| Diwan Special issue|

Zilhad Ključanin

Born in 1960 in Trnova (B&H), lives in Bihać (B&H).


Harem Lyrical Poetry of Ahmed Muradbegović

Ahmed Muradbegović (1898—1972) published a book of poems –Harem Lyricism (Haremska lirika, Tisak Hrvatskog štamparskog zavoda D. D., Zagreb, 1921) – and afterwards, some twenty poems in interwar magazines: ”Gajret”, ”Vijenac”, ”Novi behar” and ”Nova Evropa”. Only recently will Muradbegović’s poetry be recognised as one of the beginnings of our avant-garde.1 This claim is based on the poetic framework of hypermodernism, where ”abstraction is a possible escape into the spiritual, a move into the transcendental, from the physical into the metaphysical, from the egsoteric viewpoint and opinion into esoteric value systems”2. As Enes Duraković notes, the other influences visible in Muradbegović’s work are ”the two main aspects of the Muslim poetic tradition: mysticism, characteristic of artistic poetry, and eroticism, which is manifested in the verbal lyrical tradition,”3 but – and therein lies Muradbegoović’s avant-garde innovation – the mystical and erotic elements in his poetry are (irreversibly!) decomposed, and even more than that – put into opposition4. Muradbegivić’s oppositioning of the mystical and the erotic (at the beginning of the 20th century) is in complete congruence with the poetic, and even the gnoseological, advances of modernity in atomising the unique image of the world, advances whose results will be used by modern and postmodern Bosnian poets to this day.

The decomposition of the mystical unity of the world, as Duraković calls it, is reflected in Muradbegović’s work (among other things) in the

1 See: Enver Kazaz, ”Life on the Other Side of Things” in: Enver Kazaz, The Morphology of the

Palimpsest, Centar za kulturu i obrazovanje, Tešanj, 1999, p. 107-124. 2 Enver Kazaz, Ibid, p. 123. 3 Enes Duraković, ”Ahmed Muradbegović, Poet and Writer,” Život, XXXIV/1985, No. 7-8, p. 176. 4 See: Enes Duraković, Ibid, p. 177.

structural elements of his lyrical poetry that we could characterise as religious. Let us try to explain this claim through the analysis of some of Muradbegović’s religious poems.

Harem Lyricism begins with the poem Poplars that tries to achieve ”an aspect of unity in a way that enables the simultaneous existence of the poetic subject pursuing the sun and the sun as an object of experiential revelation, the experienced unity in this poem…”5, but is (only) an invocation of a past, joyful age, a possible elementary age, of nature and of humans, ”of the earth and of the heavens”:

(…) And thus I stood on your peaks, mighty, immeasurable, like the giant’s forefather And lifted my hands to the sky with desire, To reach the suns from terrible heights…

And far away, where distances wail, It stiffened in the heart of azure… And with a vain song of wind and storm Descended into me, purer than a crystal…(…)

In contrast with this attempt at unity of two primary elements, where the possible connector of the natural and the human is not explicitly stated, in the poem Prayer, he is transformed into God ”in the sense of Islamic monotheism”6. The attempt at unity is here founded in religiosity, the reaching of God through prayer, through the most natural and most essential act of human spiritual assembly – prayer7. The lyrical protagonist is female (a young woman, a girl?), and the choice of this protagonist intensifies the tendency towards divine revelation (innocence is the pledge for that revelation):

5 Uzeir Bačvić, The Poetry and Prose of Ahmed Muradbegović in: Ahmed Muradbegović, Harem Lyricism/ Harem Novellas, Preporod, Sarajevo, 1996, p. 8 (Collection: Bosniak Literature in 100 Editions)

6 Uzeir Bačvić, The Poetry of Ahmed Muradbegović in: Enes Duraković, Bosniak Literature in Literary Criticism, III, Alef, Sarajevo, 1998, p. 185. 7 In the original more specifically Muslim prayer.

The body falls in a magical arch, And the tiny foot dances devoutly: She – with her small, white dancing hands And her innocent body – prays to God. (…)

The longing for divine protection is also intensified by the external orchestration, graded from appropriate temporality (the call to prayer from the minaret) to all-encompassing anthropomorphism of natural rapture (the praying rosebud):

(…) Aksham8… the song of nocturnal distance From the tall minaret falls… Her silence is the strength of eternal belief… Her faith dances a prayer to God…

Beneath the window a red cluster breathes, Watches… the room shivers, full of branches: In the dark a rosebush sways And – like her – prays, prays, prays…(…)

At the end, a religious need is uncovered, where ”God is perceived in His infinity, and man – as a creature giving itself over to God in the state of self-possession induced by prayer, liberated from human ego in the presence of divine universality”9:

(…) On the motley carpet a whisper murmurs From the small, passionate mouth, words croon: God, I will melt myself with you, I will enter into you, or you into me…!

However, the melting is not achieved, it remains a devout wish, an implied possibility whose pledge for feasibility is the act of praying, of worship.

8 Prayer at sunset. 9 Uzeir Bačvić, The Poetry and Prose of Ahmed Muradbegović in: Ahmed Muradbegović, Harem Lyricism/ Harem Novellas, p. 8.

In the Holy Night is a poem of similar ambience and with almost the same motifs as The Prayer: while ”the moonlight descends from marble forests / In the chamber the young women pray alone…”. The difference is in the plural lyrical protagonist, and in the different experiential aspect:

(…) Their eyes are filled by the dead of night And the silence of the deceased, of locked castles…

The holy nights descend, devout and young, Sorrowfully the maidens pray from the holy Koran… Remembering the sins of days gone by they repent and cry and kiss their prayer mats. (…)

The entire sensory range is, actually, set up in a strange way. Since it is young women who pray to God, one would expect that due to their youth and their being filled with the joy of life, their prayers would also be buoyant and cheerful. But, it is exactly the opposite: the nights are devout and young and the young women sorrowfully pray from the holy Koran, with feelings of regret and guilt because of their sins! (What ”great” sins, we ask ourselves, can such young creatures have committed?) How do we interpret the apparent disproportion of experientiality in these verses? Would introducing a context be of any help, since it would, at leas partially, answer the question: why are the young women praying to God sorrowfully? The answer could be derived from a context which would, for example, point out the ”strictness of religion” that requires such a (penitent, ”sorrowful”, guilty) attitude towards oneself. However, Muradbegović does not offer us such a context: he says explicitly that the ”holy nights (are) devout and young”. The Koran is holy, but nowhere in Muradbegović’s context does it say that it is, for example, ”strict” or such as to provoke the feelings of the young women that pray. Another context could have been a certain pretext that conditioned such sensibility from the outside (a war, some other misfortune and suffering…). However, such a pretext cannot even indirectly be discerned in this poem. Not even the general thematic context of the harem (as a closed space) can provide an answer to why the ”sad young women pray in tears in the holy and young night”. It may be grounds for reproach that the context was not sought in the entirety of the poem, so here are the remaining verses:

(…) Leaving somewhere, covered with sorrow, All youthful longing, like a childhood story, Devoutly and softly they move their lips, Like feeble women at their dying hour.

The moonlight sets behind the marble forest… In the chamber the young women pray alone, And their souls, full of long misery, Resemble dead, locked castles…

Have we now found the answer to the question: why does the strange disproportion of experientiality occur in the poem In the Holy Night? Although in the verses ”Leaving somewhere, covered with sor-row,/All youthful longing, like a childhood story” an obscure answer may be heard (with new questions: how can young women leave all youthful longing?; why?, etc.) – we still have not found the answer. We can, on top of everything, look for a context in Muradbegović’s evident expressionism, where the dominant aspects are ”the non-logicality … and dispersion of the lyrical subject and the poetic structure as results of the expressionist abstractness from which the poem is derived”10—but it seems that the answer will still elude us. At the very end, abandoning the ultimate context, we can only re-emphasise Muradbegović’s general poetic tendency towards a decomposed image of the world, that, in the case of the poem In the Holy Night, is reflected (even) in decomposing the religious.

The poem The Grey-haired Lady, in contrast with In the Holy Night, is experientially and contextually clear. Expressionistically structured (with that well-known expressionistic ”dignified composure”), it motivates an old(er) woman, the lady, who, in silence, adds up her life, in which ”the years have died in solitude…and days fallen into deep dark

10 Enver Kazaz, Ibid, p. 122-123.

ness…”. Unity with the world is not even being attempted, only the dove is heard calmly as it ”cries out the eternities of the Koran,” ”and she – look – softly, like leaves on the branch, / sings them kasidas11, without verses or words”.

The oppositioning of mysticism and eroticism is most discernible in Muradbegović’s prose The Queen of Beauty. This poem ”is revealed as a creation that expresses the impotence of the poetic word to convey the indescribable aspect of a mystical experience, directly realised in an emotional state, that is guided by a goal of cognisance. In this poem, that goal leads to the cognisance of beauty as the most beautiful expression of the creative activity of the divine Being”12. God has created Beauty (personified in the Queen of Beauty), but she never appears in all her glory, to take her place on the ”empty throne of Beauty, that awaits you… that has been waiting for you for a long time”:

(…) The eternal Allah, who scattered the stars across the sky, the birds in the air…buried in the depths of the sea pearls, gold and corals… and sent her to the earth – the most beautiful part of his great act – as his favourite ornament… That is why we are thirsty of her juice and hungry of her smiling soul… Appear to us, queen…! We will take you through the sunny clouds and put you on the empty throne of Beauty, that awaits you… that has been waiting for you for a long time. (…)

The impossibility of fullness and unity of the world is expressed symbolically most strikingly in the poem The Chipped Minaret. The minaret is a symbol of the human striving for God’s vertical, but a chipped minaret is an obvious image of the disintegrated unity of God and man. That unity, according to Muradbegović, was once possible, the poet implies this in verses that bring out the ambience of a distinctive age, ”when midnight barges in…”, and ”in the mystical darkness the legend prowls,” in which ”the songs of the fountain gently wake, / In the silver cloak of old moonlight, / The joy of dead Ramadans arises”. For a moment, everything in that awakened harmony comes alive: ”From the

11 Muslim spiritual songs. 12 Uzeir Bačvić, The Poetry of Ahmed Muradbegović in: Enes Duraković, Bosniak Literature in

Literary Criticism, p. 185.

graves a forest of black shadows grows, / With long scarves; lanterns and candles / Light the darkness; a procession / Of children and women moves through the scattered temple…”. However, in the morning, ”when the old muezzin / Wakes the sun with song and extinguishes the lamplets,” the harmony disappears, only its illusion remains, in which shadows ”lightly flee across the sky, like waves…”.

The expressionist vision of cosmic disintegration is present in Muradbegović’s poem The Funeral. ”In it the ties between man, God and the cosmic universe are broken. Instead of the titanic exaltation of The Poplars and human self-annulment in the presence of divine universality in The Prayer, in The Funeral ”proud weakness” appears as a symbol of divine omnipotence directed against nature and people in the fated moment of absolute catastrophe”13.

Muradbegović realises the culmination of the religious tendency towards unity with God in a longer poem, almost an epic poem, The Caravan Leader. This ”epic image” as the author calls it, which contains nothing of the epic (except, perhaps, the image of a historical event in the fancy of the Muslim world, and the pathos with which that event is ”told”), — is a lyrical transposition of the journey of Mohammed ”as the leader of the caravan of the wealthy Hatidja, later his wife – and at the moment when national and religious ideas stir within him, when he is troubled by the secret of existence and when his innards are shaken by the force of his impetuous genius”. The author provides us with this explanation of the protagonist at the end of the poem. Without it we would scarce be able to identify him as the last messiah. The denomination of the lyrical subject is, in this case, effective: on the one hand, it has enabled complete lyricisation of expression, and on the other, it has generalised and completely humanised a religious existence. Finally, the author’s nomination of the lyrical subject (only) in the additional explanatory note raises to a higher level the essential questions posed by the lyrical protagonist to himself and to us. For example, he asks:

(…) God! – why did you shackle me with cliffs And stifle with the cloak of heaven’s arcade

13 Ibid, p. 185.

My vision? – and now the universe Is a secret to me, deep and mute…(…)

Such questions are pre-messianic, God’s messiah cannot ask such questions, but they are applicable to every man, so even to Mohammed, who is coming closer to God. This drawing near transpires through prayer, first to destroy phenomena and objects unsuited for God, and then to experience the highest level of cognisance – to see ”God’s face”:

(…) Give me the seal of knowledge, give me thunders, Beneath the dome of the Kaaba, to rise again Crumble to dust pagan idols And false gods – the faith of forefathers! Let me see You, God, my lord, And like a faithful servant, fall prone Before your eternity and with immense ardour. To absorb Your divine face. Let me see You! And like a rising river Swell with the force of truth and faith (…)

The reaching of God, still, remains only a tendency, a wish and plea (that will be fulfilled only later, and crowned by the messianic appointment). Muradbegović goes no further, his decomposition of the mystical unity of the world is thus ended and completed, with the amplitude reaching from the cracked elementarity of nature and man, over the impossibility of melting with the Divine through the primary relation (prayer) towards Him, to the pre-messianic phase of cognisance.

Translated by Ulvija Tanović


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