Arabic is a poetic language, sophisticated and complicated to learn (no secret to anyone who has tried) and the perfect accompaniment to lyrical expression. Once something is translated from one language into another, especially when the art form is then expected to also cross a cultural boundary, it is unavoidable that some of its essence will be lost in the process. If the writer has strong command of their own language and that of the other, their thoughts can transcend frontiers and Khalil Gibran is no exception. One only needs to have tuned into the protests in Tahrir Square to have noticed how deeply integral poetry is in the national and spiritual expression of Egyptian and the Arab culture – we have no shortage of poets, revolutionary or otherwise. As an aficionado of writings from the region, I have compiled a small list with my favourite poets not previously mentioned here, along with their best lines for you to discover (or reindulge in).
The Iraqi poet began writing at the age of nine and died with a collection of 326 poems to his name. Considered one of the best Arab poets of all time, Al Mutanabbi is celebrated to this day for his mastery of the Arabic language, his wit and his humour.
“A charger’s saddle is an exalted throne, The best companions are books alone.
Without hardship everyone would prevail, The generous are poor, and courage kills its own.”
(A Young Soul)
Dubbed Amir Al Shuraa (price of poets), Ahmed Shawqi was born and raised in Egypt to become an acclaimed poet and playwright. Having moved to France for a short period to study, he became influenced by the great writers Moliere and Racine. Considered a pioneer in the world of Egyptian literature, he is still hailed as one of the literary greats of the Middle East.
“And while walking the paths of life
See to it that you conduct yourself honorably:
Listening only to what’s worth listening to,
Trying to behold the good in everything.”
This Palestinian born writer and poet has also written a series of articles in English and Arabic on poetry. As a Palestinian who was studying in Egypt during the time of the Six Day War, he was unable to return home and spent years displaced with and then without his family due to the proceeding years of turmoil and invasion.
“There are some inventions
that do not exist.
Old age is one of them.
Those who go ‘there’
take childhood with them,
hold its dimpled little fingers
in their hands,
tell it their stories.”
Khalil Gibran is the one of the most ‘famous’ Arab poets in the Western world. I, like many others, discovered his works through The Prophet (1923), a work of art which is now a staple in almost every bookshop. Behind Lao Tzu and Shakespeare, this poet from Lebanon is the third bestselling writer of all time.
“Humans are divided into different clans and tribes, and belong to countries and towns. But I find myself a stranger to all communities and belong to no settlement. The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe.”
(A Poet’s Voice XV)
Poet, playwright, lyricist and cartoonist; Egyptian artist Salah Jahin began his life as a artist for a small time magazine in Cairo and worked his way into Al Ahram years later. Before he and his poetic partners decided to collaborate for the good of prose, colloquial and vernacular poetry were seen as unsophisticated art forms. As a nationalist poet during the time of Nasser, he gained great recognition and his works were suitably performed by the musical masters of the time.
“Don’t force a person nor give him choice,
he’s got enough in his mind that confuses him.
Whatever he’s asking for and wanting today,
is what he’ll be wanting to change tomorrow.”
Snobbery when it comes to any art form is useless. Either one connects to it, or one doesn’t. I believe that understanding the minutiae behind art can be interesting, but ultimately destructive. Art is about feeling, and if you don’t feel it – move on. I enjoy these poets for their explorations into philosophy, into religion, their rhythms and for light amusement. Please leave your suggestions and favourite poets below!