Illustrious Arab Poets through the Centuries

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Illustrious Arab Poets through the Centuries


Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review


                'I've left my heart in the hands of God in Baghdad
                I said good bye to him when I wished instead,
                That I would say good bye to the days of my life'.

ACCORDING to an Iraqi admirer, in his farewell message, on 28 June 2004 to the Iraqi people, Paul Bremer, the U.S. appointed ruler of Iraq, recited these words by a Baghdadi Iraqi poet from the past. Like numerous other non-Arabs who had lived in the Arab world before his arrival, Bremer, in less than a year, had been ensnared by the mystic aura of Arabic poetry.

In the desert of Arabia long before the Islamic conquests, Arabic had developed an enormous vocabulary. For any object to be found in their barren and inhospitable land, the Arabs had countless names. Hence, the poets had no trouble in rhyming their verses since they had a large storehouse of synonyms from which to draw. Thus, Arabic became unmatched as a language of prose and poetry and bards were to be found everywhere. Unlike other societies where balladry was a luxury for the privileged few, Arabic poetry was the literary expression of a whole people and has remained so until our times. In poetic words of dazzling imagery, the bards extolled the tribal virtues of honour, courage, generosity, fidelity and revenge. In the centuries predating Islam, poetry became an invisible bond between the tribes and formed the basis of an Arab nation. In this poetic era, when a family produced a lyricist, all the surrounding tribes would be invited to a great feast. Dancing and singing would fill the encampment and men would congratulate each other on this joyous event. It was a time of endless joy for a poet satirized the tribe's enemies, defended the honour of the tribe and perpetuated their glorious deeds, thereby establishing their fame forever.

No one knows for certain in what epoch the Arabs began to practice the art of balladry. However, Arabic poetry as we know it seems to have arisen from an empty desert and appeared suddenly about a hundred years before the birth of Islam. From before that period, even though versification must have been the oral literature of the Arabs, not a stanza has filtered down to us. Nevertheless, the complex poetry from the century preceding Islam was composed in a highly articulate language and points to a long history of Arabic balladry. The influence of what was produced in that hundred years has left its imprint on Arabic poetry and literature for all times. In those few decades the basis for the various types of Arabic poetry was established. Saja'a, the oldest type of rhymed verse; fakhr, pride; ghazal, love stanzas; hija', a satire with which a poet reviled his enemies; madh, praise; and marthiya, elegy: all had their respective bards. However, the qasida, an ode of intricate metres and polished rhetoric, was and still is to some extent the epitome of Arabic poetry. Many Arabs believe that it is the only valid form of poetic inspiration. The masterpieces of verses produced in those few years, before Islam burst upon the world, were the Seven Odes. Known as the Mu'allaqat (the Suspended Ones), they were the optimal poems, hung for all to see at a great fair which was held annually at 'Ukaz. They have been regarded until our times as the supreme model of poetic excellence and sophistication, and have been imitated by countless Arab poets.

The oldest and most famous of the Mu'allaqat is that of Imru' al-Qais of the Banu Kinda tribe and a descendant from the kings of Yemen. When his father was put to death after a revolt in the tribe, Imru' al-Qais journeyed to Constantinople seeking aid from the Byzantines to avenge his death. Although the Emperor Justinian agreed to help him, Imru's affair with Justinian's daughter was to be his undoing. He died on his return journey about A.D. 550, some say by a poisoned robe the Emperor had given him. The mightiest of the great pre-Islamic poets, he set the form for Arabic verse which has remained until our times. …

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