Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics

By Galvin, Rachel | Humanities, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics


Galvin, Rachel, Humanities


opening a window into arab culture

IN THE TOWN OF AL-BASRAH IN IRAQ, POETS gather every year for a poetry festival, just as they did fourteen centuries ago.

In Cairo every Friday, people come together at the shrine of Ibn al-Farid, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet, to hear his poems read. And in Yemen, poetry is still vital for negotiating and settling tribal disputes.

While Westerners may be surprised by the notion that poetry is an effective way to convey a political message, Bassam Frangieh says it is an integral part of Arab culture.

"In every Arab country every day, poets appear on television, on the radio, or in the newspaper. Every single newspaper in the Arab world every day has poetry-this is nothing new," says Frangieh, who is professor of Arabic at Yale University. "Poetry is the essence of Arab culture."

The tradition extends back hundreds of years before the advent of Islam. Frangieh describes an ancient practice: "Once a year, all the tribes would meet in a place next to Mecca called Souk Ukaz, or the market of Ukaz. Poets from all over Arabia would come to compete and recite their poems in front of judges. These judges were either poets themselves or critics. Each year the festival's winning poem would be transcribed in golden letters and hung on the door of Ka'bah in Mecca for the whole year. It was like the Nobel Prize of ancient Arabia."

From Algeria to Yemen, Arabic is the official language of more than two dozen nations with disparate histories and peoples. "An Arabic poet is a poet who writes in Arabic, whatever his race or nation may be in contemporary terms," says Roger Allen, who taught an NEH summer seminar on Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He notes that Westerners often see "Arab" and "Muslim" as the same term. "To be sure, the majority of Arabs are Muslims, but there are significant communities of Arabs who are not--the Maronites of Lebanon and the Copts of Egypt, for example." Arabs make up less than 10 percent of the population of one billion Muslims worldwide.

An affinity for poetic language is deeply rooted in Arab culture, and historically, the poet has held a position of high esteem. "The Arab poet was the voice of his tribe, its defender and representative-above all, its provocative force," says Frangieh. The tribes took their name from the camel-herding Bedouins who called themselves 'arab, or people from the land of Arbi in the Syrian desert.

Nomadic tribes relied on poets to recount news and offer political commentary, and to keep an oral record of tribal history-triumphs, defeats, marriages, and deaths were recorded in verse. "The poem itself reflects the history of the tribe-the principles, the values, the customs, the traditions," Frangieh explains. "You want to know anything about the Arabic people--about their history, tradition, genealogy, battles, love affairs--you turn to poetry."

Poems were also used to convey messages, as in this sixthcentury poem by al-Muraqqish.

"There is an incredibly rich tradition of poetry from the pre-Islamic period, with many different topics and genres: panegyrics, love poems, elegies, eulogies," says Allen. "There is a shorter poem of occasion, an elegy, for example, on the death of a hero-a genre in which women poets were particularly strong. And then a much more elaborate polythematic poem, a liturgy involving many different sections: a tribal celebration called a qasidah." The qasidah describes a rite of passage in which the poet leaves his familiar surroundings, encounters a host of dangers, and returns to his tribe, celebrating his membership in the community. The poem contains detailed descriptions of the desert, the wildlife, and the riding animal of the poet-a horse, or more commonly, a camel. Each qasidah lampoons the tribe's enemies and praises its leaders. In an eighth-century poem by al-Mahdi, the poet eulogizes his patron, acknowledging his largesse. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.