‘Body music.’ That’s how Adonis, one of the leading poets and critics of the last generation, puts it. Way back in the Jahiliyyeh, the ‘Time of Ignorance’ before Islam, the Arab tribes would turn to their poets for the things they couldn’t quite say, the stories and feelings that lay just on the edge of speech. The poet would sing of loss and pride and passion straight from the heart of his people, a laureate by every campfire, and this was how the Arabs knew who they were and who they should be.
This function – the gift of a tongue to what is felt in the voiceless blood of a nation – never left the Arab poets. In spite of Islam’s strictures, or perhaps because of them, they still cry out with – or often against – their societies. Nizar Qabbani, for instance, whose collected works grace nearly every literate household in Damascus, wrote relentlessly for the sexual emancipation of Arab women. ‘My friends,’ he says of them, ‘birds who perish in caves without a single sound.’
The Arab nations are in turmoil, and in this world of fire, hate and disappointment, poetry is not a luxury but an absolute necessity. It is what keeps men humane, women hopeful, children aware of their identity. Poems are passed around the exiled and the illiterate like contraband belief: I have heard soldiers who could not write their names sing poems. If you want to taste the raw distillation of what the Arabs feel, drink here, for there is no contact between East and West more immediate, more alive, than this. Taste the words of Samih al-Qasim:
‘I would have liked to tell you
The story of a nightingale that died.
I would have liked to tell you
The story –
Had they not slit my lips.’
Blood music. Body music.
TO TRY: On Entering the Sea, by the Syrian Nizar Qabbani (Interlink Books, tr. various), and The Butterfly’s Burden, by Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish (Bloodaxe Books, tr. Joudah).