From street bards to Hussein, everyone's a poet in Iraq
In Iraq, there is a saying that beside every palm tree, you will find a poet. To give you some idea of how many poets that is, there are 25 million people in Iraq, and 38 million palm trees.Skip to next paragraph
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In this country, poetry is like national therapy, a cure for ills in the body politic.
"As Iraqi people, we like to celebrate our state, our country," says Harith Ismail Turki, a professor of English literature who is, of course, also a poet. "People sometimes resort to poetry, not as a way to escape, but as a way to mitigate the agony inside themselves."
The palm tree proverb, for example, was coined by urban intellectuals during the Baath regime to describe a time when poetry served two masters: Often used to praise Saddam Hussein, it was also one of the few safe ways to criticize the government. But now that Mr. Hussein sits in prison, where he spends his days writing poetry of more vigor than quality, Iraqi poets have a new injustice to protest: the US military presence.
"Don't trouble yourself with the dirty Americans, and don't trouble yourself with her dirty servants," chants a heavyset man, stepping into the middle of an admiring circle of men. In a poem addressed to the renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he compares Paul Bremer to the founder of the Baath Party, Michel Aflaq: "Why does the family of al-Sadr threaten America?" he sings, as the men around him clap rhythmically. "People were loyal to Aflaq, and now they have became loyal to Bremer / But we will always be ready to fight with you whenever you want."
Picking up the theme, another poet tries to outdo his rivals. "Look, people, the eagle of Kufa came home to his city," he cries. "Moqtada, the Eagle of Kufa, to whose will both America and the Governing Council submitted! / He has at his command al-Mahdi soldiers who are ready to sacrifice their souls."
Cheering, the men begin to jump up and down, waving daggers and Kalashnikovs in the air.
You won't find these verses in any anthologies or literary magazines. These anonymous poets star on a compact disc, a low-quality digital video of a tribal gathering that you can buy in Sadr City's Mraidi market for a couple of dollars. Intoning their poems in low, dramatic voices, the poets are singing a traditional form of Iraqi oral poetry called darmee, with a complex and untranslatable rhyme scheme and a rollicking, irresistible rhythm.
Sometimes called "popular poetry," darmee is composed in the spoken slang of Iraq's Shiite south, not the written Arabic of classical poetry. Pop singers like Kazem al-Saher, "the Iraqi Elvis," take song lyrics from old darmees. Often performed in groups in a freestyle competition, darmee is a bit like Iraqi rap.
Shiites from the south of the country began composing darmee when the country was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. While classical poetry dwelt on elevated historical themes, like the prophet Muhammad's battles, darmees bemoaned everyday woes: faithless lovers, cruel landlords, heartless females.
"During Ottoman times, darmee poets addressed the women - either to complain or to praise," says Abu Hatem, a poet and scholar who lives in Sadr City. "Sometimes a woman, if she missed her lover for a long time, might write one herself."
Abu Hatem, who treasures the folkloric poems, has nothing but scorn for contemporary darmee. "They represent the primitive stages of the mind," he says. "Sometimes they praise someone by a darmee, and this person doesn't deserve it."