By Rana F. Sweis
The Daily Star, 12/18/03
The key to understanding the hearts and minds of Arabs is through shiir, or poetry, their greatest art. The Iraq war and its aftermath fueled mixed emotions in the Arab world resignation, reflection, rage that are now being articulated in verse. “No people in the world manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs,” wrote historian Philip Hitti in his History of the Arabs. Poetic expression has been admired and exalted by caliphs, clerics and revolutionaries and has always been at the heart of Arab politics. Al-Mutanabbi, the greatest classical poet, was also a political rebel: “The horses, the nights and the desert know me/As well as the sword, the spear, the pen and the paper,” he wrote. He was slain near Baghdad in 965.
Throughout decades of conflict and stagnation, Arab poets have retained their influence. Indeed, today in the Arab world more poetry is published than prose. “Poetry is the art and beauty of our language,” says Othman Hassan, the Jordanian author of Kibbrayaa al-Sifa (Description of Pride), a recent collection of verse. Moreover, since most Arab poetry is written in classical Arabic and understood by all literate Arabs, it transcends dialects and regionalisms. “Say an Iraqi writes a classical poem. You would never recognize that he’s an Iraqi or Moroccan or Egyptian,” says Saleh Niazi, an Iraqi poet. What unites all, he adds, are “common mental images.”
Mohammed al-Thaher, cultural editor of the second-largest daily in Jordan, Ad-Dustour, calls the Iraq war a “shock” that will stir Arab emotions. But transforming these feelings into verse will take some time, he predicts. “Poetry always comes after an event; we may see a long period of time pass before we can realize what happened, especially in the case of Iraq.” But the hunger for poetry to describe the war can be felt already. Khalil al-Sawahri, a columnist for Ad-Dustour, has written an article entitled Poetry and War, in which he challenges the Arab literary community to respond quickly to the Iraq conflict: “What are Arab poets doing to make their voices heard?”
Despite this call, some are sidestepping politics, for example Iraqi singer Kazim al-Saher, who came to music through poetry. He argues: “Poetry is the language that speaks our feelings … It’s the kingdom we enter whenever we feel desperate.” Yet others will read what they want into specific poetry or songs. At a recent concert in Amman, for example, young men carried a banner that read, “Kazim is the voice of all Arabs.” Saher’s best-received song that night was ‘Baghdad, Don’t Grieve’, a generalized lament for his home city, where he expressed the hope that Iraq would prosper again.
But while Saher’s lyrics point away from political specifics, other poets speak directly about the turmoil in their land and in their souls. Their poetry describes the sound of tanks, soldiers searching homes, Arab hands tied with nylon cords and children in raggedy clothes.
Indeed, even the most romantic Arabs have turned the political turmoil in the Middle East into verse. The late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, perhaps the most influential of modern Arab poets and an early defender of women’s rights, wrote, after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war: “Ah my country! You have transformed me/From a poet of love and yearning/To a poet writing with a knife.”
His fellow Syrian, Adonis, who now lives in France, published a poem last April, after US forces entered Iraq, entitled ‘Homage to Baghdad’. He began by urging his readers to “Listen to the words of the invaders: ‘With the blessing of Heaven/We are leading a preventive war/We will bring the water of life/From the rivers Hudson and Thames/And make it flow into the Tigris and Euphrates.’” Then he described events as they happened: “A war against water and trees/Against birds and the faces of children/The fire of cluster bombs spurts from their hands.”
He asked, in conclusion: “Are we to believe, oh invaders, that an invasion can bring prophetic missiles? That civilization is only born in nuclear waste?” These and similar passages reflect a wider phenomenon of how Arabs feel adrift. Their political leaders have failed, and their poets have found no consistent or effective voice. Meanwhile, America, the new hegemon in the Middle East, is seen as a combination of power, wealth and temptation, a mix of goodwill and bad faith. No American seems able to speak persuasively, let alone poetically, to the Arab soul. And so, today, those who are mostly hostile to American influence are reciting the battle of poetry.
However, the last words have yet to be written, says Mohammed Tommaleh, a novelist and social columnist for Jordan’s Arab al-Yawm newspaper: “Baghdad fell, Saddam fell, but poetry will continue to be written”