The Middle East has one of the greatest literary traditions known to mankind. It reflects their history events, culture, and human values. A big part of it is no doubt, poetry. In this article, we’re going to take a look at Middle Eastern poetry and see how big of a role it plays in their culture.
The History of Middle Eastern Poetry
The Middle East has a rich history of poetry, way longer than Europe. A crucial part of Middle Eastern literature and culture was poetry. Poems were utilized to preserve history, declare war, and resolve disputes. Poets of the old Arabian Peninsula tribes used to memorize tens of thousands of poems.
A big part of Middle Eastern poetry is Arabic poetry, which dates back as far as the 6th century. However, oral poetry is believed to even predate that. The history of Arabic poetry can be separated into three big eras: pre-Islamic poetry, Islamic poetry, and modern poetry.
1. Pre-Islamic poetry
Most of the poetry of the pre-Islamic era was lost and not preserved. However, the work that remains is considered to be among the best of Arabic poetry to this day. Pre-Islamic poetry is a reliable historical, political, and cultural record. The poems are eloquent and rich in artistic value.
In the pre-Islamic society, poetry held a very crucial position. Poets in that society can play the role of historian, fortune teller and even propagandist. Within those roles, propagandist seems to be the most important one since words were used to praise the tribe (qit’ah) and criticize other tribes (hija’).
2. Islamic poetry
After the time of pre-Islamic poetry, or what many call the “Age of Ignorance”, comes the period of Islamic poetry. Writers of pre-Islamic poetry were considered incompetent to be writing sacred texts such as the Quran, and this had caused tension among the early Islamic world.
Islamic poetry plays a crucial role as it is an heirloom. These poems address and examine many important parts of the Muslim and Islamic cultures. The poets of that time explored a wide range of topics, from spiritual, literary to political.
3. Modern Middle Eastern poetry
The modern era of Middle Eastern poetry started somewhere around the 19th and early 20th centuries. As part of the Arab renaissance movement, or “al-Nahda,” many poets such as Hafiz Ibrahim, Ahmad Shawqi, and Francis Marrash began to find ways to develop the classical poetic forms.
Many Middle Eastern poets at the time were familiar with Western literature. Most of them continued to write in classical forms despite the new knowledge. A small number of poets, however, publicly criticized the blind imitation of classical poetry and sought inspiration from English or French romanticism instead.
A popular theme in the recently generated poetry back then was the utilization of love poems, or ghazals, to commend the poet’s homeland. On most occasions, political viewpoints in poetry were frowned upon, and several poets were subjected to censorship or even exile. The Arab poets tried harder and harder to liberate themselves from conventional poetry the closer they got to European poetry.
Why is Poetry Important in the Middle East?
Regardless of the changes throughout history, one thing remains certain: poetry retains a very important status in Middle Eastern culture. The funerals of the national poets were attended by thousands of mourners. Countless poetry competitions keep attracting people’s attention, despite the growing pace of the digital age.
But why is that? Why does poetry play such an indispensable role in the Middle East?
If you’ve read the previous section about the history of poetry in the Middle East, this should come as no surprise. Since the dawn of their culture, poetry has already had a robust tradition. Their senses of self-identity, communal history, and ambitions for the future were all reflected in it.
In times of crisis, the first voice to raise is that of the poets. They represent the anger, fear, and willpower of the Middle East people. As long as that fact still remains, poetry will always retain its status and value within the Middle Eastern cultural heritage.
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Top 10 Famous Middle Eastern Poets You Should Read
Rumi, the great Sufi mystic and poet, is one of the most important figures in Middle Eastern literature. The influence of his writings is nothing less than substantial. His poetry had achieved wide circulation in the West, and Rumi himself became a global phenomenon by the end of the 20th century.
Rumi’s poetry awakens the love within us, helps us connect with our hearts and spirits. His verses inspired many people around the world, including celebrities like Deepak Chopra and Madonna. Maybe his poetry can affect the same way on you.
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Al-Mutanabbi was one of the greatest poets in the Arabic language.
His tremendous collection of poems has been translated into more than 20 different languages around the world. He began to compose when he was nine and took great contentment in himself through his poetry.
Most of Al-Mutanabbi’s poetry is primarily devoted to glorifying the kings he visited during his lifetime, but he also discussed topics such as battles and courage.
His poetry deeply reflects his philosophy of life and contains many valuable lessons. Today, his poems are considered to be proverbial and are widespread throughout the Arab world.
3. Khalil Gibran
Khalil Gibran, also known as Kahlil Gibran, was a Lebanese-American poet.
His best work of poetry, The Prophet, is one of the all-time best-selling books, with more than 100 language translations.
Gibran wrote in both English and Arabic, and he was heavily influenced by Western literature, such as the Bible, William Blake, or Walt Whitman.
His work discusses topics such as love, death, and nature, and they show his deeply mystic and religious nature.
4. Omar Khayyam
Omar Khayyam was a Persian poet, and also a polymath, astronomer, philosopher, mathematician, and historian.
There’s a bit of controversy surrounding his name in the history of Persian literature, since there is no material that could confidently be attributed to him.
Most of the English-speaking readers know him through the collection of his quatrains in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, translated by Edward FitzGerald.
Many scholars believe that Khayyam composed poetry in his leisure hours as a way to relax and amuse his inner circle.
5. Mahmoud Darwish
Mahmoud Darwish was a Palestinian national poet, who won many awards for his literary works. Over his career, Darwish had written eight books of prose and more than 30 books of poetry. He was an author who embodied the spirit of the political poet in Islam.
Mahmoud Darwish was widely regarded as a Palestinian emblem and an Arab anti-Israel spokesperson. He was even placed under house arrest at one point when his poem “Identity Card” was turned into a protest song.
The central theme in Darwish’s poetry is the concept of watan or homeland, as he used Palestine as an emblem for Eden’s loss, birth, and resurrection.
6. Orhan Veli Kanık
Orhan Veli Kanık was one of the most innovative Turkish poets of the 20th century. He objected to the usage of syllable and aruz meters, and pretty much shunned everything old in order to bring about a new “taste.” Even though this desire of Kanık limited the technical possibilities in his poetry, he did bring the poetic language closer to the spoken language with his plain phraseology.
Unsurprisingly, the innovations he introduced to poetry met great resistance at first. Kanık tradition-transgressing works were criticized harshly and subject to derision and contempt. Despite all that, his works had always aroused interest, eventually leading to an increase in understanding of the poet, and finally affection and admiration. The great Turkish writer Sait Faik Abasıyanık called him “a poet who achieved both great fame and notoriety in his time.”
Adonis, or Adunis, is the pseudonym of the Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber. He was the man who led a modernist revolution in Arabic poems in the last 50 years of the 20th century.
Adonis had published twenty volumes of poetry and thirteen volumes of critique in total. In his work, he broke free of the traditional of formal structure in Arabic poetry and experimented with new elements such as free verse, variable meters, or prose. In his own words, he wanted to “draw on Arab tradition and mythology without being tied to it.”
Adonis is regarded as the greatest living poet of the Arab world, and he had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times.
8. Maram al-Masri
Maram al-Masri is a Syrian poet, who is regarded as having one of the most alluring voices of femininity in her generation.
Her poetry is simple and direct, with the utilization of almost child-like metaphors. It contrasts sharply with traditional Arabic love poetry.
As a writer of The Guardian described her, she is a love poet who spares no truth of love’s joys and also mercilessness.
Maram al-Masri has published several collections of poems and received many poetry awards, including the “Adonis Prize” of the Lebanese Cultural Forum in 1998.
9. Ahlam Mosteghanemi
Ahlam Mosteghanemi is an Algerian writer, who is mostly known for her fiction. She became known as one of the best-selling Arabic-speaking women writers in the world. Numerous high schools and institutions throughout the world have her novels on their lists of compulsory curriculum, and they have been translated into numerous languages.
Even though she is known more as a novelist, Ahlam began her literary career as a poet. She was a host of a poetic radio show at 17, and published her first poetry book, Ala Marfa al Ayam (To the Days’ Haven) at 20. She belonged to the first generation to acquire the right to study in Arabic after the ban of French, and the first woman to publish a compilation of poetry in Arabic.
10. Ahmed Shawqi
Ahmed Shawqi was an Arabic poet, whose nickname is the Prince of Poets.
He was a talented poet with a propensity for command of rhyme and diction. His name holds prestige in the Arab world and his poetry still inspires many young Arab poets to this day.
One of the things that made Shawqui stand out from other poets of his time is his wide range of topics.
He wrote about religion, politics, patriotism, and Pan-Arabism. His poems were deeply affected by events in his life, and often contained inspiring life lessons.
So that’s the overview of Middle Eastern poetry. As you should have known by now, the Middle East has one of the richest poetry traditions in the world, and this article still hasn’t barely scratched the surface. However, I hope that it will be a good gateway for you to learn more about this fascinating topic.
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Thomas Dao is the guy who created Poem Home, a website where people can read about all things poetry related. When he’s not busy working on his next project, you can find him reading a good book or spending time with family and friends.