of European researchers who have long been based in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland, are braced for an angry reaction. But they say the poems help illuminate a much-documented yet little-understood insurgency.

"For some people, it's going to be offensive, yes — maybe very offensive," said co-editor Felix Kuehn, who with his collaborator, Alex Strick van Linschoten, has published a number of academic works on the Taliban. "But we think it's a way to see how they see the world."

The book, which was published in Britain this year and will be released in the United States this month by Columbia University Press, came about almost by accident.

For years, as the two researchers scoured Pashto-language websites, gathered oral histories and painstakingly cultivated intermediaries with ties to the Taliban, they began running across scraps of poetry, scattered haphazardly among the group's strident communiques and lengthy policy statements.

In this part of the world, poetry has both a rich epic tradition and an indelible place in the humblest acts of daily life. Even though many Afghans are illiterate, common speech is peppered with echoes of centuries-old odes in Dari and Pashto, the two main national languages.

In an almost hobbyist fashion, the two researchers began setting aside the verse they encountered, working all the while on other projects. They were the editors of "My Life With the Taliban," a 2010 memoir by Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban spokesman who was imprisoned at Guantanamo but eventually allowed to return to Afghanistan. The pair also published "An Enemy We Created," a well-received study of the Taliban's relationship with Al Qaeda.

As the collection of poems grew larger, they noticed a pattern. Unlike the sweeping pronouncements handed down by the movement's leadership, the poems, often attributed to Taliban foot soldiers, were strikingly personal in nature — the war writ small.

"I know the black, black mountains," begins one fighter's narration. "My home is the mountain; my village is the mountain... / I know the black ditches... / I know the hot trenches."

To many both in and outside Afghanistan, the notion of Taliban poetic musings seems jarringly at odds with the harsh image of a fundamentalist Islamic movement that was best known during its five-year rule for imprisoning women in their homes, beating men who failed to grow bushy beards, summarily executing accused adulterers and banning innocent pleasures such as music and even kite-flying.

And in some who have confronted the Taliban on the battlefield, or witnessed the daily carnage inflicted on Afghan civilians by suicide attacks or roadside bombs, the collection has sparked outrage.

"What we need to remember is that these are fascist, murdering thugs," Richard Kemp, a retired colonel who served as commander of British forces in Afghanistan, told the Guardian newspaper after the book's publication in Britain.

Publishing the poems, he said, only serves to "give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country."

Some of the 200 or so poems in the anthology do echo political and religious themes commonly associated with the Taliban, including odes laced with references to blessed martyrdom and hated foreign occupiers. But many other poems venture into unexpected territory: romantic love, landscape reveries, existential loneliness, even waggish satire.

One comically pitch-perfect imitation of a traditional lament casts former President George W. Bushand Afghan President Hamid Karzai as separated lovers who pine for each other; another takes satiric aim at nongovernmental aid organizations for being wasteful and out of touch with Afghans: "How many are the NGOs!" goes the mocking refrain.

Many of the poems draw on the regional poetic forms, including those of the ghazal, or love lyric, and the tarana, or ballad, but with modern-day accouterments such as drones and rocket-propelled grenades. One verse might read like a combat dispatch — "We hear the noise of steel birds above our heads" — while another evokes the timeless bewilderment of loss: "Everything has gone from the world / The world has become empty again."

The collection is at times uneven in tone, with occasional awkward passages interspersed with others of startling power and luminosity. Literary translation is often undertaken by accomplished poets; Kuehn and Strick van Linschoten instead relied on two Afghan translators whose working resumes include English- and Pashto-language renditions of legal, technical and medical documents.

"They aren't poets, but they have literary sensibilities, and this is part of their culture, where practically every time someone utters a sentence, there is some kind of metaphor involved," Kuehn said. "In Kandahar, we have friends who are poets who meet regularly, and we discussed the work with them, and with professors of Pashto. So we are happy with the level of skill."

Although many of the collection's themes are those of classic battle literature — courage and futility, wrath and pride — some of the verses seem timely in the waning days of a war from which the United States and its allies are now seeking to extricate themselves.

One poem obliquely parses the guest-and-host relationship, describing a "small house / I had from father and grandfather / in which I knew happiness." But then one day an outsider arrives, and everything changes.

"You came today," the final lines read. "Be careful not to return tomorrow."

laura.king@latimes.com

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