Mourning and Performing: al-Maʿarrī’s Elegy to al-Sharīf al-Ṭāhir al-Mūsawī

By Suzanne P. Stetkevych
Submitted to Session P4379 (Purpose, Cross-Purpose, Re-Purpose: Performance and Politics in the Classical Arabic Qasida, 2016 Annual Meeting
Arab States;
7th-13th Centuries;
When the blind 10-11th C. poet from the provincial Syrian town of Maʿarrat al-Nuʿmān decided to try to make his way in the literary and cultural capital of the time, Baghdād, he was greeted upon his arrival by the death of a Shiʿite notable, al-Sharīf al-Ṭāhir al-Musāwī, whose two sons, the celebrated Shiʿite scholars and poets, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and al-Sharīf al-Murtaḍā, reigned over the literary scene in the ʿAbbāsid/Būyid capital. The present study argues that, far from merely presenting an elegy to mourn the passing of a great man or to express his condolences to his sons, Abū al-ʿAlāʾ takes advantage of this opportunity to present his poetic wares before the Baghdādī literary elite, and the two bereaved Sharīfs in particular. This brings into high relief the evaluative aspect of performance: that the performer/poet is highly conscious that his presentation will be evaluated by his audience—with the added pressure that his prime audience—the two Sharīfs--are two of the most celebrated poets of the age. The poet is therefore performing multiple tasks—1) the social obligation of mourning/elegizing a deceased notable; 2) undergoing an examination to test his poetical abilities and his worthiness to be granted a place among the literary elite—i.e., a literary rite of initiation; and 3) offering a poetic gift—of praise—to his would-be patrons, the two Sharīfs. The result is hybrid and highly complex poem which, although classified in the editions of his diwan, Saqṭ al-Zand, as rithāʾ (elegy), exhibits extensive elements from other genres, namely fakhr (self-boast) of his own poetic prowess and praise (madīḥ) of the two Sharīfs. This results in a complex poetic structure and performance through which al-Maʿarrī is able to present his mastery of an extended motival and thematic range as well as equally complex rhetorical and metapoetic feats. Finally, the study questions al-Maʿarrī’s claim in his introduction to Saqṭ al-Zand that he never wrote poetry for material gain. The extended passage of praise of the Sharīfs’ munificence at the end of the poem is an elaborate reenactment of the Arabic panegyric convention of praising the patron’s generosity in return for a (usually monetary) prize.