The power and beauty of Al-Mutanabbi

November 08, 2003 12:00 AM

“I am the one, whose art was seen by the blind, And whose words were heard by the deaf.”

When poets talk about themselves, people should think twice before believing what they have to say. Yet Ahmed Ibn al-Hussein al-Mutanabbi, the author of the lines above, is an exception. Mutanabbi is by far the most famous and influential poet in the history of Arabic literature. Born in the late Abbasid period, in the 10th century, Mutanabbi was witnessing a rare situation, similar in a sense to the situation in which the great philosophers of ancient Athens found themselves; culture flourished, but the political system was crumbling. The fact that the political setting of Arabs in the Middle East have been crumbling ever since, gave more relevance to Mutanabbi’s beautiful poetry up to the time of writing this article.

Born Ahmed son of Hussein, the poet acquired the nickname Al-Mutanabbi, which means “the one who claimed to be, or wished to be, a prophet.” The nickname is very telling. There is a strange connection in Arabic history between literature and political power. A divine text, the Koran, was the base of the Prophet’s political power. Influential political figures in various eras in Arab and Islamic history were referred to as “people of the tongue” or “people of the pen.” Ahmed Ibn al-Hussein, being so talented as a writer, and as well obsessed with the question of political power, actually claimed to be a prophet, that his words were of divine origin. He was put in jail for such a claim ­ but he did not fully give up.

Mutanabbi was born near Kufa in southern Iraq, unlike many poets of the time; he descended from a very old Arab tribe. He was born in poverty, and his poetry was his main asset. In that time of political decay, the great empire was fragmented into small city states; to the princes of these small states, having poets in their courts was a sign of great wealth in times of peace. In times of war, a poet was a living information ministry, spreading the prince’s political propaganda. To do that though, the poet had to be subtle; the crude political message must be coated in real poetry, because in the absence state-owned televisions and newspapers, the quality of poetry was the only guarantee for its spread. Very few could strike the balance. Some real poets, like Abu al-Alaa al-Muarri, and Deek al-Jinn al-Homsi, never actually left their towns and never entered a prince’s palace. Others were nothing but mouthpieces for their respective princes, very little of their poetry survived.

In the case of Mutanabbi, his lack of power was his own personal tragedy, allowing him to mix the personal and individualistic with the collective and social. He was clearly aware of the extent of his talent. He strongly believed that he was much better than most of the princes of his time. The fact that he was an Arab, and most of those princes were not, aggravated his problem of pride; not because of a racial understanding of political life, for that he did not have, but because the princes he was supposed to praise, did not understand his poetry.

It was only natural then for him to arrive at the court of one of the very few Arab princes of the time: Saif al-Dawla al-Hamdani. Not only was that young prince of Aleppo an Arab, he was also a literary critic. His court was full of poets, grammarians and philosophers. His own uncle and cousin were poets. And, while most of the other princes were engaged in a series of civil wars, Saif al-Dawla was busy trying to fend off the Byzantines from attacking northern Syria. Mutanabbi wrote some of his best poems in praise of this prince. Nevertheless, his quest for political power still haunted him. When the prince’s cousin, who envied Mutanabbi for his poetry, insulted him in the presence of Saif al-Dawla, the poet felt helpless again. He was better a poet than the prince’s cousin, yet the prince ­ only because he was a prince ­ could publicly insult him and go unpunished. The poet decided to leave.

Mutanabbi then went to Egypt, ruled by a slave that was entrusted with the young heir to the throne. Kafour, the slave king, eventually killed his master’s son, and became the strong man of Egypt. To stay, Mutanabbi had to write a poem praising Kafour; here the poem’s beauty is found in the description of the poet’s pain after leaving Aleppo, rather than in praising the king. Mutanabbi hoped that Kafour would assign him a province, by which he could acquire some political power. Kafour kept lying to the poet and never gave him what he wanted. When his advisers warned him that the man was the most famous poet of the time, and that if Kafour doesn’t give him what he wants, he might be in great trouble historically, Kafour answered: “That is a man who claimed prophecy after Mohammed, don’t you think he will claim the kingdom from Kafour?”

To prevent the poet from mocking the king, Kafour forbade Mutanabbi from leaving Egypt. Kafour kept the kingdom, only to be the archetype of the rotten ruler in Arabic memory. Mutanabbi escaped and wrote bitter poems describing the relation between beauty and power. From Egypt, Mutanabbi went back to Iraq, but on the way he was killed. In his last poem, which he recited in a Persian court, he wrote: “I am nothing but an arrow shot in the air / Coming down again, unheld by its target.”

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(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::