Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya’s poetry is full of arguments one would hear on the streets of Amman, Riyadh and Cairo, in coffee shops, barber shops and taxis.
Laden with animals, conspiracy theories and apocalyptic rhetoric, his verses reflect how many Arabs – educated and uneducated, urban and rural, rich and poor – view themselves in relation to the world.
Most recently, Hajaya has been writing about the Arab Spring and the changes it has brought to the Middle East, from the Syrian Civil War, to the rise of ISIS, to Russian and Iranian intervention.
The Bedouin poets of yesteryear spoke for their tribes; today, Hajaya – an old-fashioned Arab nationalist – claims to represent the divided, weakened, Arab Nation.
To be sure, Hajaya’s poetry doesn’t represent all Arabs, just as Jon Stewart’s monologues, The Roots’ hip hop and Calvin Trillin’s poetry don’t represent the point of view of all Americans. Nevertheless, their voices all tap a popular ideological vein.
I first met Hajaya in February 2014, while I was on a Fulbright scholarship to Jordan. Since then, he and I have continued translating his political poetry, including a poem written just last month, titled The West’s Crafty Men.
A history of challenging power through verse
Bedouins are Arabs who traditionally lived in the desert, migrating with their livestock in search of pasture. Today, most Arabs who identify as Bedouin descend from migratory Bedouins and tend to be settled in one place.
Bedouin poetry is written in the Bedouin vernacular particular to a poet’s tribe, not the register of Arabic used in the news media and high literature. It has enjoyed only limited appreciation outside Bedouin areas for the last few decades, but the Emirati reality TV shows Prince of Poet and Million’s Poet have contributed to a recent surge in Bedouin poetry’s popularity.
In countries with large Bedouin populations – Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – politicians are often pilloried through verse: rhymed, metered, controlled criticism.
In turn, governments often co-opt poets by financially supporting them. One of the most famous is Khalaf Bin Hazal El-Otaibi, an officer in the Saudi Arabian National Guard whom former King of Saudi Arabia Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud showered with gifts.
Nevertheless, this poetry is affecting. In a seminal book on Bedouin poetry, Saad Sowayan, Professor of Anthropology at King Saud University, writes that in 1901, when a Saudi poet called on members of the Qasimi tribe to retake Riyadh, they “were so moved by [the poem] that they sold all their possessions, bought all the guns and horses available in Damascus, and sallied forth to liberate their homeland.”
The West’s crafty men
Like most budding Bedouin poets, Hajaya started out writing love poetry as a teenager living in Jordan in the 1970s. He’d publish his poems by recording them on cassette tapes before giving them away to shop owners, who would go on to sell them.
But during the Iran-Iraq War, Hajaya’s poems took a political turn. He went on to serve in the prince’s Military Guard in Bahrain and farmed in his native Wadi al-Hisa. The whole time, he continued to write; by 1996, he was appearing in international poetry festivals in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Syria.
In 2004 Hajaya participated in a project – organized by Jordan’s Prince Hashem ibn Hussein – to gather Bedouin poetry from the Jordanian countryside. He’s since worked for Jordanian Army Radio, run for parliament and hosted a TV program on Bedouin culture. Hajaya adores Jordan’s ruling Hashemite family and continues to appear at national ceremonies to read his patriotic verse.
Hajaya’s poems will often be addressed to politicians; sometimes, he’ll even write poems from the first-person perspective of world leaders.
His 2004 poem Oh Condoleezza Rice! – in which George W Bush brags about his conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan – swept the Arab world, taking first place in a 2008 Sinai poetry competition.
In addition, Hajaya has written love poems to Condoleezza Rice and Israeli politician Tzipi Livni, elegies to Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi, and poems that proffer advice to Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
In early October, Hajaya wrote The West’s Crafty Men – a tour d'horizon of an Arab world facing Russian and Iranian encroachment that I recently translated into English:
The West’s crafty men laid a trap, and Putin fell in They messed with his mind the way Spaniards mess with bulls Putin went to save a man who slaughtered half his people And the chaos is helping out the Balfour Declaration The Persians are playing the same game: Divvying up the land and the work and the roles A conspiracy against the Arabs, so hard for us to bear A dish of politics cooked up by one thousands specialists For them we’re just a plate of food, their greed for which has increased With our divided opinions and broken power The Arabs’ Baghdad? A Zoroastrian hyena-wolf is tearing it to pieces The Levant? Now a rabid bear’s slice of the pie Lebanon? Nasrallah and Hezbollah are mangling it Yemen? Contracted out to the Houthis Every form of evil has been sowed in the Arabs’ lands Sectarian strife has increased, and blood is being spilled in vain Jerusalem? Our younger generations haven’t even heard of it An old nakba is waiting for a cast of falcons A world of injustice, convinced we Arabs have no rights For that world, injustice is a principle, a way, a constitution Oh Security Council, you’re also just a game And I hereby witness that you’re a council of injustice and oppression
Hajaya wrote this poem just after the UN General Assembly convened and after Russia started intervening directly in Syria. He begins by writing that, by involving himself in Syria, Putin fell into a trap set by the West’s “crafty men.”
The idea that Putin is the West’s dupe is an old theory of Hajaya’s, one that first appeared in an poem Hajaya wrote to Putin in April 2014, shortly after Putin invaded Crimea.
He may have a point: since the Russian intervention, chaos in the region has only escalated, further dividing and weakening the Arabs. This chaos also benefits the Arab world’s traditional enemies, Iran and Israel (or, as they’re often imprecisely called on the Arab streets, the Persians and the Jews).
To Hajaya, the Israelis aren’t concerned with taking any more land than they already have. However, the Shiite Iranians are carving out spheres of influence in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, neatly encircling the Sunni heartland and putting the Sunnis on the defensive.
The current foreign intervention in the Middle East reminds Hajaya of when the Prophet Muhammad said that the apocalypse would come once “the nations will fall upon you from every horizon like diners upon a dish.” This is what Hajaya means by a “dish of politics cooked up by one thousand specialists.” His mention of “specialists” also alludes to a conspiracy: Hajaya is talking about the same crafty men who laid a trap for Putin.
Hajaya then takes readers on a tour through the Arab world, noting how Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Palestine have all been overrun by the Arabs’ enemies, who are hungry for the Arabs’ land and natural resources. This is possible because of the Arabs’ “divided opinions and broken power.”
Indeed, one of the oldest tricks in the neoliberal playbook is to weaken resource-rich nations so that their resources will always be at the mercy of stronger nations’ multinational corporations. What should be the Arabs’ blessing – their natural resources – is instead their curse.
Hajaya then points a finger at the UN Security Council, calling it a “game…a council of injustice and oppression” that stands by and watches while the Arabs’ lands are overrun and their resources stolen by their enemies. To Hajaya, this practice echoes the Bedouin tradition of raiding, in which tribes constantly warred over herds and grazing areas.
As with many of Hajaya’s poems, the narrator of The West’s Crafty Men is a voice from the streets – or the desert – that conveys the superstitions, hopes and fears of many ordinary Arabs.
For example, Hajaya’s belief that the Day of Judgment is near is a popular view among Muslim Arabs – as it’s been among people throughout history who have witnessed vast social upheaval. (The Shakers in 18th-century New York, the Arabs of seventh-century Mecca and the Jews of first-century Roman Palestine all had apocalyptic outlooks.)
The blood moon that occurred on September 27 2015 – four days before Hajaya published this poem – made waves in the Muslim Arab world; it reminded people of a verse from the Qur'an about Judgment Day: “The Hour has come near, and the moon has split in two.”
Hajaya let on during our translation of this poem that the bloodshed in the Arab world wouldn’t disturb him as much were blood not being spilled in vain: he finds it impossible to justify the worth of innocent Syrian families dying from one of the Assad regime’s barrel bombs.
The essence of this poem is captured in the next-to-last line, when Hajaya writes that the rest of the world is convinced that Arabs have no rights to, in Hajaya’s words, “life, freedom, independence, and resources.”
Animals also play a large role in the Bedouin imagination (for most of their history, Bedouins have lived in communion with the land), and Hajaya will often write animal metaphors into his poetry.
Putin is a “bull” that the matador – America – is playing with; the Russian “bear” – greedy, slow, stupid – is gobbling up its slice of the Syrian pie. Hajaya likens the Iranians to an animal the Bedouin call the sheeb, which they claim is either “of the wolf family or a special type of predatory wolf” – a beast so vicious that, in Hajaya’s words, “if it attacked your house at dinner, it’d only leave the table and chairs.”
At the end of the poem, Hajaya refers one last time to the absence of Arab power, which, if it existed, would swoop like a “cast of falcons” to retake Jerusalem, returning the city to its rightful owners.
Believing that your generation is the last on the Earth gives life immediacy and meaning; portraying political actors as animals reaffirms a Bedouin worldview; finally, believing in conspiracy theories is not so unreasonable given the amount of deception and foreign manipulation the Arab world has been subjected to over the last few centuries.
These are the tools many Arabs use to understand their world. Whether they’re reasonable or not isn’t as important as the fact that the sentiments are real. They exist. And perhaps they can lend a bit of sensitivity and understanding to the perspective of remote, Western readers.