Poetic Imagination

Love and Longing among Syrian Men in Exile in Amman

in Anthropology of the Middle East
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Abstract

In this article, I attend to poetic expressions of passionate longing for a beloved among displaced single Syrian men in the Jordanian capital of Amman. With a point of departure in the story and poetry of Qays, a 28-year-old Syrian man from Damascus, the article engages in an exploration of the poetic space engendered in the process of writing and reading poetry in exile. It demonstrates how longing found expression and relief in love poetry, as it enabled the young Syrian men to, momentarily, displace themselves to a different time and place, closer to the women they longed for. The poetry I thus argue, engenders and constitutes a creative space of possibility in which the impossible becomes possible in exile.

Introduction: Distant Love

Although Arabic love poetry bears witness to the all-encompassing presence of love in the Middle East, until fairly recently very little anthropological scholarship has focused on love in the region (for notable exceptions see Fortier et al. 2018; Kreil 2016; Norbakk 2018). Significant amounts of anthropological work have however been conducted on related topics, such as gender roles (for example Ghannam 2013; Inhorn and Isidoros 2018; Naguib 2015) and marriage practices (for example Adely 2016; El-Dine 2018). Enduring and painful love between longing lovers nonetheless hold a special place in Arabic love poetry, and throughout centuries – from ancient Bedouin poets to Majnūn Laylā and contemporary Syrian poet Nizār Qabbānī – lovers have expressed their heartache in a rich metaphorical language. For poets and lovers alike, the destiny of their love is rarely unity with the beloved, but rather longing in solitude, and Arabic love poetry thus hinges on unfulfilled and lonely love. Among lovers in the contemporary Middle East, this kind of impossible love is performed as an ideal, and longing is perceived as an unavoidable dimension of the experience of love (Schielke 2015: 86; see also Fortier 2018). Hence, distance rather than unison between lovers is constitutive of a passionate relation.

Poetic Spaces in Exile

In this article, I attend to poetic expressions of passionate longing for a beloved among displaced young and single Syrian men in Amman, and I explore the poetic space engendered in the process of writing and reading poetry in exile. As I demonstrate below, the young men I worked with rarely talked explicitly about the women they loved, yet their stories of the Syrian uprising, of flight and of exile were often woven around stories of love for particular Syrian women, which, in a time of political upheaval, gave their lives a certain direction. Love had unexpectedly included the young men in futures with the women they loved, and their separation in exile thus came to represent the separation from everything the young men used to hold dear in Syria and in the past. As expressed by my good friend and interlocutor Qays, losing his beloved felt like losing his only chance to settle down and live the kind of life he had in mind. In exile, distance had come to take up space between the young men and the women they loved, between the lives they had imagined and the lives they lived in refuge. In a sense, distance was ‘the basic element of existence’ in exile, as poetically described by Qays. The young men thus longed to be elsewhere, and their longing found expression in love poetry, which, I argue, engendered the impossible, the inexpressible and the otherwise; in poetry, they could, in other words, voice and express their desires, their emotions and their longing, and they could imagine fleeting moments of unity with their beloved. As a particular imaginative space, poetry thus enabled the young men to momentarily displace themselves to a different time and place in which they were closer to the women they were continuously drawn towards.

With a point of departure in the story and poetry of Qays, I begin this article by discussing the historical role of poetry as a particular discourse of and for social critique and emotional expression in the Middle East (cf. Abu Lughod 1986). Focusing explicitly on love poetry in exile, in the second part of the article I suggest that we think of poetry as a technology of imagination (Sneath et al. 2009), understood as the social and material means by which particular imaginings are generated, which opens for a creative space in which it is possible to imagine the otherwise unimaginable, such as a different political reality, a return to Syria or unity with a beloved in exile.

Qays

Qays was among the 18 young Syrian men I came to know in Amman. Here, I conducted a total of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, focusing on the ambiguous ways that experiences of war and exile shaped ways of being together among displaced Syrian men (see, for example, Mortensen 2019). Qays in various ways represents the majority of the young men I worked with. Like the others, he comes from a resourceful urban Syrian family, well above the middle class, and he is well educated and speaks fluent English. And like the others, Qays was active in the Syrian uprisings before he was forced to flee to Jordan in 2013.

It was primarily his political activities against the Syrian regime that forced Qays into exile in Jordan. But as a young man in his early twenties, he was also faced with mandatory military service in the Syrian army, which provided another reason for him to flee the country. Under the circumstances of the Syrian conflict, Jordan in general and Amman in particular appeared a wise place to go for the young men I worked with. Here, they spoke the language, were largely familiar with the culture and assumed they would be able to resume their university studies while waiting for peace to find its way back to Syria. For the first few months in Amman, they did not register as refugees with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (the UNHCR), as they assumed that they would be able to return to Syria sometime soon. After a year, however, they realised that the violence in Syria was only increasing and that they, consequently, would have to stay in Jordan for a significant amount of time. In order to make a living and a future for themselves, most of these young men, Qays included, applied for scholarships at local universities or did their best to earn enough money. As ambitious young men, they wanted to finish the bachelor's degrees they had started in Syria. Qays managed to find a job and put money aside, and together with some money he borrowed from friends and family, he was able to pay the tuition fees for a small private university in Amman. Thus, when I met him in early 2016, he was both studying and working in his attempt to make it in exile.

Uses of Poetry

Among the young men I worked with, Qays was the one who wrote the most poetry himself. The others wrote poetry too at times, but, like Hāny, introduced below, they primarily read, recited and shared poetry by well-known contemporary Arabic poets like Maḥmūd Darwīsh and Adūnīs. Hāny sometimes put together verses based on fragments of poems he liked or mixed them with lyrics from songs by singers such as Fayrūz or Um Kalthūm. Sometimes, he posted these on Facebook, while at other times he kept them to himself. Although he was often inclined to seek relief from heartache and longing in poetry, he never shared the poems with the women he loved. To Hāny, then, more than a means of courtship – as described by, among others, Corinne Fortier (2018) in the context of Mauritania – poetry constituted a private emotional space.

The young men I worked with thus shared a knowledge of, an interest in and an inclination to engage in poetry in the everyday. Many of them had become familiar with Arabic poetry – classical as well as contemporary – in school, but many had encountered poetry in the context of their families too. These were, in general, urban, well-educated and resourceful families, encouraging Hāny and Qays (for instance) to become cultivated young men.

As I describe in the section below, however, Qays used poetry somewhat more actively than the others, and although he refrained from ‘sounding like a poet’, he did seem to have a distinctive notion of himself that he projected when writing poetry. Qays would often describe himself as a ‘challenging spirit’, and it was this ‘spirit’ which found expression in his poems. During the uprising in Syria, poetry became his primary way to voice his critical opinions and to share them with like-minded others. A part of his explicitly political poetry was written in English and shared on Facebook. In these cases, Qays projected himself as an important voice with international reach in the context of the revolution.

When writing in Arabic, he usually expressed himself in standard Arabic, also known as fuṣḥá, and in the classic form of qaṣīdah, referring to an elaborately structured ode of 60 to 100 lines, maintaining a single end rhyme which runs through the entire poem. It was, however, not unusual for Qays to express himself poetically in dialect too. He liked to experiment with both form and language. But most of the time, Qays explained, it was the theme of the poem, ‘the urge’ or his mood that decided which form and language he would express himself in. He mastered both Arabic and English and he did so in ways which allowed him to manipulate the language, play with metaphors and make up expressions. In this article, I draw on two poems by Qays which were both written in English.

In the following, I take as a point of departure Qays's poetic expressions and experiences, but because these do not reflect and represent the way the majority of the young men I worked with engaged in poetry, I draw on the experiences of Hāny too. Together, their experiences allow me to explore the role of poetry in exile, and I suggest thinking of poetry as central to the process of creating fleeting spaces of familiarity and intimacy in the attempt to overcome the experience of longing.

A Revolutionary in Love

‘I don't want to sound sophisticated or like a poet’, Qays said, laughing, as he leaned back in the chair, ‘but it is like a moment, you feel the urge. A part of your brain comes up with words that fit together with others. It has a natural flow’.

This afternoon in March of 2017, I turned to the subject of a poem I had come across on his Facebook timeline the same morning. ‘The poems are just for me’, Qays continued. ‘There is no overarching theme’. Sometimes, he explained, he felt the urge to write a political poem, while at other times he wrote a deeply personal one. ‘But in general, it is a controlled way of expressing myself. It relieves me’, he said. Writing poetry had always relieved him, but from what Qays explained that afternoon, I understood that he experienced these ‘urges’ to express himself in poetic form in some periods of his life more than others. It was often when his mind was full of thoughts and frustrations that he would not otherwise put into words, like when he was in love or during the uprisings in Syria. In the early days of what he referred to as ‘the revolution’ in Syria, Qays used to write poetry describing the violence and injustice he encountered in the streets of Damascus. It was his way of expressing both the rage and hope that he harboured.

In 2011, Qays was 20 years old and had just begun his second year at the university. Like the majority of the young men I worked with, he lived, in his own words, ‘a stable middle-class life’ and did what ‘every youth could do’. Being from a financially resourceful family, he had the support he needed to start a family. Both of his parents were well educated and highly respected community members, and as the oldest sibling and only son, it was assumed that they expected Qays to obtain a university degree. Qays himself had ambitions and dreams too, but was, he recalled, a ‘searching soul with a challenging spirit’. He followed the political unrest in Tunisia, in Egypt and in southern Syria closely. As the situation developed in Syria and as demonstrations spread from Darʿā to Damascus and beyond, Qays took to the streets and gradually became increasingly involved in political activities against the Syrian regime. With time, Qays became a well-known face among protesters and pro-regime activists alike, and it became too dangerous for him to attend classes at the university. What more was, his heart was unexpectedly pulling him in a different direction, towards a young woman he had come across during a demonstration in Damascus. Like Qays, she was a political activist and was taking an active part in demonstrations against the Syrian regime. Qays had noticed her from the first moment his eyes came across her in the midst of a demonstration, and he had gone to greet her. They were young at the time, just 20 years old, and hardly knew each other, but Qays was ‘serious about her’ and wanted to ask for her hand sometime soon. His father had in fact already bought an apartment for him, and Qays was suddenly and increasingly drawn towards settling down and starting a family. In the midst of the revolution, he felt he ‘had a future’, as soon as he had just ‘figured out’ how to start a serious relationship with the girl he had come to love.

Prompted by his love for the girl, Qays's life was redirected towards a life with her in Damascus. To Qays, she was his ‘chance’ to settle down and build the kind of life most young Syrian men aspired to. But things did not go as he had hoped. Now determined to build a life in Damascus, in October of 2012 Qays decided to return to the university to resume his studies. He was, however, never allowed to re-register; instead he was arrested and faced with his second imprisonment. Right then, ‘everything I had in mind was destroyed’. That was how Qays described the experience, as he revisited the moment with me. He felt that he had lost his last chance to study, to settle down and to marry. And yet it happened that Qays was unexpectedly released in the spring of 2013, after approximately seven months in prison. As a consequence of her political activism and participation in anti-regime demonstrations, the woman he loved was also imprisoned and released again shortly after Qays, but the two never regained contact.

In Amman, his poetry concerned the future and the conditions of refugeehood and love. ‘Most of them contain a hidden meaning’, Qays explained. He had finished his sandwich and his hands were moving in the space between us, as we discussed possible ways of understanding his poems. Most of what he wrote about was based on personal experiences, he went on, ‘… which I do not share directly with other people. The readers can make their own interpretations. But only I know the true meaning’. I sensed that Qays liked to talk about his poetry and about the different meanings it harboured. And even though he never explicitly shared details about the girl he loved with me, I had gathered bits and pieces about her from Qays's poetry and his stories about the revolution, his escape and his exile. In her absence, she was somehow silently woven into these stories of his life.

Poetry and Its Possibilities

Across the region today, love poetry is an important resource of and for romantic expression, and as famously demonstrated by Lila Abu Lughod (1986), it is in fact the discourse through which lovers can communicate the pain caused by the loss of a beloved. In the late 1970s, Abu Lughod travelled to an Egyptian Bedouin society to study the patterning and meaning of interpersonal relations (ibid.: 25). Not long after her arrival, she noticed that people often punctuated their conversations with short poems, and it seemed to both amuse and move them. At first, she ignored the poetry, as it was not the primary focus of her research, but with time, she began to wonder what these poems meant, and why they indeed seemed so valued (ibid.). The poetry, which eventually became the primary focus of her celebrated book Veiled Sentiments (1986), comprises lyric poems – so-called ghinnawā1 (meaning ‘little song’) – and can be considered a traditional form of oral poetry of personal life, recited in specific social situations and articulating personal feelings about interpersonal situations and close relationships (ibid.: 31). Abu Lughod found that people often turned to poetry when faced with personal difficulties, and, importantly, that the constellations of sentiments people communicated in their poems overlapped very little with mundane statements (ibid.: 187). Ordinary discourse, she found, was governed by the values of autonomy, modesty and honour, while the expressive language of poetry afforded notions of desire, longing and vulnerability. Such veiled expressions of personal sentiment were however only possible in the context of the highly conventional, structured and formulaic idiom of Arabic love poetry, which draws on a shared pool of well-entrenched metaphors and themes such as passion, longing and madness (ibid.: 240). Abu Lughod thus identified the capacity of poetry to express critique of social norms, but within the framework of a cultural tradition.

Not unlike Abu Lughod, others have demonstrated the definitive power of poetry to contest political authority, social identity and divine communication (Bush 2015: 190). Zuzanna Olszewska (2007: 205) has shown how poetry was a space in which young Afghan refugees in Iran could say they otherwise unsayable. Salma Jayyusi similarly describes how the metaphorical multivocality of poetry is employed by contemporary Arab poets in contexts of political instability and repression, withholding them from resorting to direct statements (1987: 28). Prior to the uprisings in Syria, Muhjah Kahf wrote about the ‘silences’ of contemporary Syrian literature, created under the conditions of repression and censorship shaping Syria since the beginning of the twentieth century, first under the Ottoman Empire and French colonial rule and later under the Baʿth Party (2001: 230). But far from seeing them as suffocated by state censorship, Kahf points to how Syrian writers have reached new levels of creativity in seeking out sophisticated ways to express their views (ibid.: 231). It is thus well established that poetry constitutes a particular and creative discourse which allows for the otherwise unsayable. Below, I take these insights a step further, as I attend to the possibilities of, and the imagination engendered in, the poetic space.

A Space of Possibility for Imagining a Different World

It was exactly his critical thoughts and emerging political opposition that Qays felt the urge to express during 2011 and that the metaphors, multivocality and ambiguity of poetry allowed for. In poetry, he could develop his thoughts and find a language for the vision of the future which took shape in the metaphors and linguistic ambiguity of his poems. Qays turned to poetry in his attempts to bring political ‘ideals’ into the political project of which he was part, and not only did his poetry express his political vision, it was in fact in his poetry – in the process of writing it, of giving in to the flow of words and of playing with the metaphors – that the future for Syria which Qays struggled for took shape and gained a language. As a particular form, poetry thus provided a space of imaginative possibility for the young men, in which they could express critique and imagine a different kind of world.

Under the thick mask
there's a superman
will take the risk
to do the task
without looking behind
or help to ask
his faith is holding him together
ambition is pushing him for better
his dreams haunting his rest
make him do his best
until he rests forever
the nothing or whatever
will stay
in all of his way
Anonymous
At the edge of death
still fighting
fearless … careless
he'll carry on
stepping on the sharp ends of his feelings
over the cliff of his relations
suffering a lot of pain silently
doing his mission quietly
a candle in his hand
in a cold storm
will keep him warm
and guide his way
until his soul land
in his free land
holding many candles with many others
the other unknowns
destroying the legend
demolishing the throne
lighting darkness
making history
creating from thousands losses
a huge victory
those anonymous
made their destiny
only then …
happiness will be continuous
for those Anonymous
(Selected verses from a poem by Qays, 2012)

The poem above is an example of Qays's political poetry, in which a metaphorical universe takes shape. With no reference to time or place, it speaks only implicitly about a political project of ‘demolishing the throne’ and ‘lighting the darkness’. Fellow anti-regime activists are described as ‘unknowns’ and ‘Anonymous’ and their political project is referred to in terms of a ‘dream’, ‘a candle’ or ‘a mission’, leading them to the ‘soul land’. Elsewhere, Qays similarly referred to the political situation in Syria as a ‘long and dark winters night’ and to a successful outcome of the revolution in terms of ‘sun rise’. In the poem, such political ‘victory’ is directly and indirectly related to death – for example: ‘His dreams haunting his rest, make him do his best, until he rests forever’ and ‘at the edge of death, still fighting, fearless … careless’. Here, the anonymous and masked ‘superman’ is selflessly ‘suffering a lot of pain silently’ in the name of the ‘mission’ to fight for the country ‘he’ loves. The impersonal nature of the poem, with a nameless third-person ‘he’, produces a protective distance between the poet and the main character of the poem. As explained by Qays himself, here only the poet and his most intimate friends know the significance and referent of the poem.2

In the next section, I move on to the exploration of poetry as a space of and for imagining otherwise, and with the point of departure of the tragic love story of Majnūn Laylā, I show how love poetry may bring ease and relief to longing by creating a sense of unity with the women loved by the poet. To this end, I briefly introduce the story of Hāny, another friend and interlocutor of mine.

Poetics of Imagination

Every now and then, I talked to the young men I worked with about the women they loved, and often, such conversation revolved around the circumstantial reasons for their separation. In these cases, they would critically engage in discussion about the financial predicaments in exile, about the circumstances of the war or about the social and financial expectations related to a traditional wedding. Sometimes, however, such topics of conversation allowed me to approach the subject of their longings and their broken hearts. At other times, it was the lyrics of a song or a particular poem which they introduced into our conversation that provided an opening into their emotional lives.

One evening in the spring of 2017, I had one such conversation with Hāny, a 24-year-old man from Ḥamāh, who broke up with his then girlfriend due to a lack of financial and material means to marry her in exile in Amman. Although clearly affected by the situation, Hāny refused to talk about how he felt. ‘I cried yesterday’, was all he said; ‘I don't want to cry again’. But Hāny had no one to confide in. Since his romantic relationship had been a secret to his friends and family, he was alone with his heartache. In this situation, he explained, poetry constituted a space for seeking emotional relief and resonance in descriptions of other people's romantic struggles. In poetry, he was thus not alone with his longing heart. Hāny did not write poems as Qays did, but he was well versed in the long tradition of Arab love poetry, and found much resonance in many of the poems attributed to Majnūn Laylā, introduced below, which describe in great detail the kind of longing and heartache Hāny was so familiar with. Sometimes, these poems helped to relieve his pain by creating a sense of fleeting unity with the girl he longed for, while at other times they increased ‘the bad feelings’. Thus, in general poetry gave him ‘different kinds of feelings, good and bad, depending on the words’. That was how he put it.

It was also exclusively in poetry that Qays explicitly expressed himself about the girl he loved. In his love poem below, ‘The Bless of Choosing’, the ‘I’ reflects on the ambiguity of distance in love, which is both insignificant to ‘I’'s love for ‘you’ and also central to it. The ‘you’ is ‘far away in exile’, but ceaselessly present and ‘dropping in the rain’. Here, poetry allows for ambiguity and for the coexistence of distance, nearness and moments of fleeting unity.

Distance is insignificant …
And time is – many times – …
Insufficient …
And that is …
confusing …
Inches when you're near …
Turning into miles …
and when you disappear …
Far in exile …
Somehow you're still here …
Hidden in vains …
Or dropping in rain …
And that is amusing …
But just for seconds …
Before I start to think …
that I might be …
loosing …
Then I feel the distance …
like the basic element …
of the existence …
And I runaway …
From these thoughts …
And start to think of time …
Why it is passing away …
When we're together …
And why a half of a day …
Seems like forever …
When the two are separated …
Between one place …
And another …
Sometimes I ask myself …
Why to bother? …
Life is a suffer …
Life is a tear …
Melted in pain …
From the first moment. …
Running insane …
To a final fate …
And that's what all humans …
instinctively hate …
And I see hesitation …
in this situation …
It's so confusing …
To do nothing …
when we're losing …
To stand vulnerable …
when we got the bless …
Of choosing …
(‘The Bless of Choosing’, by Qays, 2017)

Out of Oneself in Love

Traditionally, Arabic love poetry, especially masculine love poetry, has been animated by an unfulfilled desire for a particular woman. These poems often describe the beauty of the beloved with the aim of reaching her heart. The classical genre of love poetry known as ghazal, specifically the ʿUdhrī ghazal, or virgin love poetry, is distinguished by its celebration of unfulfilled, obsessive and enduring love, at times leading to insanity in the hopeless pursuit of a beloved. ʿUdhrī love, or ḥubb ʿudhrī, is hence characterised by a man's lifelong dedication of himself and his poetry to one woman with whom he seeks union (Watson 2013: 38). Although their love is often mutual, their unity is prevented by social factors, which leads to torment, to sickness and ultimately to insanity, as in the widely known and tragic love story of Qays and Laylā. Like the love poems written by my interlocutors, the story of Qays and Laylā addresses the basic yearning of the ‘I’ to be at one with the other and the existential agony caused by distance.

Partly historical, partly mythical and shared in many different forms and versions, the love story of Qays and Laylā unfolds in the Arabian desert during the early Umayyad period (661–750) (van Gelder 2013: 29). Before becoming Majnūn, which in Arabic means ‘crazy’, Majnūn Laylā was known as Qays ibn al-Mulawwaḥ and was Laylā's cousin. Both from the tribe of Banū ‘Amir, Qays and Laylā declared their love for each other as they grew up. Over time, Qays's poetry for his beloved Laylā became well known and popular, violating patriarchal and tribal conventions. Frowned upon for this reason by Laylā's family, Qays's proposal was rejected and Laylā was forced to marry another man. Qays was overcome with grief and wandered into the wilderness, where he lived in solitude among the wild animals and eventually became Majnūn Laylā, Laylā's madman. Crazy in love and alone in the desert, Majnūn Laylā was incoherent except when reminded of Laylā. Then, in perfectly formed speech, Majnūn Laylā would compose beautiful love poetry about his enduring love (Watson 2013: 41). In the poem below, Majnūn Laylā is picturing his beloved Laylā in the dust, and complains to her about the suffering his passionate love for her is causing him. While drawing her picture, it is as if Laylā is there with him, yet she does not answer, and the Majnūn is left alone in tears and torment. Not unlike the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in Qays's poem above, Majnūn Laylā was closer to Laylā in poetry, and in glimpses he experienced the otherwise-impossible unity.3

I draw a picture of her in the dust
And cry, my heart in torment.
I complain to her about her: for she left me,
love-sick, badly stricken.
I complain of all the passion I have
suffered, with a plaint toward the dust.
Love makes me want to turn to Laylā's land,
complaining of my passion and the flames in me.
I make rain fall upon the dust from my eyes’ clouds;
my heart is in distress and grief.
I complain of my great passion
while my tears are flowing, streaming.
I'm talking to her picture in the dust:
as if the dust were listening to me,
As if I were near her, complaining to her
of my plight, while talking to the dust.
No one returns an answer to my words,
Not even the reproacher answers me.
So I turn back, hope dashed, tears pouring
down as if from showering clouds,
Truly, madly possessed by her,
my heart in torment for the love of her.
(Translated by Geert Jan van Gelder; van Gelder 2013: 29–30)

A Technology of Imagination

As described above, among the Syrian men I worked with love poetry constituted an intimate space for personal reflection on their love for the women they longed for. But what was more, in poetry they could overcome the distance between themselves and their beloveds, and imagine fleeting moments of unity and closeness with a distant love. To Qays, his imagination was ‘pushed’ and ‘exaggerated’ in poetry. That was how he put it. It simply made it possible to imagine other things. ‘The core feeling that you tackle through a poem pushes you more to be creative’, Qays explained, ‘and to exaggerate and use wild imagination to maintain the flow of feelings sometimes’. In the process of writing poetry, it was sometimes an emotion that would motivate his imagination, while at other times it was ‘the melody of the words’ and their rhymes. In any case, what took place in poetry was unique to Qays and afforded a wild imagination.

In this context, it seems fruitful to think of poetry as a technology of imagination (Sneath et al. 2009). To David Sneath and his colleagues, the place of the imagination is the space of indeterminacy in social and cultural life, and it can be empirically identified and ethnographically explored with reference to the technologies that open it up (ibid.: 24). They write: ‘Rather than positing the imagination as a holistic backdrop that conditions human activities by providing, say, the “horizon” of their meanings, we attend to the processes by which imaginary effects themselves may come about, i.e. what we call “technologies of the imagination”’ (ibid.: 19). ‘Technologies’ thus ‘afford’ imaginings in ways that are not random, yet are essentially unpredictable (ibid.: 22).

Conceptualised as a technology of imagination, poetry open up spaces in which other imaginaries of world and future can come about and take shape. As demonstrated above, in allowing for the otherwise inexpressible and unthinkable, among the young men I worked with poetry opened up an indeterminate space of imagination in which the impossible became possible. In the everyday of exile, such impossibilities included unity with the women they loved, and poetry thus brought moments of ease to the young men's longing to be elsewhere. In poetry, they would find themselves in the past, in a revolutionary moment or closer to the women they loved.

Conclusion

‘It relieves me’. That was how Qays described the experience of writing poetry. Whatever world came about in the process of writing his poems, it often eased his longings. To him, the process was ‘controlled’, as he put it, only because it took place within an established literary tradition. The rest had a ‘natural flow’ that Qays could only choose to follow. In the everyday of exile, his longing for the young woman he loved was highly exacerbated and had come to represent the separation from everything he held dear. He longed for her and to overcome the distance to her and everything she represented to him. Such impossible movements were possible in poetry. Here, Qays and the other young men I worked with could overcome the insurmountable distance between themselves and their beloveds and momentarily move beyond time and place. More than being a means for courtship, these poems were thus meant for the young men themselves. They were directed to the women whom these young men loved and longed for, yet they never reached the woman. Instead, they stayed with Qays and the others, to whom they provided technologies of the imagination, creating spaces of fleeting relief in the everyday of exile.

Notes

1

In Egypt, as well as in other countries across the Middle East, there are numerous other poetic genres, among them the satirical hijāʾ, the ghazal, described above, and the descriptive waṣf. As described by Abu Lughod, some are more appropriate to informal social settings, while others are recited or chanted only on ceremonial occasions (1986: 30).

2

Although comparable to the way in which poetry has served as a medium for political and social critique historically, this particular poem differs from what Naja Bjørnsson (2017), among others, has described as a new form of more explicit and literal poetry emerging from the Syrian war (see Joubin 2016). According to Bjørnsson (2017), it is no longer silences, figurative speech and lacunae which are striking features of Syrian writing. Instead, Syrian poetry today is characterised by literal and explicit descriptions of violence, suffering and bloodshed in a war-torn country, and hence by new themes, images and affective states in response to the war, among them loneliness, grief and fragmentation. Bjørnsson thus identifies an urge to write about the social and political injustice on the ground in a direct voice, made possible by the uprising and the break with fear and silence (ibid: 16).

3

The story of Majnūn and Laylā has become a mystical allegory for the soul's journey towards unison with God, the ultimate Beloved (Watson 2013: 43). In the twelfth century, the poems attributed to Majnūn Laylā were rewritten by the Persian poet Niẓāmī (1141–1209) in the spirit of Islamic mysticism (Schielke 2015: 86). The story was moved from its original setting in the desert to an urban milieu, but with no changes in the general outline of the story. In Niẓāmī's and in later interpretations of the love story, Qays's longing for Laylā came to symbolise absolute love for unison with the Divine. Laylā's beauty, so often described in the poems, came to represent the beauty of the Divine, and Majnūn a Ṣūfī traveller on the path towards union with God. His solitude and peaceful association with the animals in the wild suggest the monastic desert existence of a Ṣūfī hermit. As suggested by Alasdair Watson, losing himself and his mind in the pursuit for his beloved, Majnūn Laylā embodies the Ṣūfī state of fanāʾ (meaning ‘passing away’), referring to the annihilation of the self in the Beloved Divine, which is the ultimate goal of the Ṣūfī traveller (2013: 43).

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  • Bjørnsson, N. (2014), ‘Blod og Lemmer Overalt: Krop og Sansning i Syrisk Litteratur 2011–14’ (MA thesis, University of Copenhagen).

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  • Bush, A. J. (2015), ‘The Politics of Poetry’, in A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East, (ed.) S. Altorki (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • El-Dine, S. N. (2018), ‘Love, Materiality, and Masculinity in Jordan: “Doing” Romance with Limited Resources’, Men and Masculinities 21, no. 3: 423442.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fortier, C. (2018), ‘The Expenses of Love: Seduction, Poetry and Jealousy in Mauritania’, in Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World, (eds.) C. Fortier, A. Kreil and I. Maffi (Bern: Peter Lang), 4769.

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  • Fortier, C., Kreil, A. and Maffi, I. (2018), ‘Introduction. Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World’, in Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World, (eds.) C. Fortier, A. Kreil and I. Maffi (Bern: Peter Lang), 932.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ghannam, F. (2013), Live and Die like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

  • Inhorn, M. (2012), The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities: Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Inhorn, M. and Isidoros, K. (2018), ‘Introduction’, Men and Masculinities 21, no 3: 319327.

  • Jayyusi, S. (1987), Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press).

  • Joubin, R. (2016), ‘The Politics of Love and Desire in Post Uprising Syrian Television Drama’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no 2: 148174.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kahf, M. (2001), ‘The Silences of Contemporary Syrian Literature’, World Literature Today 75, no 2: 224236

  • Kreil, A. (2016), ‘The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and its Enemies’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no. 2: 128146.

  • Mortensen, E. (2019), ‘Being Care-ful among Friends: The Ambiguities of Friendship in Exile’, Etnofoor 31, no. 1: 2946.

  • Naguib, N. (2015), Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press).

  • Norbakk, M. (2018), ‘A Man in Love: Men, Love, and Hopes for Marriage in Cairo’, in Reconceiving Muslim Men: Love and Marriage, Family and Care in Precarious Times, (eds), M. Inhorn and N. Naguib (New York: Berghahn Books), 4763.

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  • Olszewska, Z. (2007), ‘“A Desolate Voice”: Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran’, Iranian Studies 40, no. 2: 203224.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, S. (2015), Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sneath, D., Holbraad, M. and Pedersen, M. A. (2009), ‘Technologies of Imagination: An Introduction’, Ethnos 74, no. 1: 530.

  • Van Gelder, G. J. (2013), Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology (New York: NYU Press).

  • Watson, A. (2013), ‘From Qays to Majnūn: The Evolution of a Legend from ʿUdhrī Roots to Ṣūfī Allegory’, The La Trobe Journal 91: 3545.

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Contributor Notes

PhD candidate Emilie Lund Mortensen is recently finished her dissertation work, which explores how ways of being together are shaped in and by experiences of war and exile among displaced young Syrian men in the Jordanian capital of Amman. Between 2016 and 2018, Emilie undertook a total of 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Amman. In the context of the Middle East, her research interests include care ethics, love, friendship and masculinity. Email: elm1809@gmail.com

  • Abu Lughod, L. (1986), Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

  • Adely, F. (2016), ‘A Different Kind of Love: Compatibility (Insijam) and Marriage in Jordan’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no. 2: 102127.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bjørnsson, N. (2014), ‘Blod og Lemmer Overalt: Krop og Sansning i Syrisk Litteratur 2011–14’ (MA thesis, University of Copenhagen).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bush, A. J. (2015), ‘The Politics of Poetry’, in A Companion to the Anthropology of the Middle East, (ed.) S. Altorki (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • El-Dine, S. N. (2018), ‘Love, Materiality, and Masculinity in Jordan: “Doing” Romance with Limited Resources’, Men and Masculinities 21, no. 3: 423442.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fortier, C. (2018), ‘The Expenses of Love: Seduction, Poetry and Jealousy in Mauritania’, in Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World, (eds.) C. Fortier, A. Kreil and I. Maffi (Bern: Peter Lang), 4769.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fortier, C., Kreil, A. and Maffi, I. (2018), ‘Introduction. Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World’, in Reinventing Love? Gender, Intimacy and Romance in the Arab World, (eds.) C. Fortier, A. Kreil and I. Maffi (Bern: Peter Lang), 932.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ghannam, F. (2013), Live and Die like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).

  • Inhorn, M. (2012), The New Arab Man: Emergent Masculinities: Technologies, and Islam in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Inhorn, M. and Isidoros, K. (2018), ‘Introduction’, Men and Masculinities 21, no 3: 319327.

  • Jayyusi, S. (1987), Modern Arabic Poetry: An Anthology (New York: Columbia University Press).

  • Joubin, R. (2016), ‘The Politics of Love and Desire in Post Uprising Syrian Television Drama’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no 2: 148174.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kahf, M. (2001), ‘The Silences of Contemporary Syrian Literature’, World Literature Today 75, no 2: 224236

  • Kreil, A. (2016), ‘The Price of Love: Valentine's Day in Egypt and its Enemies’, Arab Studies Journal 24, no. 2: 128146.

  • Mortensen, E. (2019), ‘Being Care-ful among Friends: The Ambiguities of Friendship in Exile’, Etnofoor 31, no. 1: 2946.

  • Naguib, N. (2015), Nurturing Masculinities: Men, Food, and Family in Contemporary Egypt (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press).

  • Norbakk, M. (2018), ‘A Man in Love: Men, Love, and Hopes for Marriage in Cairo’, in Reconceiving Muslim Men: Love and Marriage, Family and Care in Precarious Times, (eds), M. Inhorn and N. Naguib (New York: Berghahn Books), 4763.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Olszewska, Z. (2007), ‘“A Desolate Voice”: Poetry and Identity among Young Afghan Refugees in Iran’, Iranian Studies 40, no. 2: 203224.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Schielke, S. (2015), Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press).

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sneath, D., Holbraad, M. and Pedersen, M. A. (2009), ‘Technologies of Imagination: An Introduction’, Ethnos 74, no. 1: 530.

  • Van Gelder, G. J. (2013), Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology (New York: NYU Press).

  • Watson, A. (2013), ‘From Qays to Majnūn: The Evolution of a Legend from ʿUdhrī Roots to Ṣūfī Allegory’, The La Trobe Journal 91: 3545.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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