Arabic Poetry

A look at the illustrious pedigree of Arabic poetry

Arabs have long regarded poetry as their most precious heritage. Since its emergence, poetry has occupied a central place in the literary landscape of Arab culture. Originally, Arabic poetry emerged during the pre-Islamic period of the 6th century. During those times, the poet held a central position within the tribe: they were its spokesperson and defender of its honour.

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Poetry is recited and transmitted orally, serving a memory-related function as it recounts the history of the tribe or certain individuals. A true reflection of human thought, Arabic poetry addresses a wide range of themes like love, nature, exile, and politics. Classical Arab poets explored various poetic forms and used a language rich in metaphors and imagery. Farouk Mardam-Bey, a historian and the director of the Sindbad collection at Actes Sud, suggests that contemporary poetry engages with the modernity of the Arab world and its most contemporary. Indeed, contemporary poets, in their rich diversity, reflect the plurality of cultures and concerns across different regions of the Arab world.

“Poetry has always been considered by the Arabs as the record of their collective existence, the guardian of their memory. Poetry has always been regarded as the primary literary genre before being dethroned about forty years ago by the novel, which now holds the first place in the Arab world.”

– Farouk Mardam-Bey, historian and director of the Sindbad collection at Actes Sud

Since the existence of Arabic language poetry, love has been one of its major themes, categorized as ‘ghazal’ by critics of the classical era. “Many poets have seized it to express their desire for their beloved. Sensual or courtly, sublime or playful, this poetry has traversed the centuries while retaining its original freshness,” emphasizes the editor. It is quoted, recited, or sung with pleasure, whether it comes from the Arabian desert, Abbasid Baghdad, or Al-Andalus. Despite this prolific production, women were sidelined due to male dominance, which prohibited them from expressing their feelings publicly. Fortunately, today, women are very present in contemporary poetry.

Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria have played a particularly significant role in the development of 20th-century Arabic poetry. They have hosted numerous influential poets and major literary movements. Notable figures include the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaika, the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, and the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. Mardam-Bey highlights Egyptian poetry’s place at the forefront of Arabic poetry.

In Palestine, four generations of poets have followed one another since the Nakba, and some of them have early on embarked on the path of renewal, at times with a unique tone that defies adversity through a strong sense of derision. Palestinian poetry is a cry of resistance. It draws from the history and collective memory of Palestine, evoking the land, exile, and the pain of the diaspora while celebrating the richness of Palestinian culture. The Maghreb countries – Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco – have also made significant contributions to Arabic poetry, especially after the independence of these nations.

“For many years, the most important poets in the Maghreb countries were Francophone. Today, and since gaining independence, most of them write in Arabic.”

– Farouk Mardam-Bey

Today, and for the past thirty years, we have witnessed the rise of so-called free verse poetry. “This is prose poetry, meaning it does not adhere to specific rhythmic rules. This poetry addresses all themes of daily life, sometimes with a touch of humour, and it can occasionally be strictly feminine, even expressing women’s demands in the Arab world,” Mardam-Bey explains. Since September, the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris has chosen to celebrate this precious literary genre by establishing ‘Les Samedis de la Poésie’. Open readings for all are held every last Saturday of the month.

Selma Chougar is a French independent journalist of Algerian origin who writes for several magazines based in Paris, London, and Dubai. Culture and societal phenomena in the Arab world are her areas of expertise. She contributes to both French and English-language magazines.