The Rich Traditions of Arabic Poetry

February 24, 2014Suzanne Stetkevych has one of those academic specialties that makes people say, “How did you ever get into this?” And she has fielded that question many times. As the Sultan Qaboos bin Said Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Stetkevych researches classical and modern Arabic poetry. While her expertise might seem specific, Stetkevych sees the study of Arabic poetry as a bridge to understanding the Arab and Islamic worlds, both past and present. Stetkevych took time to chat about how she got into this field and the impact it can have.

Georgetown College: Most people probably don’t know much about Arabic poetry. How did you get into it?
Suzanne Stetkevych: I just fell in love with the poetry after taking a couple of classes on Islam and Arabic history. Partly because it’s so beautiful. And partly because it’s so difficult. With Arabic poetry I thought, I’m not going to be able to learn this on my own and I need all the help I can get, so maybe I should make this my major.

GC: What was it about the subject matter that first spoke to you?
SS: This poetry starts in the pre-Islamic period as an oral tradition around 500 C.E. I liked the idea of having this one piece of a culture that, rather than being abandoned for other literary forms, continues to inform the culture generation after generation with these beautiful, sensitive variations.

You go back to a poem and there’s always something familiar there with the structure and the vocabulary and the motif. And at the same time, there’s always some new meaning the poet is trying to bring out. The poet is trying to make the tradition come alive to new generations century after century. That’s what I really like about it.

GC: You must feel like you’re an emissary of sorts, bringing this literary tradition that’s little known in the West to students.
SS: I think those of us who study Arabic poetry feel like we’re people on a mission to let the world know that this is one of the major literary traditions in the world. It’s been kept kind of under wraps. Obviously in current times, there’s huge amount of interest in modern Arabic literature because of what’s going on politically. For the field of Arabic literature, it’s wonderful.

GC: What is something that people might be surprised to learn about Arabic poetry?
SS: It’s very intimately related to Islamic studies. Quranic commentary is full of references to lines of poetry and poems. So modern Arabic literature isn’t something that sprang up 50 years ago. It’s grounded in a 1,500-year tradition. It’s a field that’s kind of been expanding because of the growth of these other fields in the U.S.—Islamic studies, politics etc. But in the Arab world itself, poetry is a very foundational field for education and for literature just like the way we study Milton and Shakespeare as part of our classical foundation.

GC: For people unfamiliar with Arabic poetry, what sets it apart from Western poetry?
SS: I think one thing that sets it apart is the ode, which is the pride and joy of the Arabic poetry tradition. In Arabic, it’s called the qasida. It’s influenced all the other literary traditions as well. This kind of poem is most known for its three-part form. The parts are related, but each of them has its own traditions and themes.

GC: Why is it important that people understand Arabic poetry today?
SS: Today, we’re mired in wars and politics and issues of Islamic extremism. Your average American watching the news thinks this is a region of religious fanatics and that they’ve always been that way. But in fact, you have a very rich literary tradition that’s interwoven with the religious tradition. And it’s a religious tradition that’s very humane and balanced and not the extremism that we see. So this field adds this dimension that these aren’t just strange fanatics that we’re fighting, but rather people with their own very rich traditions.

—Lauren Ober