Exquisite lines from the Cradle of Civilization
A CELEBRATION OF ARABIC POETRY
Anne Fairbairn AM
This Celebration was held at the Street Theatre in Canberra on February 6th as part of the Canberra Multicultural Festival.

His Excellency Ghanim Al-Shibli, Ambassador of Iraq to Australia and Dean of the Council of Arab Ambassadors in Canberra, welcomed the many guests gathered at the theatre. He explained that the Arabic language is one of the very few ancient Semitic languages still spoken amongst 350 million Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf. In addition and that it is one of the five recognized official languages at the United Nations and is also the language of the Holy Qu'ran. He went on to say that 'since the dawn of time, the Arab individual has cherished and taken pride in his or her language, which was and still is the common denominator in Arab society. It is also one of the foundations of the unity of Arab civilization and culture. Poets have played a vital role in reinforcing the culture of their nations and communities and there is no doubt that Arabic poetry has played this role in the enrichment of Arab culture. Whether social, economical, political, or romantic matters, Arab poets have deliberated and debated many issues which tackled several aspects of life. The richness and beauty of Arab poetry has become a basic ingredient in the life of the Arab individual. Throughout the ages and even during the pre-Islamic era, poetry gatherings took place in Ukath and Al-Marbid, where Arabs poets contested and debated bravery, romance, and philosophy. Arabic poetry has developed from classical to folkloric to free poetry, and witnessed many renowned poets. In addition to their diplomatic responsibilities, the Council of Arab Ambassadors spared no effort to interact, officially and unofficially, with the Australian public to define the position of the Arabs and their place in world civilization so that we can understand each other and peacefully co-exist in this small world. We hope that this poetry, with its beauty and musical expression, will be recited in the Arabic language, but we will also try to recite it (in translation) to make it just as clearly understood as possible.'

This was followed by a short speech introducing the subject of Arabic poetry to the audience by the Lebanese Diplomat and poet, Maher Kheir, who is a well known avant-guard poet and has published several books. Amira Al Dashti repeated Maher's speech in English.

I was briefly introduced by Amira who made it clear that my anthology of Arabic poetry, 'Feathers and the Horizon' (Leros press Canberra 1989) was described at the time of publication by Dr Ahmed Shboul, head of the Dept of Arabic Studies at the University  of Sydney, as the best anthology of bi-lingual Arabic poetry in the world.

I then read two poems: my poem, 'The Red Rose of Love', which I dedicated to the memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the highly esteemed Palestinian poet, who died late last year in the United Sates from heart problems. I explained to the audience that Darwish had given out red roses to members of the audience during his last poetry reading in Ramalla in June 2008 as a gesture of love. I believe he knew he was soon going to die

Lines from this poem:

Darwish believed poetry brings understanding
Insisting - 'It's a celebration often transcending
Divisions caused by politics, faith or race,
Drawing people together thus helping erase
Those conflicts on earth so many must face' …


I also read my 'transcreation' of lines from a poem by the famous Iraqi poet, Muhammed Mahdi Al Jawahari - 'Transplant of Conscience':

Doctors have achieved the impossible
- Transplanting skulls and hearts and restoring rib-cages.
But when will the banner of their final victory be raised
- Transplanting a conscience into minds devoid of conscience?


I dedicated this reading to the memory of all those innocent civilians who died so tragically in the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza.
A selection of poems by Mahmoud Darwish was then recited by several people in order to honour his memory.
A remarkable Iraqi poet, Yahya Al Samawi, who now lives in Adelaide, flew to Canberra for this Celebration. He recited several of his poems in Arabic. 

Three of his poems were recited by the poet in Arabic and in English by Nura Al-Shibli the daughter of the Iraqi Ambassador.

Lines from 'From the Ashes of Memory' by Yahya Al Samawi:

The elders remember
The earth was unlimited,
The water sweeter
The loaf more delicious
The grass greener …


I then recited my 'transcreation' of a poem 'Oh Desert' by Dr Ghazi Al Gosaibi, who is a very highly regarded Saudi poet. He kindly helped select many of the poems I included in my anthology of Arabic poetry, 'Feathers and the Horizon.'

Lines from this poem:

… I came back to you, Oh desert,
Sea-spray on my face,
In my mind a mirage of tears.
… I've come back to you disenchanted.
I've found there's no trust between human beings…
… Love is a word devoid of love.


A number of poems from this anthology were then recited by several people. Maher Khier read in Arabic followed by Australian poet, John Stokes, reading in English, 'The Sad Star' by Egyptian poet Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Sinnah.

Lines from this poem:

… if he dies in the shadow of a cypress, he will leave a will,
Written in tears;
For in his will
There will be only one request -
To pay a short visit to his lonely grave.

'Her Hands' by North Yemeni poet Abdullah al- Baraduni was then recited by Samira Baqatada.

Lines from this poem:

… They seduce me with their allure - crying
That one is younger - one is purer.


'If the City Wished' by Moroccan poet, Muhammad Al-Sarghini was read by Nura Al-Shibli.

Lines from this poem:

… City of stars
City without dreams
City wandering
As though in a wave not from the sea
A sterile wave without shells.


Maher Kheir and I then read two poems by the highly esteemed Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbini. Maher read In Arabic 'I Ask You to Leave' and I read 'My Daughter' - a poem written in the classical form - in English.

Lines from 'My Daughter:

… I believed I'd buried all thoughts of love - that those barking storms had died for good,
But destiny brought us together one day - when she fluttered towards me- a wild butterfly …


Several more poems from different Arab countries were then recited to end this Celebration including one very moving poem 'Jordan' had been composed and was read by the twelve year old daughter of the Jordanian Ambassador.

The evening ended with Maher Kheir reading his poem 'Eleven Moons' while several women danced on the dimly lit stage.

Lines from this poem:

The sky is a scrap of paper,
Of moons
- One is burned,
One is torn,
One is chafed,
One is crumpled,
Moon after moon collapsing,
Blazing,
Abating
- Over Canberra's lake.


Judging by  those I spoke with who attended this event, it was indeed considered to be a superb Celebration of the creative genius of the people of the Arab world symbolized by their long tradition of poetry.

I would like to pay particular respect to the Ambassador of Palestine in Canberra, His Excellency Izzat Abdul Hadi, who worked so diligently and with great patience to co-ordinate this event and make it the success it proved to be.


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