The power of poetry as an instrument of communication, propaganda and mobilisation cannot be underestimated. Throughout millenniums, poetry has been used by leaders, insurgents and peripheral voices as a means to rouse emotion, passion and invoke a sense of patriotism and love of the homeland in the fight for freedom from colonial powers and oppression. It is no surprise therefore that the literary output of Pashtun and Irish people has been momentous. Pashtun lands have been invaded since the era of Alexander, many wars have ensued, insurgency and unrest continues in these regions. Ireland similarly suffered colonisation under British rule. The events of the 1916 uprising led to the creation of the Irish free state in 1922, eventually becoming the sovereign state known today as the Republic of Ireland in 1948, at the heavy cost of lives, while the six counties of Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom to this day.
While it is beyond the scope of this short article to depict a comprehensive historical contextual account of Pashtun and Irish political and social landscapes respectively, it nonetheless attempts to skim the surface of the literary output of ‘Taliban’ poetry along with examples from Irish freedom fighters in relation to insurgent discourse and patriotic sentiment. (A more in-depth discussion and critical analysis of Irish poetry in historical context will be provided in a separate article at a later date). While none of the great giants of Pashto literature are featured, this article alternatively seeks to re-examine the book titled Poetry of the Taliban (2012) as an example of subaltern voices from Afghanistan along with the documented poetry of Irish freedom fighters of 1916.
The book titled Poetry of the Taliban, at a glance is problematic. While the word Taliban (literally meaning ‘religious scholars’) has now become a ‘brand’ name, globally associated with a radicalised militant outfit, yet for many, unfamiliar with south and central Asian studies, the Taliban are often perceived as a ‘homogeneous’ group. Similar to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which began as a small group of ‘freedom fighters,’ engaged in mobilising the Irish in their struggle against British colonial rule (1169 – 1948), the so called Taliban originated as a group known as mujaheddin, developed into a larger yet fragmented organisation further morphing into various splinter groups. James Caron discusses the disunity and unity of Taliban organisations on either side of the mountains that make up the Afghan and Pakistani frontiers wherein since 2005 numerous new and unrelated factions have arisen.
Often overlooked with regard to insurgency is the key element of poetry, the aesthetic dimension of the Taliban movement. In Poetry of the Taliban the editors (Alex Strick Van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn) inform us that of the collection of 235 poems, the most recent poems are an ‘almost complete collection of all those published on the Taliban’s website from 2006 – 2009. Issues surrounding authenticity, therefore, regarding this collection could be disputed, raising questions as to whether they are the actual poems of Taliban members, insurgents, sympathisers, or merely works posted by ordinary Afghan people who identify with certain ideology, patriotic or nationalist sentiment.
Poetry produced by the Taliban and their supporters generally tends to be viewed as a propaganda tool, limited to doctrinal and conservative ideals. Faisal Devvji however points out that poetry, probably the most important aesthetic medium of traditional Afghan society, has played a crucial role in this effort, and the verses collected in Poetry of the Taliban represent the ‘melancholy beauty of the old lyric as well as the moral outrage and call to action, characteristic of modern literature.’ The editors furthermore consider ‘emotional resonance’ as ‘extremely important for the Taliban: without it, (they state), ‘the poems in this collection would not be read and recited as widely and avidly as they are.’ Although performance of Taliban poetry and song stand in contradiction to the movement’s characteristic features, during the second half of the 1990s, the Taliban tarana (chant) emerged, which did not disrupt the movements ideological stance, possibly because in Afghanistan this art form was traditionally represented by recitations of the Qur’an, poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and performance linked to the religious sphere. Coulehan and Clary found that because ‘poetry comes close to being able to express the inexpressible, it provides a voice for levels of experience and meaning that cannot be captured by reasoning or ordinary discussion.’
The examples of poetry authored by the Irish freedom fighters included in this article are authentically documented. This article does not however, aspire towards a comparative analysis, but merely attempts to illustrate a taste of rhetorical, patriotic outpourings and nationalist sentiments during times of political unrest.
Transcribed from a recording from the 1990s, Abdul Rahman Gawhari recites:
“O murderer of the nation, why do you bring grief to Afghans, You deserve hell, you will be going to the hot flames,” (this recurring stanza throughout is preceded by one liners such as): “May you be sacrificed for the Muslims,” [and] “Don’t kill the Taliban, may you get night blindness.”
A further excerpt from a poem transcribed from a recording in the 1990s, narrated/authored by Sadullah Sa’eed Zabuli follows:
“A time is coming, a change is coming, A revolt of white banners is coming. A white caravan of turban-wearers is coming from all directions, They have the beautiful light of justice in their hands. They are going to break the horns of the cruel stranger, The message of release from colonisation is coming.”
While condemnation of the colonisers rages throughout many works, defiance, hope and belief that justice will prevail is a common feature, juxtaposed with recurring nostalgic expressions of pride, religious devotion, patriotism and love of homeland. Omar writes (Dec.2007): “I am Afghan, History attests that I am a hero. I am merciful but not to the cruel, to he who attacks me, I am a storm, I dedicate my life to my homeland, I can’t accept enslavement, I am only the slave of Allah.”
In a poem titled “Message of a Devoted Mujahed,” (March 2007, Anonymous), we get a palpable sense of what could be perceived as the stereotypical Taliban worldview: “The reason we always fold our moustaches upwards is because we break the necks of our enemies. We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour; that is the reason we strap bombs around our waists. We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners; we circle their names in red on our lists.” While some scholars have denounced this collection of poetry as mere propaganda and an attempt to incite ‘sympathetic’ views towards the Taliban, the above chilling imagery conveyed in hubris tone tends to counter such opinion. However, a factor which cannot be mistaken, whether written by insurgents, sympathisers or ordinary Afghan people, is the rebellious expressiive, patriotic sentiment and call to arms which prevails throughout much of the work particularly in “Oh Afghan” by Mohammad Nabi Kamran (date of access not supplied): “O Afghan, stand up! The enemy has come today; He has come to the green lawn of your homeland. Stand against him, you might destroy him; he has come to the garden of red flowers. Grab your sword and go to the battlefield.”
Love of country and longing for freedom from the oppressor is endemic in the poetry of the Irish freedom fighters. Such expression for dreams of nationhood is found in the works of Padraig Pearse (one of the leaders of the 1916 uprising, executed by the British forces for his part in the insurgency which eventually led to Irish freedom) wrote a poem titled: “The Rebel:” “I am come of the seed of the people, the people that sorrow; That have no treasure but hope, no riches laid up but a memory of an ancient glory. Beware of the thing that is coming, beware of the risen people, who shall take what ye would not give, did ye think to conquer the people; Ye that have bullied and bribed, tyrants, hypocrites, liars!”
For Irish Nationalists, the 1916 uprising identified the rebirth of the Irish nation and the rebel poets viewed “the insurgency as a sacrifice that would renew Ireland and ultimately redeem the nation, ending foreign rule, and restoring sovereignty.”
W.B.Yeats wrote a poem titled: “Easter 1916“ in the aftermath of the uprising: “Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith, for all that is done and said. We know their dream; enough to know they dreamed and are dead. A terrible beauty is born.”
Declan Kilberd argues:
“Yeats began to see the rebels as they saw themselves – he fully accepted Pearse’s identification as a moment which led to a hopelessly theatrical rebellion, but also, in the longer term, to the break-up of the greatest empire the world has ever known. So he asked in a late poem:
When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side,
What stalked through the Post Office? What intellect,
What calculation, number, measurement, replied?
And the answer was India, Pakistan, Cyprus, Aden, and, hopefully, one day Northern Ireland. The rebels had given up their lives not just to free Ireland and destroy imperialism.”
Kevin Barry, an 18 year old student was hanged by the British in 1920 for his part in Irish Republican insurgency. A very popular rebel poem/song was written in his honour: “Kevin Barry gave his young life for the cause of liberty. A lad of eighteen summers, still there’s no one can deny, as he walked to death that morning, nobly held his head up high. Another martyr for old Ireland, another murder for the crown, brutal laws to crush the Irish could not keep their spirits down.”
Poetry is a gift for the oppressed, a tool of mobilisation whether used to fuel insurgency or give voice to the marginalised. In the few examples of Afghan and Irish poetry presented in this article, the sense of nationalistic, patriotic sentiment dominates. It may be fitting therefore to end with the words of Padraig Pearse. On the subject of Nationalism, he recalls the ghosts of ancestors, the ghosts of those martyrs who died in a bid to free their country from the tyranny of colonisers and oppression:
“Here be ghosts that I have raised this tide: Ghosts of dead men that have bequeathed a trust to us living men. There is only one way to appease a ghost. You must do the things it asks you. The ghosts of a nation sometimes ask very big things: and they must be appeased, whatever the cost.”
Alex Strick Van Linschoten & Felix Kuehn (eds.), Preface by: Faisal Devji, Poetry of the Taliban, Hurst & Co. London, 2012
Caron, James. Taliban: Real and Imagined, in “Under the Drones: Modern Lives in the Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands,” Bashir, S. & Crews, R.D., Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 61
Mikhail Pelevin & Matthias Weinreich. “The Songs of the Taliban: Continuity of form and thought in an ever-changing environment,” Iran and te Caucasus 16, Brill, 2012, pp.45-47
J.Coulehan & J. Clary. “Healing the healer: Poetry in Palliative Care,” Journal of Palliative Medicine, (8:2), 2005, p.384.
Patrick Colm Hogan, “The Sacrificial emplotment of National Identity: Padraig Pearse and the 1916 Easter Uprising,” Journal of Comparative Anthropology and Sociology, (5:1), 2014, p.32.
Declan Kilberd. The Easter Rebellion: Poetry or Drama? Papers from a conference held at Trinity College Dublin, on 21st and 22nd April 2006, organized by the Ireland Institute and Dublin University Historical Society.
Writer: Angelina Merisi
The writer hails from Ireland. She is part of the Pashtuns Times News Network. She is a PhD scholar at the University College Cork, Ireland. Her current research is focused on Islam and Pashtun male migrants in Ireland, masculinity and honour concepts. Angelina is a freelance writer and poet. She can be reached at
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