Revenge as poetry and poetry as revenge

August 03, 2004 12:00 AM

CAIRO: Looking at events in the Middle East today, one cannot but wonder how they will be reported hundreds of years from now. Today's scenes contain much ugliness, but societies rarely keep their ugly photos in the age old albums they call history. The aggression against the Arab world today is unprecedented in scale - when Baghdad fell to the Moguls they did not have smart bombs and depleted uranium; when the Crusaders took Palestine and Lebanon, they did not have nuclear weapons. As the threat to the Arabs becomes more terrifying by the day, their potential retaliation becomes equally more terrifying. One might despair that any beauty can come out of a situation so tense. But, just as men and women make history by living it, they make it again by telling it. And no matter how ugly events might be, poetry always finds a way.

132 years after the Prophet Mohammed's emigration from Mecca to Medina, the Umayyad Empire had risen and fell. The newly established Abbasid state was stretching its influence from China to Morocco, and the recently elected Abbasid Caliph, Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah, was still establishing his new capital in Koufa, Iraq.

The Umayyads had committed all kinds of crimes during their 90-year rule. They had fought Ali, the Prophet's cousin, and his fourth elected successor. After Ali's death, they ordered all state appointed preachers to curse him in Friday prayers. They killed his son, Hussein, along with 70 of his closest relatives. When Hussein asked them to spare his one-year-old child, they shot the child with an arrow while still in his father's arms. A couple of decades later they killed Hussein's grandson, Zaid, and mounted his beheaded body on a cross. Their appointed governor of Iraq, Al-Hajjaj ibn Yousuf, spent three days executing people from dawn to dusk. In his first speech to the ever-rebellious people of Iraq he said; "I see your heads have ripened, and now is the time for the harvest!" He used to force Kharijite prisoners to hug bundles of thorny branches, soaked in oil, and then set them on fire. 

According to many medieval Arab historians, a prophecy was widely circulating throughout the Umayyad century - it was believed that when black banners rise from the East that would signal the end of the house of Umayya.

The black banners of the Abbasids were flying over the head of Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah on that sunny day in Koufa. The defeated members of the house of Umayya, who had given up the fight and accepted the authority of the new dynasty, were allowed into the court, though they were seated further from the throne than during the previous era. The porter comes in, announcing that a Bedouin with a bow and arrow, claiming to be a poet, is waiting at the door. The new Caliph orders the porter to allow the poet in: "this is my uncle Sadif" he says. A tall black Arab comes in; leans on his bow, imitating the old pre-Islamic hero, Antara who is said to have improvised his epic poem while leaning on his bow, and started reciting one of the most famous and most bloody poems in Arab history:

Do not be fooled by what you see / Hatred thunders between their ribs / Remember the death of Hussein / Remember the death of Zaid / Remember Ali, before them all / Let mercy fall / From your hand / And take up the sword / Until life herself is free / From the house of Umayya

Saffah, whose nickname simply means the slaughterer, stood up, and shouted at the shivering Umayyads: "You sons of prostitutes! The earth is eating my cousins whom you killed and you wish to taste my bread! Take them away!" The guards took the Umayyads, and smashed their heads with iron rods. This was the beginning of the massacre of the Umayyads throughout the new empire where very few of the old ruling house remained. The survivors fled to Spain, where they established the second Umayyad state, much weaker of course than its predecessor.

The historians who usually commented on the massacre at Saffah's palace stated that his revenge was justified, "people cursed the Umayyads dead as they used to curse them alive" one of the historians had written. Nevertheless those historians also mention poems written by the Umayyad survivors and their followers wailing over their fallen brethren:

Those are my people / I swear they lived in dignity / And now they race to their doom / For what other reason, if not for this / Should on old man weep / Those are my people / As if they were death's own / As if it was theirs and theirs alone / Even if this was fair / Still it is unfair ...

Of course, the whole drama of the story was constructed by the historians, the story tellers disguised in the gowns of Academia; there was no prophecy of black banners, and the Machiavellian plan by Saffah to eradicate the house of Umayya had little to do with the provocative poem of his "uncle Sadif," nevertheless, like a carry cot with a monster in it, poetry makes history ... bearable.

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::