Change: a poem from The Poetry of the Taliban

Even grown-up persons with children of their own cannot give a reasonable account of concepts such as entropy, sacrament, syntax, number, quantity, pattern, linear relation, name, class, relevance, energy, redundancy, force, probability, parts, whole, information, tautology, homology, mass (either Newtonian or Christian), explanation, description, rule of dimensions, logical type, metaphor, topology, and so on. What are butterflies? What are starfish? What are beauty and ugliness?

The concept of “sacrament” occupies a place of honor second only to “entropy” in Bateson’s listing.

I am not arguing the pros and cons of publishing these poems, although I side firmly with the publisher on this. Nor am I attempting to assess the poetic value of the one poem I have quoted and examined. What I am trying to do is to give that poem the kind of reading I would want to give to any poem that interested me — one that seeks out its resonances in both local and world cultures as far as my wits can manage, showing, if possible, what power it gains from archetype, authority and form… If the poem were from the South English Legendary, for instance — which expresses similar sentiments — I’d have no hesitation calling its worldview “sacramental”.

But this is a poem from Afghanistan and Islam, not from medieval Christian England, so I should perhaps explain that in my view, any perspective which views the world as a series of legible “signs from God” — ayat, in the Arabic of the Qur’an — is a sacramental view, under the definition of sacrament that calls it “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”.

Blood is such a sign — of life, of its value, of its continuity by descent, and of its redemptive power even in death.

It is in sensing this semiotic / sacramental quality to Islam that we begin to grasp what translations such as these can point us to, but not directly reveal.


Further reading:

From today’s NYT: Why Afghan Women Risk Death to Write Poetry

Poetry reading in Afghan culture: Reading Poetry In Kandahar

Afghan poetics: Poetry: Why it Matters to Afghans? Understanding Afghan Culture [.pdf], NPS, 2009

Talib poetry as propaganda: Johnson & Waheed, Analyzing Taliban taranas (chants): an effective Afghan propaganda artifact, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2011

And finally, Afghans Build Peace, One Stanza at a Time

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3 comments on this post.
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  2. Bryan Alexander:

    Excellent catch, Charles, and a fine meditation.

    “Change” brought to my decaffeinated mind some bloody discourse from the French Revolution.  Check Camille Desmoulins (probably):

    “the rivers of blood that flowed during those six months for the eternal freedom of a People of 25 million souls who had not yet been cleansed by liberty and public happiness” (source)

    I remember Marat writing/hollering something like this, but can’t find a good source.

  3. Charles Cameron:

    Hi Bryan:
    Don’t get me started on rivers of blood, I think they’re even more common than rains of blood.
    As a Brit, for instance, I remember Enoch Powell‘s Rivers of Blood speech, in which he said:

    As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”

    Then, because as you know I’m apocalyptically inclined, there’s Revelation 16.4: 

    And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and fountains of waters; and they became blood.

    And here’s a quotation from Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya:

    People will better understand the intensity of the measures taken against the system of Hazrat Mahdi (as). The only reason for the rivers of blood spilled in Iraq, the only reason for the American invasion, in their terms, is the risk of Hazrat Mahdi (as) appearing. They misunderstand Hazrat Mahdi (as) and have been seized by a huge terror. They imagine he will spill a lot of blood. Yet Hazrat Mahdi (as) will not shed a drop of blood. They were unable to find a Mahdi there, and America is now withdrawing. I have already spoken about Afghanistan. The reason for the occupation is a precautionary measure against the appearance of Hazrat Mahdi (as). Because the accounts say he will come with black banners. Our Prophet (saas) says “Woe to Taliqan.” Taliqan means Afghanistan. He says that Taliqan will be occupied in the time of Hazrat Mahdi (as). Our Prophet (saas) knew there would be such a fear, and said so, that people would feel such concerns.

    There’s a whole lot to ponder in that one!