In Arab World, Ancient Tradition Finds New Voice

Poetry is a living, breathing medium in the Arab world, where it's the basis of two hit TV competition shows, a la American Idol — but with poets. NPR explores why Arabic poetry remains such an active and resonant art form in the region — and how a new generation of poets, who have come of age in the Arab diaspora, are informed by that tradition.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

For the last three weeks, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. has been hosting a festival called Arabesque: Arts of the Arab world. In its last week, the focus has been on film and literature, specifically poetry.

In the West, poetry may be the stuff of college classrooms, but as NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, in the Arab world, poetry is the most revered and popular form of artistic and political expression.

BILAL QURESHI: This is one of the most popular TV shows in the Middle East.

(Soundbite of television program, "The Prince of Poets")

QURESHI: It's called "The Prince of Poets," kind of an Arabic "American Idol" with cell phone voting and crazed crowds. And one of its stars was Tamim Al-Barghouthi, and the poem he performed is called "In Jerusalem."

(Soundbite of television program, "The Prince of Poets")

Mr. TAMIM Al-BARGHOUTHI (Poet): (Speaking foreign language).

Ms. AHDAF SOUEIF (Writer, Egypt): He didn't win the competition, although I really thought he should.

QURESHI: Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif is one of the leading literary voices in the Middle East.

Ms. SOUEIF: That meant that people took it upon themselves to popularize the poem and spread it.

QURESHI: It went viral, the stuff of ringtones and YouTube videos, all of this for a poem that Tamim Al-Barghouthi admits is in a language no one uses in everyday life.

Mr. Al-BARGHOUTHI: The language I write in is the language of the eighth century.

QURESHI: The poem struck a nerve because "In Jerusalem" is a love song to a city that remains a potent political and cultural symbol in the Middle East. And Tamim Al-Barghouthi says poetry is the way to convey that in the Arab world.

Mr. Al-BARGHOUTHI: I think of poetry as a collective act, as an act of self expression not only for the individual poet but for the collective that listens to that poet and that sees in him a representative, a rare one because they seldom get somebody really to represent them. They are not represented in the parliament, they are not represented by their governments, and they are not represented almost anywhere.

QURESHI: In fact, the poet was the voice of the Arabs even before there were governments according to Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif.

Ms. SOUEIF: Poetry was, by necessity, the art form. These people were Bedouin. They were people who were on the move. They were not a sedentary society that could create architecture or create sort of actual objects of art that they were going to have to sort of load with them as they moved every day. Their art was the words, which they could carry in their memories and just sit down and recite.

QURESHI: But this tradition stretched beyond the borders of the Bedouin culture of the Arabian Gulf. Rapper K-Naan says it's very much part of East Africa as well.

Mr. K-NAAN (Musician): In Somalia, there is no song if it's not a poem. I don't even think there's ever been a song in Somalia that doesn't have serious poetic eloquence to it.

QURESHI: The eloquence of the word found its greatest expression in the Koran, what many, including Tamim Al-Barghouthi consider the finest work of Arabic poetry.

Mr. Al-BARGHOUTHI: And the evidence for that book's divine origin, according to the religious discourse, according to Islamic discourse, is nothing but its eloquence, and therefore linguistic beauty, eloquence, is something essential in Arab consciousness, in the existence of Arabs.

QURESHI: In other words, it's the eloquence of the language that ties people together. That's why Tamim's poem, "In Jerusalem," has connected so many people across the region.

Ms. Al-BARGHOUTHI: (Speaking foreign language).

QURESHI: It's the story of a Palestinian, forced to sneak into the city, sensing its history and the men who have come before him.

Ms. SOUEIF: And as he leaves, and as he sort of glances in the rear mirror of the taxi that's taking him out, and as he's in tears, the city says to him, you know, you young fool. Yes, there has been all these men, if you like, but I see no one except you.

QURESHI: Ahdaf Soueif says "In Jerusalem's" final message of hope ties Al-Barghouthi to the most famous modern Arab poet, the late Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish, who is often called the poet laureate of the Middle East.

Ms. SOUEIF: Whether he likes it or not, and in fact he fought against it, was seen as the voice of the Palestinian people. The poor man, you know, couldn't write a love poem without it being interpreted as a love poem to Palestine, but he was the voice of the Palestinian people, and he filled stadiums.

QURESHI: And his poems were turned into hit songs by Lebanese composer, Marcel Khalife.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MARCEL KHALIFE (Singer): (Singing foreign language)

QURESHI: Poetry as performance is alive beyond the streets of Cairo and Beirut. It lives in the homes of Arab immigrants and their children scattered across the world. It's on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam."

(Soundbite of television program, "Def Poetry Jam")

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man #1: Please give it up from Brooklyn by way of Palestine, Ms. Suheir Hammad.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. SUHEIR HAMMAD (Poet): Mic check, one, two, can you hear me?

Unidentified People: Yes.

Ms. HAMMAD: Mic check, one, two. Mike checked my bags at the airport in a random, routine check. I understand Mike, I do. You, too, were altered that day, and most days, most folks operate on fear, often hate. This is mic check your job, and I am always random.

QURESHI: Suheir Hammad is an Arab-American poet, and she'll let you know she's just as Brooklyn as she is Palestinian, yet she grew up in the shadow of the Koran, thinking God was a poet.

Ms. HAMMAD: And at the same time, I saw rap as poetry. But for me, that friction, you know, I found a beat there. I found my own voice there.

(Soundbite of song "I Was Stabbed By Satan")

Mr. K-NAAN: (Singing) One, two, one, one, two. I was stabbed by Satan…

QURESHI: In much the same way, Somali musician K-Naan finds his rhythm in his inheritance, in the eloquence of the poets who came before him.

(Soundbite of song "I Was Stabbed By Satan")

Mr. K-NAAN: (Singing) A poor, black, ghetto child. He can't shoot and he can't go run a mile. There's no school, and they can't go running round. The police and the court want to run them out.

QURESHI: Beyond his lyrical precision, K-Naan's words reflect the realities of daily life in his homeland.

Ms. K-NAAN: If we're discussing difficulties, if we're discussing beauty, if it's war, if it's peace, it's poetry.

(Soundbite of "I Was Stabbed By Satan")

Mr. K-NAAN: (Singing) I was stabbed by Satan on the day that I was born.

QURESHI: But the words of these poets can also be as simple as a cup of coffee or an evening among friends. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "I Was Stabbed By Satan")

Mr. K-NAAN: (Singing) My heart bled tears.

LYDEN: You can hear Suheir Hammad perform the full version of her poem, "Mike Check," at our Web site, npr.org.

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