by Felix kuehn

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Stories from the Past: Poetry of the Taliban

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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?”

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September 10th, 2014 at 4:11 pm

Meet Mister Kandahar

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There are some things you should not do in Kandahar: you should not spend too much time on the street; you should not tell people when you are going out, or where you are going, up to the moment when you are actually leaving the door; you should not go to the same place or person regularly; you should not hang around areas with a random group of people you do not know. The list goes on. Kandahar is half-way submerged in war – but it’s a new war, one that does not necessarily take place before your eyes.

In the past few years, Kandahar has changed. The battle for Kandahar is coming, if one is to believe Stanley McChrystal. I remember walking on the street with friends, getting ice cream in the summer and spending fridays at the river in Arghandab just outside the city. One thing I remember particularly well is when we went to the local gym. All of these things might kill you today.

A year and a half ago, I would go out at night, huddle up with two other people on a motorcycle or walk through the back alleys to one of Kandahar’s gyms. When I first told a friend of mine living outside Afghanistan about my evening entertainment he didn’t believe me: “You’re joking, right? They have gyms down there?” He laughed.

Yes they do, dozens of them, crammed down in basements and backrooms all over town. You can find guys pumping iron on gym equipment that can compete with most standard gyms in Western Europe and America — minus the electricity from time to time.

For people who haven’t spent time in southern Afghanistan, this might seem strange, but gyms make perfect sense, as do hair products and perfume.

As with other things in Afghanistan, a paradox lies at the bottom of this: there seems to be no middle way in Kandahar. You want to be young or you want to be old, but no one wants to age. Many of my Afghan friends colour their hair to get rid of the grey and white streaks, but some consciously bring them to the front for people to see. Many complain about their weight, the belly that has been growing for the past few years, and sometimes they start doing something about it.

The gyms are packed in the early evenings, mostly with young men. In close to every gym I have been to, you could buy nutritional supplements, muscle busters and Creatine buckets — not that different from gyms in the west, you might say. But what you don’t find back in the west are a variety of anabolic steroid products on the same shelf.

“You cannot make your body look like this without the pills, the powder and shots,” one of the young men told me. A friend said that some of the guys spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars on steroids each month.

One man that everyone in Kandahar’s gym world knows is Mohammadullah Gul Lalai: Mr Kandahar in 2003. He is a big guy, even though he is currently not training. “Sometimes you need to rest. I’ll start training again in a month,” says Gul Lalai, sitting on a bench in one of his gyms on the third floor, just a few hundred meters away from Kandahar’s Chawk-e Madat.

He says he is 33 years old and that he started to train when he was twenty. “First I played football, but then one of my cousins convinced me to try bodybuilding and I did.” Back then there were two gyms in Kandahar with little equipment and no trainers.

“Arnold told me how to do it. I used his videos and magazines.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, now the governor of California, ex-Terminator star and former Mr Universe, smiles from the wall of every gym in Kandahar. The posters are all from the 1970s and 80s, showing him at his peak — just before he dropped out and filmed Conan the Barbarian, the film that made him a star and set the stage for his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger pops up time and time again in conversations in the gym, along with many other names I do not know.

Gul Lalai got the equipment for his first gym in Pakistan, rented a small room in Kandahar and slowly, day by day more and more people joined. Currently Kandahar has 21 gyms all across the city. The first championships were internal to the clubs. “Later, under Taliban rule, there were many problems,” Gul Lalai says. “Many things were not allowed: you could not show the legs, the body for competitions. We had to wear long clothes. So we trained in Kandahar and went to competitions in Pakistan.”

Otherwise, the Taliban had no problems with the gyms. “The Taliban were strong. Many came to my gym to train,” Gul Lalai said.

Today, Gul Lalai stays out of politics even though he is the the director for the department of sport in Kandahar and the head of the Olympic Committee.

“We need to give the young people something to do. Sport can help improve the situation,” he says.

He won his first title in 2000 and became Mr Kandahar in 2002 in the 80-kilo weight class from among 13 clubs. In 2003 he went to Iran and won a competition in the 90-kilo class. In 2005 he became Mr Afghanistan in the 90-kilo class and was selected for Mr Asia; he came in third place.

There seems to be no good reason for Gul Lalai to stay in Kandahar. With the violence, the assassinations and the general situation deteriorating everyday, why hasn’t he left? Gul Lalai laughs. “We know these things, no problem.”

I haven’t been to the gym for months. Instead, I bought a bench, some free weights and a running machine. The way the future seems set, with NATO preparing for “The Battle for Kandahar”, it might not have been such a sound investment.

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May 2nd, 2010 at 7:30 am

Back in Kandahar – Radio Australia

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talking about stuff on Connect Asia – Radio Australia

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Will be updating the blog in the next few days now that i am back in Kandahar. Currently busy with writing up articles about Somalia – will soon post some picture here as well insha’allah.

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Kandahar is slowly getting hot, and the office here is heating up quite a bit during the day. The atmosphere in the city has changed since i left 2.5 months ago. kidnappings have happened on a daily basis and apparently many are just disappearing no ransom asked. A friend said yesterday sitting on the roof with us pointing at the city: “It makes you believe its a real city now, with the buildings and the streets but really its not a city.”

People are worried.

This morning there were two explosions in Malajat – loud enough to wake me up, followed by a brief exchange of gunfire.

Kandahar isn’t Mogadishu but the security has deteriorate to a degree that slowly introduces the same paranoia to the city.

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April 9th, 2010 at 11:25 am

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