Whateverland

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

Stories of the Past: An Enemy We Created

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When friends ask me about this book, saying they haven’t read it, I normally reply that they shouldn’t bother. The book mentions several hundred people, and someone who is interested in but new to the subject might end up learning as much about politics in Egypt in the 1970s as about post-2001 Afghanistan.

An Enemy We Created started as a commissioned report. I think we said we would write 50,000 words or so; we ended up writing 120,000. It is a long book.

While I was working on it, my brother asked me what it was about, what its central thesis was. I replied that very simply put, it explains based on research that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are two different groups or movements that never merged. My brother, who is an engineer and has little to do with Afghanistan said: “Of course they are; everyone knows that, don’t they?” Turns out not everyone does.

When we had finally finished the manuscript, I remember talking with Alex, saying that in an ideal world we would now throw it all away and start over from the beginning. It’s an experience I often have. An Enemy We Created is as broad a book as it gets, and for those who have little background in its subject matter, it is a difficult one. While mistakes have come to the surface since its publication, the underlying thesis and themes have stood the test of time remarkably. Since it came out, we have continued to work on sections of the long history it explores, digging deeper into the 1990s, the foreign fighters, and the Afghan Taliban, and while the story becomes ever more complicated, it supports the central finding of the nonexistence of “Talqaeda.”

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September 10th, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Stories of the Past: My Life with the Taliban

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Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef’s autobiography, My Life with the Taliban , was published in 2010 by Hurst. You can order a print copy or get the Kindle version on Amazon.

While Alex Strick and I were still doing our first project, AfghanWire, which has long since gone dormant and has recently been taken offline due to an attack on the server it is hosted on, we came across an article in an Afghan newspaper reviewing a small book Mullah Zaeef had published in Pashto about his time in Guantanamo. A founding member of the Taliban, Mullah Zaeef had held several positions in the movement and later in the Emirate. Most notably, he had been the ambassador to Pakistan, one of three countries that recognized the Emirate when al-Qaeda conducted the “planes operation” that would come to be known as the September 11 attacks.

We were introduced to Zaeef through a mutual friend from Kandahar, and thus began a lengthy journey. What had started as an effort to translate Zaeef’s short book about his time in Guantanamo grew into a new book about his life story, from his early childhood in southern Afghanistan to his time as a mujahed fighting against the Soviet forces to his time with the Taliban and his imprisonment.

When we first approached publishers, there was little interest—to be more accurate, we got turned down. An editorial board compared publishing Zaeef’s autobiography to publishing those of senior members of the Nazi party. The book eventually found a home with Hurst thanks to Michael Dwyer, who has since become a close friend and supporter. It took hours of interviews with Mullah Zaeef and many others in and around Kandahar for the book to be finished.

Based on publishers’ initial reactions, I thought at the time that the book would spark a huge controversy and that we would face angry audiences around the world. However, the tide had changed by the time the book hit the shelves, and during the dozens of presentations Alex and I gave in America and the UK, we rarely came across any outrage.

It was a lucky coincidence that when the book came out there was a general desire in most governments of the West to understand the Taliban, to understand who they are and what they want. One would think that by 2014 we would have a good understanding of the Taliban and their history, but that is still not the case. We have a better understanding, perhaps, but one that has to a large extent not managed to penetrate public opinion.

Working with Mullah Zaeef was an interesting project, and I learned a great deal from it. After all, here was a man who had spent most of his life in conflict and had been imprisoned in a foreign country by a foreign government, and yet he was able to work together with two young (at the time) foreigners to write down his story.

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September 10th, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Taliban Statement: the death of Osama bin Laden

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Just because Americans have said they have killed Sheikh Osama bin Laden but they have’t shown anything to prove it yet. We don’t want to make any comments and on the other side the closest links [people] to Osama have not given a confirmation of his death so we cannot make any comment as to whether he is dead or not. original here

 

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May 3rd, 2011 at 2:49 pm

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Interview in the european

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Interview in the european online magazine – in german.

Thanks to Mark T. Fliegauf who tracked me down and kept on reminding me that i had said i would do the interview which took him a good two months – that is dedication.

so here the piece

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May 19th, 2010 at 9:45 am

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

the storm is coming

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Yesterday a small storm came through the city. Today 3 suicide bombers.IMG_3448 - Version 2.jpg

Kandahar city, Afghanistan

Spend the last couple of hours downstairs after shooting started in the streets. “Guys you need to come down your walls won’t hold a bullet.” a friend of ours said. “The soldiers they shoot in the air to scare those guys off. One bullet is enough.”

When the gun fire died down a little we went onto the roof to take a look. A few hundred meters across we could see soldier running on rooftops. “These are the guys who will start shooting in a minute.” and sure enough they did.

This morning NATO forces opened fire on a bus t in Zheray district killing four and wounding 18. Short interview with wounded civilian from this morning

it appears the storm is coming.

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April 12th, 2010 at 10:43 am

Taliban poetry

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Not available online yet but here the link anyway:

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Last edition of the German magazine Zenith featured the cover story by Christopher Grosse and myself about Taliban poetry. Alex Strick and myself have been working on an ongoing project concerned with Taliban poetry. By now we have collected hundreds of poems and translated them into english, hoping to publish a ‘anthology’ of Taliban poetry in order to shine more light on this ignored output of the group.

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January 8th, 2010 at 5:44 pm

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