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Arabic Poetry and the Public Sphere Today: a Conversation between Abbas Beydoun and Rula Jurdi

Abbas Beydoun by Mamoun Sakkal, source

Abbas Beydoun by Mamoun Sakkal source

by Rula Jurdi Abbas Beydoun by Mamoun Sakkal "Before we ask ourselves why are the readers of Arabic poetry declining we must remember that throughout history, if one were to examine the major Arabic literary accounts, poetry was a public activity, but it was never a sustained popular or mass-based activity. Poetry was for the elites"--Abbas Beydoun In March 2013, the prominent Lebanese journalist, poet and novelist, Abbas Beydoun was hosted by the Institute of Islamic Studies (IIS) at McGill University and by the Iraqi-Canadian Cultural Club in Montreal to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the IIS and the declaration of Baghdad as the Cultural Capital of the Arab World. The Lebanese historian and poet, Rula Jurdi, had a conversation with Beydoun about the place of Arabic poetry in the Lebanese public sphere, its readership, the relationship of the publisher to the poet, and the politics of publishing.

Beydoun: Before we ask ourselves why are the readers of Arabic poetry declining we must remember that throughout history, if one were to examine the major Arabic literary accounts, poetry was a public activity, but it was never a sustained popular or mass-based activity. Poetry was for the elites. We are at times told that before the modern period, poetry had a central and integral place in Arab societies and politics. This point needs to be revisited. If you look at the medieval biographical dictionaries and literary accounts you will find that poetry was nurtured by the elites and tied to those in power. It attracted a learned public and was recited in specialized circles. Only the poets who received the support from the courts attracted a wider audience and tended to be read by those outside the court. One can look at the historical prominence of Abu Faraj al-Isfahani’s “Kitab al-Aghani,” for example, to realize these features. This makes it clear that the common person did not readily engage with Arabic poetry or pursue the works of poets spontaneously.

Jurdi: We may be talking about different “public spheres.” The nature of the “elite” and the arenas they shape has changed over time. If we assess this change in Lebanon, for instance, one finds that being “learned” during the 1960s and the 1970s, involved an emphasis on being an “intellectual,” one who cultivates knowledge of poetry, music, film, or the arts in general. Exposure to poetry was demanded in ways that are not demanded today. Even if poetry was not the bread and butter of the layperson it was nonetheless discursively tied to several arenas in the public sphere, which is less viable today. It is also possible that we are seeing a fragmentation of earlier public spheres, and various forces compete for the intellectuals’ attention (example: internet). We can talk, for instance, about the challenges the Arabic language faces in Lebanon and its transmission to a younger generation.

Beydoun: It is possible that poetry readers were more numerous in between the 1960s and 1980s and the demand for poetry was greater. At the same time, the publishing houses did publish a lot more works for new poets than the current presses do. But the populist “jamahiri” base for poetry in Lebanon and the Arab world did not come from poetry itself. It did not emanate from a commitment to this form of creative writing, the genre, its themes, its structure or questions about creative writing. Those who showed up for a poetry reading were not directly concerned with what the poet intended to create through her or his poetry. The relative popularity of poetry came from factors outside the realm of the poetic, namely, the mobilization of Arab nationalists, the Palestinian cause, demands for democracy, opposition to Arab rulers, Third Worldism as well as restlessness about a host of socio-economic and political grievances. The late Nizar Qabbani, however, made a major change in the readership of poetry not directly based on these factors. Qabbani had the ability to simplify and solidify poetic form at a particular moment in Arab literary history. He also focused on the theme of love, which turned him into a popular and widely read poet. Adonis, on the other hand, received a lot of attention through his polemics with a host of Arab thinkers and poets. In addition to his ethnic politics,1 Adonis purposely challenged Arab thinkers, making controversial political and intellectual statements, keeping him in the public eye. For example, his declaration in Kurdistan that the Kurds are more important than the Arabs sparked a lively debate.

Jurdi: I do not think that Adonis cuts across social classes as Qabbani did. But Adonis is creative. He was a serious critic of poetry, who was also important in raising questions about culture and poetry at a time of national crisis in the Arab world. Additionally, he created a new movement through his literary journal, Shi‘r (Poetry) which was launched in Beirut in 1957. These features are part and parcel of his being a poet and do not fall “Outside.” These activities, however, caused derision as well as admiration, both of which were necessary to enter important public arenas.

Beydoun: Yes, but reading the literary journal and Adonis’ critical works is not the same as engaging directly with his poetry, seeking it for itself, and cherishing it. The latter remained a restricted elite activity.

Jurdi: I want to move now to the mediums for expressing poetry, such as public oral recitals, music, and song. I find the oral and performative mediums for poetry crucial for bringing new sensibilities and attracting new audiences in the public sphere. How often do you read your poetry publicly and in what forums? How do you perceive the role of musicians and singers in introducing your poetry to wider and more popular circles? Does this jeopardize your poetic concerns?

Beydoun: I always say that poetry is meant to be read publicly and as such orality is integral to its travel, its presentation and the possibility of drawing in listeners. It may set the framework for future engagements with the poet’s works. When it is delivered, and interacted with it creates new feelings and evokes new meanings. The bond that is formed between the poet and an audience is also important for the poet’s well-being, so to speak.

In Lebanon, the public delivery of poetry is rare. I was invited probably once or twice to read my poetry at a café, which encouraged and organized such public recitals. But this attempt on the part of the café owners was uncommon. Unfortunately, it did not last long. We do not see such attempts to bring poetry readings to bookstores or cafés, and when it happens these days it draws limited and specialized audiences.

Jurdi: A number of writers and artists have lamented the limits placed by singers and their public on a poet’s creative world. Familiarity with, if not the popularity of, poems that are turned into songs have diverse implications. The musician and composer Marwan Abadu argued that the Arab audiences have not engaged with the full works of Mahmoud Darwish. They have known these works that lend themselves to more popular taste and through the songs composed by Marcel Khalife. Others also argued that this ghina’iya (poems that lend themselves to song) is an impediment in the path of developing a specialized taste for poetry, that is, appreciating poetry for and in itself. I do not agree with this view because the link between the two is more complex. On the one hand, it can indeed limit appreciation for more creative and distinct poetic pieces. On the other hand, it may also introduce the poet to more heterogeneous publics. It is then up to different individuals to decide if they want to read other pieces or works by the poet. It does at least create interest in the poet and allow poetry to function at various levels. In the Iraqi Shiite tradition of the rawadeed,2 for instance, the reciter works closely with the Husaynid poet and he introduces him to a wide range of publics which otherwise may be inaccessible. It creates an early appreciation for poetry, and a deep link to the language itself through the partnership between the poet and the reciter. What do you think of song as a way to re-activate/recharge poetry and draw the Arab audiences to it?

Beydoun: I agree with what you said about this Iraqi tradition. I like the idea of reactivating the relationship between the poet and the composer. Yes, I see a lot of benefit coming from it and for several diverse reasons. I am not sure the reader is all to blame. There is a part that we can and must play to overcome the confinement of poetry. Publishing poetry is indeed now more difficult than before. Several publishing presses have openly declared that they will not publish poetry not only for new poets but also for ones who have a relatively good following. Those consulted by the publishing presses say that the Arab audiences are not reading. At the same time, the poets say that the Arab audiences will not read poetry if the publishing presses focus merely on how many copies they will sell. The presses may need to consult with those who can truly evaluate the poetry and recommend the publication of promising works. But again, to go back to your point, I am all for finding new avenues and methods for bringing attention to Arabic poetry and facilitating its publicness, its oral efficacy, its spread and nurturing it among the younger generation.


1. Beydoun refers to Adonis’s tendency to essentialize the Arabs as less innovative and to consider ethnic diversity or elements like the Persian, or Kurdish, among others, as a source of creativity and renewal in the tradition. Adonis, for instance, told the Kurds that their tradition is more creative and open to change than the Arab one. However, Adonis has denied that he was characterizing all Arab traditions, although his writings do point to that. According to Beydoun, Adonis focuses on ethnic politics in order to stay newsworthy and continue to be discussed as a controversial figure.

2.Rawadeed is the plural of raaduud, the designation for the reciter of funeral and festive chants in the Iraqi Shiite tradition. In this uniquely Iraqi tradition, the reciter, or raaduud, cooperates with a poet called “Husayni” because he writes poetry for Imam al-Husayn, concerning his qualities, his tragic death, and the deaths of those who died with him in Karbala. There are many poets known as  al-shu’ara’ al-Husayniyyun. The raaduud uses this kind of poetry to create the chants using the maqamat to compose his publically delivered recitals. The audiences memorize sections of those poems and repeat them with him to keep the rhythm. This creates an early appreciation for poetry at the popular level.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 66

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