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Poetry Is Thriving In The Arab World

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Dubai's construction projects may be stalling out, but the region's push to become a place of international cultural significance is still going strong. Last week, Dubai hosted its first annual International Poetry Festival, which brought in more than a hundred writers from 45 countries. Everything about the festival, right down to its motto--"A Thousand Poets, One Language"-- focused on poetry's power to break down political and cultural boundaries, fitting for a place where Western and Arab cultures meet. Here's an excerpt from the keynote speech:

"Since the dawn of man, poetry has always been a mode of exchanging the highest ideals and building a common language between different cultures and people. In Arabic history, poetry has constantly provided the inspiration for making a unified stand."

Then, in a symbol of international unity, the South African poet Breyten Breytenbach read a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, a hero in the Arab world. Many considered Darwish, who died in August of last year, to be the national poet of Palestine. I touched on his importance in an earlier post.

The festival was the brainchild of Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. His Highness is also a well-regarded poet who has published books of poetry and features his verse on his personal website alongside the political news (it's actually quite good). His government treats poetry very seriously, believing it to be an important part of the region's identity. And this interest extends to the general public: there are currently two popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire-type competition shows for poets on regional TV.

The week sparked an interesting editorial by Muhammad Ayish in The National comparing Arab interest in the festival to Americans' lack of interest in Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day." "I was dismayed," he wrote, "to learn later that the poem had minimal impact in America, where interest in poetry seems to be receding to the eccentric confines of academia and the literati." He continued: "For many of us in the Arab world, this diminishing stature of poetry in American public life is hard to accept, because it undermines a central pillar of our cherished heritage that continues to shape our cultural identity. "

Ayish's viewpoint leaves me torn. While he isn't confrontational, he implies that many in the Arab world see our country's lack of interest in poetry as a cultural or moral inadequacy. Even as a poet, it's hard for me not to see that viewpoint as an overreaction, and as a little insulting. Americans have other sources of cultural and moral wisdom. But I think there is an element of truth to it. If Americans read more poetry, they would be better for it--far better for it than most think. And it should be heartening to any believer in the power of poetry here in America to see the revered position that it holds in other cultures. Here's an excerpt from Arab media coverage of the event (in Gulf News):

"what is better than poetry, which is the soul of any nation, to bring souls, hearts and minds of nations together, and mend what politics has damaged and spoiled?"

Can you imagine the American media writing anything like that? I can't imagine them thinking anything like that.

Speaking to my non-poetry-reading friends--who cause Ayish and his colleagues so much dismay--about Alexander's poem, their near unanimous reaction was that they didn't understand it. The poem was difficult to absorb, particularly when listened to--once. And I think that this speaks to what may be the biggest reason interest in poetry has been waning in this country: the art has become very difficult for the public to access. I was surprised, though, at how many of them were interested, and actually disappointed that the poem hadn't touched them. It speaks to something that I strongly believe, and admittedly hope, is true: that America has a significant untapped interest in poetry; it manifests itself in hallmark cards and popular music, in church hymns and millions of anonymous google searches.

I don't think there's any question that those qualities of poetry that appeal so much to the Arab world appeal to Americans as well, and if accessible American poetry becomes more prevalent, I expect general interest would increase in turn (whether poetry should become more accessible is another debate). Regardless, I don't think America's poetic soul is so far gone as Ayish fears. I expect that many in the Arab world would be surprised to learn that, like the Shaikh, our President has written and published his own verse.