Baghdad—my lover, my murderer, and my melody.
–‘Abid ‘Ali al-Rammahi (trans. Reuven Snir)
Reuven Snir has never been to Baghdad. His parents left the city in 1951, part of the mass exodus of Jews from Iraq. In the first half of the twentieth century, Jews comprised around forty per cent of the population of Baghdad. Yet in the early 1950s, more than 90% of Iraq’s Jews left the country. The two and a half thousand year long presence of Jews in Iraq all but came to an end, as persecution and Arab nationalism in Iraq and througout much of the Middle East and North Africa impelled hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave their homes. Like many of these Jews, Snir’s parents moved to Israel. Snir was born in Haifa two years later.
Today Snir is a professor of Arabic at the University of Haifa. He has written widely on Arabic literature and culture, with books including his superb 2005 study (in Hebrew) of Arab and Jewish identity in the writing of Iraqi Jews.
His newest book is not a scholarly study but an anthology of poems. Baghdad: The City in Verse (Harvard, 2013) collects poems about Baghdad written over the last twelve centuries by more than one hundred Arabic poets, translated by Snir into English. This volume offers a look not at the real city which Snir, as an Israeli, could never have visited, but rather at the city as it has existed in the Arabic poetic imagination. As Snir writes in the introduction:
Baghdad has been the city of Islam and Arabism par excellence—the center of the Islamic empire and the Arab world, in reality and certainly metaphorically. Baghdad was at times a metaphor even for the entire East. It was the city of the Arabian Nights, the city of the golden age of Islamic and Arabic culture. Its destruction in 1258 reflected the decline of Arabism and Islam. For various Arab religious communities during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, it was the city of tolerance. By contrast, during most of the second half of the twentieth century, it was the city of Arab-Muslim dictatorship, or, during the last decades of that century, the city that illustrated the total submission of the Arab world and Islamic religion to the West.
Baghdad was established in 762 CE by the Caliph al-Mansur, who made it the capitol of his empire. In the early ninth century, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, whose Baghdad became immortalized in the western imagination through the Thousand and One Nights, sowed the seeds of a bloody civil war when he divided the city among his sons. Yet despite the violence of that early period, Baghdad recovered and grew into the cultural and economic center of the medieval Islamic world.
From its founding, poets have both lauded the city for its glory and cultural achievements, and disparaged it for its squalor and moral decay. The first two poems in the anthology, by the eighth century poet Muti’ ibn Iyas, reflect this dual aspect. In the first poem, ibn Iyas writes dreamily of a drinking party in Baghdad, recalling how “sunset arrived / between melodies of castanets and lute.” In the next, he curses the city. “May God destroy her soon,” he writes, “because of the deeds of her inhabitants.” ‘Ali ibn al-Husayn al-Wasiti, who died in 919, praised Baghdad as “A city for all noble traits, where / the meaning of everything shines like the sun.” His contemporary, ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Mu’tazz, whose rule as Caliph lasted one day, described it as a place “over whose wells / hover crowns of mosquitoes,” and likened his relationship to the city to “an / impotent man being squeezed by an old woman.”
The real turning point in the Arabic literary imagination of Baghdad came in the year 1258, when Mongol armies under the Khan Hulagu sacked the city. Baghdad’s decline had begun prior to the Mongol invasion, yet in the wake of Hulagu’s conquest the center of the Muslim world shifted decisively to Cairo, and Baghdad became a backwater. In the anthology, this destruction is reflected in a five century gap. When the poetic record resumes in the eighteenth century, it features ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Jamil’s laments over the still ruined city: “Baghdad is a present-day hell. // On her fences owls perch wailing: / What a wreck!”
More profoundly, the Mongol sack of Baghdad in the thirteenth century became part of a modern Arab mythology of invasion and violation by barbaric outsiders, a backward-gazing insistence on a glorious golden age of the past that was destroyed by external forces. Snir reports a twentieth-century instance of a Syrian government official asserting: “if the Mongols had not burnt the libraries of Baghdad in the thirteenth century, we Arabs would have had so much science that we would long since have invented the atomic bomb.” Osama bin-Laden in one of his broadcasts from Afghanistan similarly invoked the Mongols, declaring that in the first Gulf War the Americans had done more damage to Baghdad than Hulagu had seven centuries earlier.
Some poems in the anthology draw from and contribute to this mixture of nostalgia and grievance. The most incisive poems from the modern period, however, probe injustice from within as well as invasion from without. For instance, Snir has translated the long poem “Poetry Presses Her Lips to Baghdad’s Breast (Baghdad 1969),” by the great Syrian poet Adonis, which describes the atmosphere of fear and repression he found on a visit to Baghdad under Baath rule. Oh my friend,” he writes, “I long to ask in a whisper: / —What is the difference between Baghdad 1258 and Baghdad 1969? / The first, the Mongols destroyed; the second, her children do the same.”
Three of the most memorable poems in the collection are by the brilliant Kurdish poet and exile Buland al-Haydari, who died in London in 1996. These poems, written around the period of the first Gulf War, do not present the invading West as Baghdad’s sole enemy. Identifying Baghdad with ancient Troy, he writes:
Troy—the Greeks never besieged her;
The Persians never seduced her.
She has never been lured away by any storm or fire.
Troy died because of a wound inside her,
Because of a blind silence that tied her children’s tongues.
And in another poem he offers a bitter apology for the gap between his battered city and the Arabian Nights expectations it has trailed after it for a thousand years:
I beg your pardon, Oh you, our great guests.
Baghdad has no sea, pearls or island
Nothing hides the sun of the small city
But our shadow and shame steeped in blackness
In a big lie,
Like sea, like pearls, like resurrection and birth
In a big lie called Baghdad.
It is unfortunate that, apart from occasional comments in the introduction and dates of birth and death, this volume does not come with biographical information about the poets, who are in most cases entirely unfamiliar to American readers like me. Snir also avoids, in the introduction and in most of the annotations, giving much specific political and historical context for individual poems and poets. Perhaps he wants, understandably, to let the poems speak for themselves, and not to have to wade into the multiple minefields of Middle East politics. But the result is a historical vagueness that is less preferable than would be certain political contentions.
Similarly, Snir presents the Baghdad of the first half of the twentieth century in uncomplicated fashion as a place of tolerance for Muslim, Christian, and Jew alike, when the reality of the proto-liberal Iraqi nationalism of the time was not so sunny. (See my essay on the topic here.) Snir’s own scholarly work is instructive regarding these complexities, but he has simplified the political narrative here. The anthology includes proclamations of Arabic and Iraqi patriotism by Iraqi Jewish poets—which seem, in restrospect, painfully overcompensating—such as Anwar Shaul’s couplets:
From Moses I borrowed my creed,
but under Muhammad’s faith I have long lived.
Islam’s generosity was my shelter;
Qur’an’s eloquence was my fountain.
My adherence to Moses’s creed
diminished not my love for Muhammad’s nation.
In his study of the Arab identities of Iraqi Jewish writers, Snir notes that when Shaul’s poem was published in a Lebanese journal, the first line was changed to “How awful that I draw my faith from Moses.” That sentiment was present in early twentieth century Baghdad as well, yet in the broad brushstroke portrait Snir offers in the anthology’s introduction, repression and intolerance belong solely to the second half of the century.
Snir’s translations are adequate, even impressive when one considers that English is not his first or even second language. Many lines seem more academically accurate than poetically pleasing (e.g., “What made my heart sorrowful and my tears flow is / the violation of the Prophet’s female descendants’ honor”). Yet this generous helping of Arabic verse in translation leaves one feeling grateful and desiring more. Perhaps other cities of Arabic poetry—Cairo? Damascus? Haifa?—will also have their English language anthologies one day.