Academic journal article Nebula

Re-Defining the Image of Beirut in Modern Arabic Literature

Academic journal article Nebula

Re-Defining the Image of Beirut in Modern Arabic Literature

Article excerpt


In The Culture of Cities, Lewis Mumford states that "cities cause men and women to behave in various patterns, not always to their betterment (Mumford 1969: 34 (1)). For this reason, people, for a time long, have been suspicious of the city. Moreover, Gerald Leinward argues:

It was on the farm and in the joys of rural life that the good life, and good men, were to be found. Yet it was in search of the good life that men, almost without willing it, built cities, and from cities--at least as often as from farms--great men have risen. (Leinward 1981: 28 (2))

Apparently, the city / village dialectics is a diverse controversial theme in western and Arabic literature and culture. For example, the positive attitude toward the village in Arabic literature, prior to the twentieth-century, does not lead to hostility toward the city. In the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi and the neo-classicists, the city was still an ideal place, a paradise of God on earth even when the poor suffer from starvation in its streets. The deplorable circumstances of the Iraqi women in Baghdad does not urge Ma'ruf Al-Rusafi (1877-1945), an Iraqi poet, to attack the city. In his narrative poems, he depicts the miserable conditions of children and orphans as well as the distress and the plight of widows and women in Baghdad. Despite their poverty and suffering, the poet does not condemn the city. In spite of the indifference of the urban society of Baghdad to its poor community, the poem ends in a naive manner, with the poet preaching the readers to provide charity and relief for the poor of the city (3).

Explicitly, the difference between city and country life in Arabic culture, goes back to the pre-Islamic era. At that time, there was distinction between the urban and the Bedouin way of existence. In pre-Islamic Bedouin poetry, there was an attitude to praise the simple / traditional way of life advocated by the Arab desert communities affirming the wisdom, intelligence and superiority of the Bedouins. In this kind of poetry, the superiority of the Arab Bedouin's gifts of eloquence are emphasized. The Bedouin was portrayed as a liberal / egalitarian person antagonistic to the urban standards of hierarchy and status. However, the urban or anti-Bedouin poetry, in the early Islamic era, viewed the Bedouin as wild and savage (even ignorant, vicious and evil) unable to be assimilated in the luxurious way of living available in urban communities.

Thus, the Arab Bedouin is delineated in this kind of poetry as a boorish person who should be redeemed and civilized by urban life. This anti-Bedouin trend reached a culmination in the poetry of the Abbasid poet of Persian origin, Abu-Nuwas who ridiculed the pre-Islamic / Bedouin culture in the Arabian Peninsula exalting the Persian and South Arabian / Qahtani urban civilization. On this basis, Abu-Nuwas denounces the Bedouin way of living as backward and obsolete praising the city life in Baghdad which is associated with entertainment, drinking, slave-girls and taverns. With the process of urbanization and the gradual disappearance of Bedouin communities, the dichotomy between city and country life has become one of the basic motifs in Arabic poetry reflecting the conflict between the rural way of living and its urban counterpart.

Historically, the city is associated with social values, social structures and class references as well as racial and ethnic attitudes in addition to other issues of pressing contemporary immediacy. For example, the Lebanese city, Zahla, unlike Beirut, is depicted in a favorable way in the poetry of the neoclassical poet Ahmed Shawqi. In a poem entitled "Zahla", Shawqi, the prince of Arab poets, incorporates the metaphor of a beloved woman to describe the natural beauty of this resort city. The poet's passion for his beloved Zahla is virtuous: "I subdued all desires and forgot all reproof or complaint". Zahla, the city, is portrayed as a "beautiful bride", the cedar's bride, tenderly embraced by the twin mountains of Sinnin and Haramun, which are themselves described as "the arms of nature" (Shawqi 2960 : 226 (4)). …

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