To coincide with the release of the Cabinet Papers from 1974, The Currency Lad wrote a rather acerbic post on Gough Whitlam. Some how or other (as you do in the blogosphere), I ended up debating the contribution that Islamic civilization has made with a number of commenters on the thread. It was somewhat surprising to me that supporters of the Iraq War, and perhaps adherents of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” thesis, were prepared to blandly assert that Islamic civilisation had made no contribution to modern culture. Particularly in light of the claim by Paul Wolfowitz that it was opponents of the Iraq War who expressed disdain for the culture of Iraq.
The works of philosophers like Aristotle were reintroduced to Europe from the Arab world, leading to a revival of philosophy (initially scholastic) and over the long term, the growth of scientific knowledge and through Aristotelian influence on thinkers like Machiavelli, a secular state. Europeans also learnt arithmetic from the Middle East. Later on, the Ottoman Empire provided a prototype of a form of government tolerant to religious minorities (Christians and Jews had their own administrative and judicial institutions).
Historians recognise that civilisations were and are porous. The medieval and early modern periods were characterised by frequent intellectual interchange, not to mention trade relations between Christendom and the Islamic world, and not just conflict. And one of the biggest questions of history – asked for instance by American historian Paul Kennedy as well as the great Annales scholar Fernand Braudel – was why given that Europe was arguably on par or behind the Ottoman Empire (as well as China) in the Fifteenth Century, did Western culture and politics and economics come to prevail. The most likely answer is the absence of a unified regime in Europe and the consequent spur to innovation from military and economic competition.
But actually I wanted to talk about Middle-Eastern poetry.
As Adrienne Rich observes in an excellent review essay on a recent compilation of Iraqi poetry, the riches of the Persian and Arabic poetic and literary traditions are inestimable.
Tariq Ali writes meaningfully of the sentiments and power expressed in Iraqi Poetry – largely written by exiles from Saddam – in his book Bush in Babylon. Here’s one of the poems he cites, ‘The Jackals’ Wedding’ by Saadi Youssef:
O Mudhaffar al-Nawab,
my life-long comrade,
what are we to do about the jackals’ wedding?
You remember the old days:
In the cool of the evening
under a bamboo roof
propped on soft cushions stuffed with fine wool
we’d sip tea (a tea I’ve never since tasted)
Night falls as softly as our words
under the darkening crowns of the date palms
while smoke curls from the hearth, such fragrance
as if the universe had just begun
Then a cackling explodes
from the long grass and date palms –
the jackals’ wedding!
O, Mudhaffar al-Nawab
today isn’t yesterday
(truth is as evanescent as the dream of a child)
truth is, this time we’re at their wedding reception.
yes, the jackals’ wedding
you’ve read their invitation:
For tho’ we trudge past Dahna empty-handed
We depart Dareen our purses lined with gold.
‘While the townsfolk attend to their affairs
Now, Zuraik, fleece them, quick as a fox!’
O, Mudhaffar al-Nawab
let’s make a deal:
I’ll go in your place
(Damascus is too far away from that secret hotel…)
I’ll spit in the jackals’ faces,
I’ll spit on their lists.
I’ll declare that we are the people of Iraq –
we are the ancestral trees of this land,
proud beneath our modest roof of bamboo.
Ali notes that the Iraqi Governing Council soon became known by many Iraqis as ‘The Jackals’ Wedding’.
Edward Said notes that Orientalism effaces the voice of the other. Ali draws our attention to the rich oral and poetic culture of the Middle East. Voices like Youssef’s are worth listening to. It would repay all of us to do so, particularly those who claim that the Iraqi War was fought in the name of the people of Iraq.