The creation of the tribe in imagination

August 23, 2003 12:00 AM

While in many cultures poetry is a fine art, to Arabs it was, and in many cases still is, an everyday life necessity. In the desert stretching from the Jordan and the Euphrates in the north, to the mountains of Yemen and Oman in the south, Arab tribes roamed in search of water and lands. There were many temporary oases in the desert; wells were only filled during and after rainfall. The temporality of the oases naturally resulted in the mobility of the tribes. Settling down was a blessing only very few tribes could have, and even fewer could keep. Mecca and Medina, the two most famous semi-cities in the pre-Islamic era, had to be defended by alliances of different tribes. The name Quraysh, the Prophet Mohammed’s tribe settling in Mecca, literally means “those brought together,” referring to an alliance of tribes not very closely related in terms of blood. Medina was settled and defended by Aws, Khazraj and a coalition of Jewish tribes. This instability prevented the emergence of specialized societies. Unlike the civilizations of ancient Syria, Iraq, Egypt or Greece, affinities based on neighborhood, sharing the same craft or being trained in the same army were either absent or weak. Kinship was the only bond that could survive the continuous roaming of the desert.

But a tribe is too big a family for each member to know the other members. Affinity to the tribe could not be an affinity to each and every tribesman. There was a need for a symbol, a system of symbols, with which a tribesman would identify. In modern-day settled tribes ­ which are called nation-states ­ flags, passports, coins, as well as schoolbooks of history and geography, perform that function. In the desert, poems did the job. A poet would mention the tribe’s ancestry, the places his kinsmen roamed through, the wars they fought, the women they loved and the gods they worshipped. Like a smith of words, a poet would forge these facts into a glorious symbol, a poem. Tribesmen knew these poems by heart as a sign of their affinity to one another and as means by which they would know their history and geography. Moreover, like modern-day national symbols, poems served as motivators in making war and peace.

Abu Tammam, the great Arab poet of the third century Hijri (ninth century AD) made a collection of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic Bedouin poetry. The book is called Diwan al-Hamasa, or The Book of Valor, in reference to the first category of poems describing tribal wars. Then poems go on from one subject to another, requiems, love, fear, praise. In all poems there is this amazing merger between the individual emotions of the poet and the collective self he or she is trying to describe, glorify and thus recreate.

The form of the Arabic poem was also very conducive to the above functions. A line of Arabic classical poetry is made of two equal parts with the same number of feet each. Usually the line would consist of one sentence. The first half of the line seldom has the complete meaning, yet it always points to it. The rest of the sentence is then completed in the second half. This facilitates knowing the line by heart, since if one knows the first part of the line, the second becomes easy to remember or even to guess. On the other hand, the whole poem has the same rhyme; for example, if the first line ends in the sound “ira,” then every line in the poem has to end in the same sound. Other than that, there is no structural unity in the poem. In terms of meaning, each line stands as an independent unit. One could easily change the sequence of the lines without changing what the poet really has to say ­ ie, without changing the poem. This makes the poem less vulnerable to the good or bad memories of the tribesmen who need to recite it.

The names given to the different parts of the poem are also indicative of its function. Each line is called “beit,” which means “house,” where the meaning dwells. The name also indicates that the relation of any line “house” to the other lines is one of neighborhood, related yet independent. The first two halves of the first line are called al-Musrai, each meaning the door, letting the listener or the reader into the poem. The first half of any other line is called Al-Sadr, meaning the front or chest, and the second half is called al-Eajz, meaning the back, or the end side, since both are of the same body and one side necessarily leads to the other.

While modern Arabic poetry, written in standard Koranic Arabic, has departed from the above forms and functions to gradually resemble modern European poetry, thus retreating to the ivory tower of fine arts, colloquial Bedouin poetry, which is very common in the Levant and all around the Arabian Peninsula, still retains all the characters of classical Arabic poetry, thus it remained to a great extent, an everyday life necessity.

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