Literature and Art  

Poetry and the rich literary traditions of this region have always played a pivotal role in the cultures of the Middle East. The collection of works grouped together here are inspired by literature and the sentiments evoked by particular writers. The first works in this section are paintings and calligraphies that focus on early Arabic poetry. In Arab tribal kingdoms before the coming of Islam, a powerful oral tradition existed that ensured the survival of a remarkable body of Arabic poetry which continues to be cherished and learnt today. This poetry is by writers such as Zuhayr, author of one of the mu’allaqat, ‘the hanging ones’ – the seven odes (qasidas) reputed to have been the greatest poems ever composed and honoured by being hung up in the enclosure at Mecca. Poems such as these often dramatically evoke the life of the desert, with tales of love, chivalry, honour and battle written in beautiful language. Iranians too have their favourite poets: Umar Khayyam, whose rubayat translated by Edward Fitzgerald have become part of English literature; and Hafez, the acknowledged master of Persian lyric poetry, are represented here; and the poetry of modern Iranian poet Forough Farokhzad also appears, in the work of Shirin Neshat. Another group of works included here show artists drawing their inspiration from modern Arab poets of the region: Adonis, Mahmud Darwish, Badr Shaker al-Sayyab and others who articulate the sentiments and preoccupations of the modern generation. In many cases artists and poets work closely together, creating printed or hand-crafted books in the tradition of the French livres d’artistes. Other artists are moved by the great mystic writers such as Ibn Arabi, al-Hallaj and Rumi, and yet others are inspired by stories such as the evocative tales of The Thousand and One Nights.