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The Arabic Qasida: The Poetics and Politics of Performance

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Organizer: Suzanne Stetkevych

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In the last couple of decades studies of Arabic poetry have begun to engage Performance Theory and related approaches such as Speech Act Theory and Interarts Theory. Taking these studies as a theoretical starting point, this seminar proposes to explore how poets working within a highly conventional tradition perform and re-perform the qasida to achieve particular poetic and extra-poetic purposes. The seminar papers span the history of Arabic poetry, from the pagan odes and lore of the pre-Islamic period; Islamization and its discontents at the time of the Prophet; the Umayyad and Abbasid ‘Golden Ages’ and the subsequent post-classical (Andalusian and Perso-Turkish) periods; pre-modern and neo-classical; and finally the Modern period, as it re-performs the past to negotiate contemporary political and cultural circumstances and project a vision of the future.    This seminar assumes first that the classical Arabic qasida (ode) was part and parcel of social, political, and religious life, and that its generic conventions are carefully calibrated by the individual poet to negotiate or compete for rank and status within a multi-dimensional social setting. In addition to exploring the performance aspects inherent in the poetic text itself, this seminar recognizes that the prose narratives (akhbār) that accompany the poem in the classical commentaries and literary compendia do not record the actual presentation of the poem, but rather constitute, in themselves, literary (re)-performances, in terms of editing, staging, keying, interpretation, etc.     In addition to the poetic texts themselves and these akhbār-framed literary re-performances, there are many other iterations of poems that can be fruitfully interpreted in light of Performance Theory. In these cases, a poem is coopted, in whole or in part, to serve new purposes or performative goals, in a new setting. These include contrafaction (muʿāraḍah), in which the rhyme, meter and key words of the original reverberate aurally and semantically in the imitator’s homage, challenge, and cooptation of the original; poetic re-performances of ancient themes, such as nostalgia for the abandoned encampment, or ancient lore, such as the pre-Islamic War of al-Basus; ancient or classical poems, such as Imru’ al-Qays’s Muʿallaqah or Abū Tammām’s Amorium Ode.  Further re-performances include the performance within a performance, as in a poem incorporating a game of chess; transformations into different times and languages, as the classical Arabic poem and its themes are reconfigured in Turkish, in vernacular Nabaṭī poetry, or in Modernist verse forms to achieve new religious, political, and ideological, as well as aesthetic goals.   The hope is that this performance-based exploration of the Arabic poetic tradition will contribute to the movement beyond a static text-based interpretation to reveal a rich network of dynamic literary and extra-literary interactions.

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