Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Stirring Words: Traditions and Subversions in the Poetry of Muzaffar Al-Nawwab

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Stirring Words: Traditions and Subversions in the Poetry of Muzaffar Al-Nawwab

Article excerpt

The first time I was exposed to the work of Iraqi-born poet Muzaffar al-Nawwab was in Egypt in the early 1980s, at an informal gathering at the home of friends. What was most striking and most piqued my interest in al-Nawwab was seeing the uniquely powerful effect his poetry recitation had on his audience. Much of the evening consisted of watching and listening to a considerable number of recordings of performances of various kinds - a video of the political satirical theater of the Lebanese artist Durayd Lahham, audio cassettes of the Egyptian artist Shaykh Imam singing the poetry of Ahmad Fu'ad Nijm. The listening and watching continued for hours, mixed with food, intermittent conversation, outbursts of laughter. Suddenly, when a new cassette was put on, the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically. The poetry and its haunting recitation seemed to fill the room, leaving no space for any distracting activity. The reciting voice - visceral, musical, sensuous - sobbed and screamed, accused and consoled its listeners, who were riveted, visibly and audibly moved. Although the others present had all seen or heard these recordings before on numerous occasions, the poetry on this particular cassette seemed to have an immediately stultifying effect on small-talk and other trappings of everyday interaction among the listeners, and to stir and agitate at levels not usually accessed in the casual course of the "everyday."

The poet was Muzaffar al-Nawwab, and the poem he recited and performed on this cassette was one of his most famous Jisr al-Mabahij al-Qadima (The Bridge of Old Delights, [1976-77]), more commonly referred to as the "Tal al-Za'tar" poem, since one of the salient threads running through the poem is the 1976 siege and massacre of Palestinians at the Tal al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon. Although I was to become much more closely acquainted with the work of al-Nawwab in years to come, certain salient features of his poetry were apparent even in that first encounter in Cairo.

First, in spite of the fact that some of his works have been published in limited editions in printed form, the primary means by which al-Nawwab's poetry is disseminated is live recitation or performance, and, more importantly, the samizdat cassette network, or the widespread non-commerical reproduction and dissemination of audio-cassette taped recordings of these live performances. The extent of his poetry's circulation through the fluid mode of the samizdat cassette has been astonishing, effectively countering the fact that al-Nawwab and his works have been banned and censored in much of the Arab World, and enabling them to find their way into homes not only throughout the Middle East, but in Europe and elsewhere.

Second, although Muzaffar al-Nawwab may be considered or referred to as an "Iraqi" poet in some sense (insofar as he is Iraqi-born, and perhaps since some of his poetry focuses on events or experiences set in Iraq, sometimes composed in Iraqi colloquial dialect), much of his work is both implicitly and explicitly aimed at a broader Arab audience, and both he and his poetry are, in turn, "claimed" by a much broader Arab public, in a way that seems to defy easy or unproblematic reference to him as an Iraqi poet (in contrast with the unproblematic identification of Mahmud Darwish, for example, as a Palestinian poet).

A third thread running through virtually all of al-Nawwab's poetry is a largely overt political agenda, populist in nature, uncompromisingly and viciously opposed to morally bankrupt "powers that be," be they in the Middle East or in the West. This aspect of his work, and the particular way it is articulated in his poetry, has certainly contributed in part to its appeal among left-leaning intellectual circles in the Middle East (or in exile from the Middle East), although his audience is by no means limited to this milieu.

Finally, and perhaps most central to al-Nawwab's project as a poet, is the very concerted dedication to the composition, orchestration and performance of poetry that is meant to stir and agitate his audience, to provoke and arouse a wide range of emotions - childlike wonderment, nostalgic longing, sensuous arousal, disgust, rage - all in some way meant to be intimately related back to the fate of the contemporary Arab World as a matter of urgent collective concern. …

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