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The Popularity of Arabic Poetry

From the desert to talent shows, Arabs identify the community’s collective memory in the figure of the poet

Oriana Capezio | 30 August 2017
Murales in the Asilah medina, Morocco, Pierre-Yves Babelon /

Since the Pre-Islamic era the habit of gathering in the evening in the camp around the poet to listen to people’s lives narrated in verse invites us to reflect on the social and communicative aspect that Arabic poetry has had since its dawn. The collective memory of the tribe is identified in the figure of the poet (shā‘ir). As the recognized spokesperson of the community, he had the task of exalting the deeds of its heroes (fakhr), remembering their genealogy (nasab), blaming their opponents in war (hijā’), and mourning those who had died (rithā’).

Historically, poetry has always represented the highest literary expression for Arabs.
In the poetic compositions of each epoch, memories of the past, present life, and future prophecies come together, and with such a charismatic vigor they reach the reader, who perceives their collective force while at the same time finding their own individuality.

In his famous work on Arabic poetry, al-‘Umda, Ibn Rashīq (d. 456/1063) was already emphasizing that poetry was the official means to record Arabs’ glorious deeds, their heroes and tribal genealogies, with the exaltation of values such as generosity, courage and hospitality. He wrote that the whole tribe was pleased to announce the arrival of a poet, guardian of its traditions and singer of its glories. Later on, in his Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406) also stressed that for Arabs poetry is where glorious deeds, history and science are gathered, and it is also the main reference point for knowledge and wisdom. He then went on to say that Arabic poetry was a clear representation of the concept of muruwwa, the Arab ‘virtus’.

Poetry has always been considered the highest form of literary despite the criticisms that the Qur’an has directed to the poets – so much so that Prophet Muhammad himself had to reject the accusation of following the traditional art of fortune-tellers (kāhin) and poets, obsessed by demons1 – and the accusations of inauthenticity expressed by some scholars such as Margoliouth and Tāhā Husayn.

The collection of poems (dīwān) is a fundamental basis for the study of Arabic literature as a whole, an indispensable notion in order to understand the role that poetry has played and still plays today. As the illustrious Italian scholar Francesco Gabrieli (d. 1996) noticed: “Arabic poetry, archive of the splendor and daily life of this people (...) was already felt by the Arab scholars themselves, and then by Arabists, as the main source for getting to know the soul, the ideals, the costumes and the daily life of the sons of Ishmael (“La letteratura beduina preislamica”, in L’antica società beduina, 1959, p. 98).

Despite the fact that Arabic culture and its artistic expressions seem to be overshadowed and often obscured by contemporary events, poetry continues to have extraordinary value and power. And it invites us to follow its own itinerary in verses that, from the desert, arrives to cities, squares, ruins, remains, people ... their voice, an hopeful ray among black clouds of misfortune.

The poet, as a prophet and then as an artist, continues to represent one of the few true artisans of the word for whom verses are his means to communicate and make people communicate. He is the one that gives voice to his people, he is who perceives new meanings, finding ties and affinities that others would not be able to perceive. Still, words with rhythm and rhymes are not enough a well-written composition is not enough in order to be considered a poet in the Arab world; his emotion impulse is not enough either.

Yesterday like today, natural talent – that according to which in the past the scholar Ibn Qutayba (d. 276-889) distinguished a natural poet from one who had to struggle to become one – has to be accompanied by continuous exercise, as well as vast culture and scholarship.

Only made possible by the rhythmic declamation, poetry, with its continuous oscillation of emotions, feelings, challenges in meters, free verses and prose poetry, gathers fragments of life during its journey, bringing them back to light and making them a heritage for all.

During the twentieth century, from neo-classicism to romanticism and to modern and contemporary forms of poetic expression freed from the grammar of verses, poetry found its expression in schools and movements that gathered poets, intellectuals, artists and ordinary people: the dīwān school, the movement Apollo, the magazine shi‘r (Poetry), to name just a few.

In each condition, poetry has maintained its status with nobility and determination. From the inhospitable desert to survive, to the no less impervious squares of the contemporary era, the poet gives voice to his intimacy and to the community.

Poetry was one of the main tools of communication during the ‘Arab revolutions’. Poetry was, and still is used as a form of political and religious propaganda, as it is the case with the Islamic State.

Poetry is also used for television programs that attract a wide audience, as if they were a sort of X factor in verses; let us think of the program Prince of poets (Amīr al-shu‘arā’).

All this invites us to reflect on the popularity of poetry in the Arabic world. Verses that unite and separate, verses of assent and of dissent, verses of struggle, propaganda and revolution. Verses of resistance and of commitment, of the caliphate and of the people, verses in courts and in the desert, verses to exist, write a witness and pass it on. A burning fire; a people who listens, at any time and everywhere, to its own spokesman: the poet.

With its perennial lying between sound and meaning, poetry plays a fundamental role. As the great contemporary Arab poets have often suggested, poetry may have a major bearing on the transformations occurring in societies.
Even though we are well aware that poetry will certainly not change the world, in it you can see the right path to do it and to involve everyone.

Further Reading:
Anthologie de la littérature arabe contemporaine, vol. 3 La poésie, edited by L. Norin (É. Tarabay, Editions du Seuil, Paris,1967).
Salma Khadra Jayyusi, Modern Arabic Poetry : an Anthology (Columbia University Press, New York, 1987).
Francesca Corrao, In un mondo senza cielo: antologia della poesia palestinese (Giunti, Milano, 2007).

1 "Shall I tell you on whom the Satans come down? They come down on every guilty impostor. They give ear, but most of them are liars. And the poets – the perverse follow them; hast thou not seen how they wander in every valley and how they say that which they do not?" (Quran 26,220-225).

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