Monday, 7 May 2012

The Mystery of the Taliban?

Okay, so my weekly confessional has come around again and I must admit, I'm a bit of a book hoarder. 
I buy all sorts of books, none of them particularly fancy but to me, for that hour or so when I first open a new book up, it is an absolute must have. I do this with all kinds of books for all kinds of reasons. I go for price, cover, review, name, recommendation- all the usual things but the one thing that can hook me in is mystery. This is half of the reason I buy poetry books. I know they aren't in fashion long enough to be going out of fashion but there is always a rush there- and nobody seems to ever stop me. I buy them for the different ideas, for the different beliefs and for the different understandings and viewings of the world, which leads me on nicely to something of a topical post. 

There has been something of a backlash this week towards news publishers Hurst & Co. are to publish a Taliban poetry collection later this month. Whilst at first this may seem an outrageous proposal, I was reluctant to jump to conclusions over this before I had actually seen a copy of the book or at least read some of the poems in it...

The first to dispel a piece of literature over ethnicity may find they have been labelled as a racist, as a bigot or even as a conformist- none of these are labels I particularly want attached to my own name. 

The worry many seem to have is that all the views published in this collection are that of an extremist group. No consideration seems to have been given to the people writing the poems, however we may have been led to perceive them. Whether the poems come from the mouths and pens of frontline soldiers, from hard line activists or from the family types, struggling to get by in a time of warfare remains to be seen entirely and I would contest it is a factor in whether or not such media attention is relevant (even detrimental) to the release of the collection in the first place. 

One factor that does seem to have been overlooked by the press however, is the inclusion of many pre-9/11 pieces- pieces which, had they been released at the time could have been viewed in an entirely different light.
People will always seek out foreign literature. People will always seek out both the suppressed and oppressing voices. People wouldn't necessarily seek out a book of poems from guerrilla soldiers that fundamentally stand against most things they believe in. I doubt though, that such a deliberately offensive title would be a great hit anyway, if that was to be the case. 

To dispel this collection before it hits the shelves based purely on the hype would be wrong. I would urge people to think of the great wealth of literature that comes from overseas and that through translation, maybe one of the finer things poetry has to offer comes to light- the universality of human emotion. 

In the poem The Girl/The Scream (A River Dies of Thirst, 2006) Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, wrote: 

"And in the sea is a warship having fun
catching promenaders on the seashore:
Four, five, seven
fall down on the sand."

I argue then, that should you be of an Anti-Palestinian persuasion, these lines still mean something to you as a person, on an emotional level. The heartache, the innocence and the 'collateral' brutality suggested by a Palestinian poet could equally have come from the pen of one of our own, British war poets, could it not. 

To condemn this title from the off, as certain newspapers already have, seems to suggest that a reader cannot make up his or her own mind about a piece on merit, with opinion set aside. At the same time as scandalising the collection from the start, it has now not only attracted attention to what would probably have been a minor release, but in playing the 'enemy' card risks demeaning some accepted classics from Her Majesty's shores does it not. Such an assumption could be interpreted to mean nothing Wilfred Owen ever wrote was of relevance to a German soldier, who on the surface perhaps shared different principles at the time- an assumption which would give no weight at all to the notion of Owen as an anti-war voice. Exactly. 

Poetry of the Taliban is available to pre-order on Amazon now, should you be interested. The look inside option enables a few introductory pages and poems to be viewed before judgement is passed, too. Culture is culture for a reason, you might say, and that without differences, opinions, and a little mystery along the line- well, what a dull mess we'd be in there. 

Thanks for reading, 



Standard said...

Fantastic post, Shaun. What a confilict of emotions is going on in my head now. I read a book a while ago called 'An Unexpected Light' by Jason Elliot about his travels in Afghanistan (this is back in the 80s or thereabouts) and the beauty of the culture and literature was fascinating. I'd love to read the book you've mentioned but, then again, where does the money go? Does it support the Taliban? If so I don't want my money going to support the oppression of women and burning of books but I really want to read poetry from such a silenced voice in our culture. Tricky one. I shall muse further on my trip to Asda :)

Ashley R Lister said...

As Ste said - really thought-provoking.

I know so little about the Taliban I wouldn't know where to begin to express my ignorance.

One hell of mystery to start the week.