By Sharifah Alhinai
This article was first published in Sekka’s Diversity Issue in 2018.
When it comes to romance, the French have an international reputation for being passionate lovers, having exported their famous kiss to all the corners of the world. Americans are known for their heartfelt, grand public gestures. With the word ‘romance’ stemming from the Latin word romanicus, meaning ‘of Roman style’, Italians boast that Italy is the birthplace of romance itself and that they are therefore the planet’s most romantic people. We have all heard people say ‘as romantic as the French’ or ‘as romantic as the Italians’, but we have yet to hear someone say ‘as romantic as the Arabs’.
A 2012 article by CNN Travel came close. Titled the ‘World’s most romantic nationalities’, amongst the 10 listed were the Americans, French, and Italians, a solidification of their reputed positions. The Spanish, Argentinians, and Brazilians were also included. Interestingly, the Lebanese (the only Arabs to make it on the list), came in sixth place, causing several Arab media channels to (perhaps shockingly or proudly) cite or circulate the article for the next four years. However, the article quickly classifies the Lebanese as being ‘different from the rest of the Arab world’, effectively presuming that the rest of the Arabs are not romantic.
Why is the perception so? Is there any truth to it? Perhaps it’s related to how love is expressed in the Arab world.
A closer look at love
There is no doubt that love is a universal sentiment. However, as social psychologists have put forth before, how it is defined and expressed is culturally determined. Romance in Western countries such as the United States, France, Italy, and the Latin American nations of Brazil and Argentina, is generally expressed through open courtship, public displays of affection, and passionate dance, which is not traditionally the case in the Arab world, in which romance is a more private affair, usually kept just between the two in love. Measuring Arabs’ romanticness by those standards, they will surely be seen as unromantic. However, the relative liberality found in Beirut, due to the city’s long, historical exposure to and adoption of modern, Western lifestyles (including romantic lifestyles), must have qualified the Lebanese as Ali Jihad Racy, Professor of Ethnomusicology at UCLA, has observed:
‘Beirut is an old city, historically and socially linked with traditional values and institutions of the Near East…this Mediterranean port community has been known for its distinctly modern character and long exposure to Western ways of life’.
You may not see romance in the Arab world, but you will constantly hear and read about it. The vast majority of Arabic music today revolves around love. So are the poems, written and publicly recited. Arabic romance novels are consistently amongst the bestsellers in bookstores. With public displays of affection long considered aib (shameful) or haram (forbidden) by many Arabs, language, literature, and music have historically been and continue to be cathartic outlets for public expressions of love, as scholar Michael J. Oghia previously touched upon in his research.
The Arabic vocabulary has long contained more than 20 words for love and its stages, beginning with alhawa (which also means wind, suggesting the unstableness of this early stage of love), to alkalaf (the strong, physically painful feeling of longing for the beloved), and finally reaching alhuyaam (in this stage, love is at most extreme and all reason is lost by the lovers).
The creation and usage of a multitude of words to describe one thing demonstrates a people’s preoccupation with it.
Eskimos have 30 words for snow because ‘it is a life-and-death matter to them to have exact information about the element they live with so intimately’, says author Robert Johnson. Similarly, Arabs’ development of this many words to describe love and its various phases with remarkable precision indicates that they have lived intimately with romance and that they value love. The words’ heavy usage in poetry throughout history, at least since the pre-Islamic days of Jahiliyya to today, demonstrates a continuity of this kind of living.
Shi’r or poetry has played an important role in Arabs’ lives over the centuries, being their diwan or record of their experiences throughout history. Whether or not a poem was memorized and shared with others depended not only on its literary beauty and skilled composition but also on the perceived importance of the information it contained or the message it delivered. Notably, much of the poems that have been composed and have survived the test of time, from the Jahiliyya period to modernity, either fall under the category of ghazal (love–themed poetry) or at least make mention of love or a beloved at some point, as Emeel Yacqoub, Arabic language researcher and author, states in his book Ahla Alkalam.
Noteworthy examples include the ghazals and poems of the renowned pre-Islamic poet Imru’ Al Qays, whose famous verse:
…قِـفَـا نَـبْـكِ مِـنْ ذِكْـرَى حَـبِـيبٍ ومَنْزِلِ بِسِـقْطِ اللِّـوَى
Stop. Let us weep at the remembrance of the beloved… at the site of the station where her tent was raised, by the edge of the bending sands…
was once proudly hung by the people of Makkah on the holy Kaaba for the world to read, the heart-wrenching ghazals 7th century poet Qays Ibn al-Mulawwah composed about his forbidden love Layla, the bold 8th-15th century ghazals of the Arab female poets of Andalusia, the ghazals and poetry of 20th century poets Alakhtal Al Saghir, Khalil Gibran, and Nizar Qabbani (dubbed ‘the poet of love and women’), as well as the popular, contemporary poems of Prince Bader bin Abdulmohsen Al Saud and Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai, UAE.
The romantic subject matter of a substantial chunk of Arabic poetry, the preservation of these poems throughout time, and their continued popularity today indicates the significant position love and its expression through language and poetry has occupied in the historical Arab experience and collective memory. Romantic novels, such as popular and best-selling Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanemi’s, have also increasingly emerged in the 20th century as outlets for romantic expression.
Another medium for romantic expression that has also gained more prominence in this part of the world in the last century is music. In the Arabian context, ‘music’ involves both the instrumental and singing aspect as, unlike in other numerous other cultures, in the Arabic musical tradition there is scarcely any music without song.
At least as early as 5th century Arabia, music produced by instruments such as aloud or altanboor accompanied the recitation and singing of poetry in social gatherings and royal courts in order to evoke intense emotions amongst the listeners, noted celebrated Lebanese scholar and writer Ahmad Faris Shidyaq in the 19th century. The combination of strong, emotive words from poetry, with touching music that was ‘concerned entirely with tenderness and love’, he said, sent listeners into tarab, a state of entrancement and musical intoxication that has no equivalent in the English language, in which they emotionally relate to the similarly entranced performer.
This was perhaps most evident in the 20th century concerts of the legendary late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Not only did her lengthy concerts, in which she predominantly sang earnestly about love, its turmoil and joys, empty out the bustling streets of Cairo when they aired on the radio on the first Thursday of every month, they sent the concert attendees ( Arab royals, dignitaries, and members of the upper-class) into an emotional frenzy. The normally stoic and held-together elite, reminded by Umm Kulthum’s singing of their own romantic experiences, gains, and losses, were reduced to less-refined, but more expressive versions of themselves as they sighed, shouted in longing and begged Umm Kulthum to repeat her wholeheartedly sung verses so that they could feel love again. Similar occurrences happened in the concerts of fellow Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez and Lebanese singer Fairuz.
Though Arabic music has significantly evolved in recent decades, becoming more diversified in style and pace because of globalization, love continues to be the dominant theme in songs.
What emerges from this brief examination of the Arabic language, literature, and music, and their cultural role as cathartic channels for expressions of romantic love, is an image of a softer, more tender-hearted Arab people whose collective soul has been more centred on love for the past centuries than most people expect.
Love has occupied such an important position for Arabs that dozens of words were invented just to express it, verses of it were hung on the holiest of spaces, its experiences occupied much of their diwan, and its power overwhelmed and continues to overwhelm even the most stoic of people.It is a reminder that when we try to measure and determine a people’s level of romanticness, their culture must be taken into account.
When you are loved by an Arab, he or she may not kiss you, dance with you, or court you in public, but an Arab will listen to songs for decades looking for you; to feel you again. He may even spend his whole life immortalizing you in poems like Qays did, or she may write novels about you and make generations fall in love with you, too, like Ahlam Mosteghanemi does. When you are loved by an Arab, what you get is an eternity, not just a few, ephemeral moments.
But, with new and foreign discourses on love and romantic expression flooding into the Arabian region in an increasingly globalized era, what will the future of love look like in this part of the world in a few decades? What shape will romantic expression take? A look at social media – a mirror of society – suggests a current lean towards the Western ideal. Still, only time will tell…
Sharifah Alhinai is the co-founder and managing storyteller of Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.