In the seventh century Arab World a king's legitimacy was recognised through the praise he received from his contemporary poets – because of this a ruler is often remembered by which poet they are associated with. Abu Firas al-Hamadani, for example, is remembered in connection with the great poet Abu al-Tayyeb al-Muttanabi, born in AD 915, whose poems often praised the monarchs he visited.
The existence of poetry in the Arab World, explains Atef Alshaer in 'Poetry and Politics in the Modern Arab World', stretches back further than the seventh century to the pre-Islamic, Umayyad and Abbasid periods. Since the beginning of Arab culture poetry has supported political powers, which suggests that political orders could not advance without them. It is this relationship between poetry and politics that Alshaer's new book explores, starting with the Ottoman Empire, continuing throughout colonialism, and moving on its adoption into the ideology of Hamas and Hizbullah, and by revolutionaries during the Arab Spring.
Alshaer details how, unlike the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, there was cultural stagnation across the Arab World during the years of the Ottoman Empire, yet at the same time the Arab World resisted the Empire through prose and poetry. Likewise, those who wanted the Ottoman Empire to remain the guardian of the Islamic Caliphate, and who liked the stability it offered, also used culture to validate their views.
As the Empire collapsed towards the end of the nineteenth century and the Arab countries were split between the colonial powers, poets of the time called on Arabs to rise up, denounce colonisers and become part of the Arab nationalist movement. Britain as a colonial power presented itself as the moderniser of the Arab World and claimed to be transporting the principles of enlightenment – justice, freedom and pleasure – whilst denouncing local poets as 'extremists'. But Arab poets at the time were already writing about such concepts.
By reading Alshaer's analysis of poetry under the Ottoman Empire and colonialism the reader can draw many parallels between the Arab World then and today: for the people, poetry is still a central element of resistance as we saw during the 2011 revolutions, whilst the forces of imperialism still insist on exporting 'freedom' to that region, as we saw with the 2003 Iraq invasion.
Perhaps less known is that Islamist figures and movements also use poetry to mobilise their followers. Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the fifties and sixties, was a poet who focused on the virtue of Islam whilst being critical of the West and their ideology. Hamas and Hizbullah also legitimise their politics with poems and whilst the former publish work on their website, media outlets and in collections, the latter have held poetry festivals and circulate their poetry on CDs and DVDs.
Though there are some poets who not believe politics have a place within poetry – like the great Syrian poet Adonis who registered "dismay at the intrusion of politics on aesthetics" – this book certainly solidifies the view that the majority of art and culture from the Arab World is connected in some way to politics. One of the strengths of 'Poetry and Politics' is that it offers not only a detailed insight into the poets of the time, but the politics of the time.
Alshaer writes that Arabic poetry is the "most important and historic medium of expression", that it has gained a "uniquely everlasting foothold in Arabic culture", and that "poetry will never be dethroned thanks to the brevity, sense of historical connectivity, warmth, strength and wisdom" it inspires. But he leaves the reader wondering why poetry has survived so long in the Arab World and continued to be used as a tool of resistance with the advent and increase in popularity of modern technology, such as film and social media.