Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 December 2004
Issue No. 722
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cavalry poetics

On the centenary of the first modern Arab poet, Youssef Rakha is all but silent

Click to view caption
Mahmoud Sami El-Baroudi

Interesting that the earliest celebrated force behind the Arabs' turn-of-the-century poetic renaissance should turn out to be an army officer. Not only that: Mahmoud Sami El-Baroudi (1839-1904) was also a politician of limitless ambition. And this is why he presents contemporary Arab poetics with an almost paradoxical question. Literary innovation chimes with neither martial chivalry nor court intrigue; and to associate a versifier's genius with either at millennium's end sounds like a politically incorrect gesture.

Yet, the history of Arabic verse being what it is (aside from the self-glorification prevalent in the Abbasid era, in fact, up until the 1960s vernacular and classic poetry teem with approbatory references to gallantry, nationalist politics and, to a lesser extent, the glory of the battlefield), both the poet as eloquent knight in armour and the poet as secular prophet make sense. Whether such sense might prove relevant to a disinherited and digitalised generation irrevocably divorced from canonical literary culture, on the other hand, is an altogether different issue.

From a history-of-literature point of view, at least, El-Baroudi's status is indisputable. Though lexically and idiomatically inaccessible -- more like Quranic Arabic than the language of Naguib Mahfouz -- his poetry is widely recognised as an indispensable stepping-stone. (His two best-known heirs, Ahmed Shawqi and Hafez Ibrahim, used similarly inaccessible language well into the first few decades of the 20th century.)

In a circle of early- to mid-19th-century reformers thought to have endorsed national identity in Egypt, El-Baroudi is credited as saviour of literature, the man who resuscitated language (the highest form of which was still identified with verse), bringing back to it the articulate fecundity, not to underline rhetorical polish, of a once magnificent literary tradition by then in centuries-long demise. (The "movement" propagated by that circle, roughly coinciding with the reign of Mohamed Ali Pasha, is often identified with "enlightenment", to be distinguished from the philosophical Enlightenment of Europe, from which it nonetheless benefited.)

The old-guard critic Shawqi Deif is among many who speak disparagingly of the poetry being written at the time of El-Baroudi's emergence: its dependence on badi' (superficial, purely linguistic embellishments) rather than bayan (figures of speech and deeper forms of virtuosity); its thematic paucity, with the vast majority of practitioners writing only occasional verses, and those in frivolous praise of the powers that be; its failure to establish a dialogue with the great poets of old; its fragmentary, unrealistic content and often childish form.

El-Baroudi, by contrast, brought something of the dignity of the tradition back to verse; he also infused what he wrote with vital and, so Deif at least insists, sincere emotion, elevating the practice to thus far seemingly unattainable humane and literary heights: "He rid [poetry] of all those weeds that had obscured its soul... through all that he successfully absorbed of the old methods and what he set out forging out of his emotions and those of his nation..."

In a recent tribute Egyptian poet Ahmed Abdel- Mo'ti Hegazi too stresses the gradual development of El-Baroudi's almost revolutionary project. In the still somewhat derivative "poems of youth", he says, El-Baroudi was exploring a range of approaches, changing from one to the other, emulating and rejecting his predecessors by turns; by the time "his instruments matured", on the other hand, his work had emerged into something unique and highly relevant -- something, essentially, modern. "His language is the fruit of a wide-ranging, painstaking and meticulous reading of the whole Arab poetic heritage," Hegazi elaborates; "it is a conflation of the language of Arab poets through the ages."

Yet all this fails to mention what is probably El- Baroudi's most celebrated (political) virtue, or the form of his nationalism: his dogged and admirable Arabism. The poet's Arab bias is to be understood in the context of his privileged background, and it is vitally important to assessing his role as an officer and a statesman. For El-Baroudi's many-sided figure should really require no more of an apologia than his seminal contribution. Considering his upbringing, it was only normal, perhaps even commendable, to follow the course he chose. More importantly, it was perfectly in line with the ideas and feelings his verses expressed.

And the larger- than-life image he espoused and tried to live up to, far from a ludicrous invention, was modelled on similar constructions of ego found throughout the work of his great antecedents since pre-Islamic times, through the two Abbasid eras and the various subsequent caliphates. One only has to read Abu Al-Tayyib Al- Mutannabi, perhaps the greatest Arab poet, to realise that this elevation of ego (once again undertaken through a conflation of "the sword and the quill", El- Baroudi's epithet), was no rootless or megalomaniac innovation but a legitimate aspect of the tradition as a whole.

As a highly individual response to a historically specific situation, the career, no less than El-Baroudi's sophisticated running commentary on it (the Diwan), constitutes a legitimate, if less than selfless take on reality. El- Baroudi came into the world nine years before the death of Mohamed Ali Pasha, a national anticlimax preceded by decades of hope and following centuries of economic and epistemological regress under Mameluke and Ottoman rule. It was an Egyptian national, the dean of Ashraf (descendants of Prophet Mohamed) Omar Makram, who was instrumental to bringing the young Albanian officer Mohamed Ali to power following the French Campaign (1798), reflecting popular discontent with Ottoman edicts that promoted another wali. And the Pasha's global ambitions notwithstanding, it was in the context of a national renaissance -- dependent, first and foremost, on a powerful, independent army -- that he set out running the country, building what amounted to a regional superpower against the odds, and letting the people reap what little economic and political benefits they could in the process. The military was the gateway to national glory...

El-Baroudi was born into an old, established Mameluke family of Turko-Kurdish roots (his surname is a reference to the town of Itay Al-Baroud, where one of his ancestors was governor). His father, himself a distinguished army officer, was a direct beneficiary of life under the Pasha, and had at his disposal both money and status. In his book on the poet Deif points out an "unusual trait" of the family's: a striking partiality to Arabic, probably resulting from its being the language of the Quran and the family members being believers, even despite the fact that Turkish was so arbitrarily favoured in those days that, at the Military School El-Baroudi attended, students who were heard speaking Arabic were subject to corporal punishment.

Even though El-Baroudi read Turkish and Farsi, and on graduating spent a long sojourn serving at the Ottoman foreign ministry in Istanbul, it was this trait that instilled in him the love of the language and its arts, which he sought out, initially through his father, finding old, by then abandoned poetry everywhere -- down to the unpublished manuscripts of mosque library collections (he is said to have been better versed in Abbasid poetry than anyone before or since) -- even as he tried his hand at verses in the other two languages as well. Much of the Arabic canon, infused with values of chivalry and courage, acted to fuel El-Baroudi's imagination; and his nascent political awareness, on a parallel plane, linked Mohamed Ali's extranational exploits in which his father had participated, with, among other past glories, Saladin's (also Kurdish) triumph over the Crusaders.

El-Baroudi grew into his own under Khedive Ismail, however, and despite maintaining his role as a distinguished servant of the Sultanate (he fought in Crete in 1864, served in the Khedival Guard for many years and participated in the Balkan War in 1877), El-Baroudi was not to remain happy with his position as the leader of a faction of the cavalry for very long. His career as a politician developed mainly in the years 1878-1883 (worth noting that this is a relatively short period, after all), when he assumed a string of high-ranking official posts, including minister of war and prime minister -- and until he participated in the Orabi Revolution and was sentenced to exile.

Many commentators point to a shift in the tonality of his verse in the late 1860s and through the 1870s, a tendency to relinquish the joy of hopeful confidence in favour of satire and melancholy; and the sympathetic interpretation is that, seeing his early dream of a resuscitated nation floundering as Ismail's debts began to accumulate, acting as a pretext for European powers to take control of Egypt, the idealistic poet decided to take matters into his own hands. Yet he played various powers against each other, undertook political manoeuvres and sustained positive relations with the Palace when it suited his agenda. He was nonetheless faithful to his notion of Arab identity to the end, fighting against the discrimination to which Egyptian members of the army were subjected and, even despite his upbringing and class superiority, cooperating with the likes of Ahmed Orabi, "leader of the fellahin".

It would be impossible to outline the complex developments leading up to the Orabi Revolution and the 1882 British occupation of Egypt in the context of this piece. Suffice it to say that El-Baroudi made a few wrong moves on the political chessboard of the period, with as much desire to lobby power for himself as to liberate the country from foreign influence and put an end to corruption in the Palace (two aims that cannot have seemed mutually exclusive) -- only to end up on the British-ruled island of Ceylon where, along with the leaders of the revolution except for Abdalla El-Nadim (who disappeared without a trace for nine years), he was sentenced to life-long exile (he would obtain pardon from Khedive Abbas Helmy and return to Egypt in 1900).

A largely romantic career in the military conceived of as a modern reincarnation of the life of "poetry's knights" of old, followed by a brief, ultimately abortive political career that was part of a bid to protect and fortify national life: El-Baroudi's extra-poetic pursuits can hardly invoke Machiavelli; but perhaps they were not as nobly giving as contemporary readers are meant to believe. An alternative cue for interpreting them can be found in the more lasting of his achievements: the career justified and gave life to the Diwan; it acted as El-Baroudi's inspiration. And theories of the unconscious notwithstanding, perhaps he was compelled to immerse himself in military and political embroils in order to ignite the stimulation necessary for poetic flights.

In fact El-Baroudi's incredibly prolific Diwan, not published in its entirety until recently, can be read as an extended response to the life he witnessed and in which he participated -- his contribution to national renaissance in post-Mohamed Ali, pre-British occupation years. Hegazi's comment on the development of his style reflects another, related fact: the plurality of El-Baroudi's voices. For though technically of the same substance, the constituents of the Diwan reflect a range of modalities, many of which have precedents in the aghrad (purposes or themes) of old poetry -- the patriotic-heroic, the erotic- drunken, the disillusioned-nostalgic. Later, during his years in exile, he produced poetry as self- justification, arguing against the claim that it was personal ambition that drove him and delineating the intricacies of his (always noble) motivation. He never stopped writing till the end of his life, four years after his return to Egypt, a time during which he also produced reminiscence and criticism...

Despite frequent news of the death of loved ones back home, in Ceylon El-Baroudi embraced his new life with all the hopeful confidence with which he embarked on his military career. He learned English for the first time in his life and took an active interest in the lives of the local inhabitants, producing more than one poem on "the people of Sarandeeb", the island's Arabic name. He engaged in correspondences with Arab, Farsi and Indian poets, remarried and moved within the island more than once. Nor did he stop reflecting on the Orabi Revolution, keeping up with the news to find out what had befallen the country, the Palace, the army until his return -- by which time he was profoundly disillusioned with personal glory, so much so that he refused to be addressed by his rightful title of Pasha. He died quietly, generating the grief mainly of fellow Arab poets -- his multifarious disciples.

"The Diwan of El-Baroudi is the biography of El- Baroudi," writes Hegazi, "as if it is a single poem in which the poetic 'I' speaks of itself, and of its life in the homeland and in exile and in love. And war. Resentment and discontent. Gravity and jocularity. Youth and old age..." In the end what this "I" provides is a kind of auto-hagiography that can also be read as an extended footnote to the history of the Orabi Revolution and the British occupation of Egypt. It may sound somewhat stilted to the contemporary ear, it may have less pathos for the present-day reader than the poetry of the Sixties, but it remains the document of a holistic vision, one that is backed up by direct engagement with reality.

Perhaps, rather than the image of the brave knight with the sharp-pointed mustachio braving the thick of battle astride his thoroughbred, it is El-Baroudi as a disillusioned army officer in the late 1860s, still young, hopelessly in love with a young woman who won't return his favours and sipping wine among a host of friends and admirers as he spins verse after verse of unrequited love, on the banks of the Nile island of Roda, that will appeal to present-day readers.

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