Round City Poets
A new anthology captures Baghdad throughout the ages
The City in Verse
Harvard University Press
$29.95 List Price
An Arabic poem about Baghdad, like a Hebrew poem about Jerusalem, inevitably evokes the collective memory that binds the place, the language, and its people together. Iraq’s 1,251-year-old capital was built by a Muslim empire that held the torch of civilization in the eighth and ninth centuries. In the thirteenth century it was sacked by Mongol invaders who, according to legend, made the river Tigris flow red with blood and blue with the ink of books from the city’s great libraries. It was resurrected in the twentieth century by modern state builders who made it a capital of tolerance, prosperity, and Arab nationalism—only to be ruined again by a dictator and his wars and further destabilized by American occupation. A vigorous yet densely complex poetic tradition has traced popular memories of this tumultuous history, and a small portion of that literature can be found in Baghdad: The City in Verse, a sleek and informative volume edited by Reuven Snir, a professor of Arabic literature and dean of humanities at the University of Haifa. The book presents roughly two hundred poems about the city—mainly authored by Baghdadis from a range of historical periods—in chronological order, beginning with “Stars Whirling in the Dark,” by Muti‘ ibn Iyas (704–785), and ending with “Baghdad,” by Manal al-Shaykh (who was born in 1971). For context, Snir also provides a substantial introduction that weaves the poets’ voices into his own buoyant narration of Baghdad through time.
The fabled “round city” of the eighth and ninth centuries—the Islamic Abbasid empire’s political and commercial