An interview with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, editors of Poetry of the Taliban
“This collection was not conceived or published with a political agenda. In fact, it was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns. If there is any wider point to be made, it is simply that this is not a conflict that has a military solution. The war will end when the political conflict is tackled, which possibly must begin by challenging and questioning our stereotypes about the Afghan Taliban as well as Afghanistan as a whole.” — Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Monday, June 11th, The Atlantic ran an interview with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, the editors of Poetry of the Taliban. The interview, conducted over email as both Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn are in Kandahar, addresses the war in Afghanistan, Afghan cultural tradition, and the controversy their collection of poetry has stirred up in the media.
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn begin by discussing why Afghan culture is overlooked by the West:
A certain narrative of the war in Afghanistan, or of the country itself, has existed for a few years now. The groundwork was laid long before the events of September 11, 2001, in part by journalists who travelled in the country during the 1980s. But the main themes became very clear from 2001 onwards. As part of this, the focus has been on the foreign involvement in Afghanistan, rather than on Afghanistan itself (i.e. on its own terms).
They also make it clear that not all of the poems are strictly about the war:
As you might expect from a collection of over 250 songs, there is a diversity of themes covered. We split it into five individual sections, covering love and pastoral themes, religion, politics and social discontent, the battlefield, and the costs of war in human terms. You will probably find all the things you might expect to be here, but sometimes not in the form you had imagined. In “Hunter,” for example, the poet imagines that he is a deer in a forest, and thinks of the relationship between the foreign soldiers trying to kill him as if they are hunters trying to bag a deer. Or there is a poem written by a woman chastising the men around her for failing to fight properly.
Poetry of the Taliban has stirred up quite a bit of criticism, particularly in Great Britain. Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn say they understand where the controversy comes from, but still think the collection is important:
We understand where these criticisms are coming from. Troops from 50 different countries are currently fighting in Afghanistan, and each week brings news of more injured and dead. At the same time, though, we would make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. This collection was not complied to garner sympathy for the Taliban. What it does give the reader is a new window on an amorphous group, possibly allowing one to empathize with the particular author of a poem, letting one see the world through their eyes, should one want to do so. For this collection, we felt these songs brought something new to the discussion, and added a perspective on where those who associate themselves with the movement are coming from. From our own experience, we knew how important and resonant these songs were for people living in Afghanistan, and we thought it would be useful to present these to a broader community of scholars, poets and the general public.
Finally, they wrap up the interview by discussing the wider implications of Poetry of the Taliban:
This collection was not conceived or published with a political agenda. In fact, it was refreshing to be able to think about Afghanistan outside the usual tropes and patterns. If there is any wider point to be made, it is simply that this is not a conflict that has a military solution. The war will end when the political conflict is tackled, which possibly must begin by challenging and questioning our stereotypes about the Afghan Taliban as well as Afghanistan as a whole.