The Corner

Form and Content

Scrutinizing America’s Newspaper of Record over breakfast this morning, I found my attention caught by this story about a Saudi poetess.

A burqa-clad contestant on the Arabic version of “American Idol” landed in the finals after bravely blasting hard-line Muslim clerics on live television, sparking outrage among religious conservatives in the Middle East.

Good for her. What is this Arab-TV equivalent of American Idol actually like, though?

Turns out that instead of stripping naked, smearing themselves with chocolate, and howling like a wolf, or whatever it is people do on American Idol (don’t ask me; I’ve never seen an episode, nor any portion of one; I’m just making a guess based on cultural generalities), the Arab contestants mostly recite poetry.

Poetry is hugely popular in Middle Eastern countries, with prominent poets rising to rock-star levels of fame.

On the show, which is called “The Million’s Poet” and is broadcast from Abu Dhabi across the entire region, contestants are rated by their voice, style of recitation and the subject matter.

I feel pretty sure this is quite a lot different from American Idol.

Reading it, a faint memory-bell went off in my head, and a bit of digging turned up the source. It’s S. D. Goitein’s classic book Jews and Arabs: Their Contacts Through the Ages. Goitein was superbly well-equipped to write the book; there was nothing he did not know about Arabic and Hebrew literature, ancient and modern. In Chapter 3 he has this to say:

Ancient Muslim writers frequently pointed out that, just as the Greeks had a natural gift for science and philosophy, the Chinese for minor arts and industries, and other peoples for other branches of human activity, so the ancient Arabs were endowed with a peculiar talent for oral expression and poetry. There can be no doubt that classical Arabic, with its extremely elaborate grammatical forms and its rich vocabulary, is a unique creation. It is, therefore, only natural that its creators should have clung to it tenaciously, the more so as the Bedouin, owing to the precarious life of the desert, tends to seek stability in tradition and fixed forms.

There are many reasons which account for the rapid and wide diffusion of the Arabic language.… To my mind, however, the most basic reason of all was that the Arabs’ sincere enthusiasm for their precious inheritance so infected the peoples which came under their rule that they strove with all their might to speak, or at least to write, pure classical Arabic.

It was not religion which caused the Koran to be read everywhere — with insignificant and temporary exceptions — in the Arabic original. The Hebrew Bible was translated by the Jews themselves and for their own use into Aramaic, Greek, Arabic and many other tongues. It was only the devotion of the Arabs to their language which made it unthinkable for them that their Holy Book should be read in any vernacular except their own.

The Arabs have earned a most abundant reward for their staunch allegiance to their language. On the other hand, it must be admitted that the language cult, the exaggerated emphasis on outward forms of expressions, had a detrimental influence on the spiritual development of all the Arabic-speaking peoples. One senses this in their literature and not only in the periods of decadence which set in very early, epigonism being essentially inherent in this formalistic and tradition-bound world.…

Personally I have a weakness for ancient Arabic poetry. I believe that any unprejudiced person will admit that it contains some noble ideas and some fine observations. On the other hand, in proportion to the stupendous amount of material preserved, it strikes one as particularly poor in motifs and literary forms in the higher sense, and largely devoid of genuine feeling.

All the efforts of the poets are concentrated on elegant idioms, bold comparisons, unusual metaphors and the like. Arabic poetry may be compared to an ornament which may take the form of a plant or even of an animal, but does so not for the sake of representation but in order to turn it into an ingenious, arbitrary and abstract form.

This remoteness of poetical creation from real life, together with its rigid traditionalism, was probably one of the causes of the terrible spiritual stagnation from which the Arab world has not yet fully recovered to this day.

That was written in either 1955 (the book’s first edition) or 1974 (my own revised edition). I’m curious to hear, from anyone qualified to judge, whether it needs updating.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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