Osama bin Laden, poet
This post has been updated and corrected in several places with information from UC Davis.
Next week the academic journal Language & Communication will publish an article by UC Davis Professor Flagg Miller on the evolution of the term "al qaida" based, in part, on the oratory of Osama bin Laden. "Bin Laden is a skilled poet with clever rhymes and meters," Miller told the Times of London, "which was one reason why many people taped him and passed recordings around, like pop songs." [Update: This post originally reported that the article published in “Language & Communication” would include samples of Osama bin Laden's poetry. UC Davis says that is not the case.]
Osama bin Laden's poems were among more than 1,500 audiocassettes found in al-Quaeda's Afghanistan headquarters in 2001. Miller, a scholar who specializes in political discourse, Islam, and media -- his first book is "The Moral Resonance of Arab Media: Audiocassette Poetry and Culture in Yemen" (Harvard University Press / Middle Eastern Monographs) -- has been studying bin Laden's poetry recordings for five years. He described the poems to The Times of London:
They reveal Osama Bin Laden as the performer, the entertainer with an agenda. He told gory tales of dead mujaheddin from the villages where he was speaking, which was often the first time their families had learned of their fates. He mixed this news up with radical theology and his own verse based on the traditions of hamasa -- a warlike poetic tradition from Oman calculated to capture the interest of young men.
Earlier this month, Miller told the L.A. Times that the poems are didactic. Osama bin Laden, Miller explains, "coaches his audiences through their fears about dying in a violent way. He coaches them to consider such an end as noble and potentially beneficial to a larger purpose." The professor told the Times of London that "He crafts his words to excite the urban dissatisfied youth, offering them escape from their elders and villages. Instead, many just die in terrible ways."
All of which fits politically. "He's a very good recruiter," Miller says. But that doesn't answer the aesthetic question: is Osama bin Laden's poetry any good? A sample after the jump.
A poem by Osama bin Laden; UC Davis has a copy of the audio recording available. [Update: This post previously linked to the Sunday Times of London; it now links to UC Davis.]
Tomorrow, William, you will discover which young man [will] confront your brethren, who have been deceived by [their own] leaders.
A youth, who plunges into the smoke of war, smiling
He hunches forth, staining the blades of lances red
May God not let my eye stray from the most eminent
Humans, should they fall, Djinn, should they ride
[And] lions of the jungle, whose only fangs
[Are their] lances and short Indian swords
As the stallion bears my witness that I hold them back
[My] stabbing is like the cinders of fire that explode into flame
On the day of the stallions’ expulsion, how the war-cries attest to me
As do stabbing, striking, pens, and books.
If we could look at this purely as a text, I think the connection between war and writing could be explored; and, while I'm new to Arab poetry, I think the language is beautiful.
But this isn't just a text -- the author is not dead (at least, not that we know of) and his poetry has to be read in context of his actions. Which makes this poem, calling for death and flame, quite awful.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
[This post previously quoted Professor Miller describing bin Laden’s poetry, attributing the description to an interview in The Times of London. After this item was originally posted on September 25, 2008, UC Davis contacted us to say the quotation did appear in the Sunday Times, but it is "not what Miller told the Sunday Times writer." The quotation attributed to Miller on this post was, “[the poems] reveal Osama Bin Laden as the performer, the entertainer with an agenda. He told gory tales of dead mujaheddin from the villages where he was speaking, which was often the first time their families had learned of their fates. He mixed this news up with radical theology and his own verse based on the traditions of hamasa -- a warlike poetic tradition from Oman calculated to capture the interest of young men.” Wrote UC Davis in an e-mail to us, “Miller did not say that families first learned of relatives’ deaths while listening to bin Laden’s poems, and would have no way of knowing whether this is true. He also did not refer to ‘hamasa’ poetry. He did talk with the Sunday Times writer about war poetry composed in the Ibadi tradition, which is neither Shi’ite nor Sunni, and currently represented by communities in Oman. We have requested a correction from the Sunday Times, but say they haven’t heard back from anyone at that paper yet.”]
Photo: A picture dated 1998 shows Saudi-born Osama bin Laden smiling as he sits in a cave in the Jalalabad region of Afghanistan. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency