February 24, 2015KR BlogCurrent Events

The Pitfalls of Counter-Terror Literary Analysis

In an interview on an Egyptian television program in 1982, two of the greatest postmodern Arab poets, Amal Dunqol and Abdel Rahman Al-Abnoudi, spoke about the purpose of their work. Dunqol called for a new reading of old images, and Al-Abnoudi described the limitations of traditional forms thus: “In zajal and in the qasida, the forms are predetermined. The talent lies in creating an idea that fits into one of these ready-made molds. And even though zajal has many more available forms than the qasida, they both still lack the incendiary glow of poetry. The difference for me is that in poetry, the experience searches for its form, it creates its own language.”

Dunqol, though less translated than Adonis or Mahmoud Darwish, is a key figure of the postmodern aesthetic in Arabic poetry. In addition to his embrace of free verse and fragmentation, his work is noted especially for its reinterpretation of folkloric, pre-Islamic, Christian and Arab mythology. This transformative project, imagining a language for new ideas, distinguished the work of a generation of Arab poets who found themselves in young nation-states wrestling to claim the liberation that political leaders touted as de facto victories. It is with this understanding of Arab postmodern poetics that I read David Biespiel’s article in the Rumpus on the imagined affinity between postmodernism and what he describes as jihadist poetry.

Full disclosure. Unlike the singular reference point upon whose research Biespiel posits the very existence of jihadist poetry, I am a native speaker of Arabic. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, the ideological epicenter of the Arabic-speaking Islamic world. Our school curriculum included courses on various aspects of the religion such as Quranic exegesis, Islamic theology, and the methods of classical recitation. And this was just the state-mandated curriculum. This education was rounded out by studies of pre-Islamic, traditional, and modernist Arabic poetry. There was a huge emphasis on poetry because, along with the short story, it is the authentic Arabic literary form, unlike the novel which is borrowed from the West. Years of my life were spent studying the elements of prosody, memorizing the odes of the great desert poets, and deciphering references in the free verse of the postcolonial era.

My education is entirely unexceptional. It was the standard for Arabs of my generation. While our nations buckled under the boot of totalitarian regimes or continued to resist one of the world’s last remaining military occupations, our relationship to our own culture through literary texts, both the sacred and the secular, remained intact. One might decry a slowness to innovate in the Arab world of the last few decades. But the reverence for literature, and especially poetry, has survived the ravages of colonialism and globalization.

It is from this place on the map of experience that I found Biespiel’s article and was torn between a kind of bemused shock at its wholehearted embrace of the tropes of empire and a genuine confusion about its intended audience. I suspect he felt confident, quoting Elisabeth Kendell’s research on Jihadist poetry. On one level, it’s understandable. She is after all an Oxford PhD, and a cursory glance at her work reveals her to be an intrepid researcher, at that. In an interview on July 13, 2014 in Times Higher Education, Kendell describes her transition from researching poems in obscure literary journals in Cairo, to turning her attention in 2010 to “something a bit more real.” She determines that her unique skill set would best be put to use deciphering what she calls poems found in Al Qaeda journals.

Kendell’s determination of what is “more real” and her approach to studying it raise concerns that Biespiel doesn’t seem to notice. In this interview and several other posts online, Kendell gives us clues about how she views the region where her energies are now focused. In the Times interview, she alludes to the gathering of Yemeni tribal elders to protect her as being akin to “the turtle formation of shields” from the Asterix books. On another occasion, her Yemeni minders hide her in a bookstore that evokes for her the image of an “Aladdin’s cave.” She can barely contain it, the orientalist lens through which she gazes at this world. And like a growing number of researchers in academia today, the siren song of the security framework seems difficult for her to resist. Clearly, there is a market for reading and interpreting entire swaths of culture from a security point of view. Whether these readings are actually rooted in the realities and lived experiences of the people and traditions that are being studied is a matter of debate.

In her essay “Yemen’s Al-Qa’ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad,” Kendell states: “this investigation focuses more on the socio-political role of poetry than on its aesthetics.” As such, she does not place these works in the greater context of Arabic poetry. Instead, she “mines jihadist magazines” for examples of these writings. And then she reveals the dubious nature of her project: “The chapter concludes with observations regarding the importance of poetry as a resource, not just for cultural and literary analysis, but also for political and counter-terrorism analysis.” Are we now to assess the applicability, and by implication, the real-world value of literary studies on the basis of their utility in the field of counter-terrorism?

To the assertion that what Kendell studies is poetry, poet Fady Joudah had this to say in his essay on the Kenyon Review blog: “The Arabic that Jihadis use in their so-called poems that Biespiel cites in translation is so hackneyed that no Arabic poet today would call it poetry.” Joudah accurately points out that Biespiel’s essay and Kendell’s research reference chants, or anasheed, a form recognized and understood both by its practitioners and those in the Arabic-speaking world for being just that. Not poetry, not an art form, rather a tool for marketing a brand.

I suppose it’s possible for anything that people choose to write or recite to be described as poetry. With that very democratic attitude in mind, I invite us all to imagine an Arab poet who might choose to write a polemic about American culture. Our poet is seated somewhere near Tahrir Square, or in an air-conditioned coffee shop in Dubai, or she might write from her refugee camp in the Gaza strip. Wherever she finds herself, she undoubtedly has access to the internet and satellite television, and is familiar with the elements of American popular culture. She might accurately note that there is no televised American sporting event that ever takes place without some representation of the United States armed forces. The bigger the game, the brighter the color guard. Soldiers lined up, rifles at their side, at the singing of the national anthem before the NBA All-Star game or the flyover of F-16s at the Superbowl. Now imagine if this poet, mired in her occidentalist world view, deduced from these spectacles that not only is our culture militarized, but that any chants performed by the crowds at these games that appeal to a segment of our population, were – in fact – an American poetic form. Imagine if the lingua franca of Seahawks fans was translated into Arabic and studied for artistic implications of Seattle or greater American culture.

Outrageous? Ridiculous? Sure. But no more so than excerpting a Bin Laden rambling to offer it as an Arabic prose poem. And here, for the full experience, is what Seahawks chants, translated into Arabic with the help of my native skills, a dictionary, and Google translate, would yield:

Legion of Boom – Faylaq Sawt il Infijar

Beast Mode – tareeqat il baheem

The way the Arabic translation sounds, we would have tens of thousands of fans chanting, respectively: “battalion of explosive noises!” or “the way of the animal.” Now imagine if our Arab poet took these poorly translated fragments, extracted as they have been from their environment and denuded of all social and cultural contexts, and wrote about the ways in which they indicate the appeal of militarized postmodern chaos and the dehumanization of the American athlete in the poetry of the 12th man.

And before someone dismisses the football game chants as incomparable to so-called Jihadi poetry, I invite the reader to pause again and examine the assumptions inherent in Biespiel’s critique.

In her essay on the politics of translation, Gayatri Spivak cautions translators to understand translation as an act of closest reading, of intimacy. She calls for an understanding and reflection not only of the logic of the original text’s language, but also of its rhetorical nature. “Without a sense of the rhetoricity of language, a species of neocolonialist construction of the non-Western scene is afoot (Outside in the Teaching Machine, 181).”

This reader finds it unconvincing that a grab-bag of jihadi catch phrases cobbled together into a pseudo-poem, or the translation of propaganda chants, contribute much to our understanding or discussion of the jihadi worldview or of poetic expressions of the postmodern in another culture.

The notion that what are effectively the marketing jingles of a criminal enterprise can be read as poetry is a position that can only be taken by someone who is critiquing from his comfortable perch in the empire. In order to read these writings as actual poetry, they would need to be located in the tradition from which they sprang. There is not one reference in Biespiel’s article to a native critic or poet or thinker’s conception of these works. Our only advisor on this matter is the woman whose work she self-promotes as a useful tool of state counter-terrorism.

I found myself asking, often out loud as I read Biespiel’s article, to whom is this addressed? He writes, for example: “Next time you wonder what oppression-loving, surface-to-air-missile-toting reactionaries with their entrenched tribal values of honor and shame stand for regarding the transparency of speech and language, . . . ” to which I scrawled in the margins with my No. 2 pencil: “Who on earth is wondering about this?” Do readers of the Rumpus find themselves curious about the transparency of speech and language among jihadis?

I suspect that the answer is no. I also suspect this was an entertaining caricature to sketch. The resounding thumps and flourishes of Biespiel’s depictions are hard to miss. And maybe this is what is most distressing in his essay. The jihadi jingles that are supposedly the subject of critique are simply a background for what appears to be his real interest, which is a critique of western postmodernism.

And so I ask, why not critique the poetry of postmodern writers in the west, those defined by themselves or by literary critics as such? Why not call out the postmodernists whose work he decries for falling short? Why not name the postmodernists to whom he cannot turn in times of great chaos? Why was it necessary to simultaneously refer to and absent an entire other culture with a thousands-year old poetic tradition of its own, for the rather narrow purpose of elevating the poets Biespiel favors over those, nameless though they remain, whose work does not offer the opportunity he desires for “communion and renewal”?