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IU Art Museum Hosts Middle Eastern Poetry Series

The IU and Bloomington communities have a rare opportunity this month to hear Middle Eastern poetry the way it was meant to be heard.


As part of the Intersections Series, a number of poems will be read and sung their original languages – Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew. But this event isn't just for people who understand those languages. English translations will accompany each and every reading, along with live music and a tour of the IU Art Museum's Middle Eastern art collection.

The series is hosted in partnership with the IU Turkish Student Association and The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Susanne Stetkevych is a professor in the department who specializes in Arabic poetry. She is helping to organize the series that she feels will bring some much needed levity to the arduous analysis of poems.

A Lighter Way To Honor A Tradition Heavy With History

"Our basic idea," Stetkevych explains, "was that in our classes we sweat blood over translating and interpreting poetry. But poetry, of course, is meant to be enjoyed, to be performed, so we had this idea that we would give these poetry readings as part of National Poetry Month."

Not all the poems in Intersections are Islamic, but Stetkevych says there is a strong bond between the verses of the Qur'an and poetry. The suras, or chapters of the Qur'an are widely considered to be works of poetry themselves.

"There was this constant interplay between the Qur'an as God's word and the words of the poets. Sometimes they are at odds with each other, but more often they are kind of supporting each other. As the classical Arab thelologists always said: If you want to understand the Qur'an, if you are having any problems, go to the poetry of the Bedouins."

The Bedouin poetry of the desert-dwelling nomads of the Middles East has existed since before the birth of Islam, but its influence on Islamic poetry is apparent to enthusiasts.

A Multifaceted Legacy

Metaphor plays an integral role in Bedouin poetry. Often the metaphors are so extended that a poem may have two equally rich, parallel interpretations. The unique traditions of Middle Eastern poetry are not merely defined by metaphor and content, however. Form is an essential element as well.

Stetkevych explains: "The classical Arabic poem has a monorhyme, a single letter, that rhymes all the way through the poem. An Arabic poem rhymed in 'el' for example, will rhyme in 'el' all the way through the poem. This is something that gives the poem a very particular character in its sonority." An example of monorhyme, Stetkevych says, can be heard in the Intersections reading series.

Other Poems To Look Forward To

"One of the poems that one of our Arab graduate students will be performing in Arabic and in translation," Stetkevych tells us, "is the famous Lamiyat al-Arab, 'The Poem Rhymed in El' of the famous outlaw poet, Ashanfara. Ashanfara was quite a romantic figure and was appreciated in Europe in the Romantic period. I notice that American students always love him because he kind of told his tribe to get lost, that he was going to be his own man. So this is something that is a very popular poem – maybe because we love Jesse James! There are these certain poems that really reach across cultures more than others – and this is certainly one of them."

A Perfect Synergy

Cagri Yildirim is president of the IU Turkish Student Association and co-organizer of the Intersections poetry series.

"I sort of had the idea of combining poetry with the arts," she says. "As a graduate in the arts education program, I feel that no one art form can stand on its own." The IU Art Museum seemed to her to be the perfect place for the series, for people can come to hear poetry, look at art, and listen to music. One piece in particular encapsulates the ambiance she is hoping to accomplish, she says:

"As most people might recognize, the mosaic tile of the steam bath, which is interesting because, it's sort of, it's a steam bath where people would have listened to music, they would have had conversation. I think that every piece in the gallery – they all have something which is function with today."

"This is a wonderful opportunity," Yildirim continues, "to come and listen to native speakers, and people who are learning about another culture, to hear it in its original language format and also in English interpretation, and just to come to together to talk about and to discuss meanings of these poems and how they relate to other art forms.

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