Why We Should Care About Arabic Poetry

Rym Tina Ghazal

A good orator makes us see with our ears
– Old Arab proverb

Hundreds of years ago, in the bustling souk known as Ukaz, which sits between Al Taif and Mecca, people from across the Arab world met not just to exchange their wares and coins, but also to exercise their most cherished weapon – their razor-sharp oratorical skills. At Ukaz, one of the old crossroads of the Arab world, literary and oratory activities converged to resolve tribal disputes, to further philosophical discussions and to do battle in poetry. Good orators used poetry as a medium to comment on social and political issues. And in that marketplace of ideas, choosing the right words and tone was like a currency, where the most skilled of poets were clearly the wealthiest.

To understand the diverse and complex Arab cultures, both past and present, observers must appreciate the tradition of oratory skills, and particularly poetry, woven into the very fabric of society. The mastery of the Arabic language has often determined the contour of events shaping entire societies. Indeed, that mastery is often reflected not only in one’s words, but can also come from what one chooses not to say. “If you speak the word, it shall own you, and if you don’t, you shall own it,” goes one old Arabian proverb. Another warns: “Beware that your tongue does not cut your throat.”

Today, the most effective medium of communication is arguably the visual. But traditionally, graceful and witty oratories by master shaers or poets were the most compelling form of persuasion short of the sword. According to legend, the most impressive poems from Ukaz were reproduced on banners woven with golden threads and hung on the Kaaba in Mecca for a year or more. There was no greater honor for a poet than to have his or her words immortalized in Mecca. The practice also relates to the origin of the name Al Muaallaqat – which means “suspended odes” or “hanging poems” – the revered collection of seven legendary pre-Islamic poets.

From elegies to political and patriotic compositions, to romantic poems of love and anguish, to dark humor capturing the concerns of the time, the wealth of Arab culture and history was on display in its poetry. The tradition is still valued today as a record of important historical events that shape the region. For example, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai in the UAE, is well-known for composing poems to mark special occasions.

Nevertheless, Arabic poetry is in mortal danger. Who among us today can improvise the most eloquent and witty rejoinders in rhyme while cane-dancing? Once, the art form was viewed as the epitome of manliness (today, perhaps less so). And as for the Arabic language itself, it, too, is in decline. And this, despite unending campaigns that urge young Arabs to embrace the language of their ancestors through reading initiatives and competitions, as the nuanced and expressive complexities of Arabic is dethroned by the global domination of the English language.

In the latest sign of the peril faced by tradition, Al Azi, a traditional poetic art form in the UAE expressing praise, pride and fortitude, was listed last year on Unesco’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. This traditional form of poetry recital, performed by groups without musical instruments, goes back at least 250 years. It consists of rhyming poems based on traditional constructions with the lines sometimes interwoven with memorized poems or improvised ones and proverbs. Rendered often in the form of poems exalting honor and pride, men traditionally would recite and repeat the stanzas to boost the morale of warriors as they prepared for war. More recently, Al Azi was regularly performed at weddings, praising the groom and the tribes attending the gathering. A similar tradition in Oman was designated on the same list in 2012.

Another traditional form of poetry recognized by Unesco in 2012 was Al Taghrooda, a traditional Bedouin chanted art-form that used to be composed and recited by men traveling on camel through desert areas of the UAE and Oman. Bedouins believed that the chanting would not only entertain the riders, but also kept their animals’ spirit up during their arduous journeys. These art forms did not just entertain people, but strengthened social bonds and kept the language alive. One of the main reasons this tradition and other forms of poetry recitals are fading – often only making appearances at heritage festivals – is that many of the great poets have passed away and no successors have emerged among the younger generations.

Despite the many challenges – or perhaps because of them – there are efforts to keep the art of poetry alive through festivals and TV shows featuring large prizes, such as Abu Dhabi’s “Million’s Poet” competition, which celebrates the local Nabati dialect spoken in the Gulf, and “The Prince of Poets” program, which focuses on classical Arabic.

But at the end, is poetry even relevant today? I would argue yes. Any serious cultural observer will know that poetic traditions are not to be scoffed at or belittled. It is one of the best ways to try to organize your thoughts, and with which to produce a clearer and more memorable statement. And who can fail to be impressed by a person who has memorized and can quote lines from the most exquisite poems? Poetry mesmerizes elites and masses alike. It informs, inspires and challenges the listener. In what was perhaps a more sophisticated era, it was once the language of diplomacy. In contrast, you just have to tune in today to any Arabic political show and often what follows is a “debate” conducted with wild rants fueled by temper and ego – and sometimes even flying chairs. (Clearly, we need more poetry.)

To preserve this pillar of Arabic culture, we must recognize that there is not only a great deal of wisdom in poetry, but joyous celebration as well. Today, we are quick to share the quotes of modern-day figures, often in tweet-sized bites of banality. Instead, why not give this region’s oldest and often forgotten poets – both men and women – a renewed chance to share their wit, art and legacy?

Rym Tina Ghazal is a cross-cultural and Arab history expert. She is also a peace ambassador, thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer and author for young readers. As an award-winning journalist with more than 15 years’ experience, she was one of the first Arab women to cover war zones in the Middle East, in 2003.