Poetic justice, Qatari style

Verbal duelling between poets is an ancient Arabian tradition dating back to pre-Islamic times. Saad Abdullah Sowayan describes its customary form:

"A duelling match involves two poets ... The first poet steps forward and improvises two verses in which he greets the assembled audience and ... at the same time asks a challenger to step forward and face him ...

"The second poet steps forward, returns the greetings, and answers the challenge with two verses of his own, strictly following the rhyme and metre established by the first poet. 

"The first poet in turn retorts with two more verses, the second poet answers back with two new verses, and so on until the end of the match. 

Such contests were not merely displays of linguistic virtuosity. Duelling poets were often real-life antagonists, each representing his own tribe or district, and – since this was entertainment – they were given licence to say things that would not be acceptable in everyday speech. Taunts, insults and even obscenities were part of the genre.

Sowayan adds:

"To prevent any fight that might result from such sharp exchanges of words, a distinguished man of prestige and honour was chosen from every group [in the audience] to guarantee that no harm would be inflicted by any member of his group upon the opposing poet, and he would give his headdress as a token of countenance, wajh, and sincerity. Yet squabbles, even serious fights, could not be avoided on some occasions."

Modern forms of the poetic duel continue in some parts of the Middle East today. One example, last year, was an exchange of verses between two Qatari poets, Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami and Khalil al-Shabrami.

Shortly afterwards, Ibn al-Dheeb was arrested on charges of "inciting the overthrow of the ruling regime" and "insulting the Emir". He has now been in jail for almost a year – in solitary confinement according to some accounts.

Under Qatar's penal code, he could face the death penalty on the incitement charge or a five-year sentence for insulting the Emir.

"His trial in Doha's criminal court has been marred by irregularities, with court sessions held in secret," Amnesty International says. "His lawyer reportedly had to provide a written defence of his client after being barred from attending one of the court sessions."

Human Rights Watch says there is no evidence that Ibn al-Dheeb's poetry went beyond the legitimate exercise of his right to free expression, though there were passages that "could be construed as insulting to the Emir". Even so, it points out that criminalising criticism of the Emir violates freedom of speech standards under international law. 

Qatar’s laws, it says, are not only out of step with the international law on freedom of opinion and expression, they are at odds with Qatar’s aspirations to serve as a center for media freedom in the region. 

"International law is unequivocal on the importance of public officials being required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism than ordinary citizens. This distinction serves the public interest by making it harder to bring a case against persons for speaking critically of public officials and political figures, thereby encouraging debate about issues of governance and common concern."

Despite the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria, this is a point that the surviving Arab autocrats still fail to grasp. They still think those is power should be more protected from criticism than ordinary citizens, not less.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2012.