Babak Elahi shows how electronic literature in its public display, its interactivity, and its paradoxical combination of ephemerality and permanence brings us closer to the ancients than to the moderns - and closer still to the collective ritual experiences that Arabic and Muslim literature always valued over Western individualism. Further still, the emergence of Arabic e-lit does not just mean inclusions of still more cultural or ethnic identities. The politics of identity is yet another Western concern that an online Arabic poetics is happy to leave behind.
Contemporary Arabic e-literature reproduces the ritual function of the earliest written poetry in Arabic. As a form of ritual, communication doesn't merely communicate information about a world that already exists; communication creates our social world. As media historian James Carey describes it, communication creates, sustains, and transforms the very culture we inhabit as communicators. This function of communication as ritualized creation of social reality poses the problem of the individual. How is the individual speaker or listener, the individual voice and the individual ear, related to the community that communication builds? This question of the individual communicator within the community of speech is particularly interesting in the Arabic and Muslim context where the importance of individual honor and identity derive their meaning from the family, the tribe, the city, and ultimately, the umma.
Romanticism, and its ultimate self-annihilation (and alienation of the self) in modernism, marked an attempt (not just in the West, but across the globe) of reimagining the self in relation to the community. Thus, communication itself was reimagined. While romantic and modernist Arabic literature—like modernism across the world—focused on the individual genius of the poet (romanticism) or the alienation of the author (modernism) rather than the communal creation of meaning, electronic literature in its public display, its interactivity, and its paradoxical combination of ephemerality and permanence brings us closer to the ancients than to the moderns. Contemporary Arabic e-literature and electronic presentation of classical Arabic poetry perform the ritual function of poetics: not representing the world but making it.
Specifically, contemporary Arabic electronic literature reclaims the fifteen-hundred-year-old ritual function of poetry to be found in the mu'allaqat, translated as the Seven Odes or Golden Odes. The Seven Odes were representative poems, considered the highest achievement of the time, that time being the century or so just prior to the time of the Prophet Mohamad, a period sometimes described as the jahiliyyah. Far from being an "age of ignorance" as the term suggests, the period might be considered a time when language and communication were already building the community that Mohamad would lead. As Jonathan A. C. Brown, the Chair of Islamic Civilization at Georgetown University has shown, the function of these early poems were that of akhbar and tarikh, news and history, information and documentation. These odes, like all poetry of that period, were generally recited rather than written, but these particular odes were written down and suspended for public display at the sacred site of the ka'beh, a space already consecrated by pre-Islamic Arabs. The mu'allaqat represent an early form of mass communication but not through dissemination across space. Rather, this was a form of mass or at least group communication in which the "mass" came to the message, rather than the message being sent via medium to the mass. These poems, like much of the early Arabic poetry, had social functions.
The fact that the audience came to the poems rather than the poems being broadcast to an audience heightens the form's ritual communicative function by encouraging the physical gathering of a social group. The message didn't go out to the audience. The audience came to the message. As an early form of literate and literary social intercourse, the mu'allaqat constituted a communication medium, developed a poetic practice, and encouraged a communal rather than the atomized social experience. With the advent of mass mediated messages, including print, audiences could remain dispersed. We became atomized nodes of the communal. As print gave way to electric and electronic forms of mediation, we became even more atomized and separate, even though we consumed such media in mass. In the digital age, even supposedly "social" media continue to atomize us into individual users. However, I would argue that the poetic voice has the potential to bring us back together in a way similar to how those Seven Odes brought the audience for these poems together.
We might, then, compare these early poems to the dissemination of poetry on the Internet. Obviously, the FB post or the tweet are a far cry from the mu'allaqat which were "posted," as it were, in a physical and sacred public space. However, I would argue that the digitally "suspended" message of contemporary Arabic e-literature has the potential to revive the ritual function of the Seven Odes, particularly when their digital display fosters interactivity, and the kind of gathering that we shared in Dubai in the Winter of 2018. This ritual function of poetic communication was central to Arabic literature for centuries before the modernist turn introduced the importance of the individual genius. This suspended poetics—put in suspension for a few centuries—has now returned through new textual and visual media.
Arab and Islamic Aesthetics and Poetics in the Digital Age
Writing about the visual arts in 2010, Laura U. Marks argued that "Islamic art is the strongest parallel to the visual media of our age" (5). It is the ritually shared experience between artist and viewer that is important, not the transmission from source to receiver. Marks's also writes that "Islamic aniconism emphasizes the word—as written, read, and recited—and the social spaces of worship" (5). This is key to understanding the function of the pre-Islamic mu'allaqat as ritual. Like the visual arts that Marks writes about, the mu'allaqat and contemporary Arabic e-literature are most important because they carry "out ideas and creat[e] social interactions." (5). Thus, both the mu'allaqat and contemporary Arabic e-literature do the work of creating spaces of social and sacred ritual. Again, here we might benefit from Canadian cultural studies scholar James Carey's definition of communication not as transmission but as ritual, a process of creating, maintaining, and transforming our shared culture. Communication, even and perhaps especially in its poetic form, creates our realities. Arabic literature from its earliest written manifestations in the mu'allaqat to its latest electronic forms has done just that: created ritual space.
What Marks observes can also be seen in literary production. In this context, we have witnessed, in recent years, a shift—as I stated at the outset—away from a modernist aesthetics to something new, and at the same time, I would argue, ancient. For example, also writing in 2010, Dartmouth Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Tarek El-Ariss likened contemporary writers and poets in Arabic to Hackers. The "new author," argues El-Ariss, "disrupts the codes of Arabic literary production" (534). El-Ariss argues that literary modernism—which we might date back to the romantic period, in fact—forces the literary into an ideology of individual genius, published and disseminated for a passive public that simply receives the unique message of the poet. El-Ariss observed that in 2010, a new kind of poetic and literary aesthetic was emerging, which was that of the hacker. What makes the work of hackers transformative is that they produce a free and open-source aesthetic to replace the closed aesthetic of modernism, an aesthetic enclosed in the mind of the individual genius as T.S. Eliot might have it. Today, we are seeing El-Ariss's notion of the poet as hacker play itself out in Arabic e-literature.
To underscore El-Ariss's assessment, I would argue that global modernist literary expression, even in its critiques of the Romantic tradition, is individual and inward, emphasizing the poet's proprietary creation of the art form and the reader's solitary consumption of that aesthetic. It is, in a sense, atomized and alienating, even intentionally so. This is a broad generalization, which I realize must have its limits, but in seeing how the novel, in particular, as a print-based genre that combines narrative with structural experimentation develops in Arabic literature, we find that the relationship between individual and society becomes central, rather than a more dialectical integration of the poet's voice in a communal discourse. Modernist writers—whether in Dublin, Trieste, Tehran, or Cairo—explore society only to expose and explore the individual's abjection from society and "civilization." Whether it is Albert Camus's The Stranger, Sadeqgh Hedayat's pen-case decorator in the Iranian novel The Blind Owl, or the ex-convict in Naguib Mahfouz's The Thief and the Dogs, modernist writers delved into labyrinths of self in reaction to society. Modernist readers disappear into the world of the novel or the poem, alone. That experience is a deep psychological dive, not a broad sociological flight. In romanticism, the writer was individuated. In modernism, the reader, too, became individuated. We see this in Arabic as well as Western literatures. Take, for example, figures like the protagonist in Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. He is a figure cut off from the world he left behind, and marginalized, even dehumanized, by the world to which he is a supplicant. As readers, we are invited to understand this alienation through our own sense of social disruption. This is in stark contrast to the ancient, and I would argue the contemporary, themes of communal, networked, crowdsourced, or otherwise socially integrated experience. In short, ancient and contemporary literary experiences are collective ritual experiences, reflecting Carey's definition of communication as the ritual creation of shared reality. I am not saying that Romantic and modernist literary production did not create their own reality, just that the reality the created emphasized disintegration rather than the possibility of community.
Even in postmodern responses to modernism and romanticism we find a focus on the self and society in ways that continue to be individuating, though perhaps somewhat less atomizing because of an attempt to reconnect the individual to cultural and ethnic contexts through the concept of identity. For example, a survey of anthologies of critical writing on postmodernism, even up to the 2010 English-language publication of Arabic Literature: Postmodern Perspectives, reflects a critical and artistic preoccupation with identity. Many of the essays in that collection focus on questions of autobiographical form, of authenticity and performativity, identity, and subject position.1 The difference here from modernism is an attempt to reimagine things like gender, ethnicity, race, nation, and class. However, like modernist and romanticist literary forms, postmodernism creates a reality that emphasizes deconstruction and the possibility of reconstruction. This emphasis on the singular self, and the politics of identity is characteristic of both modernist aesthetic and its post-modern deconstructions. Digital literary aesthetic takes us in a different direction, both new and old because it re-engages with ritual in ways that modernists and post-modernists seemed less likely to do. Unlike these earlier movements, the techno-cultural transformation we are witnessing in Arabic e-literature opens (as the notion of open source, itself, suggests) a communal literary experience similar to older forms of Arabic literary ritual and practice.
Messages and Media
As I have already hinted, the aesthetic forms of these movements are related to the technologies of production and distribution that shaped their development. Romanticism was related to technological changes in print (think, for instance, of the advent of widely available presses in the Arab world in the nineteenth and early twentieth century). Print poetics, and certainly radio and television, had their public and shared nature. However, there are a few qualities that only the digital brings together in one medium. Print had the textual, but it didn't have the ability real-time dissemination. The suspended poems of the mu'allaqat did that, and the latest digital poetry does that. Radio certainly had the public reach of the digital, and more. In fact, radio continues to be the most widely used media in the world. But it has given up the written text in favor of a remediated orality. That phenomenon deserves its own lengthy commentary, which is beyond the scope and focus of this paper. Suffice it to say that radio is, indeed, a significant part of poetic (and particularly lyric) production, but it relies less on the textual than does the digital. Again, the ancient mu'allaqat and contemporary digital poetry retain the importance of the textual, even the scriptural, while emphasizing a ritual function. Finally, television and film certainly had the public reach, but their emphasis on visual representation, verisimilitude, and emotional response narrowed their aesthetic to the sensational rather than broadening and deepening that aesthetic response to spirituality. The characteristic that the mu'allaqat most shares with contemporary digital forms is their being suspended. They were, in a sense, posted, tweeted, snapped, or otherwise attached to a place that drew the audience to the message rather than sending that message across space and time.
The Paradox of Ghostly Permanence
Contemporary Arabic e-literature and ancient Arabic poetry share what I want to call the paradox of ghostly permanence. In her Victorian translations of the mu'allaqat, Lady Anne Blunt compares the mu'allaqat to the flora of the desert: "The ancient poetry of Arabia … has the fugitive beauty of the lily of the field, nay, of something wilder still, the flower of no field at all but of the naked desert" (ix). This notion of "fugitive beauty" anticipates by several hundred years—or at least by the hundred since Blunt's translation—the function of digital aesthetics. This fugitive beauty is, I believe, the classical counterpart to what I would call the "ghostly permanence" of digital poetry. Ghostly permanence is something like the photographic negative of what Blunt called fugitive beauty. The classical Arabic poems disguise their temporally extended aesthetic reverberations in the hearts of the listener or reader beneath the material impermanence of their textuality. Digital Arabic literature today disguises its computational permanence under the flitting and fleeting word on our screens. On the one hand, that code is permanent, but, on the other, each time the poem is accessed it shimmers fleetingly on a seemingly liquid display and is gone. We are forced to acknowledge the ritual nature of our accessing the poem digitally. Ghostly permanence, like fugitive beauty, forces us to emphasize ritual over representation. If and when ritual turns into rote, originality becomes orthodoxy. What poetry does is to disrupt dogma. This is a sort of hacking. If, as Carey states, communication creates, maintains, and transforms reality, then it is often poetic expression and experimentation that move us beyond creation and maintenance towards transformation.
Ritual Remaking of Social Reality in Arabic e-literature
Ultimately, I wish to argue that electronically mediated poetic language allows both creators and users (rather than readers or listeners) of Arabic e-literature to participate in the making and remaking of shared, lived, social realities. In his definitive study of the Seven Odes, the British Orientalist A.J. Arberry, writing in 1957, argued that "the ancient Arab bard was the public relations officer of his tribe" (15). Of course, Arberry is writing long before the internet, so the closest form of mediated communication he could compare to ancient Arabic poetry was the Madison Avenue model of advertising and public relations of his day. Sixty years later, we have the ability to make an even more apt comparison. Perhaps the "ancient Arab bard" was the social media creator (rather than director) of his day. Like today's online poets, the ancients interacted and engaged with audiences through a public display of their work. Today's online Arabic poetics echo that ancient practice.
We also learn from Arberry and others, including Lady Anne Blunt, perhaps the most noted translator of the Seven Odes, that the selection of these odes was the result of a competition. Once again, the contemporary scene of poetry with its poetry slams and online display are reminiscent of the practices of the ancient Arab poets. Even though online poetry is not driven by a competitive spirit, the public proliferation of poetry online does foster a more direct and user-engaged form of competition than did the strictly print distribution of poetry to individual readers. In both its socially engaged and competitive aspects today's Arabic e-literature reproduces some of the most ritually important functions of poetic discourse.
Yet another way to understand the ritual nature of these poems as communication is to trace how they have been remembered and passed down, despite everything militating against their retention. The fact that subsequent Arab scholars saw the value in these poems suggests that they served an important function. The most famous of these poets—Imr al-Qais—is a good example. Imr al-Qais, a pre-Islamic poet, has been credited with establishing some of the most familiar tropes of classical Arabic and, later, Persian poetry. It was he who, according to legend at least, first coined the simile comparing beautiful women to gazelles. Imr al-Qais's linguistic innovations were deemed so important that others edited, archived, and transcribed his work. One such archivist was the eighth-century scholar al-Asma'i. According to A.J. Arberry, al-Asma'i was drawn to these poems "not primarily for the beauty of the poetry to be quoted, but as pegs on which to hang strings of assorted verses containing key-words of philological interest" (47). The ritual in this case is one of historical and archival importance, a "making" and sustaining of social reality over time.
Fast-forward to our own time, and like al-Asma'I or like Sir William Jones in the eighteenth century, or Blunt or Arberry, scholars continue to suspend or post Imr al-Qais's poetry. There are rich resources for reading and experiencing Arabic poetry online, ranging from Adab.com—which archives many modern poets—to Princeton University's online Arabic poetry collection. This website includes a selection from Imr al-Qais's mu'allaqa, and provides a spoken recitation of the poem in Arabic. The website allows users to hover their cursor over the Arabic script to generate an English translation of that line. Like the work of archivists al-Asma'i, and translators like Jones, Princeton's team of digital humanists continues to do the ritual work of sustaining a culture. In its original composition, the poem's communicative function was to help a community make sense of their lives—the brutality and beauty of the desert, the necessity of the camel, the deep human need for love and belonging. For us, the ritual nature of communication is to keep alive this poetic tradition, and to link us together in a community of aesthetic appreciation.
Like Princeton's website, Adab.com is primarily an archival project in which both classical and modern poetry is posted—or, in the tradition of the mu'allaqat, suspend—for public perusal. The Adab website includes seven classical poets (an interesting, even if unintentional echo of the Seven Odes), with Imr al Qais and the Persian, Omar Khayyam, among them. But even more interesting for the purpose of this study is that Adab includes several modern poets. I have noted above that modern and modernist Arabic poetry does not echo the socially mediated and ritual nature of ancient Arabic poetry in the same way that contemporary Arab e-poetry does. However, this has as much to do with the medium as it does with the message, perhaps more. In the context of communication as ritual, the development of print as a form of communication was useful for forms of message such as news or even narrative, but less useful for poetry. Poetry in print in a sense diminishes the ritualistic possibilities of poetry by imprisoning the verbal and social elements of poetry within a relatively static codex. Poets working in the age of print were, certainly, aware of how print had transformed the possibilities of their art, leading to experiments like typographic poetry in which the formatting of the words on the printed page make a shape emblematic of the theme of the poem. Nevertheless, poets like Adonis, Mahmoud Darwish, and Fatima Naoot continue to practice poetry as a verbal, social, and ritualistic art form.
What Adab and websites like it do is to return even modernist poetry back more squarely into a ritualistic frame. I have noted above that modernist literature—at a global level, and particularly among poets speaking back to empire—is deeply concerned with identity, and that this concern with identity tends to focus ritual on the individual's relation to the group, rather than to the more communal ritual of the mu'allaqat. However, once again, this is as much about the medium of modern literature as it is about the message. Once a poem, say, for example, Mahmoud Darwish's "Identity Card,"—which is clearly concerned with identity politics—is taken out of the medium of print and posted (or suspended) in digital space, it can do real work. The work it does is that of communication as ritual—an attempt to make, remake, transform, or challenge reality rather than to reflect it merely. We learn from Adab.com that Darwish's "Identity Card" is that poet's third most visited poem on the website (with over seventeen thousand "hits"). This public display of the poem and its popularity echo the ancient function of the mu'allaqat. In the context of its electronic presence on the web, the poem's theme of how the political identification and oppression of Arabs in occupied national boundaries becomes even more compelling as it is accessed in the socially mediated space of the internet rather than the secluded privacy of the printed page. One stanza stands out in particular because of how Darwish uses language to ritualistically try to reimagine identities of the oppressed:
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.
The poem clearly identifies how language can construct reality. This stanza's first two lines—a recurring refrain that begins at the opening of the poem—clearly point to how communication doesn't just represent a pre-existing reality but is used to shape that reality. A voice wielding power says: "Write down!/I am an Arab." But this stanza, like the poem's overall message, attempts to affirm the agency of the Arab subject. Placed within the public display of a literary website, the poem has more potential than it might in the medium of print to engage an interactive public.
In order to understand how these ritual elements of poetic communication continue to inform contemporary Arabic poetry, we can move from the ancient Imr al-Qais or the modern Darwish to the contemporary uses of poetry online, to poetry that is born digital rather than merely archived. It is in this context, much more than in the archiving of ancient or modern poems that we can witness the paradoxical aesthetics of ghostly permanence or eternal ephemerality. Moshtaq Ma'an's work, for example, perfectly embodies ghostly permanence. Like the ancient poets, Ma'an's poetic voice produces a kind of ritual communication. His digital poetic creations express a resonant echo of those early poems. Ma'an's "Infinities of the Fire Wall" invites ritual interactivity. Just as the mu'allaqat took advantage of the written document to draw readers towards a ritual space, Ma'an's work takes advantage of our computationally interconnected media to bring readers together around a poetic experience. In a sense, the hyperlinked layers of Ma'an's poem use precisely the kind of geometric formal elements that Laura Marks, whom I quote above, associates with both traditional Islamic art and contemporary Islamic media. Finally, Ma'an's use of the clock-face, with poems hyperlinked to each hour, underscores a kind of spatialized temporality. There is a ghostly permanence in this work that is our contemporary moment's counterpart to the fugitive beauty of those ancient poems. In both instances, the important thing is the ritual function of poetry as a form of human communication.
In a different context, Dr. Teresa Pierce—a scholar of digital activism and social media at the University of Ontario's Technical Institute—has argued that the Iraqi blogger known as Riverbend reproduces a recognizable feminist Arab poetics in her blog, Baghdad Burning, which recounts everyday life filtered through the experience of a polyglot women with hybrid cultural motivations. Pierce argues that this pseudonymous blogger uses her writing as a way of making and remaking culture. While Pierce draws on the concepts of rhizomes and other concepts, the gist of her argument echoes James Carey's theories with which I began this essay. Like Carey's notion of communication as culture (rather than the communication of culture), Pierce shows how Riverbend uses new technologies ritualistically, echoing long established poetic traditions in Arabic. In particular, Pierce claims that Riverbend uses blogging in ways that echo ancient traditional rituals such as singing laments around a well:
Riverbend uses her blog to both support her cultural traditions that honor women's experiences and to resist a culture that uses these same traditions to force a modern version of sexual seclusion on women. She combines elements from classical, ancient foundations and uses them to disrupt power structures that control women's lives, using themes that center around their private lives and are addressed to a public audience. She adapts the traditional forms to sing her own songs at the well - the well of information, the Internet. Blogs, like Baghdad Burning, act as the new meeting place, with cyberconduits guarding the information, passing on culture, and creating a new version of the magical words. (201)
Note how Pierce's language of transforming culture echoes Carey's notion of communication creating culture rather than merely reflecting it. Moreover, Pierce also establishes a model that I am following here: linking contemporary technologically mediated practices (blogging, e-poetry) with ancient forms of ritual communication (singing around a well, suspending poems at a sacred site). Pierce's case study of Riverbend supports my own argument that practices of Arabic e-poetry renew and transform some very old practices of ritual communication.
Ultimately, contemporary Arabic e-poetry performs a ritual function that doesn't merely send a message in a pre-existing reality, but creates, maintains, and most importantly, transforms our shared reality. Laura Marks links traditional Arabic aesthetics with certain contemporary trends in digital art, while Teresa Pierce sees echoes of women's ritual song at ancient wells in the ritual function of blogs in the flow of information on the internet. Moreover, Tarek el-Ariss links contemporary Arabic literary production to the function of hackers who manipulate not only the meaning of information, but also its modes and media. In the spirit of these scholars, and informed by their insights, I argue that Arabic e-literature echoes the ritual function of some of the oldest poetry extant in Arabic: the mu'allaqat. Like the writers of those ancient odes, contemporary Arab poets creating digital-born poetry are not only contributing content into the Arabic language but are also ritualistically helping to transform the medium of communication itself, and, hence, the realities we engage with through these media.
Adab.com Arabic Poetry. http://www.adab.com/en/
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