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Poetries of the Islamic World

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Borough of Manhattan Community College
199 Chambers Street
New York, NY 10007
United States

May 7, 2011

It is an honor for the National Endowment for the Humanities to join with Poets House and City Lore in sponsoring this conference on poetry in the Islamic world. By background, this is one of eight projects the NEH has funded under a “Bridging Cultures” rubric. Four relate to domestic civility issues; four to Muslim cultural contributions at home and abroad.

Poetry is a central part of culture. Relative to other forms of artistic expression – films, novels, short stories, plays, etc. – poetry is more important in a swath of Islamic societies than many countries in the West.

Azar Nafizi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, commented once that it is impossible not to respect a people who love poetry. I agree.

Poetry involves creative expression involving arrangements of words and syllables. In any language a near-infinite variety of sound combinations can be wrought together in a cacophony that jars the senses or, with poetic sensibilities, can be arranged as a flowing melody of thought. The poet is the composer and conductor. He or she may be a philosopher or romanticist; dreamer or skeptic; observer of nature or the nature of man; story teller, myth maker, even political gadfly. But whatever message is conveyed, wise or otherwise, the poet is a crafter of multi-dimensioned thought – which, after all, is what distinguishes man, especially enlightened man, from beast.

Just before the break this morning, a speaker underscored the importance of translation as a tool to bridge cultures and inquired whether the NEH provides funding assistance to translators. The answer is that we do. For example, we have recently helped facilitate the translation of the works of Qassem Haddad, a contemporary Bahraini poet. We have also supported the funding of dictionaries of rare languages, including Native American and one spoken in parts of Afghanistan. Language, its use and preservation are important. But we are a small agency with limited resources, so our capacities are quite modest.

I would, however, like to bring to your attention a project that the NEH has helped fund at the Walters Museum in Baltimore that provides insight into the subtleties and beauty of Arabic poetry and speech. The Walters has a collection of wondrous illustrated Arabic manuscripts dating back many centuries, some from the period referred to as the Dark Ages in Europe, a time when Islamic civilization was flowering. We are supporting the Walters to put on-line the extraordinary manuscripts it is so carefully preserving. In turn, the Walters has engaged a distinguished imam to record and also make available on the internet poetry from texts dating back over half a millennium. To listen to the rhythm of these poems is to feel as if one is at a concert. The language may not be understood but the depth of feeling is nonetheless evident.

Poetry is about metaphors and analogies. Even when disguised with ambiguity poetic expression can place poets who object to despotism in grave danger. Innately, most poets can be expected to challenge tyrannical forces because the poetic craft is based on the politically unarticulated right to exercise the imagination. Unfortunately, there is no “Free Verse” amendment to protect poets in non-constitutional societies.

A few months back I had the privilege to interview the great Chinese novelist, Mo Yan. His most celebrated novel is entitled Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, which is, in effect, a social history of China in the last half of the 20th Century. The storytelling in the novel is structured with a series of narrators, the first of whom is a man who dies, after which with his soul (and thus the narrator’s voice) migrates to a string of animals. Given the censorship in China, which went through varying levels of intensity during the period surveyed, one wonders whether the author used the narrative voice of a donkey or ox to confuse the censors and whether he could have been arrested or found his publications curtailed for what a donkey might say. Despite what may have been a rocky period, Mo Yan is now secure in his place in Chinese letters. But around the world writers often face capricious consequences in societies where employment opportunity for censors is high.

Closed societies, after all, often have more reason to fear literary figures than political agitators. With few exceptions, literature is more consequential than political treatises and more compelling than government fiats. One of my favorite images is of a literary/political meeting of the minds in an 1862 welcoming to the White House of a feisty 4-foot-11-inch woman from Connecticut by the 6-foot-3-inch president. “So you are the little lady who started this great war,” is the greeting Lincoln is reputed to have given Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had stirred so many to the abolitionist cause.

Poets and story tellers of all kinds command the power of words that sometimes have great social impact, but seldom do artists become generals or heads of state. An exception, of course, in modern times is one of the signal revolutionary figures in the last century, the poet/playwright Vaclav Havel.

Regarding poetry in the Middle East, a personal anecdote comes to mind. In the late Spring of 2000 I was invited to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Barak because, I was told, the Israeli government wished to acknowledge appreciation for four years of hearings I had conducted as chairman of the House Banking Committee on a sensitive aspect of the Holocaust – the oft-overlooked fact that the greatest genocide in history was also the greatest mass theft. While in Jerusalem, the Embassy arranged for me to meet with Yasser Arafat. He probably wondered why he was seeing me just as I was wondering, with one exception, why I was set to meet with him.

So in preparation for the meeting I asked a Foreign Service Officer from our embassy what were the cultural interests of Palestinians, Arafat in particular. The diplomat was stumped at the second part of the question but noted the centrality of poetry to many Palestinians. Accordingly, after meeting with Barak the day before I was to meet with Arafat, I stopped by a book store and purchased an anthology of Palestinian poetry, more than a little of which was quite political. To begin the conversation with Arafat I startled him by asking who his favorite poets were. To his and my surprise I found myself remembering some vibrant lines of several he named. This seemed to break the ice between two individuals who shared different backgrounds and had few views in common. Then reality set in. I described the only purpose of my visit which was to underscore that as a then senior Republican in Congress I wanted to make clear that despite the rifts between Congressional Republicans and a Democratic president, the Congress was united in backing President Clinton in the upcoming talks that the White House had announced the President would be shepherding that summer between Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. I noted that I was not privy to the details of what would be put on the table but I was led to believe that Israel was prepared to make the most generous offer in recent years and that I hoped he would be in a position to give a positive response.

Arafat’s reaction was rigid. “We don’t want to be ‘given’ anything,“ he said. “We want to win our ‘rightful’ land back,” he continued, as if to suggest that a similar result might be acceptable if only more blood was shed. He then went on a diatribe about Prime Minister Barak. “You tell him,” he complained, “that I want my money back” – a reference to a tax the Israelis once collected for the Palestinians, the transfer of which had been stopped in response to the killing of several settlers. Perhaps there was more flexibility to his stance than he was letting on, but I was left with the strong impression that the optimism for a peace treaty that was gathering steam in Washington was on frail grounds. Disagreements at our meeting aside, when it was time to break up, Arafat was all smiles and demanded that a picture be taken, perhaps, it seemed, because he liked our discussion of poetry.

Azar Nafizi once noted that all educated Iranians know of Mark Twain but few can name an American president of the 19th Century. Likewise, few Americans know the name of a 19th Century Russian tsar though many educated citizens know of Tolstoy and Pushkin. Hopefully someday we all may know better Palestinian poets as well as the name of a leader who can make peace with Israel.

Less well known abroad, but nonetheless better known than 19th Century presidents other than Jefferson and Lincoln, was the great American poet of the common man, Walt Whitman. As a nurse in and poet of the Civil War, Whitman was intoxicated with the idea that poetry might be an antidote to violence. When it was proposed that Leaves of Grass be translated into Russian, Whitman drafted an introductory letter to the Russian people in which he asserted:

“…my dearest dream is for an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy…”

A century later at a dedication of a statute to Pushkin, Dostoevsky affirmed something similar. “Beauty,” he said, “will save the world.”

History has dealt cruel blows to this poetic idealism. Nonetheless, the world could use a romantic uplift. Poets should be at the vanguard.

Thank you.

*A former 15-term Congressman, Leach is Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.