We were sitting with Michael Dwyer from Hurst in a restaurant in London. Alex and I had just completed the manuscript for An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/al-Qaeda merge in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 .
“So what’s next?” Michael asked. Nothing had been planned, or at least we didn’t have any concrete ideas for a book we wanted to write. An Enemy We Created had been a grueling exercise in perseverance, and the idea of starting another project like it was something Alex and I avoided talking about.
We did, however, have a collection of poetry that had been slowly assembled and that we had talked about publishing from time to time. After we had started monitoring the Taliban’s website, Alex had soon noticed a dedicated section for poetry and had started to save the content. In our other projects, such as Zaeef’s book, we had often come across stories that recounted poetry recitals, and after moving down to Kandahar we had encountered lots of tapes, CDs, and other media files on friends’ and acquaintances’ phones with audio of poems written or shared by the Taliban or its supporters.
“We have these poems from the Taliban. We could publish them as a book, I guess,” I told Michael, thinking he wouldn’t be interested. But he was.
In 2012, Poetry of the Taliban came out. One of the first articles published about the book was by Julian Borger of the Guardian: “Taliban poetry book denounced by former British commander.”
After that, things got a little bit crazy. There had been a lot of media interest in the book over the months we worked on it. After all, it was a new story about Afghanistan, and if we are being very honest, not many stories are published in the media world; we cycle through a dozen or so big stories that get repeated time and time again. Because of this, I suppose we expected to get a lot of attention. What we did not expect was that the book would become controversial news. Reuters and the AP published stories about the book and distributed them throughout the world, and Alex and I ended up giving dozens of interviews. We even made it onto TV. I ended up on a number of radio shows with the aforementioned former British commander who denounced the book.
CNN’s TV news coverage was particularly interesting. The report had Alex reading out one of the poems over a Taliban propaganda video showing an attack on a Humvee. We went through the questions before filming the interview, but while the camera was rolling the interviewer dropped a new one in the middle and addressed it to me. It was something like “What is your message to the American people?” or “What is your message to the US government?” It caught me completely off guard and I think I ended up saying something completely random. It is horrific to watch, but here it is for your enjoyment, aptly titled by the uploader “Lovely: CNN Romanticizes Taliban Poetry,” probably because they chose some incongruous romantic music and because of the part where they cut from me saying they can relate to it on an emotional level to a Kalashnikov being loaded.
Anyway, it’s great TV, I guess.
All in all, it was a strange experience. No book is perfect, and there were some issues with ours. It turned out that some of the poems from the website that we published in the book were not written by Taliban members or even supporters. To me they are nonetheless just as relevant as the others, if only because they seem to have resonated with the editorial board of the website, which evidently saw this content as something they related to.
We later had a radio interview with Richard Kemp, the British commander who denounced the book and who had given Julian Borger the quote of all quotes:
“What we need to remember is that these are fascist, murdering thugs who suppress women and kill people without mercy if they do not agree with them, and of course are killing our soldiers. It doesn’t do anything but give the oxygen of publicity to an extremist group which is the enemy of this country.”
I ended up talking further with him over the phone, and we decided to meet up in person. The radio interviews were exhausting; the host would often try to bait us into attacking each other, or at least that was how it felt at the time.
We met at Paddington Station in London and had a coffee. I gave him a copy of the book and we ended up talking for an hour. It was good conversation and gave us both room to go beyond the one-minute radio-ready replies we had to give on air.
Poetry of the Taliban ended up as a controversial news story that really wasn’t very controversial at all. What was remarkable, however, was the consistency with which interviewers posed the same question: “Aren’t you humanizing the Taliban?” While this will be disappointing to my mother, who told me never to answer a question with a question, my answer was: “Aren’t they being dehumanized all the time?”