‘Baghdad: The City in Verse’ Is ‘The Fruit of Pure Love’

Yesterday, I received my long-awaited copy of Baghdad: The City in Verse, trans. and ed. Reuven Snir. The small volume attempts to capture and reflect the history of one of the world’s great cities through its poetry, with offerings beginning in the 700s and ending in 2012: 

baghdad-9780674725218-jacket-3dIt is a stunningly good idea; in his preface, Snir thanks Harvard University Press’s editor-at-large Sharmila Sen for bringing the idea to him. The poems — I have not yet read all of them — reflect different faces of the city in its many different epochs. Baghdad is at once a delight: “People say, Do you want to make the pilgrimage? Of course, / I say, only after Baghdad’s delights expire.” (Abu Nuwas, 747ish-813ish) and a bore: “I am leaving; I despise her leaders. / I am abandoning her, bored and weary.” (Anonymous).

Certainly, there were poets — like Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Maliki (? – 1031) who both praised and criticized the city: “Baghdad is a fine home for the wealthy / but an abode of misery and distress for the poor.”

Although there are moments of tragedy, such as the poems written after the civil war between al-Amin and al-Ma’mun, the poems until 1258 show a bustling and beautiful, if perhaps vain and self-obsessed, city.

The editor, however, has chosen to under-weight these years. About half of the poetry was recorded from 700 to 1900, while the second half of the collection is dedicated to poetry written from 1900 to the present — with only about 10 pages dedicated to the period between 1300 and 1900, between Hulagu’s invasion and before the nahda. Certainly, the later poetry will look more familiar to contemporary readers, and there is hardly a one we could ask to budge — maybe just the Ahlam Mostaghanemi poem. But the effect is to telescope the distant past and to weight the present far more heavily.

The book’s long introduction also telescopes 1250 years of Baghdadi history, from the city’s founding to present. As Snir writes, “Surely, there are not many cities in the world about which so many verses have been written over such a span of time!” And by such an array of poets from so many backgrounds — the editor and translator is himself an Iraqi-Israeli whose father loved Arabic poetry.

Indeed not, and we can map poetry back to moments and debates Snir mentions in his introduction; although perhaps the introduction, which is trying to do too much and gets tangled up in itself, in moments, would’ve been better as footnotes or section breaks throughout the collection.

The introduction concludes that “one cannot maintain that [Richard] Coke was wrong” in his assessment that the story of Baghdad is one of continuous war and “where there is not war, there is pestilence, famine, and civil disturbance.” The collection itself, at least the early poetms, tells a different story. I look forward to engaging and re-engaging with the rest.

Selected poems from the collection:

More from some of the featured (contemporary) poets: