The Era of Arabic Poetry is Over. Long Live Arabic Poetry.

This week in The Saudi Gazette, Susannah Tarbush reported on the Arab goings-on at the London Book Festival. Among other events, she sat in on critic Maya Jaggi’s talk with novelist and editor Samuel Shimon.

When asked about the Beirut39 project, in which judges selected 39 outstanding [Arab] writers [under 40], and the 2010 “Beirut39” anthology that he edited…, Shimon said the situation of Arab literature has changed completely in the past 10 years. “We have more young authors now, we have more women writers, we have more fiction.” He said that nowadays Arab poets are increasingly turning to novel writing.

Perhaps this doesn’t reflect Shimon’s whole view of Arabic poetry, but the “turn to novel-writing” and away from poetry sentiment has been echoed elsewhere. Prominent critic Rasheed el-Enany told Al Masry Al Youm in 2009:

Poetry is becoming an increasing isolated genre and it’s a sad affair because 70 to 80 years ago, poetry was the genre of everyone. A new poem by Ahmed Shawky would be published on the front page of a newspaper, for example, because it was something of such popular appeal. This is no longer the case today.

It is interesting that many highbrow-ish literary commentators have declared the era of Arabic poetry over, in favor of the era of the Arabic novel, while popular poetry remains seemingly just as…popular. There were indeed relatively few poets in the Beirut39 collection. Even among those who were defined as poets (15 of the 39, according to the publisher), five of those chose to be represented by their prose.

This isn’t to say there weren’t very talented poets in the Beirut39 collection (Ahmad Yamani) or that there aren’t talented young poets who were omitted (Tamim Barghouti). But the recently established high-profile literary prizes, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), focus on the works of novelists. Indeed, the Arab literary establishment seems to be shifting its attention to novelists.

But it was poets who shook the stage in Tahrir. It’s poetry that rocks television screens showing Million’s Poet and Arabs Got Talent. And while the IPAF winner may have captured more Western attention, the Egyptian poet who won Arabs’ Got Talent, Amr Qattamesh, won 500,000 Saudi Riyals, a new car, and a contract with MBC.

In Mashallah News, Fareeq el Atrash talks about one strand of modern Arabic poetry:

Hip hop is modern time poetry. Before, there was classical poetry like zajal, which had rules, basics and the certain type of flow it had to follow. The beauty of the old was the rules. With the evolution of time, poetry didn’t become easier, but it came closer to people and got more straightforward. The wording now is simpler, using the spoken language rather than the written one. Also, even though there are different dialects in the region, Arab emcees, as well as the public, can relate to each other because of the common causes and problems we face.

Thanks to Sharjah International Book Fair for pointing me toward the al-Atrash interview.

More on popular forms of Arabic poetry:

Arab Rappers in Solidarity With Uprisings in Middle East & North Africa. “Omar Offendum often evokes the work of Arab poets through his lyrics, emphasizing the links between poetry and hip-hop.”

Interview with Arabs’ Got Talent Winner, Amr Qattamesh. “Yes, and I actually changed my material at the last minute for the semi-final and final show, because of the constant changes occurring [in Egypt]. Thankfully, the Arabs’ Got Talent producers were supportive of this.”