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Poetry in other strategic contexts

Poetic Engagement with Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran (Part #3)

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Poetry in the corporate world: In contrast to the failure to explore the value of poetry to military and diplomatic engagement, the Financial Times notes the role of poetry in the corporate boardroom (David Honigmann, Vision in verse from the bard of of the boardroom, 17 March 2009). This describes the work of poet David Whyte who works over a period of days with senior management, seeking to recognize "an uncomfortable and unpsoken truth" which poetry can help to articulate. As he says"

All these organisations are like Shakespearean plays writ large, with the nobles telling their truths from the podium while the gravediggers are telling it like it really is in the bathroom. And every epoch ends with a lot of blood on the floor.

The titles of his prose reflections on the context for these explorations point to the relevance of extending such work to engagement of policy-makers with regions such as Afghanistan, Caucasus and Iran (The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. 2009; Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, 2001; The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, 1994). Arguably such initiatives are specifically relevant to the issue of "hearts and minds".

Poetry and Islam: Most striking, in contrast with the West, is perhaps the role of poetry in Islamic cultures. A notable feature is the use of saj' -- a form of rhymed, rhythmic prose charactetistic of Arabic literature and diction to which the Arabic language lends itself because of its structure, the mathematical precision of its manifold formations and the essential assonance of numerous derivatives from the same root supplying the connexion between the sound and signification of words. As such it has been valued for its mnemonic qualities. It was notably used in pre-Islamic times as a mode of dignified discourse. Because of its association with these pagan practices its use in the early days of Islam is said to have been forbidden by Muhammad with the phrase: "Avoid ye the rhyming prose of the soothsayers or diviners."

And yet, in introducing his study of Arab culture, Vicente Cantarino (Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age, 1975) notes:

There are few, if any, cultural achievements of mankind accompanied by such a clear and distinct feeling of their own value as the poetic literature of the Arabs. Arab writers often characterize civilizations and peoples by their special skills. Poetry and poetic accomplishments are always cited by them as their own most important characteristic and one that distinguishes them from all other peoples. This evaluation is corroborated by the extraordinary influence exerted by Arabic poetry in form and content on all the poetic literatures which came in contact with it: Persian, Turkish, Indostanic, and, indirectly, the Georgic, are deeply influenced by Arabic poetry; medieval Hebrew poetry shows its influence; and even in the West it left its traces in the beginnings of the poetry of the Romance languages.

The importance and strength of Arabic in this respect is noted by Muhammed I. Ayish (Communication Research in the Arab World: a new perspective, The Public, 5, 1998, 1, pp. 33-57):

Arabs' appreciation of eloquence was intrinsically derived from the versatility and musical beauty of Arabic... One of the main characteristics of Arabic is the morphological structure of its root patterns. In addition to its high derivative potential, Arabic also possesses an elaborate system of affixes which allows the language to be both rhymic and rhythmic, making it strongly conducive to poetry and rhymed utterances. It also consists of numerous stylistic variations drawing on rhetorical devices capable of delivering precise shades of meanings, be it praise, derogation, emphasis, or simple descriptive utterances. Throughout the history of the Arabic peoples, language has been central to the definition of their collective identity.... By virtue of the musical beauty of Arabic language, Arab culture has been characterised as highly oral.... In the Jahilyya period (up to 622), tribal and inter-tribal poetic and oratory contests were commonplace, attracting crowds of anxious people, some coming from remote places.

The strength of the arguments of Mohammed was recognized in part because of his oral skills -- within a tribal context in which poetic expression was highly valued in the encounter between tribes -- typically througha degree of poetic jousting. Cantarino indicates with respect to Arabic tribes:

It should suffice to point out that the terms sayyid and amir, commonly used to designate the tribe's chief and leader, seem to have been used also as appellatives of the orator able to defend successfully in a dispute the rights of his tribe. Often the leader received the names of khatib (orator) and za'im (spokesman) because his personal eloquence was one of his most needed and highly appreciated virtues, more important even than his personal bravery.... The elected sayyid lacked any coercive means to impose his authority and thus has to rely on his natural gift of eloquence to influence and convince people.... The eloquence referred to by historians and literary critics is mostly in poetic form.

The Arabic poets, especially those of pre-Islamic times, were too realistic to conceive of poetry in an abstract way. Their role in society forced them more often than not to center their compositions on concrete events and problems.... Moreover, the social aims the poet is expected to serve required him too cultivate the poetic genres more appropriate to those aims, namely the panegyric and diatribe.... Rhythmic meter and rhyme, which at this time had already attained a remarkable degree of sophistication, were considered as mnemonic means to achieve more durable remembrance and rapid dissemination.... scorn was often expressed for those who did not have a poetic voice in their midst. (p. 21-3)

The poetic qualities of the Qur'an, for example, continue to be much admired by those persuaded of the merits of that culture. The repeated media presentations of the body language of students engaged in rote learning in madrasahs fail completely to indicate that to a significant degree they are learning "poetry" -- and doing so willingly. Should madrasahs be better understood as the schools of "poetry" of that culture?

However, even though the musical-poetic nature is a key to appreciating the Qur'an, paradoxically Islam believes it totally inappropriate to consider it poetry -- because poetry is held by its teachings to be intrinsically human rather than divine. The sacred text of the Qur'an is therefore not poetry. Islamic theologians formally refuse to admit the existence of any poetic character to the Qur'anic text, although the precise significance of this refusal has been much debated (as helpfully summarized by Cantarino).

This complex situation (discussed below) is partially clarified, with citations, by Abul Kasem (Islam and Poetry, Islam Watch, 27 May 2002). Another comment is provided by Asad Seif (Islam and poetry in Iran). An authorized view is provided by Mufti Bilaal Cassim (Islam and Poetry, Albalagh, 15 September 2002). Arab historians in fact report that Mohammed made use of poets very much in the same way as other tribal leaders who were not poets themselves., even though he condemned pagan Arab poetry and its poets. This is confirmed by M. M. Badawi ('Abbasid Poetry and its Antecedents, 1990) arguing: The view once widely held that Muhammed and Islam discouraged poetry and poets is now generally discredited.... (p. 147).

Despite any such reservations, Cantarino cites a frequently quoted definition of poetry by Ibn Qutaiba ('Uyun al-akhbar, 1964, vol. 11, p. 185):

Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs and the book of their wisdom, the archives of their history, the reservoir of their epic days, the wall that defends their exploits, the impassable trench that preserves their glories, the impartial witness for the day of judgment. Whoever cannot offer even a single verse in defense of his honor and the noble virtues and praiseworthy actions that he claims for his ancestry will exert himself in vain, even if they were gigantic. But he who bound them together with the rhyme of a poem, reinforced them with its rhythm, and made them famous with a rare verse, a popular proverb, and a fine concept, delivered them from unbelief, and put them above the deceptions of enemies and made the envious lower his eyes in shame.

Ironically, in a war-torn country, the Somalis of today are famous for their skills as poets -- being almost as important to that culture as the Islamic faith. Poems may be put to political use by the government or in criticism of politicians and warlords. This has even led Ali M. Ahad to explore the question Could Poetry Define Nationhood? the case of Somali oral poetry and the nation (Journal of Historical and European Studies, 2007).

With respect to Yemen, according to Steven C. Caton (Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University):

Every day in the Middle Eastern country of Yemen, battles are being waged that don't involve bombs, guns or even a raised fist. Rather in Yemen, where physical violence is considered an inferior form of honor-conflict, poetry is one of the preferred weapons of choice.[more]

A colleague, Jim Wilce, reports that:

The skills of poetic improvisation are intimately related to Islamic piety in Yemen. What would understanding such things do to our perceptions of the Middle East and various conflicts there?

A more extensive account, situating practices in Yemen within Arab culture, is provided by Rachel Galvin (Of Poets, Prophets, and Politics. Humanities, 2002). She records comments by Arab observers that poetry remains a central part of Arab culture.

Poetry and warlords: As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, since 2005 the Taliban's web site, Al Emarah, or The Emirate, has featured poetry glorifying their resistance, in addition to religious commentary and battlefield updates.

Of relevance is the keynote speech given by John Paul Lederach (Tajikistan: Talking Poetry With the Warlord, 2005) at the Association for Conflict Resolution's Annual Conference (Sacramento, CA, 2004) -- reproduced in his The Moral Imagination: the art and soul of building peace (2005). This is a factor presumably considered irrelevant to the need to despatch a further 17,000 troops to bring order to a region perceived as highly dangerous.. It might be asked, as in the case of poetry, whether there are not a range of understandings of "order".

There are many web references to warlords and their poetry. A long-term Colombian warlord is recognized for his poetry (Toby Muse, Requiem for a Warlord, Slate, 2004). In Europe, warrior-poets have played a central role in Icelandic culture (Diana Whaley, Sagas of Warrior-Poets, 2002).

Poetry and Afghanistan: It is even less well-recognized that this poetic tradition has a role in Afghanistan where the warlords are indeed valued for their poetic competence. It has only recently been recognized that Osama bin Laden is a skilled poet (Michael Hirst, Analysing Bin Laden's jihadi poetry, BBC News, 24 September 2008). As noted by Coleman Barks (Rumi's American Popularizer Tours Afghan Poet's Homeland,, 22 April 2005):

The most startling observation that comes to me, as a practicing American poet, involves the vital role that poetry plays in the lives of Afghan men... This discovery, of course, is part of a blindness I have, that we have in this country, and in the West in general, to things Islamic.  It is a long-standing and pervasive condition....  Their Afghan poet has been the most-read poet in the United States during the last ten years! 

Steve Coll (Restoring Poetry to Afghanistan, NPR, 24 January 2005) reported on the publication of a set of poems of a former Afghan poet laureate Khalilullah Khalil, collected by his son, currently Afghan ambassador to Turkey (Masood Khalili and Whitney Azoy, An Assembly of Moths: selected poems of Khalilullah Khalili, 2004). The book's introduction includes remarks on the role of poetry in the midst of chaos:

Many Afghans internalize segments off the great Persian classical poets, philosopher-mystics whose verse rises above daily hustle and bustle.

The result is something no longer valued in the modern, literate West: a memorized reservoir of poetic wisdom. Inherited from the great poets and internalized from early childhood onwards, this material serves Afghans as psycho-spiritual ballast -- a buffer against misfortune, and a reminder, when times are good, the luck seldom lasts…

The importance of shared poetic legacy is evident in day-to-day conversations across Afghanistan. People use the prefix 'Sha'er mega' ("The poet says") to substantiate argument. An Afghan provided this example: "If you go to a strange village and say, 'Two plus two equals four,' the villagers will challenge your authority. But tell them that 'The poet says' that two plus two equals five, and they'll accept what you say immediately."

An alternative use of poetry is made through improvisation of Pashtu landays, notably by women (Sayd Bahodine Majrouh, Songs of Love and War: Afghan Women's Poetry, 2003; Rahmat Shah, Tappa). A landay or tappa is an unrhymed couplet of nine syllables in the first hemistich and thirteen in the second. This is one of the oldest poetic and sung styles of that culture. It is a mixture between a singing duet and a poetic jousting match (Zarsanga: Songs of the Pashtu). As noted by Abdulhadi Hairan (Tappa, world's shortest poem, 25 September 2008):

I think Tappa is the only genre of poetry in the world that is oldest in history, shortest in form, sweetest in melody, easiest in learn, appealing in singing and covering all subjects of life despite the fact that it has no particular poet or author. There are hundreds of thousands of Tappas in Pashto, yet no one can claim he has authored them. However, it is believed that Tappas are the voice of Pashtoon women and girls because most of the Tappas are related to their issues and are said by them....

Tappa's popularity could be judged by the fact that every Pashtoon, whether they are a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, rich or poor, mullah or politician, educated or uneducated, shopkeeper or farmer, knows some Tappas. This short but concise poem covers every subject related to human life

Tappa is commonly found in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province -- precisely the area considered the most challenging by NATO's. UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They are generally sung on the occasion of weddings, possibly as a two-person duet, and deal with any topic: love, passion, anger, hate, wars, history, heroes and villains. To what extent do foreign coalition forces engage with the people of Afghanistan through poetry?

A problematic assessment of the engagement in Afghanistan has been articulated in poetic form by a British solider, Andy McFarlane (British soldier's scathing poem attacks politicians over the war in Afghanistan - as death toll reaches 204, Daily Mail, 17 August 2009; Poetry Surges from the Front Line Again, Daily Express, 17 September 2009). This contrasts with the question regarding the Iraq-Afghanistan conflict zone of Daniel D'Arezzo (Where Have All the War Poems Gone?, The Conversation).

Poetry and Kazakhstan: As noted by Marat Yermukanov (Kazakh Folk Poetry Slams Corrupt Establishment, 21 February 2007) of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute), folk poets (aqyns) give vent at weekly festivals (aitys), engaging in contests that are a national focus of attention via television. They publicly lambaste social ills, such as deep-rooted corruption, mismanagement, disrespect for national interests and missteps in foreign policy. In a society with limited press freedom and rigid codes of social behavior imposed from above, the aitys is the most available and a safe way to give vent to public feelings.

Satirical verses of poets often target the inefficient legislative system. The traditional folk poetry is a unique form in the poetic culture of Central Asia, is recognized as a manifestation of the reshaped ethnic consciousness of Kazakhs.

Poetry and the Caucasus: The Caucasus became a romantic region for Russian poetry owing to its natural contrasts, as well as the original and somewhat hostile culture of its tribes people. Nature and history have combined to make Georgia a land of poetry, so recognized by its peoples (Peter Nasmyth, Georgia: in the mountains of poetry, 2006).

Mugham is a unique phenomenon of Azerbaijani folk music heritage that perfectly reflects the national way of thinking; the vocal form in an organic harmony of music and poetry which may involve the alternation of changing and constant elements, of improvised and concentrated episodes.

Poetry and the Middle East: It is curious that this conflict takes place in the midst of an Arab world much influenced by poetry, notably that of Al-Mutanabbi (11th century, Baghdad), considered a master of Arab poetry. Mahmoud Darwish, repeatedly named for a Nobel Prize, is considered the poetic voice of Palestine -- engaging himself in poetic dialogue with Israel.

Is there no scope for negotiation with Israel through poetic forms that would give rise to an agreement of a new kind -- expressed in (epic) poetic form? Who would be opposed to such an exploration and why? One step in that direction has been a recent film. There is an active literature on Palestine-Israel issues from a poetic perspective.

Poetic leadership: More striking perhaps, as a matter of history, is the fact that Joseph Stalin, as a Georgian, was notably appreciated for his poetic and singing skills -- in a culture which values song in ways unsuspected elsewhere. This is true of other such leaders, including Mao Tse-Tung and Ho Chi Minh (as noted above) -- whether or not their leadership was commensurate with their aesthetic insights or skills. Although claiming to be an artist rather than a poet, the possibility of Adolf Hitler being a poet is a continuing matter of debate (The Hitler Question - Poets vs. Poetry, Asian-American Poetry, 2005). There is the ironic possibility that the "clash of civilizations" between the values acclaimed by the "West" and those cultures by which it is most challenged is in part reflected in the proportion of leaders opposing those values who make some claim to be poets. A current example is that of Hugo Chávez.

It is not clear how many leaders of "Western" countries are new celebrated as poets -- as opposed to the number thsat have been praised or satirized in poems. Dag Hammarskjöld, as Secretary-General of the United Nations, may be an exception as was Winston Churchill (Collected Poems, 1981). A website has been created by Peter Armenti (Presidents as Poets: Poetry Written by United States Presidents) providing links to the poetry of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John Tyler, Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter (Always a Reckoning, 1995), and Barack Obama. The latter has also been widely appreciated for his "poetic" rhetoric and even organized a "poetry jam", claiming he was fond of poetry (Ewen MacAskill, Obama to host poetry party at White House, The Guardian, 12 May 2009).

Poetic protest: It is also of relevance to note a corresponding role that music, song, and poetry (as indicated in relation to Vietnam) have played in the recent articulation of Western popular cultural values -- especially amongst those alienated from conventional approaches to governance. Such cultural products have been widely appreciated around the world -- although not necessarily in those parts upholding Islamic values and opposed to their Western vehicles.

Prosaic dialogue: It is relevant to note the widespread recognition of the very limited number of Arabic or native speakers available to the intelligence services in the lead up to intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whilst "interpreters" may have subsequently become available, questions could usefully be asked about their competence in the poetic traditions of those cultures. "Poets" have an unusually problematic status in the West, as does their poetry. The aesthetics of poetry are not as widely appreciated as in Islamic cultures -- by all classes.

It is highly improbable that the "interpreters" sought in support of any strategic conflict would now be selected or appreciated for their poetic insights. This imposes an unnecessary constraint on strategic opportunities. Western discourse with such cultures would then be appreciated as "prosaic" at best -- and, as such, viewed with a degree of disdain as lacking any appropriate "voice" for their values..

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