مجنون لیلی / sojourns of Middle Eastern Poets and Words

Souk Mkhael, Lebanon

Poetry is a founding; a naming of being and the essence of all things – not just any saying, but that whereby everything first steps into the open, which we then discuss and talk about in every day language. Hence poetry never takes language as a material at its disposal; rather poetry itself first makes language possible. 

Martin Heidegger



There is more to the Middle East than war.

In a region where alliances rise and fall as rhythmically as the rolling sand dunes of the deserts, where constructed memories cast a heavy haze over the present narrative, Middle Eastern poetry offers a rich, unifying, evocative, magnetic pull of ancient lore carried among the spices, music and songs; modified and dispersed; traversing the paths of the old caravans to bring news of Anguish, Joy, Hope, Sorrow, Beauty and Love from lands of the unknown.

It is by no strange coincidence that the Arabic word for ‘poet’ (Sha’er; شاعر ) can be translated to  ‘one who feels’; ‘poetry'(Shi’r; شعر)  to ‘express feeling’. That it is identical to the Farsi word for ‘poem’ is also unsurprising, explained by the familial heritage of these languages and peoples [1]. Respecting the sensitivities around ownership of words in this region, allow me, dear reader, to digress and explore this translation further:

In Arabic, the word ‘Shi’ir’ means ‘to feel’ and ‘to express feeling’. It dates back to ‘Shiru’, a word of Akkadian origin. The Akkadian is a very akin language, if not an ancestor, to Arabic in all language levels: syntax, morphology, phonology and semantics as a great number of archaeological researches showed. ‘Shiru’, as specialists of old languages of Mesopotamia said, has a double meaning. It stands for two verbs, the first is ‘surakhu’ (to mean ‘weep), and now in Arabic ‘sarakha’, i.e., cry and weep- it bears the same meaning though with a very slight variation in pronunciation. The second is ‘zammaru’ (to mean ‘sing’), now in Arabic ‘zammara’, i.e, sing using flute.It bears nearly the same sense and a slight variation in pronunciation. Moreover, the Akkadian word ‘Shiru’ itself had come, with the same pronunciation bearing the sense of ‘ a song or a sad song’, as a loan word into the Akkadian language from the Sumerians, the most ancient people of the world , and the early natives of Mesopotamia, now Iraq. Hence, the word ‘Shiru’ avails in
almost all the languages termed as Semitic languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Phoenician. Now, in Hebrew for instance, ‘Shir Hishreem’ means the ‘the song of songs’. [2]

Poetry has shaped Middle Eastern history and narrative since the times of the ancients. Poets rose to be kings – ‘The Lost King‘ and ‘The Poet King of Seville’  spring to mind – their poetry used as both weapons and brutal accounts of the rise and fall of tribes and empires, of amorous scenes of love and separation and of longing for the Divine connection.  On the latter, the ‘Ghazal’ works of Islamic jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic Rumi remain amongst the most revered and widely read poetic works in the world.

It may surprise a few to learn that during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) poetic festivals abounded, with the very best poems collected and hung on the Kaaba in Mecca; these poems were called  المعلقات (‘the muallaqat’: or the ‘suspended/hung’ poems). [3] 

In the Middle East today, a high level of respect is levied at the linguistic mastery of accomplished poets who often manage to remain untouched by political divisions and universally claimed as part of a shared heritage.

I distinctly recall learning about the great Arab poets whilst growing up in a tiny mountainous village in Lebanon. The words of Joubran Khalil Joubran  warmed our cold, bare classroom, as did Nizar Qabani’s and Elias Abou Shabaki‘s; only now do I comprehend and appreciate the longing in their poems for their homeland and all those they left behind:

Good morning sweetheart.
Good morning my Saint of a sweetheart.
It has been two years, mother
since the boy sailed
on his mythical journey.

Since he hid within his luggage
the green morning of his homeland
her stars, and her streams,
and all of her red poppy.

Since he hid in his cloths
bunches of mint and thyme,
and a Damascene Lilac.


I am alone.
The smoke of my cigarette is bored,
and even my seat, of me, is bored
My sorrows are like flocking birds looking for a grain field in season.
I became acquainted with the emotions of cement and wood.
I became acquainted with the civilisation of tiredness
I travelled India, and I travelled China,
I travelled the entire oriental world,
and nowhere did I find,
a woman to comb my golden hair.
a woman that hides for me in her purse a sugar candy.
A woman that dresses me when I am naked,
and lifts me up when I fall.

Mother, I am that boy who sailed,
and in his mind still longs for that sugar candy.
So how come,
so how come,
my mother,
I have become a father
and have never grow up? [4]

While most of what has been discussed above is of the written classical style of poetry, it would be remiss of me not to also mention the more playful, free-style form of oral  poetry:  زجل (Zajal),  or what I like to refer to as the Middle Eastern world’s precedent to ‘hip hop’.

The ‘Zajjal’ Imad here starts with a traditional call of ‘Ooof’ that accompanies the start of a zajal. He invites a fortuneteller to tell his fortune over his coffee cup; using the cup as a metaphor, he goes on to describe its mouth and heart as being burnt over his neighbour. 

Unlike the classical form, which was written in formal Arabic and therefore often only within the reach of the  educated, ‘zajal’ relies on the colloquially diverse Arabic dialects. As a result, it is far more accessible, playful and perhaps more daring:

Zajal, a traditional form of oral poetry declaimed in colloquial Arabic dialects, is semi-improvised and semi-sung and is most often performed in the format of a lively duel between as many as 8 poets, who divide into competing jawqas or teams. Duelists engage in verbal play upon a common theme, and dividing by teams into two sides of an issue. Their word play consists of original rhyme schemes, punning, satire and colorful insults. Zajal poets are complemented by riddadi, musical accompanists who repeat key verses or refrains, often to encourage the poets and heighten the spirit of competition.
The zajal poetic tradition is most popular in the North African and Levantine regions of the Middle East, especially in Lebanon and Palestine where professional zajal practitioners can attain high levels of recognition and popularity. The first recorded Lebanese zajal poem dates back to the year 1289, though the tradition is thought to have its roots in ancient Pre-Islamic Arabic literature, and has grown into an integral part of Lebanese folk culture. Major developments in the tradition took place in the Lebanese mountains, where zajal filled an important entertainment vacuum in villages. Modern zajal duels are well-organized public events comparable to poetry slams, but attracting hundreds in festival settings that compete with musical concerts. [5]

And what of the present? Is the Middle Eastern Poet confined to the glories of the past?

To this, I offer the rebuttal of Al Jazeera’s ‘Poets of Protest‘, hip-hop groups like D.A.M and websites like Middle Eastern Poetry, not to mention a burst of Slam Poets.

Much like their literary ancestors, these poets agonise and antagonise, debate and relate, demand and excite the attention of a public that hungers for the strength and piercing wisdom of their words. Armed with a truth that flows from the blood-ink of their pens, they offer jarring depictions of every day struggle amongst the ruins of war:

Not at the doorstep.
In the hallway of the house

Your warm laughter
Plays with your expected child.

You will not be absent
For no father abandons his unborn.
He will be born in a few months.
He will not scream, my son.

His laugh . . . your laugh.
Oh, apple of my eye!
I will be denied
Your beautiful eyes.. .
A glimpse every day.. .
Heroes die in my life, my son,
And rise.
Death does not become you.
Do not die
Do not die
Do not die.[6]

In doing so, these wordsmiths ensure the continuation of the long winding history of the Middle Eastern poet.


[1]  For example, as a native Arabic speaker, I could instantly recognise many Arabic words such as ‘beyt’ and ‘bahr’, both of which retain their meaning,  appearing in  Azadehfar’s Glossary of Symbols and Terms in Iranian Music. Citation: Azadehfar, Mohammad Reza, 2011, ‘Glossary of Symbols and Terms in Iranian Music’, in Rhythmic Structure in Iranian Music, Tehran: University of Arts, pp. 345-355. Free copy available through Academia. As another example of the shared history of the region,  see the glossary of Arabic and Persian words in the Ottoman text of  ‘Risale-i Ahlak’.

[2] See: the Introduction by Prof. Abdul-Settar Al-Assady in The Gateway to Modern Arabic Poetry, available here. 

[3] See here and here.

[4] Whilst this is not the best translation of an excerpt of Nizar Qabbani’s  ‘Five Letters to my Mother’, it is the only one I could find. I have amended some parts with were not entirely correct. If you find a better version, please let me know!

[5] Taken from, of all places, a facebook event page!

[6] A translated excerpt of a poem by Hala Mohammad who appeared in the Aljazeera ‘Poets of Protest’ series, taken from here.


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