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153 Al-Buḥturī’s Īwān Kisrā Ode Canonic Value and Folk Literacy in the Mujālasāt An Anti-imperiAL Ode? the murder of Caliph al-mutawakkil in winter 861 figured as the first patricidal regicide of islamic history and forced the umma—ostensibly sacred—to recall the profaning traumas of the first and second civil wars ( fitan; sg. fitna).1 Sometime later, during the post-mutawakkil period, the court poet al-Buḥturī (d. 897) composed an unusual but intense poem.2 in it he left behind haughty patrons and the urban setting of Samarra and ventured out to the ruins of a Sasanian palace at Ctesiphon, twenty-four miles south of Baghdad, famed for its sole remaining ruin—Khosrow’s Arched Hall, or Īwān Kisrā. the poem is unusual in several ways. First, unlike most of alBu ḥturī’s poetry, which is addressed to a named benefactor or at least a recipient, the Īwān Kisrā poem is not meant to be a communication to a specific person. this otherwise audience-oriented poet was addressing no one in particular. Second, in contrast to his long poetic practice, five 154 the Mujālasāt as Forum for Literary reception al-Buḥturī in this ode does not follow the conventional tripartite pattern of the ode, composed of elegiac prelude (nasīb), journey section (raḥīl), and a third communal theme, such as praise (madīḥ) or lampoon (hijāʾ). neither is the ode of the bipartite variety that elides the raḥīl. instead, the poet begins with expressions of indignation and disappointment (roughly lines 1–10), channeled into a short camel journey (roughly lines 11–13), and then a tribute to the Sasanian palace (lines 14–56). the tribute is saturated with a mood not of triumph but ultimately of lyricism, for these are not current but former glories. the more glorious the Sasanian achievements, the more wistful the poet becomes . in effect, the “praise section” in this ode is unexpectedly like the elegiac nasīb. instead of triumphant closure, this poem gives us perpetual tears and yearning dedicated to the glory of the Sasanian period. Several modern scholars have taken al-Buḥturī’s grief and praise for the Sasanian ruins as a veiled critique of the Abbasid dynasty and its cultural or poetic conventions. they note that al-Buḥturī’s indignant tone resembles that of the brigand poet (suʿlūk) of pre-islamic times. As part of al-Buḥturī’s protest, the poet lambastes the “vilest of the vile” and a “cousin,” which some scholars have taken to refer to specific people.3 richard Serrano argues that the poet’s choice of persian abodes over the classical Bedouin sort suggests a harsh criticism not only of the Abbasids but also of traditional Arab poetics and culture.4 this theory assumes that al-Buḥturī became disappointed in the Abbasids (and their culture) and lost faith, and thus composed an anti-imperial ode. to date, this anti-imperial theory has not been challenged and stands uncontested as conventional wisdom in Arabic literary scholarship. the anti-imperial reading generates irreducible problems, though. Al-Buḥturī meticulously developed a career that would protect his chief personal interests throughout his life: his professional reputation as a poet in iraq and his property in Syria.5 As for the property interest, we are told that he owned land in his hometown of manbij, Syria, in the environs of Aleppo, and thus visited manbij repeatedly while living in iraq. there al-Buḥturī petitioned the governor (wālī) of manbij in order to protect his property interests.6 this deep attachment—whether material , social, or emotional—was symbolized and privatized in his ghazals to his legendary first love ʿ Alwa (or ʿ Alw) bint Zurayqa of Syria. As for the interest in maintaining his professional reputation, the anti-imperial reading would stand as anathema to al-Buḥturī’s public persona as court poet, as he specialized in praise hymns that aimed to build the public image of men of state. He is reputed to have shown an interest in this profession early, as a teenager, when he would traipse about the local mosque in manbij reciting poetry and declaiming his first praise hymns by leaning out of the mosque to praise humble onion and eggplant merchants.7 these stories—regardless of their facticity— indicate a public reputation for composing praise hymns (i.e., the business of magnifying Abbasid...


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