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POETIC VOICES

of the

MUSLIM WORLD


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A web exhibit presented by

City Lore and Poets House

Funded by the Bridging Cultures Program of the National Endowment for the Humanities: 
Exploring the human endeavor, with additional support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.
I am a Muslim:
The rose is my qibla.
The stream my prayer-rug,
          the sunlight my clay tablet.
My mosque the meadow.
I rinse my arms for prayers
          along with the thrum and
          pulse of windows.
Through my prayers streams
          the moon, the refracted
         light of the sun.

SOHRAB SEPEHRI (1928-1980, IRAN), FROM WATER’S FOOTFALL

TRANSLATED FROM THE FARSI BY KAZIM ALI WITH MOHAMMED JAFAR MAHALLATI

Roots of Islamic Poetry


Poetry flourished in the Near East before the birth of Islam in the 7th century. In the northern portion of the Indian subcontinent, Sanskrit literature thrived. Poets of the Sasanian and Byzantine Empires wrote lyrics on both secular and religious themes.

In nomadic, tribal cultures, however—among the Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkic peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia—poetry was oral, preserved by memorization.

Some of the written works from this early period are still read and performed and a number of the oral poetic traditions of the pre-Islamic era are still practiced.


Only the camel knows
     the different trails.
Only the fox knows
     the scent of the seven streams.
Only the lark knows
     when the caravan passes in the night.

Only the mother knows
     who the father of her son is.
Only the horse knows
     whether his rider is light or heavy.

From The Book of Dede Korkut
Translated from the Turkish by Faruk Sumer,
Ahmet E. Uysal, and Warren S. Walker

Excerpt

The Mu'allaqa of Imru' al-Qays

by Imru' al-Qays

Halt here friends.
Allow me private pause alone
to remember a love, a longing,
      an unrequited right
here where the sand dune’s
      rim whorls between where
we’ve abandoned and
      where we’re bound…

Here you’ll still see
the old camp markers
despite that dangerous whirl
of the south wind, 
nerves’ nag of the north wind.

TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY DESMOND O’GRADY

The Qur’an And Arabic Literary Culture

At the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation in 610, the Arabic language was primarily oral and pre-Islamic Arabic poetry was preserved by memorization. When the Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad, the prophet gained a following by reciting it.

During the early days of the Islamic Caliphate (the government established by Muhammad’s followers) the Qur’an was codified in writing, in a process which ultimately gave birth to classical, literary Arabic. In the 7th and 8th centuries new believers spread out from the Arabian Peninsula to create an empire.

Arabic became the administrative language of a vast portion of the Near East. By the 9th century, a great intellectual movement was underway, inspired by the new culture of writing.



The Qur’an was not only a new way
of seeing things and a new reading of
mankind and the world, but also a new
way of writing…

The Quranic text… formed the basis of 
the switch from an oral to a written
culture— from a culture of intuition and
improvisation to one of study and
contemplation…

Adonis, from An Introduction To Arab Poetics

The Qur'an: Sura 93

al-Duha (The Glorious Morning Light)

In the Name of Allah, 
Most Gracious, Most Merciful

By the Glorious Morning Light, 
And by the Night when it is still— 
Thy Guardian-Lord hath not forsaken thee,
     nor is He displeased. 
And, verily, the hereafter will be better
     for thee than the present. 
And soon will thy Guardian-Lord
     give thee (that wherewith)
     thou shalt be well-pleased. 
Did He not find thee an orphan
     and give thee shelter (and care)? 
And He found thee wandering,
     and He gave thee guidance. 
And He found thee in need,
     and made thee independent. 
Therefore, treat not the orphan
     with harshness, 
Nor repulse the petitioner (unheard); 
But the Bounty of the Lord—
     rehearse and proclaim!

translated from the arabic by abdullah yusuf ali

Epic and Romance

What Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are to the West, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the national epic of Persia, is to Iran and much of the Muslim world—a wellspring of literary heritage and cultural identity.

While the roots of the epic may lie deep in preliterate culture, verse romances were produced amid cosmopolitan cultures, such as those of the Ottoman and Mughal courts.

Interest in these tales lies in their themes of love and war and in their characters and plot twists; their power lies in the echoes of myth and psychological insight.

A Turkish Horseman Drawing His Bow, 15th-Century Ottoman Miniature

Excerpt

THE SHAHNAMEH

by ABOLQASEM FERDOWSI

Love for my father led me here to die.
My mother gave me signs to know him by,
And you could be a fish within the sea,
Or pitch black, lost in night’s obscurity,
Or be a star in heaven’s endless space,
Or vanish from the earth and leave no trace,
But still my father, when he knows I’m dead,
Will bring down condign vengeance on your head.
One from this noble band will take this sign
To Rostam’s hands, and tell him it was mine,
And say I sought him always, far and wide,
And that, at last, in seeking him, I died.

“SOHRAB IS MORTALLY WOUNDED BY ROSTAM”
TRANSLATED FROM THE PERSIAN BY DICK DAVIS


Qays saw her beauty, saw her grace,
The soft expression of her face;
And as he gazed, and gazed again,
Distraction stung by his burning brain:
No rest he found by day or night—
Lailí forever in his sight.

Nezami Ganjavi, Lailí and Majnun
Translated from the Persian by James Atkinson


Take true delight in joys of life,
For youth is short and life so brief.
Now passion, beauty, all are thine,
God too is kind, so drink this wine.
Good fortune does not last forever,
Time past will never come back, never.

Mir Hasan, from The Magic of Eloquence
Translated from the Urdu by Ahmed Ali

The Qasida

Originating in pre-Islamic Arabia and enduring to this day, the qasida is among the most important poetic forms in the Muslim world, spreading as Islam spread, and adapting to the needs of each culture and each new era. It is usually fewer than 120 lines, with one of a number of possible meters and a single end-rhyme sustained throughout the poem. The qasida was frequently used to offer praise or blame, flatter royal patrons, or deride rivals. In the 20th century, poets began to use the qasida for personal expression and to address social reform. Its strict, classical rhyme scheme was reinvented for modern ears.

A 15th century portrait of Sultan Mehmed II, the Conqueror


Oh! a droplet from thy grace’s ocean
      its the main of grace; 
From thy cloud-hand is the garth of bounty
      fed with the rain of grace;
Should the slave do wrong,
      what evil if the King of Kings forgive?

Ahmed Pasha, From “Grace Qasida”
Translated from The Ottoman Turkish by E.J.W. Gibb

Excerpt

Ode To Sayf aL-Dawla

by Al-Mutanabbi

Ah, when the lion bares his teeth, suspect his guile, 
Nor fancy that the lion shows to you a smile. 
I have slain the man that sought my heart’s blood many a time,
Riding a noble mare whose back none else may climb, 
Whose hind and fore-legs seem in galloping as one; 
Nor hand nor foot requireth she to urge her on…
The desert knows me well, the night, the mounted men, 
The battle and the sword, the paper and the pen!

Translated from the Arabic by R. A. Nicholson


He is the beloved of God whose intercession is hoped for
In the face of every dread and unexpected horror.

He called mankind to God, so whoever clings to him
Clings to a rope that will never be broken.

Imam Al-Busiri, from The Mantle Ode
Translated from the Arabic by Suzanne P. Stetkevych

Umm Kulthum _cropped

The Voice of Egypt

Umm Kulthum (1904–1975, Egypt), singer, film star, and 20th-century icon, entertained audiences from all strata of Arab society with her musical renditions of famous poems, including qasidas, most notably by Ahmad Shawqi. Famous for the beauty of her voice, she was also celebrated for her power to convey the significance of the poems.

Sufi Verses and Hymns

Sufism, the ecstatic, mystical strain of Islam, has produced some of the world’s best loved poets. Seeking to be united with the divine, Sufis turned to the arts as an expression of devotion and a pathway to God.

Written in Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, and other languages, this poetry has become a touchstone in Muslim cultures and throughout the world, as demonstrated by these lines by the 13th-century Sufi poet Sa'di emblazoned on the walls of the United Nations: Human beings are members of a whole, / In creation of one essence and soul.


Two loves I give Thee: love that yearns
And love because Thy due is love.

Rabi’a al-Basri, from “Two Loves I Give Thee”
Translated from the Arabic by Martin Lings

Excerpt

What Can I Do, Muslims?

by Jalal al-Din Rumi

I am not from east or west, not from land or sea, 
not from the shafts of nature
      nor from the spheres of the firmament, 
not of the earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire. ...

I am not from the world, not from beyond, 
not from heaven and not from hell. ...

My place is placeless, my trace is traceless, 
no body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls. 
I have chased out duality, lived the two worlds as one.

translated from the Persian by Bernard Lewis

Excerpt

Go and Let It Be Known

by Yunus Emre

Yunus is my name, I’m out of my mind. 
Love serves as my guide to the very end. 
All alone, toward the majestic Friend 
I walk kissing the ground—and I arrive.

Translated from the Turkish by Talat S. Halman

Excerpt

The Conference of The Birds

by Farid al-Din 'Attar

Now the birds are warming to their task, 
Their spirits are moving now like the ocean swell. 
Love for the Simurgh is born in those who ask 
Themselves if they could tread the path, they tell
Each other they are ready to journey to the light
But first they seek a guide who will lead
And parse anguish and joy throughout their flight.
They swear fidelity to the guide in thought and deed
Be it pleasant or be it filled with pain, as long
As they can pledge themselves to the King, this throng
Of pilgrims dark and fair, are prepared to don 
   angels' wings

“The Birds Discuss the Journey”
translated from the persian by raficq abdulla

The Conference of the Birds, Illustration by Peter Sis

The Ghazal

The ghazal is a popular and enduring form of lyric poetry born in medieval Arabia, honed in the Persian and Ottoman courts, and adapted by many Muslim cultures. It’s been reinvented many times, popularized, and is now a familiar form for English language poets. It’s a shorter, more versatile form than the qasida, composed of couplets traditionally addressing themes of love, loss, and the beauty of the beloved despite the pain of separation.

The greatest master of ghazal poetry in Persian is the 14th-century poet Hafez, and in Urdu the 19th-century Mughal poet Ghalib.

In recent years it has remained vital through the work of such poets as Faiz Ahmad Faiz (Urdu) and Simin Behbahani (Farsi) and is prominent as a musical form in the films of Pakistan and India.

The Frontispiece From A 19th-Century Urdu Edition Of Ghalib’s Poetry

Excerpt

This Was Not to Be My Fate...

by Ghalib

Grief wastes our life away, and yet—
     how shall we flee the heart within us?
Had we not known the grief of love, 
     we would have known the grief living

With what style you handle, Ghalib, 
     all these themes of mystic teaching!
What a saint we would have thought you 
     if you had not been a drinker!

Translated from the Urdu by Ralph Russell and Khurshidul Islam


I am the Sultan of Love: 
          a glass of wine will do
                    for a crown on my head, 
and the brigade of my sighs
          might well serve as the dragon’s 
                    fire-breathing troops.

Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, from “I Am
the Sultan of Love”
Translated from the Ottoman Turkish by
Talat S. Halman

Poem

Whatever He Poured We Would Drink Down

by Hafez

With hair disheveled, face flushed, and smiling drunkenly, 
Wine-cup in hand, shirt open, singing poetry,

Eyes seeking out brawls, lips pouted with derision, 
Last night he graced my bedside and sat next to me.

He lowered his head down to my ear: “Stalwart lover, 
Are you asleep?” he whispered, disappointedly.

A lover given such sleep-stealing wine is guilty– 
If he won’t worship wine–of infidelity.

Preacher, don’t fault those who even drink the dregs! 
This is our only keepsake from Pre-eternity.

Whether the heavenly wine or the plain, heady kind– 
Whatever he poured we would drink down unquestioningly.

The wine-cup’s smiling rim, the sweetheart’s tangled tresses– 
So many vows, like Hafez’s, they’ve shattered mercilessly!

translated from the persian by jawid mojaddedi

Contemporary Folk Traditions

In local communities throughout the Middle East, folk poetry provides ordinary men and women with heightened language to negotiate their daily lives.

In Yemen, for instance, a zamil is a two-line poem using alliteration and internal rhyme to make a case for one’s point of view, often used to resolve conflict. Poetry is used to settle disputes and celebrate weddings; it is pervasive—it even decorates trucks!


Turn around and look, my tormentor—I too desire:
You might be a college girl, but I am a truck driver!

*

My heart tells me to do all sorts of things,
My wallet tells me not to be a fool.
Pretty girl, you tell me, what should I do?

ANONYMOUS TRUCK VERSES
TRANSLATED FROM THE URDU BY JAMAL J. ELIAS

Poem

Zamil

by The Tribes of Bani Shadad and Bani 'A'rush

The Anthropologist Steven Caton describes how tribal leaders
traded zamils after a dispute broke out over a pasture straddling 
a tribal borderline. One side argued:

[It was] my grandfather’s property after my ancestor’s and 
my property after my father’s; || [and so it goes] down the 
past generations all the way to Shem, the son of Noah.

The other side responded with a verse arguing that the presence of 
their sheep grazing on the land was proof that it belonged to them. 
To avoid conflict, a mediator interjected:

War is not a wedding; || beware: honor is like glass.

TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY STEVEN CATON

A Dialogue Between
East And West

I, an Iranian poet, first learned poetry from the Spaniard Lorca, the Frenchman Éluard, the German Rilke, the Russian Mayakovsky … and the American Langston Hughes; and only later, with this education, I turned to the poems of my mother tongue, to … the grandeur of Hafez.

~The Iranian Poet Ahmad Shamlu (1925–2000)

Intellectual exchange is a defining trait of human culture: Arabic numerals, algebra, and countless advances in architecture, astronomy, and medicine have had lasting impacts on the West. Poets of the East and the West have also inspired one another. Poets from Goethe to Emerson, as well as many writing today, have known the influence of Muslim poets such as Hafez. These influences are made possible only by successful translations. Though Anglicized and rooted in colonial impulses, translations that resonate in English were necessary factors for Middle Eastern masterpieces like The 1001 Nights and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám to become classics in the West.

Excerpt

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

by Omar Khayyám

XI 
Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough,
A Flask of Wine, a book of Verse—and Thou
     Beside me singing in the Wilderness— 
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.

XXVIII 
... the seed of Wisdom did I sow, 
And with my own hand labour’d it to grow:
     And this was all the Harvest that I reap’d— 
“I came like Water, and like Wind I go.”

lI 
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
     shall lure it back to cancel half a line, 
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

omar khayyam, from the rubáiyát of omar khayyám
translated from the persian by edward fitzgerald


And though the whole 
      world were to sink,
Hafez, with you, with you alone 
I will compete! delight, despair, 
let us, the twins, entirely share! 
like you to love, like you to drink 
My life and pride I here declare.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from “Unbounded”
Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger

Poem

Casida of the Lament

by Federico García Lorca

I have shut my balcony
because I do not want to hear the weeping,
but from behind the grey walls
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

There are very few angels that sing,
there are very few dogs that bark,
a thousand violins fit into the palm of my hand.

But the weeping is an immense dog,
the weeping is an immense angel,
the weeping is an immense violin,
the tears muzzle the wind,
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH BY STEPHEN SPENDER AND J. L. GILI

Poets of the 20th Century

In order to rescue ourselves from the stifling effects of the
literatures which have dictated and shaped our tastes and
judgments for too many years, we must dump overboard
everything that those literatures have taught us.

~The Turkish Poet Orhan Veli Kanik,
from the Garip “Manifesto,” 1941

With modernization and political upheaval, the 20th century brought new ways of seeing the world to the Middle East.

Writers questioned the relevance of age-old verse forms and responded to the influence of Western poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and T. S. Eliot.

The voices of women became more prominent in literature. The result was a new dynamism in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish poetry.


I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed A bird is flying around your skirt; I know if your forehead is cold or hot Or your lips are wet or dry; Or if a white moon is rising above the pistachio tree My heart's fluttering tells me... I am listening to Istanbul with my eyes closed.

Orhan Veli Kanik, from “I Am Listening to Istabul”
Translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat


It’s time for the end of days to cry out and stain blue this page and this dynasty Time for the flood that crushed our houses to rise up and reach for the top to rip out this fragile footing and wash the wrongs from the land

NIMA YUSHIJ, FROM “IT IS TIME”
TRANSLATED FROM THE FARSI BY KAVEH BASSIRI

Excerpt

The Child Running Inside Memory

by Adonis

My memory descended
from the heights of the palm/        Peace
         to my friend, the boy running in my memory
         he did not visit me today, did not confide in me
         as was his habit—I surrendered my face
         to his mirrors: Which of us is lost?
         Who is silent, who speaking?

TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY KHALED MATTAWA

Mixed media on paper, 2011, by Adonis

Contemporary Calligraphy by Mohammed Saït Saggâr
of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s Poetry

Excerpt

Rain Song

by Badr Shakir al-Sayyab

It is as if a child before sleep were rambling on
About his mother (a year ago he went to wake her,
      did not find her,
Then was told, for he kept on asking,
“After tomorrow, she’ll come back again…”)
That she must come back again,
Yet his playmates whisper that she is there
In the hillside, sleeping her death for ever,
Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain…

TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY
LENA JAYYUSI AND CHRISTOPHER MIDDLETON

Forugh Farrokhzad_cropped

Iranian Poet Forugh Farrokhzad

Forugh Farrokhzad (1935–1967, Iran): “I believe in being a poet in all moments of life. Being a poet means being human.” Farrokhzad wrote in a strong feminine voice, reinventing metaphors common to classical Persian poetry to express a woman’s point of view. For many years, much of Farrokhzad’s work was banned in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Excerpt

Inaugurating The Garden

by Forugh Farrokhzad

Everyone fears.
Everyone fears, but you and I
merged into one
before the water, the mirror, 
       and the lamp,
and were not afraid.
I do not speak of the frail union 
       of two names,
their embrace on an 
       old ledger’s page—
I speak of my hair,
happy with your singed poppy kisses,
our bodies’ defiant intimacy,
and our nudity’s sheen
       like fish scales in water.
I speak of the silver life of a song
a small fountain sings each dawn.

TRANSLATED FROM THE FARSI BY SHOLEH WOLPÉ

Poetry & Politics

If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall. For he who is not embraced by a passion for life will dissipate into thin air.

~The Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi (1909–1934)

Almost a century after the Tunisian poet al-Shabi wrote these lines, they were heard chanted in Tahrir Square and throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring protests. In the Middle East, poets are known for speaking truth to power. Because the poetic word bears greater weight than in the West, poetry is a powerful tool to wield against repressive regimes—from independence movements during the British and French colonial periods, to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, to the recent upheavals of the Arab Spring. Poets have often taken principled stands despite the fear of severe reprisals, often becoming the voice of the people and their resistance.


When wine being poured makes the sound of inconsolable children who, though you try with all your heart, cannot be soothed. When whatever you want to do cannot be done, When nothing is of any use; —At this hour when night comes down, When night comes, dragging its long face, dressed in mourning, Be with me . . .

FAIZ AHMAD FAIZ, FROM BE NEAR ME
TRANSLATED FROM THE URDU BY NAOMI LAZARD

Excerpt

“A RHYME FOR THE ODES” (MU'ALLAQAT)

by Mahmoud Darwish

No land on earth bears me. Only my words bear me,
a bird born from me who builds a nest in my ruins
before me, and in the rubble of the enchanting world
      around me.
I stood on a wind, and my long night was without end.
This is my language, a necklace of stars around the necks
of my loved ones. They emigrated.
They carried the place and emigrated, they carried time
       and emigrated.
They lifted their fragrances from their bowls.
They took their bleak pastures and emigrated.
They took the words. The ravaged heart left with them.
Will the echo, this echo, this white sonorous mirage
hold a name whose hoarseness fills the unknown 
and whom departure fills with divinity?

TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY AMIRA EL-ZEIN

Excerpt

We Sinful Women

by Kishwar Naheed

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished  
become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women 
who come out raising the banner of truth
against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find the tongues which could speak have been 
severed.

TRANSLATED FROM THE URDU BY RUKHSANA AHMAD

Excerpt

On Living

by Nazim Hikmet

Living is no laughing matter:
        you must take it seriously,
        so much so and to such a degree
    that, for example, your hands
         tied behind your back,
                                 your back to the wall,
or else in a laboratory
        in your white coat and safety glasses,
        you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you’ve never seen,
even though you know living
        is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously
        that even at seventy, for example,
               you’ll plant olive trees—
        and not for your children, either,
        but because although you fear death
                you don’t believe it,
        because living, I mean, weighs heavier.

American Voices

The first language of poetry I heard was the language of prayer, my father reciting from the Qur'an and other scripture. Part of poetry will always, for me, have the rhythms of those long lines, the structure of those couplets, the second line answering the first in some way, usually not merely narrative; also the strangeness of a language I do not understand, clotted with consonants that do not exist in English, modulated by vowels that English-speaking throats can rarely manage. And of course, profoundly, poetry for me is the voice of another, reciting to me, to an audience that sometimes recites along.

~Kazim Ali, from "A Brief Poetics"

Muslims have lived in the United States since the colonial era, when they were among the slaves brought from West Africa. With conversion and with the voluntary immigration of the 20th century, several million Americans now identify as Muslim, many of them African-American. These voices have added immeasurably to the richness and diversity of American poetry.

Excerpt

On Children

by Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow,
     which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them
     like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Poem

Snowmen

by Agha Shahid Ali

My ancestor, a man
of Himalayan snow,
came to Kashmir from Samarkand,
carrying a bag
of whale bones:
heirlooms from sea funerals.
His skeleton
carved from glaciers, his breath
arctic,
he froze women in his embrace.
His wife thawed into stony water,
her old age a clear
evaporation.

This heirloom,
his skeleton under my skin, passed
from son to grandson,
generations of snowmen on my back.
They tap every year on my window,
their voices hushed to ice.

No, they won’t let me out of winter,
and I’ve promised myself,
even if I’m the last snowman,
that I’ll ride into spring
on their melting shoulders.

It is the missing clasp of your body
that shudders me awake,
and before I fall asleep,
I replay all the tightly
wound metal
of our kisses ...

Bushra Rehman, from “Your Lock”

Excerpt

E-mail from Scheherazad

by Mohja Kahf

Hi, babe. It’s Scheherazad. I’m back
For the millennium and living in Hackensack,
New Jersey. I tell stories for a living.
You ask if there is a living in that.

You must remember: Where I come from, 
Words are to die for. I saved the virgins
From beheading by the king, who was killing
Them to still the beast of doubt in him.

Global Voices

In Abu Dhabi, the television show Million’s Poet— an American Idol in poetry—testifies to the enduring popularity of poetry in contemporary Muslim life. Vibrant poetic practices can be found throughout the Muslim cultures of Asia and Africa. The influence of the ghazal can be found in the sung poetry of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; and the influence of the qasida is apparent in Swahili.

Islamic themes have fused with native Berber forms of sung poetry in North Africa and with the epic tales of West Africa. In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, poetry traditions range from classical forms to hip-hop.

Contemporary lyric poets—such as the Somali Gaarriye; the Kurd Sherko Bekas; the Indonesian W. S. Rendra; and the Bengali Shamsur Rahman—weave together tradition and innovation.

Excerpt

A to Z

by Gaarriye

I write these words and send them to you
To let you know that we live through language.
Without it – deformity, ugliness, illness; 
Without it – no anchor for culture; without it
No making of maps, no naming of nations.

A man might boast of property, money,
Position, but if he’s unable to write
He’s a pauper … listen, your pen
Is your wealth, you’re less than nothing without it.

TRANSLATED FROM THE SOMALI BY DAVID HARSENT WITH
MARTIN ORWIN AND MAXAMED XASAN, “ALTO”

Traditional

The Buffalo of Du

from Son-Jara

Dan Mansa Wulandin said, “O Elder, Naamu! (Indeed!)
Behold the Buffalo of Du!” Mmm
The buffalo charged them, Mmm
And they threw down the first of the eggs. Naamu! (Indeed!)
It became a great wilderness…
 
The buffalo charged them again
And they threw down the other egg. Mmm
It became a great lake. Naamu! (Indeed!)
Dan Mansa Wulandin planted the green stick,
And it became a great forest… Naamu! (Indeed!)
 
Dan Mansa Wulandin took the spindle stick,
Drew back and shot the Buffalo of Du, pan!
The buffalo bellowed out: “Oh!
“O People of Du!
“The Twisted Well! Naamu! (Indeed!)
“Arrow-of-the-Knower…
 
Dan Mansa Wulanba came forward: Naamu! (Indeed!)
“Little brother, what has happened?” Naamu! (Indeed!)
“Ah, my elder,” the reply, “the Buffalo of Du
has fallen.”

translated from the mandekan by john william johnson

Excerpt

A Certain Pride

by Shamsur Rahman

Hundreds of policemen and bailiffs
rush out from every side
to evict me from my little plot of land;
they are determined to confiscate
all the moveable wealth of my dreams;
some have already started bidding
their price in shrill tones,
but like a harassed peasant I still stand on the roof of my hut,
I still do not give up my home
which is already under several feet of flood-water.

translated from the Bengali by Kabir Chowdhury

Excerpt

The Song of Sabdatama

by Jogja Hip-Hop Foundation

We are from Jogja 
The heart of Java
Our rhyme is mantra
Flows down like lava
 
We are from Jogja
The heart of Java
Our culture is weapon
Yeah, this Song of Sabdatama …

Why democracy if occupied by oligarchy? 
Why religion if only to kill humanity? 
hey oxymoron, you don’t need to teach me 
Jogja wants harmony in diversity
By poet, I mean every inventor, be he big or small,
every discoverer, be he strong or weak,
every creator, be he great or humble, every lover of pure life ...
and everyone who stands in awe before the day and the night,
be he a philosopher or a guard at a vineyard.

kahlil gibran, from “the future of the arabic language”

And so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI (1931–2011, PALESTINE), FROM “TWIGS”
TRANSLATED FROM THE ARABIC BY PETER COLE,
YAHYA HIJAZI, AND GABRIEL LEVIN