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.

Jane Arraf/ The Christian Science Monitor
Iraqis on the Shatt al-Arab waterway in Basra dance on a boat on their way to a wedding.

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.

"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.

Asked to recite something he'd written, though, Mansury furrows his brow, takes a deep breath, and falls back on love.

"Your leaving is a fire that can't be extinguished if I drank the Nile," he intones into the distance.

Mr. Hilifi says their latest poetry reflects the improvement in the city's security.

"We've switched to a nationalist poetry that calls for optimism more than sadness," says Hilifi, in a checked yellow shirt and wearing fashionable dark glasses at dusk. "Now we can see the seagulls starting to go back to the Shatt al-Arab and the water beginning to clear and the situation improving, thank God. Now the optimism is floating on our poetry," he says.

But not in the poem he chooses to recite. "Passion is a diamond," he says. "My heart skips a beat at your desertion.... In the moment of your leaving, I catch you, then turn away, but can't retrieve my hand."

It's the poor who write popular poetry, they say. And the poor who supported the movement under Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militias controlled Basra.

The two men, admirers of the Sadr movement, say the real movement had little to do with the radical militias that had controlled parts of Basra in his name.

"When we are talking about the Sadr movement, there are many militias that appeared and don't represent the Sadr movement, because the Sadr movement is ideology and culture," says Munsury.

"Many people joined this movement because of their resistance to the occupation," says Hilifi. He says others supported it because the Sadrists were the only ones helping the poor.

Those difficult days are gone, says Hilifi, who is studying mathematics.

"We are optimistic about the future. We hope Iraq comes back as before ... that all the tears will be erased and all the problems of Iraqi youths will be solved," he says. "The Iraqi people are very good people. They like life, and events that passed are a test to prove that the Iraqi people are good."

It's a phrase one hears over and over in Basra, in particular. Translated as "good people," the word even other Iraqis use to describe Basrawis is taybeen – good-natured. Basrawis love their coastal city – or their memories of it – with the same passion that goes out on the airwaves of Radio Rasheed in the evening.

"I couldn't stay outside Iraq because I love my city," says Obeid, the station manager. "I grew up here. Every night I would remember my neighbors, my friends – my friends who are still alive, my friends that I already lost."

Obeid, who went to Oman, describes the years under militia control as "insane," "when you couldn't trust anyone. You can lose your life in a minute."

He left after his friend Fakher Haider, who was working for The New York Times, was abducted by men in police uniforms and murdered in 2005. He says he came back to try to make things better in Basra in honor of his friend.

Making up for five years of disruption

Obeid says the big challenge now is making up for the past five years when there was almost no reconstruction. The city would like to attract investors but has hours of electricity cuts a day and infrastructure suffering from decades of neglect.

After the past years, when Iraqis would have been targeted for speaking a foreign language, Obeid says his station is planning to broadcast songs in English as soon as he finds a female announcer, considered more relaxing than a male voice. With a 65-mile radius, the FM station currently broadcasts 20 hours a day.

"People love English songs, and they ask us to broadcast them after midnight – they stay up until 3 a.m. or so, and that's when they want to listen to them."

The station will always have an element of religion, since that's part of the culture.

"We play the Holy Koran," he says, "followed by soft music.".

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