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Poets Mirror Feelings of Afghans Caught in Conflict

Hanan Habibzai

Intellectuals and poets have a commanding presence in Afghan  society. It is the poets who often mirror the feelings of  ordinary people, revealing much about the mindset of Afghans in  the face of occupation and civil war.

Now, it is the smell of fresh blood rather than the delights  of Afghanistan's mountains and fields that occupies the poets.  As an Afghan, when I read their works, I am shocked by the state  of my country, and see in that state the failures of my  government and the international community.

When Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential election last  year, many Afghans, intellectuals included, believed the end of  the Bush era meant a let-up in their suffering.

But after the U.S. bombardments on the western province of  Farah on May 4/5, the latest of many in which scores of  civilians have been killed, most have lost faith.

Local elders say the strikes took 147 lives. If true, that  makes the strikes the bloodiest since the war began in 2001,  though the U.S. military accuse civilians of inflating the  numbers.

But focusing on the numbers misses the point. The situation  has devastated Afghans, and perhaps removed the last shred of  faith they may have had in the coalition forces. Farah resident  Hamidullah says: "We got it wrong. Americans came to kill us. We  thought that they were here to make our future better. But no,  they kill children, women, elders and any type of villager as if  they are all Taliban."

Another local, Khan Wali, who lost his sister-in-law and  another female relative in the air strike, says: "The American  military is trying to prove itself as a hero back in America by  killing innocents."

One Afghan poet, 28-year-old Samiullah Taroon, was born just  after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and grew up between  decades of war. Once famous for pretty verse about valleys in  the Kunar region, he has now, like his fellow artists, turned to  war and oppression, both foreign and domestic, for his subject  matter:

We have heard these anecdotes
That control will be again in the hands of the killer
Some will be chanting the slogans of death
And some will be chanting the slogans of life
The white and sacred pages of the history
Remind one of some people
In white clothes, they are the snakes in the sleeves
They capture Kabul and they capture Baghdad.

Taroon says the government is a puppet of foreign powers,  and in thrall to warlords and corruption:

A fraud with the name of reconstruction
Takes power and gold from me

As a popular poet, reciting his poetry at rallies where  thousands gather, he is a threat to those in power, and those  who want it. Taroon says he is being followed by an Afghan  intelligence agency, which opened a file on him last year, and  fears for his life.

So what does the government or the Taliban have to fear from  a poet? In Afghanistan, poetry is often recited or sung, and is  hugely accessible to ordinary people, despite high illiteracy.  Poetry contests are attended by thousands.

Poetry has for centuries reflected traditions, history and  the mood of the moment in Afghanistan.

At the Battle of Maiwand in 1880, legend has it that a young  girl named Malalai inspired Afghan fighters to defeat the  British army. When the soldiers grew disheartened and the  British looked like winning, Malalai, tending wounded troops,  recited poetry: 

Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
By God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!

The Afghans turned the tables and drove the British all the  way back to Kandahar. True or not, many Afghans believe the  tale.

Pashtun poets have a long history of protest. According to  Afghan historian Habibullah Rafi, 19th-century editor Alama  Mahmood Tarzi infuriated the British with protest poems that  were read throughout the Pashtu speaking world.

When the Russians arrived in 1979, the poetry once again  changed with the fortunes of the people. Ishaq Nangyal's poems,  written during the 80s and 90s, are a good example of the  resilience shown by Afghans towards their oppressors, be they  foreign invaders or religious extremists:

Even if my head is cut down from my body
If my heart is taken out of my cage with the hands
For the honour of the country I accept all these
I am an Afghan, I fulfil my intentions.

When international forces defeated the Taliban in 2001, many  poets reflected hopes that they would finally bring peace and  prosperity after years of suffering under the Soviet-backed  communist government, the Mujahadeen and the Taliban.

But the suffering of ordinary Afghans continued: poverty  grew, corruption grew and the government's actions began to wear  down its people. The poets became angry and directed their anger  at the coalition forces.

Following a U.S. military air strike last summer in the  Shindand district of the Herat province, 47-year-old Nader Jan  lost his faith. "We voted for the kingdom of Hamid Karzai to  have a peaceful life," he says. "Instead we got death. I saw how  Nawabad village came under American attack and more than 100  civilians died, 70 of them children and women. Are the children  also fighting against America? No. I ask, what did they do  wrong?"

A veteran Afghan poet, Pir Muhammad Karwan, mourns a bride and groom killed at a wedding party that was bombed.

Here the girls with the language of bangles
Brought the songs of wedding to the ceremony
With the rockets of America
The songs of the hearts were holed 


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Hanan Habibzai is an Afghan writer who has reported from  his country for Reuters and the BBC, and has recently moved to  London

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