Since their rise in the late 1990s, the Taliban and likeminded groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region have launched an aggressive campaign against liberal ways of life, bombing music shops, destroying schools, and murdering musicians, singers, and female dancers.

According to Khadim Hussain, a Pashtun cultural expert and managing director of the Peshawar-based Baacha Khan Trust Education Foundation, the Taliban strategically deprive people of secular outlets in order to accelerate the spread of religious extremism.

But the Taliban’s secular-nationalist opponents are fighting back using some of the very arts that religious fundamentalists seeks to destroy—poems adapted to traditional Pashto music. In Taliban-heavy areas such as Kurram, Orakzi, Waziristan, Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, and Dir, literary gatherings, including mushairas (poetry recitals), have become a refuge for traumatized communities. Hussain argues, “Poetry is the collective creative expression of the secular, liberal, and democratic ideals of the estimated 70 million Pashtuns.” (Most counts place the population closer to 40–50 million.)

Sher Alam Shinwari, a literary critic, explains that modern Pashtun poetry is a poetry of resistance. “Every poem created by a poet challenges the Taliban mindset,” he says, adding that more than a hundred poetry collections were published in the first seven months of 2011.

Modern Pashtun poetry connects young people to a national identity increasingly jeopardized by sectarian violence and conflict. “Now children inquire from their grandmothers what were their folk songs, folk tales, and proverbs, which they forgot in the heat of war,” Hussain observes.

I could not care less if it’s a mosque or a temple filled with idols
Where my beloved lives, that is my Ka’aba

You religious fundamentalists stop this bloodshed
Humanity is the best religion; love, the best worship

Because of this war I despise the “dear mullah”
Love is my religion; unity is my faith

                                        —Zarin Pareshan (a Pashtun poet)

Religious fundamentalists claim they are waging jihad for the revival of Islam, but at least some Pashtun poets view the Taliban’s ideology as foreign to their land. One of the major nationalist Pasthto poets is Rahmat Shah Sail. His ode to Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the main trade and cultural center of the Pashtuns, expresses widespread grief over the violence coursing through the “city of flowers”:

When your pretty flesh is plucked like the petals of a flower
I watch in silence, for I have no power
When your precious blood is turned to drizzling rain
I perform your funeral rites with tears, for I have no power
O Peshawar! Our love is ancestral
I would never let you turn to smoke while I watch
O Peshawar! We share the blood of life, you and I
I’d never let you disappear while I watch
We are witnessing the force of history
O Peshawar! Bombs don’t suit you

“Historically, the mullah was part of Pashtun society, but he was not the architect of their ways of life,” says Akbar Sial, another nationalist poet, who has written eight collections of Pashto poetry. “It was not possible to imagine a Pashtun village without musicians and singers,” he adds. “However, the recent surge of religious militancy has badly damaged these old traditions.”

Sial’s poems advocating peace and development and condemning violence—the title of his new book translates as “No to War”—are popular on both sides of the border among university students, civil society workers, and political activists. One of his poems implores the “rulers of the world”:

Don’t snatch the pen from our hand
With which we make the picture of our dreams

Don’t create violence in our village
Don’t bring mayhem to our village
. . .

Don’t turn this ancient playground
Into a blood-red ammo dump

Amjad Shehzad published his poetry collection Na (No) in 2001. The contest between secular and religious values could not be starker:

Even now some people in my village say,
All destinies are shaped in the skies,
Tell the mullah we are not the people who follow his chants
Our hearts are pacified only with the sounds of singing

Since the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, conflict has radicalized the Pashto literary culture. “Our region is suffering from a three-decade-long conflict; it really changed the literary trends from elaborations of love to life,” says Arif Tabassum, a poet, translator, and NGO worker. According to Tabassum, where poems once focused on ghairat—“the marshal image of Pashtuns as a nation”—now “Pashto poetry talks about peace, tolerance, coexistence, and, in particular, changing nations’ image of terrorists.”

Today’s Pashtun poets don’t just want a return to secular values; they want the rest of the world to know it.

Poem translations courtesy of Riaz A. Hakeem.