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A Story of Baghdad in Verse

By Harriet Staff


Hector Tobar contributes this excellent write-up about newly published Baghdad: The City in Verse from Harvard University Press, edited by Reuven Snir, at Jacket Copy. Can’t wait to read it!

Baghdad is a city that looms large in the American imagination. In 2003, at the start of the last Iraq war, it was occupied by U.S. troops. In the years that followed, thousands of U.S. citizens (soldiers, contractors, officials and journalists) passed through Baghdad.

My own memories of the city are of its heat and light and the brokenness of its buildings and the kindness of its people. I lived there in 2003, briefly, as a reporter. The ongoing war and the constant fear of being swept up in the conflict that was destroying the city kept us Americans from exploring in it. The legendary Baghdad, that center and crossroads of Mesopotamian cultures, the city of “One Thousand and One Nights,” remained unknown to us.

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 8th century, up to the war that drove Saddam Hussein from power. They capture the vast sweep of the city’s history, its enchantments and its seemingly ever-present tragedy.

“Time has increased evil and harness — / it made us settle in Baghdad,” the poet Muti’ ibn Iyas wrote in the 8th 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 center. “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.

“Oh seekers of news about Baghdad, the tears will tell you…” the poet Taqi al-Din ibn Abi al-Yusr wrote afterward. “No benefit from remaining here, the beloved has departed … all has been burned to ashes.” But Baghdad endured.

Founded by a caliph to be the capital of the Islamic empire, and 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. […]

More at Jacket Copy.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 by Harriet Staff.