Book review: Baghdad: The City in Verse, by Reuven Snir

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 5:29pm

Baghdad: The City in Verse
by Reuven Snir
Harvard University Press
4.5 stars

Hector Tobar

The poems in Baghdad: The City in Verse, an ambitious and enlightening anthology of poetry written in and about that city, date from the first decades after its founding in the eighth century up to the war that drove Saddam Hussein from power. They capture the vast sweep of the Iraqi capital's history, its enchantments and its seemingly ever-present tragedy.

"Time has increased evil and harness/ It made us settle in Baghdad," poet Muti' ibn Iyas wrote in the eighth century, in words that resonate 1,200 years later. "A town raining dust on the people/ As the sky pouring drizzle."

In its first centuries, Baghdad was a vibrant and growing cultural centre. "We fell in love with Iraq when we were young," wrote Abu al-'Ala' al-Ma'arri, circa 1000. "We approached the water of the Tigris, unparalleled;/ We visited the noblest trees, the date palms./ We quenched our thirst, without ever gratifying our desire;/ What a pity, nothing in this world will survive."

Those words proved prophetic: in 1258, Baghdad was besieged and largely destroyed by Mongol armies, who also massacred thousands of the city's inhabitants and destroyed its libraries.

Founded by a caliph to be the capital of the Islamic empire, later occupied by the Ottoman and British empires, Baghdad from its founding thrived as a place of cultural encounters. It had a large Jewish population until 1951, and Baghdad: The City in Verse is edited by Reuven Snir, an Israeli-born son of the Iraqi-Jewish diaspora and a professor of Arabic literature at the University of Haifa.

Among the many exiles whose work Snir collects in Baghdad is Iraqi-Jewish poet Anwar Sha'ul. "My heart beats with love of the Arabs/ My mouth proudly speaks their tongue," Sha'ul writes. "Do they and I not share a common source?"

Many prominent, contemporary Arab-language writers have work in this anthology, including Iraq's Sinan Antoon and Syrian poet Adonis. From exile in New York, Antoon writes a poem, titled A Letter to al-Mutanabbi (Street), dedicated to a street famous for its book market - and where a suicide bombing killed 26 people in 2007. "Your name is a green tattoo/ On Baghdad's tired face./ Your street a forehead/ On a head cut every morning./ This is another chapter/ In the saga of blood and ink/ You knew so well."

Of course, not even a bombing of the city's book district could silence its poets. Snir's anthology ends with a manifesto by Abdul Kader El Janabi, who declares that in every poem one finds "the solemnity of a city standing for centuries against history's barbarians".