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Modern Omani poetry tackles tensions and contradictions

Little wonder that it at times rebels against classification and domestication. At other times it swings between rebellion and conformity
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The dominant cultural discourse in Oman has always been, by and large, male dominated and collectivist. However, modernisation in the 1970s began to challenge that discourse. Poetry began to break away from traditional Arabic style both in formal and thematic terms.

Formally, it experimented with rhyme-free and prose poetry. Thematically, it was bold enough to take topics hitherto taboo. Championing the individual in the face of the multiple discourses, Omani poetry attempted to portray human experience with its manifold tensions and contradictions. Little wonder that it at times rebels against classification and domestication. At other times it swings between rebellion and conformity and yearns for a kind of certainty that the collectivist discourse promises.

The politics of individualism comes out in two distinct voices. On the one hand, there is a voice that elevates the personal, the everyday and the mundane. For example, in Hilal al Hajri’s Night is Mine (2006), we see a persona who, on looking at himself in a mirror, finds that even mirrors are hypocritical, sees children who take him out of the rancor of ‘orientalists’ and clash of cultures, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in a café, and on looking up, finds a woman staring at him, or remembers a friend who dreams of a woman’s or a chicken’s thigh.

A similar voice is manifest in A House on the World Roof (2012) by Ahmad al Hashmi. The persona cherishes his “small house that looks like a sweetheart/This is my water, my food on the table/This is my warbling music/This is my kindly wine/It looks at me with fondness/I’ve no problem in arranging my everyday cares”.

In My Private Festivals (2014) by Fathiyya al Saqri, we see the details of a woman: her eyes and body, her pain, solitude and deprivation, her stand towards her father and grandfather and her home imprisonment. We see her attempt to create alternative imaginary worlds and her oscillation between a world of obedience and a world of rebellion.

On the other hand, there is still a voice that avoids everyday details, and, in their stead, situates itself in something of a celestial setting. In Clouds (2006) by Sama Esa, we see the persona leave society, go to a high hill from where he watches the earth collapse and people drown.

Similarly, in Tears’ Path (2007) by Abdulla al Balushi, we see the persona move in a celestial universe; he sees himself taken by a bird to places where “prophets prostrated”. An air of sacredness surrounds the characters of the collection. We see a woman who “collects her child” from the “top of the celestial ladder”, a man who looks at “the heart-like spot” and sees nothing but “flower, our way to eternity”.

The dead lamented in the collection are saints in the sky where “the soul sings”. The persona likens himself to an angel and resorts to “a sleeping child/That spends the night in prayer in the sun’s threads”. Indeed, such a childhood is an eighth sky for him: “As if childhood were a place that cuddled me/or a flash that carried roses/over an eighth sky.

These two voices converge, as said at the onset, with each other to champion the individual and elevate the ordinary. Actually, we see instances of this in contemporary poetry as well as in fiction. In a series of articles, I shall substantiate my claim by presenting both translations and analyses of some representative works.

(The writer is with College of Arts and Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University)

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