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MARAM AL-MASRI: un articulu criticu publicatu in u Times

A bonfire of taboos

£8.95; 95pp
ISBN 185224 640 5
ti £7.00 (p&p 99p) 0970 1608080

More than in many cultures, Arabic poetry is a public form of art. It is recited at stale occa­sions, voices the aspirations and concerns of a society rath­er than of individuals, and, to a large extent still, is closely linked to music. The most cele­brated singer in the Arab world, Kazim al-Saber, fre­quently uses the lyrics of the most celebrated modern poet, Nizar Qabbani, and much of the late Syrian poet's work was written for al-Saber's voice.
The link with music is all­important: Arabic, rich in sounds and vocabulary, lends itself to incantation. Indeed, one of the accomplishments essential for Muslim scholars is to learn how to chant the Koran correctly, with the most powerful intonations.
For this reason, Arabic poet­ry often sounds, to Western cars, declamatory, especially as the themes preoccupying to­day's poets are largely political - overwhelmingly, the rage and bitterness tilt over the loss of Palestine. The language is not the colloquial Arabic spo­ken in shops or on the street: modern poetry is a more for­mat tongue, stricter in its gram­mar, using words captivating in their rariu' ark back to classical .
Yet during the golden age of Abbasid rule in 10th-centu­ry Baghdad, lyrical poetry also achieved a sophistication and popularity that has left a powerful tradition. Love, as in all cultures, is an eternal theme; but, circumscribed by a strict religious code, reticence about sexual passion and the gulf in freedom between men and women, it has developed an artificial code of rarified, un­attainable longing that resem­bles the courtly love poetry of the European Middle Ages.
To such a tradition, Maram al-Massri comes as a shock. She writes about all the taboo subjects - physical passion, faithlessness, adultery, loneli­ness, despair - with candour and intensity that would mark her out even to Westerners.
A Red Cherry on a White­Tiled Floor is a selection from two recent collections, in English with the Arabic on the facing page. The poems are short: encapsulating moments


and bitter reflections, often in a simple word. The force, at least in Arabic, lies in the lan­guage, the choice of words and their juxtaposition. It depends little on rhyme or rhythm, so loses little in translation, espe­cially one as accomplished as Khalcd 1Cdattawa's.
Many are erotic: "He came to me/ disguised in the body of a man/ and I ignored him./ I lc said:/ Open up/ I am the holy spirit/ I feared disobeying him/ so I let him kiss me.! He uncovered/ my shy breasts/ with his gaze/ and turned me into/ a beautiful woman]

Then he blew his spirit into my body) rumbling thunder and lightning./ And I believed."
Some are naively touch­ing: "How foolish:/ Whenever my heart/ hears a knocking/ it opens its doors." Others are wistful: "I apologise .../ Unaware,! and unintentional­ly,/ my breezes/ shook your branches! and dropped/ the only flower/ you'd ever bloomed." Their subtlety lies in the barest of phrases, the lightest of suggestions, to convey fear, tenderness or disappointment.
AI-Massri recalls moments of violence and intensity in a clever mixture of dreaminess and half-light pierced by hard, precise detail. The lines some­times suggest the old tradi­tion: "I was on the straight/ path/ when you blocked my way./ I stumbled/ but I did not/ fall." But elsewhere the modern world and contempo­rary imagery cut in: "A wife returns/ with the scent of a man/ to her home./ She wash­es,/ she puts on perfume,/ but it remains pungent) the smell of regret."
It is hard to see a wide em­brace of her poems in the Arab works - certainly not in her native Syria, where reticence is stronger. AI-Massri has lived since 1982 in France, and her sensibility shows the clear in­fluence-But it is the combina­tion of her modern, feminine individuality and the older Arab tradition that is so strik­ing and wrenching: "lie taught her/ to open up/ like a pome­granate blossom) and to lis­ten/ to the whispers of her body) and to scream out/ in­stead/ of muffling her sighs/ as she/ fell/ like a trembling leaf."