Desert Voices: Arabic Poetry Through the Ages, Part III – Modern Times

It can be argued that, outside the Arab world proper, the richness of Arabic poetry has gone largely under-appreciated by the general reading public, albeit with a few exceptions, one of the most notable being the 8th-century Mu’allaqat or “hung poems” that are said to have festooned the Kaaba in pre-Islamic times. If one expands the geographic scope of how one defines Arabic poetry to reach beyond the sands of the Arabian Peninsula itself, they could reasonably add to that list​ The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám - the name given by Edward Fitzgerald in 1859 to his translation of a selection of quatrains commonly attributed to the 11th century CE Persian poet and astronomer, Omar Khayyám.

Another common source of what little observable Western awareness there is of the power of Arabic poetry is the wide-spread, enduring popularity of the diverse collection of Middle East folk tales known variously as​ The One Thousand and One Nights or​ Arabian Nights. While the stories were written and are translated mostly as prose, there are countless examples of Arabic poetry dispersed throughout the many tales in the form of songs, spoken quotes, soliloquies, and poems.

Take away the hung poems,​ The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and​ Arabian Nights, and the level of awareness of Arabic poetry among readers in the non-Arab world is nigh on to nil. Such widespread inattention does a serious disservice to the rich history of Arabic poetry and, by extension, to the fascinating culture from which it emerged. That history dates back over two millennia to the fecund oral tradition of the Arabian desert from an era devoid of written records.

In two previous articles in this series, we examined the earliest roots of Arabic poetry as demonstrated in the oral tradition of the peoples of the Arabian desert predating the formulation of a written Arabic language, and continued our overview from there through the rise of Islam and on into the period known as the Classical Age. In this article, the concluding installment of a three-part series, we hop, skip, and jump forward from there nearly a thousand years with a few stops along the way to the modern world to reflect on the state of Arabic poetry as it stands today as we enter the first year of the third decade of the first century of the third millennium of the Common Era—better known as 2020.

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Through the centuries, Arabic literature in general and Arabic poetry in particular have resided on the periphery of the cultural consciousness of people outside the Middle East. Often, if you asked an American or Brit or German what he or she thought of Arabic literature or poetry, they would refer to it as something exotic and picturesque and far away: flying carpets and genies; palm trees and oases; camels and caravans; Bedouin nomads and whirling dervishes.

A tongue-in-cheek passage from Mark Twain’s classic 1867 travelogue, The Innocents Abroad, reflects that stereotype perfectly. Writing on the eve of his ship-borne party’s anticipated arrival in Istanbul, Twain painted a fanciful picture of Turkey as “the mysterious land where the giants and genii of the Arabian Nights once dwelt—where winged horses and hydra-headed dragons guarded enchanted castles—where Princes and Princesses flew through the air on carpets that obeyed a mystic talisman—where cities whose houses were made of precious stones sprang up in a night under the hand of the magician.”

Serious scholars of the Middle East understand Twain’s words for what they were: satire. Yet the images they convey have enjoyed a long life of their own as cultural stereotypes of Arabic literature—poetry included. The reality was—and is—far more complex and nuanced than that simple picture by several orders of magnitude.

Today, supporters of modern Arabic literature are engaged in an earnest effort to broaden the understanding and appreciation of its power and appeal, pointing to its significant contributions to enriching the lives of millions of people living in the Arabic-speaking world. The world at large, in their view, is a lesser place without a meaningful exposure to the rich and distinctive literary output of Arab poets and writers. They wish to share the joys and rewards of that corpus of work with others in lands near and far.

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For centuries after the Muslim conquests and the Golden Age of Islam, the dynamics of Arabic poetry interfacing with the literary traditions and conventions of the West had minimal effect in either direction. Conventional wisdom among Western scholars long maintained that that dynamic shifted dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Pivotal to their arguments supporting such a shift was Fitzgerald’s translation of​ The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. After initially experiencing a disappointing acceptance by the reading public in the West, Fitzgerald’s​ Rubáiyát in time gave rise to a flourish of reading clubs focused on its stories as translated and told by him.

Few westerners then or now read Arabic in the original, leaving it up to translators such as Fitzgerald and, decades later, a controversial-yet-consequential figure in the modern history of the Middle East, Gertrude Bell, to convey to readers their particular takes on Arabic literature and poetry (broadly conceived to include Persian in the case of Bell). To this day, new translations of seminal Arabic works continue to appear periodically in English, French, German, and other modern languages, with each new wave of translations adding its own distinctive layer of insights to the West’s understanding of Arabic poetry and culture. Processes of cultural cross-pollination such as this are never easy; in the case of Arabic poetry, the process is daunting.

Translating, for instance, the 8th-century CE poetry of Imru’ al-Qais or Tarafa or any of the other Mu’allaqat poets into whichever modern language you care to choose is far more complex than, say, translating the 18th-century works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe from their original Sturm-und-Drang ​ period German into the 21st-century English of a modern New Yorker, or the 16th-century works of William Shakespeare from their original Tudor-era English based on a 24-letter, not 26-letter, alphabet, into the 21st-century French of a modern Parisian.

To non-speakers of Arabic such as this writer, what we know of Arabic poetry is gleaned from translations of originals made by others and from books written by others about poetry we may or may not have read ourselves. And, even if we have read it, we most likely have read it in the language we grew up speaking, not in its original Arabic.

Some scholars have argued that there was a sort of Dark Age bisecting the history of Arabic poetry beginning at the close of the Classical Age and lasting over three centuries until 1798, the year that Napoleon Bonaparte led his French armies in the conquest of Egypt. From that Euro-centric viewpoint, it was the shock therapy of that French conquest that opened the floodgates to modernity in Arab literature and related areas, breaking Egypt’s centuries-long bondage to the Ottoman Turks.

By the end of World War I, the rest of the Middle East had followed suit, winning freedom from Ottoman Rule. With the exceptions of Turkey, the region of the Arabian Peninsula we know today as Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, the vast majority of the remaining lands in that broad crescent expanse stretching from the eastern border of Egypt to the southern border of Turkey—once part of the Ottoman Empire—fell under the influence of the British and French, with profound consequences that reverberate to this day. For those who love the Arabic language, the Napoleonic conquest of Egypt had as one of its more salubrious consequences the gradual replacement of Turkish by Arabic as the language of government and education.

While Western influences aided the development of an expanded literate middle class in parts of the Middle East and led to the introduction into Arabic literature of prominent Western literary forms such as dramas and novels and short stories, the traditional forms of Arabic poetry showed great resiliency and were noticeably less affected. The influence of those Western literary forms on traditional Arab literary formulations varied considerably across the region. Classical forms of Arabic poetry survived relatively intact and can still be seen today in geographically diverse places spanning the Middle East. They boldly bear witness to the enduring power and beauty of Arabic poetry. While political events may have influenced the trajectory of Arabic poetry somewhat, that influence was neither uniform across the region, nor fully in sync with all of its parts, nor inevitable, nor complete.

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Desert Voices: Arabic Poetry Through the Ages, Part III – Modern Times

Given the breadth and depth of modern Arabic poetry, it is impossible to summarize on even the most simplistic basis all of its many characteristics and variations. Rather than attempt the impossible, we choose to close our review of Arabic poetry with a discussion of an accomplished contemporary Saudi poet with whose work we here at AXP are most familiar with. No doubt many of our readers are aware of her as well. The poet in question is Nimah Ismail Nawwab, whose volume of poetry,​ The Unfurling, was the subject of a September 2004 feature article appearing in these same pages.

“With a clear voice,” the story began, “she precisely conveys remarkable insights into Saudi Arabia and the world beyond that entwines an ancient society.”

“In this book of verse and searing insights,” the article went on, quoting a review by Dr. John Duke Anthony, President of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, “Nimah Ismail Nawwab shares her uncanny gift for linking disparate peoples and cultures through her poems of the heart. A daughter of Arabia, she writes with a knowledge and passion that is as deep and telling of her attachment to family and ancestral origins as she does of her understanding of the world and its ways beyond her country’s shores. Much is to be said for those few like her whose prose and poetry span an otherwise unbridgeable chasm in the understanding of other countries and their people’s longings and emotions. Ms. Nawwab is among a breed apart in this regard, and not only for being adept at holding hands across both ends of a cultural divide, but in her life and in her writings for personifying so closely much that can be likened unto the bridge itself.”

“Nimah Nawwab’s remarkable volume of poetry,” the article continued, quoting a review from John L. Esposito, Founding Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, “is must-reading for its artistic merits as well as its relevance and timeliness. Her poetry takes on special significance at the present time as many continue to ask, ‘Where are the moderate Muslim voices?’ These insightful, profound and often moving poems range across Arab and Muslim culture and the author’s life and experiences, addressing topics from religion and culture, faith and belief, gender and family, pluralism and peace to Palestine, Iraq, and Arabia. Nimah Nawwab’s poetry reflects the faith, hopes, fears, disappointments, expectations and dreams of many ordinary Muslims, and indeed non-Muslims, today.”

“Arab culture, Arab, Muslim women and women in general, human affairs,“ the article goes on, this time quoting a review by Audrey Shabbas from the Arab World and Islamic Resources and School Services of Berkeley, California, “this enriching volume moves us from the center of personal experiences to current global issues and speaks to the truths in all our lives.

“There is a wealth of insight here for everyone, and I highly recommend it to teachers, students, and those who are interested in Arab culture as seen through the eyes of a modern writer and poet. It has a place in language arts programs looking at contemporary world issues, including women’s issues, coming-of-age, and self-discovery. What a wonderful tool for dispelling stereotypes and replacing them with understanding – a means by which to explore our own journey of self-discovery. I want to give this volume a hug!”

AXP concludes that 2004 article in its own words:

“Nimah Ismail Nawwab is a Saudi poet descended from a long line of Makkan scholars. An English writer and poet as well as photographer, her essays and articles on Saudi society, customs, Islam, art, crafts, cuisine and calligraphy have been published in Saudi Arabia and abroad.

“Her poems on women, freedom, Arabian society and the younger generation of Saudis as well as the universal themes of love, loss and simple joy are published online and in print.

“She collects Saudi artifacts, Middle Eastern folkloric costumes, silver jewelry, Persian rugs, Nomadic weavings and pottery. She loves animals and enjoys listening to eclectic music, especially when writing poems; traveling, cooking and researching international dishes. Nimah lives with her husband and two children in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.”

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Nimah Ismail Nawwab is the modern-day embodiment of a rich literary tradition that dates back more than two millennia. As we salute Nimah, we salute as well a long line of writers whose work has contributed to the flowering of the Arabic language and the richness of the culture of the Arab world and, indeed, to the cultural richness of the world at large.

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For readers interested in learning more about Arabic poetry, reading the poems of Nimah Ismail Nawwab—written by a Saudi not in her native tongue, Arabic, but in her second language, English, is a good place to start. Moving beyond Nimah’s work to the main body of Arabic poetry, there are many collections translated into English and other modern languages to choose from.

We recommend the following books—all of them written in English and all of which are easily available from Amazon—for further reading. They’re available in hardcover and/or paperback and/or ebook. Enjoy!

Part 2