William Dalrymple’s Return of a King (Bloomsbury) is out, adding to the substantial weight that the shelves devoted to Great Game literature already creak under.
William Dalrymple’s Return of a King (Bloomsbury) is out, adding to the substantial weight that the shelves devoted to Great Game literature already creak under. But I have another Afghanistan book on my mind. It’s been languishing on the shelf for months, unreviewed. Sometimes, I imagine I catch it glaring at me.
Poetry of the Taliban (Hachette) is blurbed front and back by Dalrymple and Mohammed Hanif. It is edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (Afghanistan-based researchers), with a foreword by historian Faisal Devji, whose credentials, skills and sensitivities are above suspicion. The verse translations by Mirwaiz Rahmany and Abdul Hamid Stanikzai ring true, are well edited, and some are quite memorable: “This blood on every bush, / These graves every few steps, / This is my proud history, / These ruined walls.” And yet, this is a godawfully creepy book.
Not because of its contents, but because it comes without a container, so to speak. It sets aside context and history. Here’s what the introduction says: “[The poems allow] the reader to appreciate those who comprise the Taliban as human beings (regardless of what actions they may have taken), and, as such, shed light on who these people actually are, and what they stand for as individuals.” To me, that’s fairly creepy.
Books frequently require the suspension of disbelief. But this volume of verse in translation, while offering a fresh insight into what Western adventurism has done to Afghanistan, requires the suspension of all judgement. To read it right, you have to forget that in order to compose a heart-wrenching nationalist quatrain or a pretty ghazal, the poet may have had to take time out from whipping old men, stoning women to death and shooting girls for going to school. Admittedly, this image of the Taliban is a dehumanised Western caricature. But so is the Taliban that this book projects against a background that’s airbrushed out, a stick figure who can cast no human shadow of sin or remorse.
Meanwhile Babri, once a mosque, now an idea memorialising Afghanistan’s best-known fighting man, has weathered the 20th anniversary of its destruction without the customary excitement. No one wants to build a temple there any more because elections are now fought with live ammunition like