Tragedy and glory
The history of Baghdad is marked by stunning extremes. It was at once the medieval metropolis mythologised in the Arabian Nights – the unrivalled global centre of power and civilisation during the Abbasid caliphate – and the scene of utter devastation – the city famously levelled by the Mongols in 1258, when an army of nomads stormed its walls, burnt its libraries, looted its treasures and put its people to the sword. Its cautionary tale of doom and the end of a golden age may be a familiar one, but no other living city can tell it so vividly. No other city can make the same sweeping claims to greatness and catastrophe.
The most complete record of the glory and tragedy of Baghdad lies in poetry. For over 1,000 years, poets have described, remembered, mocked and mourned the city. In a new anthology of more than 170 poems Baghdad: The City in Verse, readers in English have access for the first time to the breadth of the poetry of the city, from the eighth century to the present day. Its poetic tradition defines Baghdad. Few other cities can draw from such a deep well of verse. Certainly, none of the great world cities of our time (New York, London, Paris, Mumbai, Shanghai and the like) have anything near comparable. “Poetry and Baghdad,” writes the poet Abdul Kader El Janabi in the book’s afterword, “are indivisible, flowing together”. Translated and edited by the Jewish scholar Reuven Snir, the selections in this tome take readers from the wine-soused revels of late antiquity to the horror of the Mongol conquest, from the political transformations of the early 20th century to the misery and trauma caused by the American invasions. Throughout, there persists the feeling that the city is “as old as it is modern”. While its poets depict Baghdad as a city in the familiar, concrete sense – bustling, cosmopolitan, callous, dirty – it also appears as a capital conscious of its place in the broad tapestry of history and myth.
According to Snir, the blossoming of urban Baghdad marked something of a departure in medieval Arabic poetry. Previously, the nomadic ethos of the desert held sway over Arabic verse, most famously in the muallaqat, the “hanging odes” of roaming Bedouin poets. With the founding of Baghdad as the centre of the Islamic empire and the growth of a courtly poetic culture in the capital, poetry found a new emphasis on place, a grounding in the streets, taverns and palaces of the glorious city.
And what a city it was. “Her Tigris, two banks arrayed for us like pearls in a necklace, / a crown beside a crown, a palace beside a palace,” crowed al-Tahir ibn al-Muzaffar, “Her soil, musk; her water, silver; / her gravel, diamonds and jewels.” Along with other artists and craftsmen, poets flocked to Baghdad. “There is nothing like Baghdad, worldly-wise and religious, / despite Time’s transitions,” wrote the ninth-century poet Umara ibn Aqil, “Here, life is pure, green and fresh.”
Baghdad was the city on the hill, the best place to be. Like many of his peers, the eighth-century poet Muti ibn Iyas found the essence of the city in cups of wine, in its heady brand of urban hedonism. “It was morning in Baghdad, we were carousing, / stirred by a white face and deep-black eyes … / I was still drinking when sunset arrived / between melodies of castanets and lutes.” Of course, the city was not all sweetness and light. In another poem, Ibn Aqil offered a more realistic assessment of life in the muddy metropolis: “Oh Baghdad, when it rains or wind strikes, / you are nothing but dung; / when you are dry, you are only evil dust.”
Baghdad continued to haunt its poets even when they weren’t there. The anthology has many poems that address Baghdad from afar, as a city yearned for and missed. Harun al-Rashid, the great eighth-century caliph himself, lamented his choice to move his court to Al Raqqa outside the city: “I will forgive my beloved [Baghdad], forgiveness is my nature, / I will not forgive myself.” Al-Akawwak, an early ninth century poet, mourned having to leave Baghdad. “Truly, I grieve for Baghdad, what a town! / Midst my maladies, she has protected me. / Separating from her, I was Adam / expelled from Eden.” The experience of exile from Baghdad, so common in medieval verse, sadly remains an abiding theme today, as the violence-stricken city continues to force its writers away. Baghdad becomes a city of the imagination, to be sketched with memories and fables. Snir, the Israeli editor of the anthology, is himself a Baghdadi for whom Baghdad is more a literary chimera than a lived in place; his family emigrated from the city to Israel before he was born, and he has never been back. Sometimes, the only road to Baghdad runs through the page.
The singular defining moment in the history of Baghdad came in 1258, when a Mongol army under the warlord Hulagu broke through, killed the last Abbasid caliph and razed the city. “Oh seekers of news about Baghdad,” wrote the poet Taqi al-Din, “the tears will tell you … / Baghdad is no longer a refuge; no one is here anymore. / The crown of the caliphate, the great monuments, / all has been burned to ashes.”
Familiar narratives of the Mongol conquest of Baghdad are full of rich, exaggerated drama; it is often said, for instance, that the Tigris choked with the bindings of books from the city’s destroyed libraries. Some of the poetry in the anthology, on the other hand, surprises the reader with its quiet power. “It is a dark, cruel catastrophe,” wrote al-Majd al-Nashabi soon after the sack, “which turns a child’s head and liver white.”
The destruction of Baghdad ended the Abbasid caliphate and left the city and the surrounding region depopulated for centuries. It had even more lasting consequences in the realm of the poetic imagination.
In modern times, poets return again and again to the memory of the golden age of the city and its calamitous fall.
When much of the Middle East lay under European control in the early 20th century, anti-colonial Arab poets looked to the former glories of Baghdad for inspiration. “Forget Rome and Athens and all that they contain,” wrote the fin-de-siècle Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawqi, “All jewels are only in Baghdad.” Hafiz Ibrahim, another luminary of early 20th-century Egyptian poetry, glorified the reign of Harun al-Rashid: “In Harun al-Rashid’s time we reached the skies; / people lived in harmony. / Learning adorned every neck … / Ask what place on earth could be compared / to Baghdad under Islam.”
Just as the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid provided material for contemporary poets, so too did its inverse, the devastated Baghdad of the Mongol conquest. Troubled by the oppression and brutality he saw in 1960s Iraq, the Syro-Lebanese poet Adonis asked, “What is the difference between Baghdad 1258 and Baghdad 1969? / The first, the Mongols destroyed; the second, her children do the same.” Writing after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Sargon Boulus inhabited the voice of the Mongol conqueror. “Death speaks in my name / I am Hulagu: / A sword in its sheath, never resting. / Its shadow, wherever it throws itself / Begets a cloud of hungry eagles / Hovering over houses.” In Boulus’s poem, the Americans (“hungry eagles”) find themselves cast in the image of the rapacious nomadic horde. Sadly, the arc of Baghdad’s history continues to bend towards calamity.
Just as its people, in the words of the poet Abdul Kader El Janabi, “are married to catastrophe”, so does Baghdad’s poetry consistently grapple with the prospect of disaster. Writing in the 10th century, Ali ibn Abi Hashim saw folly in the ambitions of man: “They build and say: We shall never die, but / builders build for ruins.”
It was a sharp thought even then, scything through the culture of panegyric that gushed about the glories of the Abbasid metropolis.
More than the eulogies or laments, this pensive, critical strand in the poetry of Baghdad is its most powerful. It transcends the city altogether. As the poet Adonis reminds us so resolutely:
“Baghdad is a paradise?”
– “Man is a paradise, not the place.”
Kanishk Tharoor is a writer based in New York. His work, which has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, has been published in the US, UK, India and the Middle East.