Stability lets Basra, a city of poets, return to its roots
In the southern Iraqi city, poetry and music have returned since Iraqi forces wrested control from Shiite extremists last year.
At Al Rasheed radio, poet Khalid al-Mayahi leans into the microphone and pours out his heart to the city, using words that could have gotten him killed before Iraqi forces took back Basra last year from Shiite extremists.Skip to next paragraph
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"I am a monk for your love. I built the biggest church in my soul for you," he recites, waving his arms with passion to echo the verses he's written. The poignant improvisation of violinist Na'el Hamid next to him soars onto the airwaves. The announcer picks up a traditional Arabic oud to accompany them.
In this city, with its crumbling beauty and centuries of culture, the poetry and music that were driven underground when the militias were in charge are beginning to blossom again.
"I inscribed a cross in my heart," continues Mr. Mayahi, who looks like a film star and recites as if he's on fire. "In the universe, there is no one else like you – you are a question wrapped in an entire book."
The live program is mesmerizing, and in this deprived city, it falls like a welcome rain. The phone lines light up with young women who want to share their own love poems; a poetry-loving police sergeant calls in to every show.
"Iraqi people want music. They want a new life, an open life – especially in Basra," says station manager Nawfal al-Obeid. Mr. Obeid, a journalist, left Iraq in 2006 after a friend was kidnapped and killed, and just returned eight months ago. "In Basra, it is starting to be stable, but not 100 percent. You can say 60 or 75 percent."
The station, an offshoot of Baghdad's Al Rasheed radio, which combines music, poetry and talk, is just two months old.
But poetry here goes back centuries. To Iraqis, it is like breathing. In radio programs in Baghdad, callers phone in to request poems the same way one requests a favorite song. The death of a major poet is an occasion of national mourning.
Basra, as part of ancient Sumer, had an advanced civilization 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians were believed to have invented the first system of writing. The city, on the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, is the setting for the epic tale of Sinbad the Sailor and tens of thousands of poems that followed.
Poets, poets everywhere
These days, you can barely turn around in Basra without running into a poet.
On the corniche along the Shatt al-Arab, where families stroll after dusk, two earnest young poets carrying copybooks lean against the railing watching the boats go by.
One of the boats carries a wedding party – young men wearing denim jeans beating drums and dancing with joyous abandon on the roof – a sight unthinkable before last spring.
Ali al-Munsury and Saif al-Hilifi, both university students at the University of Basra, write shaaby poetry – popular or street poetry – written and recited in colloquial dialect rather than the more complex classical Arabic. Often turned into popular songs, it's poetry for the masses.
"We are writing popular poetry because of our love and respect for traditional literature," says Mr. Mansury, complaining that government cultural officials don't take them seriously. When Basra was recently declared Iraq's cultural capital by the Iraqi government, no popular poets were invited to the ceremony, he says.
Love – and security – are favorite topics
In the intensely emotional Arab culture, most poems are about love, much of it the hopeless kind. But among Basra's younger generation of poets, there's a twist. "Most of the poetry we write is about the security situation and the tragedy in Iraq – I write about the widows and orphans," says Mansury, whose biggest concern isn't romance – it's finding a job when he graduates.