London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the past half a century at least, Arab poetry has found its principal abodes in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon. Anyone interested in contemporary Arab poetry would know the names of at least one poet from one of those three nations. Now, however, a fourth nation may be claiming a place in that galaxy: Saudi Arabia.
That Saudis should be interested in poetry is no surprise. The peninsula has been the home of one of the oldest poetical traditions in the world, dating back to the pre-Islamic era. In my frequent visits to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades I have attended many poetry recitals drawing decent crowds even in sparsely populated and remote areas. In almost every case, however, the fare on offer consisted of exercises in classical forms, especially the ageless qasidah.
The anthology presented by Saad Al-Bazei, an Emeritus Professor of English in Riyadh, has the distinction of introducing the kingdom’s modern poetry. Yes; you heard right: modern poetry.
The anthology, in a beautiful edition, is published by I.B. Tauris, one of the best publishing houses specializing in the Middle East. The standards of editing and production maintained by I.B. Tauris are a credit to British publishing which has been in steady decline since the 1970s.
Presented are forty-one poets, and poetesses, working in different styles, from neo-classical to surrealist. These poems clearly show that, at least as far as this branch of literature is concerned, Saudi Arabia is very much a part of the modern world. This modernity is not confined to form, although that is the feature that immediately catches the eye of the reader. The real modernity of these poems could be found in their themes. They reflect many of the anxieties, hopes and fears of contemporary humanity plus, on a more individual level, such preoccupations as the meaning of love in an uncertain world, the crisis of identity, and the rites of passage in multiple, and at times contradictory, cultural contexts.
What is interesting is that all these universal themes are evoked in distinctly Arabian voices. And that voice is further reinforced with the presence of colloquial Saudi expressions and terms of reference related to aspects of life in the kingdom.
Although these poets have their roots in the cultural topos of the kingdom, their poetry is never parochial. Their experience could resonate with readers from anywhere in the world. Many of the poets included have a direct experience of the outside world either because they studied in the west or thanks to frequent visits to the Middle East, Europe, North America and Asia.
Thus, they could receive a muse in Houston, Texas or Paris, France as warmly as they would in Bureida or Dhahran.
In a short review such as this it is hard to do justice to all the fine poets and poetesses included. One has to be content with mentioning just a few. Among them would have to be Ibrahim Al-Wafi whose poem “Fever!” is a veritable tour de force. I also liked Ashjan Hendi, especially for her gentle humour, and Mohammad Khithr whose poem “Freedom” is a perfect synthesis of form and content. Then there is Abdullah Al-Washmi’s string of haikus that, taken together produce a qasida. I must also admit that I feel moved by Huda Al-Daghfag’s poems dealing with the status of women and their quest for greater freedom and equality. I also enjoyed Hamid bin Aqeel’s “Conflagration” and tis twin “A field for a blue conflagration”.
As far as themes and tones are concerned, modern Saudi poetry is overwhelmingly urban. It leaves the desert, the mythical barra, with images of sand dunes and prancing camels to traditional poets to concern itself with life in congested, fast, and constantly challenging new cities and town in the kingdom and beyond. Love remains an important theme, although its expression differs from traditional poetry. Here, the lover does not shed bitter tears over a beloved who remains eternally beyond reach. The more frequent concern is that love might fail to deliver its promise and that time and life might marginalize or even totally eliminate it.
Yet another popular theme is the rejection of rules for restricting individual freedoms in the name of traditional cultural values. Ahmad Al-Wasil’s “Oil condolences for the women of the Gulf”, Abdullah Saikahn’s “A Myth”, and Hussain Sarhan’s “An Idea” are arrows shot into the heart of prejudice.
Lampooning the nouveau-riche penchant for ostentation is another popular theme. One excellent example is Ahmad Kattua’s poem “Aimless”.
Contrary to many of their contemporaries in other Arab countries, Saudi poets are free of nostalgia, the opiate of the defeated in history. Nor are they interested in easy and cost-free “heroism” associated with regional and international conflicts. Free of political demagoguery, most Saudi poets can deal with the deeper issues of human existence.
Dr. Al-Bazei opens the anthology with an essay introducing the new voices that he traces back to the period from the 1930s to the 1950s when classical and romantic traditions developed side by side. According to him the current modernist trend started with Muhammad Al-Ali in the 1970s when a distinctly Saudi voice began to take shape. That was when younger Saudi poets learned Western languages and came to know the works of modern European and American poets including T.S. Eliot.
With few exceptions, the translations are simply excellent. Some manage to provide meter and rhyme while others are content with a prose rendition. For shortage of space, one cannot name all the translators here. But big thanks are due to them all.
“New Voices of Arabia” offers a mere pip into the rich world of modern poetry produced by a new generation of Saudis. At least half a dozen of the poets presented in this volume deserve fuller introduction to the English-speaking world. Al-Bazei back to work, again!
New Voices of Arabia
An Anthology from Saudi Arabia
Edited by Saad Al-Bazei
Published by I.B.Tauris, London, 2012