By Rachel Galvin
In the town of Al-Basrah in Iraq, poets gather every year for a poetry festival, just as they did fourteen centuries ago.
In Cairo every Friday, people come together at the shrine of Ibn al-Farid, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet, to hear his poems read. And in Yemen, poetry is still vital for negotiating and settling tribal disputes.
While Westerners may be surprised by the notion that poetry is an effective way to convey a political message, Bassam Frangieh says it is an integral part of Arab culture.
“In every Arab country every day, poets appear on television, on the radio, or in the newspaper. Every single newspaper in the Arab world every day has poetry -- this is nothing new,” says Frangieh, who is professor of Arabic at Yale University. “Poetry is the essence of Arab culture.”
The tradition extends back hundreds of years before the advent of Islam. Frangieh describes an ancient practice: “Once a year, all the tribes would meet in a place next to Mecca called Souk Ukaz, or the market of Ukaz. Poets from all over Arabia would come to compete and recite their poems in front of judges. These judges were either poets themselves or critics. Each year the festival’s winning poem would be transcribed in golden letters and hung on the door of Ka’bah in Mecca for the whole year. It was like the Nobel Prize of ancient Arabia.”
From Algeria to Yemen, Arabic is the official language of more than two dozen nations with disparate histories and peoples. “An Arabic poet is a poet who writes in Arabic, whatever his race or nation may be in contemporary terms,” says Roger Allen, who taught an NEH summer seminar on Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He notes that Westerners often see “Arab” and “Muslim” as the same term. “To be sure, the majority of Arabs are Muslims, but there are significant communities of Arabs who are not -- the Maronites of Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt, for example.” Arabs make up less than 10 percent of the population of one billion Muslims worldwide.
An affinity for poetic language is deeply rooted in Arab culture, and historically, the poet has held a position of high esteem. “The Arab poet was the voice of his tribe, its defender and representative -- above all, its provocative force,” says Frangieh. The tribes took their name from the camel-herding Bedouins who called themselves ‘arab, or people from the land of Arbi in the Syrian desert.
Nomadic tribes relied on poets to recount news and offer political commentary, and to keep an oral record of tribal history -- triumphs, defeats, marriages, and deaths were recorded in verse. “The poem itself reflects the history of the tribe -- the principles, the values, the customs, the traditions,” Frangieh explains. “You want to know anything about the Arabic people -- about their history, tradition, genealogy, battles, love affairs -- you turn to poetry.”
Poems were also used to convey messages, as in this sixth-century poem by al-Muraqqish.
O camel-rider, whoever thou mayst
be, bear this message, if thou lightest on
them, to Anas son of Sa’d, and ‘Harmalah:
‘Great will be the virtue of you twain
and your father, if the man of Ghufailah
escapes being slain!’
“There is an incredibly rich tradition of poetry from the pre-Islamic period, with many different topics and genres: panegyrics, love poems, elegies, eulogies,” says Allen. “There is a shorter poem of occasion, an elegy, for example, on the death of a hero—a genre in which women poets were particularly strong. And then a much more elaborate polythematic poem, a liturgy involving many different sections: a tribal celebration called a qasidah.” The qasidah describes a rite of passage in which the poet leaves his familiar surroundings, encounters a host of dangers, and returns to his tribe, celebrating his membership in the community. The poem contains detailed descriptions of the desert, the wildlife, and the riding animal of the poet -- a horse, or more commonly, a camel. Each qasidah lampoons the tribe’s enemies and praises its leaders. In an eighth-century poem by al-Mahdi, the poet eulogizes his patron, acknowledging his largesse.
While not every wealthy personage shows
munificence, by my life Ibn Barmak has shown
generosity toward me.
I have used my poems to milk his palms, and
they have flowed copiously like rain-clouds in a
“These poems were recited according to very sophisticated metric patterns and very refined language,” says Frangieh. “They are long poems, ranging between one and two hundred verses.” Each line of the poem has the same number of stressed syllables, and each adheres to the same rhyme scheme.
The role of the professionally trained poet was to defend the tribe’s honor, articulate its identity, and hold verbal duels with other tribes. The poet, or sha’ir, able to craft and perform verbal legerdemains was thought to possess magical powers and was highly regarded for his talent. “The Arabic word ‘sha’ir’ means somebody with a sense of the unseen, so the poet is somebody who feels or senses,” says Allen.
“There must be something that blends mundane meaning and mundane forms into something that captivates and moves,” says Ghazi al-Gosaibi, who is a poet and the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Britain. “The pre-Islamic Arabs had no doubt whatsoever about this X factor. They believed it was magic.”
Each master poet was surrounded by his rawis, or group of reciters. “When the poet composed a new poem, the rawis committed it to memory and the next day rode their camels or horses across Arabia to the other tribes to brag about their poet,” says Frangieh. “He was the political spokesperson of the tribe and predicted the future like a prophet.”
With the revelation of the Qur’an in 622 A.D. and the founding of Islam, Arabia underwent radical changes. Previously nomadic communities were unified into courts run by caliphs, the civil and religious heads of the Muslim state. Systems of trade and taxation were established, a confederated army replaced the tribal one, and a centralized empire formed. By the late ninth century, Islam had become the principal faith of a dominion that extended from the western Mediterranean into Central Asia. The written record of the Qur’an, meaning “recitation” or “recitations,” led to a shift from the oral tradition to a written one, which had a dramatic impact on the culture from literary composition to law to philology.
“The written record of the Qur’an was an amazingly important event in the history of the Middle East, because it required an enormous amount of research on language and genealogy, and the development of critical methods for assessing the accuracy of reports. All that went into the formulation of Islamic law and theology, but also into poetry and literary criticism,” says Allen.
Poets retained their prominence under the new social order. The prophet Muhammad had his own personal poet, known as shu’ara’ al-rasul, or the poet of the prophet. Caliphs and sultans -- such as the sultan Harun ar-Rashid, the eighth-century caliph of Baghdad who served as the inspiration for The Thousand and One Nights -- had their own coteries of poets who recited verses each night at their palaces.
“In the Islamic caliphal period, poets would go in search of patronage. The advent of the caliphate changed the status of the poet from tribal representative to a court poet who often traveled,” Allen explains.
The master poet of the Arabs, comparable to English literature’s Shakespeare, is the tenth-century court poet al-Mutanabbi, who composed classical verses glorifying Islamic rulers and their deeds. These lines are from his poem dedicated to Sayf al-dawlah on the occasion of his victory against the Byzantines in 954 A.D.
Resolutions come in accordance with the worth of the resolute; noble deeds come in accordance with the worth of the noble.
In the eyes of the puny, puny deeds seem important; in the eyes of the important, important deeds seem puny.
Al-Mutanabbi was conscious of his power. In another poem, he admonishes a king that unless al-Mutanabbi composes a poem about his feats, future generations will not remember the ruler.
A constant in the history of Arabic poetry is its role as a political tool. In Yemen, for instance, poetry is still integral to the process of settling tribal disputes. Stephen Caton, professor of anthropology at Harvard University, has spent two decades studying Yemeni tribal society. “Poetry is a part of the general political discourse in tribal society -- and tribal societies are still a very important part of the nation-state in the Middle East, as in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq,” he says. “If you’re going to understand the political discussion that’s going on in the public sphere, you have to be able to tap into that poetry.”
In Yemen, a sheikh mediating a dispute will often call the disagreeing parties together along with uninvolved delegations from other tribes. As the delegations arrive at the meeting place, they voice their opinions and moral stances in poetry. Listening to the poems, the sheikh assesses whether or not there is a consensus on the issue and determines the differences of opinion. “At various points in the dispute mediation, people can weigh in with the moral force of a poem very effectively,” says Caton. “Arab poetry shows us that art and politics are not divorced and that neither is poetry and power.”
“In places like Yemen, there is a cultural conviction that poetry has something to offer politics -- that political action is not only about using brute force, it’s about persuading someone, convincing them that what you say is moral and just. They are persuaded in part by the beauty of the language to think so,” he adds.
Not just the politically engaged poem, but other poetic traditions have also been handed down through time, interpreted anew by each generation. Poems extolling wine or dedicated to the poet’s beloved comprise two categories that have endured from pre-Islamic times. These lines from al-A’sha, a traveling bard of the seventh century, are taken from one of his wine poems.
I have gone to the tavern in the morning,
with a bold, brazen, bawdy butcher in my tracks. . .
Reclining I have outdone my rivals for a
sprig of sweet-basil and a dry wine from a moist jug.
As long as it is available, they only wake up
to yell ‘Give me more’ after the first and second
A celebrated author of the wine poem, the caliph al-Walid ibn Yazid, wrote a poem in the eighth century that displays the primary characteristics of the genre: the wine-drinker challenges fate and compares the bottle of wine to a beautiful woman.
Cast off hidden cares with frivolity; thwart
fate by enjoying the daughter of the grape. . .
How I long to drink from a maid of noble
descent on her wedding-day,
Resplendent in her jewels, wondrous to
As though her glass contained a firebrand
gleaming into the watcher’s eye.
After the establishment of Islam, sufis, or Muslim mystics, adapted ancient poetic forms such as the wine poem and the love poem to express spirituality. “Sufism is a search for a path whereby the believer can cancel concerns with the daily world -- the mundane -- and clear the decks for a closer walk with God,” says Allen. “To do that, the mystic needs to enter a state of changed consciousness achieved a number of ways, such as through chanting.”
Sufi poetry is highly allegorical. At times it employs the language of love poetry to convey a love of God and desire for mystical union, and others, the vocabulary of wine poetry to express the process of attaining a contemplative state. In a sufi wine poem, the wine pourer represents Muhammad, who facilitates the attainment of transcendence. “Sufi poetry reads disarmingly like love and wine poetry, in particular wine poetry, unless you are aware of the codes,” says Allen.
One of the most famous sufi poets, Ibn al-Farid, begins his wine ode with these lines.
In memory of the beloved we drank a wine;
we were drunk with it before creation of the vine.
The full moon its glass, the wine a sun circled by a crescent;
When it is mixed, how many stars appear!
If not for its bouquet, I would not have found its tavern;
If not for its flashing gleam, how could
imagination picture it?
Whereas poets under Islam recast their language in a way that maintained traditional poetic forms, contact with the West caused a sea change in every aspect of Arabic poetry. Beginning with Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt in 1798, the Arab world underwent a period of colonization and struggle for self-determination, culminating in the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s. These events stimulated nationalism and introduced the notion of modernism -- a social and artistic rupture with the past and a quest for new forms of expression. Key texts from the Western canon were translated into Arabic in the 1940s and had an enormous impact, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s essay on artistic creation and moral activity, What Is Literature?, Sir James Frazier’s anthropological study of religion, The Golden Bough, and T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which portrays the disillusionment caused by World War I and the search for salvation.
“After having held a shamanic role for centuries, poets are for hire throughout the caliphate period, which continues for a very long time -- to the end of the Second World War. The big break occurs with independence, when the state requires poets to become participants in the process of social change,” says Allen. “In a sense, the concept of nation takes over for the notion of the court and Islamic ruler.”
“The New Arabic Poetic Verse movement started in Baghdad in 1948,” says Frangieh. “Poets began talking about social and national themes. Poetry contributed a great deal to the independence of Arab states between the two World Wars, just as it helped spread a new consciousness in the late nineteenth century in the effort to get rid of the Ottoman Empire. In the battle of social and political change, poetry is a weapon.”
The poetry written in the Arab world in the 1950s was completely different from all that had preceded it. Inspired in part by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, writers turned away from romanticism such as that found in the poems of Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. During the struggle for independence, “commitment poetry” or socially engaged poetry -- a translation of Sartre’s engagement -- came to the fore. Breaking entirely with received forms, the poetry of the 1950s possesses modernist characteristics: stylistically, it moves away from traditional tropes and tone, and thematically, it focuses on topics never before considered appropriate.
Iraqi Abdul Wahab al-Bayati is a renowned contemporary poet who helped lead the free verse movement in the late 1940s and 1950s. Jailed in 1953 for his poems criticizing the Iraqi monarchy, al-Bayati was forced to flee the country not long after and continued writing and publishing in exile. “I felt at that time that I should write to defend freedom and social justice for the poor,” al-Bayati once wrote.
His 1954 poem “Village Market” opens with a series of linked images.
The sun, emaciated donkeys, flies,
And a soldier’s old boots
Pass from hand to hand,
And a peasant stares into the void:
“At the beginning of next year,
My hands will surely fill with coins,
And I shall buy these boots.”
Al-Bayati’s poem has a title, unlike pre-modern Arabic poems, which were identified either by their rhyme or by the category to which they belonged -- for instance, love poem, hunt poem, or panegyric. “In the pre-modern court environment, a village market is just not a decent subject with which any decent poet would dirty his hands,” says Allen, who often assigns the poem to his students as an example of Arab modernism. “This poem begins with a montage of incredibly un-Arab, un-classical ideas . . . . If you go back to the classical poem where you have this nostalgia about the desert encampment, and portraits of the desert animals, and a remembrance of the lover who is no longer there, there could hardly be a greater contrast.”
Al-Bayati writes, “I understand commitment to be that the poet/artist is demanded to his depth to be burned with others when he sees them burning and not to stand on the other side of the bank absorbed in prayer.” Other poets through-out the Arab world have embraced the idea of commitment: Iraqi al-Sayyab, Syrians al-Qabbani and Adunis (nom de plume of Ali Ahmad Sa’id), Saudi Arabian Ghazi al-Gosaibi, and Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish.
Just as other art forms, poetry has adapted to modern technology. Caton says poets in Yemen in particular have made use of tape recorders to perpetuate the oral tradition. “These recordings are spread out all over the country in stereo stores that you can find in almost every little town in the country,” he says. “Poetry is pervasive -- it’s very much part of the fabric of ordinary life in Yemeni society. Poems are composed about local issues having to do with Yemen or the Arabian Peninsula and about village affairs as well. It’s a world, though tribal, which is broadly attuned to world events.”
Caton compares the Yemeni attitude toward poetry to the Western one, pointing out that when Western poets have tried to write in the way that a poet from Yemen would, they would be criticized for writing polemical doggerel. “In Yemen there are stylized conventions that are culturally recognized as tribal, which every state must to some extent speak in if it’s to be heard and to be taken seriously. The history of modern poetry in Europe and in the United States has been one of marginalizing political poetry. Here it is the sentiment that wells out of the private self, not the public self—except in moments of war, let’s say, or national crisis. It’s the confessional, lyrical mode, as opposed to the political, analytical one, which is privileged in Western poetry.”
Frangieh explains the centrality of poetry in Arab life, saying, “Arab people, ordinary people, have something inside them that they cannot express: the poet expresses what the people cannot express. They find psychological consolation and derive spiritual strength from poetry. For Arabs, poetry has never been without political and spiritual content.”
“Poetry is the soul of the Arabs,” says Ghazi al-Gosaibi. “That is no poetic exaggeration: whatever troubles that soul is reflected, magically, in the poetry. Reading Arabic poetry, therefore, is not an idle exercise. It is a trip inside the Arab soul.”