Arab poets have never lacked for attention. One pre-Islamic poet’s fame among his tribe drove a rival to observe and ask, "The Taghlibites have been made oblivious to every high exploit/by a single ode that Amr son of Kulthum composed;/they recite it eternally from the moment they are born–/what sort of men are they, never to tire of a poem?" If you were a Taghlibite, you’d recite it too. The only respites in the poem from boasts about white banners brought back from battle "crimson, well-saturated" and "forearms flying like play-chucks" are more boasts: "When any boy of ours reaches his weaning/the tyrants fall down before him prostrating." According to accounts of the poet’s life, Amr came by his taste for gore and righteousness honestly. He is said to have avenged an insult to his mother by cutting off the head of the same king who had murdered Tarafa, a fellow poet.
Tarafa’s and Amr’s best-known poems (Amr’s only poem, if the critic quoted above is correct) are found in the Mu’allaqat, a collection of seven odes, arguably the greatest achievements of secular Arab literature. They retain this standing despite the outlandish episodes that define the work, such as the come-on that begins, "Many’s the pregnant woman like you, aye, and the nursing mother/I’ve night visited, and made her forget her amuleted one-year-old." The Prophet Muhammad reproached that poet, Imru al-Qais, as "the most poetical of the poets, and their leader into Hell-fire." (It will not surprise his readers that Frederick Seidel claims to have been translating Imru al-Qais for twenty years.)
Though his capacity for shock bears little comparison to the poets of the Mu’allaqat, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish inspires in his work similar devotion in the Arab diaspora. Darwish was 6 when his family fled from Palestine to Lebanon in 1948, and he remembered vividly the coldness of the flight through mountain passes and the strangeness of being declared a "present-absent alien" upon returning to the new-named land, his village razed and effectively erased. His first poetry reading drew a dressing-down from the Israeli military governor. He was 8.
As a teenager, he took part in poetry festivals throughout Galilee, and by his early 20s he had perfected an aggressive, self-mocking style that would have made him a perpetual winner of international poetry slams, if that eternally rediscovered combat had been active then:
Write it down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand.
I have eight children
And the ninth is coming after the summer.
Makes you angry, doesn’t it?
An exile at home, he saw no reason not to wander, first to study in Moscow, then to live in Cairo, Beirut, Paris and Amman, finally returning to Ramallah. Along the way, and during a bout of weariness with the role of unofficial laureate of a cornered, homeless people, he set aside his public, incantatory poetry to write a prose account of the siege of Beirut, during which rockets and shells flew into the city sometimes more than once a second. Memory for Forgetfulness is a page-turning comedy of horrors: "Two hours ago I went to sleep. I plugged my ears with cotton and went to sleep after hearing the last newscast. It didn’t report I was dead. That means I’m still alive." Even readers disinclined to set aside the fact that Darwish served on the Executive Committee of the PLO have to admire his meditations on coffee–its aroma, one’s idiosyncratic rituals for making it and the impossibility of observing those rituals while under missile attack, its endless variations:
There’s no flavor we might label "the flavor of coffee" because coffee is not a concept, or even a single substance. And it’s not an absolute. Everyone’s coffee is special, so special that I can tell one’s taste and elegance of spirit by the flavor of the coffee. Coffee with the flavor of coriander means the woman’s kitchen is not organized. Coffee with the flavor of carob juice means the host is stingy. Coffee with the aroma of perfume means the lady is too concerned with appearances. Coffee that feels like moss in the mouth means its maker is an infantile leftist. Coffee that tastes stale from too much turning over in the hot water means its maker is an extreme rightist. And coffee with the overwhelming flavor of cardamom means the lady is newly rich.