April 2002 News

Osama pen as mighty as his jihad sword

7 April 2002
The Asian Age
David Rohde

New Delhi: The poem is a tale of betrayal, exile and siege, cast as a mournful conversation between father and son. “Why, father, have they sent these missiles, thick as rain,” the child asks, “showing mercy neither to a child, nor to a man shattered by old age?” “It is a world of criminality, my son,” the father laments, “where children are, like cattle, slaughtered.” The poem, The Travail of a Child Who Has Left the Land of the Holy Shrines, was found last autumn in an abandoned house in Kabul, Afghanistan, once used by Al Qaeda fighters. The three-page printed poem clearly notes its two authors, “the poet Dr Abd-ar-Rahman al-Ashmawi and “Sheikh Osama bin Laden.” Three Arabic literature experts who examined the poem for The New York Times said it appeared that Bin Laden had written roughly half the verses, probably after the US bombardment of Afghanistan began in October. The poem alludes to Bin Laden’s nomadic exile from Saudi Arabia to Sudan and then to Afghanistan. It criticises Arab nations for not rising up against the attacks on Afghanistan, saying, “They are America’s henchmen, blinded and devoid of vision.” The poem, reproduced as if for distribution, appears to be an example of Bin Laden trying to use poetry, a revered art form in the Muslim world, to further his cause and burnish his image as a pan-Islamic warrior, saviour and muse. “The function of poetry in the Arab world is much broader and wider than it is in Western culture,” said Issa Boullata, a professor of Arabic literature at McGill University in Montreal, who reviewed the Bin Laden poem. “He wants to show he is a leader and he knows the culture, and he is using the medium which the traditional society accepts.” Prof. Boullata and the other experts noted that the poem found in Kabul was written in the classical Arabic used in the Quran, which would give the verses religious authority and wider appeal. “Even those who are not literate people, who cannot read, when this kind of Arabic is read to them they understand it,” he said, “because they recite the Quran every day.” Writing and reciting verse is more common among non-poets in the Islamic world than in the West, the experts said. More than a dozen poems apparently written by fighters in the jihad were found in abandoned safe houses, training camps and trenches in Afghanistan last autumn. The origin of the Bin Laden poem, like the others, is not clear. Neither a US intelligence official consulted by The Times nor the poetry experts recognised the name of Bin Laden’s co-author, Ashmawi. But they said it was not unusual for one person to add to the verses written by another.


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