What’s the purpose of poetry? A news story made me think about that question again. It also made me take a fairly recent book down from my shelf that I haven’t looked at in a while, Poetry of the Taliban, edited by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (Columbia University Press).
The Times of India reported that a university in Kerala pulled a poem from a class syllabus that had been written by an Arabic poet who’s a former Guantanamo Bay detainee with alleged links to al Qaeda. The poet, Ibrahim al-Rubaish, composed the poem, “Song from Guantanamo” (for more information on this poem and the poet, see the two links at the end of this post) and it’s included in an anthology that’s a part of that college course in Kerala.
What I wanted to know, obviously, was what the poem said: What was behind the university administrators’ decision? What had disturbed them?
The news article doesn’t quote from the poem, but it does include an interesting point about the reasons behind the decision to pull the poem:
The Dean’s report, without commenting on the literary quality of the poem, said it would be against moral values to prescribe a poem penned by a person who is said to have terrorist links, the sources said.
It sounds like the decision was based more on the poet’s alleged associations than on a specific message in the poem. (I’m sure there are plenty of people more familiar with this news story than me, and if you’re reading this post, I’d welcome your comments and clarifications!) When you read the poem itself in the links at the bottom of this post, you’ll probably conclude the same thing.
That brings me to the Linschoten/Kuehn book. It isn’t about this situation, but it still seems relevant for this discussion, and that’s why I wanted to share it with you.
Before I left my last job, that book arrived at the Times editorial offices and I kept it. Its title intrigued me. What did the poems say to their audience? I expected 200-plus pages of verse attacks on the West. There are certainly fierce, rallying cries like these lines from “Blood Debt”:
Today, I write history on my enemy’s chest with my sword,
I draw yesterday’s memories on today’s chest once more.
But I also found other poems of intense spirituality with no hint of any political or military context:
I have opened my mouth in prayer,
You have brought down your blessings
In order to make my body blessed,
To have the problems resolved.
The spot on my heart makes a candle like the sun…
A preface to the book declares that “it is no exaggeration to say that in the ever-increasing archive of studies on the Taliban only a miniscule number have attended to the movement’s aesthetic dimension…” Linschoten and Kuehn have certainly addressed the need for this kind of aesthetic study with their invaluable book.
But I also think their book not only helps us to understand the poems they’ve collected — composed in the pre-9/11 and post-9/11 world — but also situations in the world like the one involving the university in Kerala. The editors (and the translators of the Taliban book) have provided us with a deeper level of knowledge that can only help the world community — and our common future. With that in mind,why not keep the poem in the Kerala syllabus and accompany it with context? The stakes remain the same, don’t they?
My friends, I welcome your comments.
- Ibrahim al-Rubaish’s ‘Ode to the Sea’ Pulled from Calicut University Syllabus (arablit.wordpress.com)
- A Poem From Guantánamo: “Ode to the Sea” by Ibrahim al-Rubaish (bandannie.com)