Poetry and History: The Value of Poetry in Reconstructing Arab History. Edited by RAMZI BAALBAKI, SALEH SAID AGHA, and TARIF KHALIDI. Beirut: AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT PRESS, 2011. Pp. xii + 459. $40.
Beirut has slowly begun to regain its position as an important hub of Arabic scholarship over the past decade. Much of this activity has been centered at the Orient-Institut Beirut, which has played an instrumental role in bringing Arabists and Arab scholars together for conferences as well as hosting researchers and publishing several edited collections. It is encouraging to see that the less prominent American University of Beirut Press has also begun to contribute to this effort with the publication of the volume of conference proceedings under review here.
This collection of essays is concerned with the value of Arabic poetry--both premodern and mod-ern--as a historical source. In their introduction to the volume, the editors state their position quite plainly: "We quickly agreed that the immense riches of Arabic poetry had not thus far been sufficiently exploited for the reconstruction of Arab history" (p. xi). It will not have escaped the reader's attention that the book is entitled Poetry and History, not Poetry and Historiography, and while the collection does not treat this distinction explicitly, there is no doubt that this was a deliberate move by the editors. There have been a few limited studies of poetry in certain historiographical works--and indeed the essays by Peter Heath, Geert Jan van Gelder, and Suleiman Mourad in this volume add to this litera-ture--but the idea of poetry as a primary historical source seems to have dropped off the scholarly radar decades ago. One can speculate that this is because earlier generations of Arabists did not specialize to the extent we do today, and there is also reason to suspect that while training in both modern standard and colloquial Arabic has improved tremendously, instruction in classical Arabic has not fared as well. As someone who specializes in poetry I can say that I have met more than a few historians who have confessed--rather sheepishly and without any provocation--that they simply skip the poetry in the historiographical texts they read, indentation conventions making this very easy to do.
These essays are therefore ostensible models of what happens when historians do not overlook the poetry contained in historiographical texts but treat the poems as bona fide historical sources. Nevertheless, not all the contributors see eye to eye on the subject. Tahera Qutbudclin, for example...