Saturday, January 01, 2005


Poetry Chase

Poetry is so central in Iraqi people's sentiment and disposition that any glimpse of Iraq would be incomplete without some mention of it.

For centuries, poetry was the first religion for many people. People's collective wisdom, their history and heritage, their values and ideals, their pride and achievements are all preserved in poetry lines.

The poetry I refer to is the classical form. Modern free-form poetry is a relatively "new" development, only about a hundred years old. Classical poetry has a very rigid format: each line is in two halves of equal length. The second half of all lines (plus the last word of the first half) end with the same sound. All halves of all lines rigidly follow the same rhythm and meter.

I find classical Arabic poetry a joy that unfortunately will never be fully shared by non-Arabic speakers. The music is in the words themselves, and that can never be translated. You can only translate the meaning, leaving the poem cold and dry and almost without spirit. The other problem is the slight variation in the shade of numerous words that cannot be matched easily in other languages.

This kind of poetry reached its peak of craftsmanship just before the emergence of Islam. They had a top-7 (some say a top-10) poems. Some claim that those were hung on the walls of Kaaba, Abraham's House of God, which was, and still is, the most sacred of their shrines.

All poems, regardless of theme, start off with a few lines either describing the poet's love idol or the ruins of her people's dwellings – almost always. This tradition was broken and ridiculed by Abu Nawas, one of the most famous poets of the Abbasid's period. He said something like:

The wretched seeks some ruins to solicit…
… And I go and ask for the town's tavern!

People, particularly in the countryside and the desert have truly astonishing capacity to remember poetry (and other things!). I have met people who can remember 50 lines of a poem after hearing them once. The rhythm and the music in the words of course help. I once met a Bedouin who in the course of an (extended) evening must have recited several thousand lines of poetry, covering almost three centuries of his tribe's and region's history… all without any shred of objectivity!

Islam frowned on poetry. Poets were generally regarded as people who do not do what they say (They usually do exaggerate, for artistic effect). Yet, when a famous poet converted to Islam and read a poem before Prophet Mohammed, the Prophet bestowed his cloak on him. This was a cherished relic for many Caliphs and ended up in the possession of the Ottomans. Poetry would not die! The touching poems of a famous poetess mourning her brothers who died in the cause of spreading Islam are still remembered.

For long centuries, the rules of poetry strictly adhered to were unknown, yet never broken! One day, 1250 years ago, one notable plilologist (whose name was al Khaleel) was walking through the market place in Basrah. The pounding sounds of the copper-beaters sparked a thesis in his mind… and he "discovered" and formulated those rules. All poetry fell into 16 main categories, which he called "seas". The secret was in the rigid sequence of consonants and vowels following in a particular order. Each "sea" had its own unique order. He gave names to those seas which are retained to this day. A magnificent feat! Incidentally, that gentleman had two lines that sometimes come to my mind when I read comments from some readers of my blogs. They say something like:

If you knew what I was saying, you would have forgiven me…
…If you knew what you were saying I would have blamed you.

But you know not what I was saying, so you blame me…
…And I know that you are ignorant, so I forgive you.

In the centuries that followed, and with the rise of Islamic civilization, poetry reached new heights. There were some truly magnificent poets in Damascus, Baghdad and elsewhere. There were so many of them – hundreds. But the shining stars among them were only a few dozens! They reflected numerous facets of moods and attitudes – the warrior, the thoughtful, the dreamer, the reflective, the boastful, the religious… and of course, the decadent!

The Decadent of Baghdad in 750 was the famous Abu Nawas. He was extremely fond of women and wine and made no secret of it. He was (and still is) the hero of many popular "decadent" jokes. His poetry had a distinctively sweet musical tone to it. A street on the riverbank in Baghdad was named after him. Appropriately, that street was the center of the outdoor bars of Baghdad up to the mid 1970's. That street is on the other side of the Tigris from the Presidential Palace (now known as the Green Zone). This was a reason for its decline in fortunes even before the present religious revival.

My personal favorite is someone called "al Mutanabbi" (which literally means: The one who claimed to be a Prophet) who lived in the first half of the 10th century AD. He was relatively terse on love poems, but he truly exemplified all that was noble, soaring and proud in the human spirit. Many people found him, and many still find him, too arrogant. He took liberties with metaphors and broke new grounds. No other poet anywhere was the focus of so much debate and controversy for 10 centuries. But he had a way with words that to my mind is unequalled by any other. He could say so much and capture so many things in so few words! Many of his words have been enshrined in popular proverbs that are still used today. A true genius. I hope I can sometime post something about him.

But after Islam, poetry generally became the second religion in Iraq (and in many other places). During the last century, politics took the second place. Poetry became third. During the last 3 or 4 decades, it lost more of its status.

But there are still many corners where love for poetry still lives on.


I can still remember those poetry matches in Baghdad where, in a coffee house for example, people (ranging from a daily-wage laborer to a university professor) would have what was known as "Poetry Chases": The chase is usually run between two people. One contestant would start with a line of poetry. The opponent would have to come up with a line that starts with the same letter as the last one of the previous line. Some letters are difficult and there was a great deal of skill and memory involved. Usually onlookers would act as arbitrators. I haven't seen such a match in decades.

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