Book Review - Nagham: The Land of Poetry, Music and Sindbad

Amira Noshokaty , Sunday 14 Jun 2020

In the second of a series reviewing one of the most enchanting intangible heritage books in modern Arab history, we walk in the footsteps of prophets, poets and epics: Iraq

"The book of Genesis 10-14 describes Degla and Euphrates to be two of the four rivers of paradise. Watering Eden, the main river branched into four; Degla and Euphrates were the two carrying the water of life, where the oldest civilisations between such rivers has flourished."
These are the opening lines of the second book of the series, From the Memory of Land and River (Al-Balsam Publishing House) by Dr Ibrahim Shalaby, a renowned Egyptian physician who started his writing career in 2013. With the aim to reveal Egyptian and world heritage to the younger generation, Shalaby is inspired by fruits and how they carry the collective memory of the places in which they are planted.
Starting off by tracing the origins of the Nile civilization through the life cycle of a Guava, named Aziza, in his second book he depicts Dates as his fruit of choice that he calls Nagham (Tunes).
Dates and the palm tree in general have a grand status in Arab civilisation, which holds 80 percent of the palm trees worldwide. The oldest record of palm trees dates back to around 7,000 BC and is said to be in the land between the Arab Gulf and the fertile crescent (the land between Degla, Euphrates and part of the Levantine).
"Known as the palm of eternity, or the first tree of life, in Iraq, the palm tree symbolised the deity of fertility Tammuz. In the Sumerian and Assyrian ancient civilisations of Iraq, Tammuz was affiliated with the Babylonian/Assyrian New Year's Eve celebration, 1 April. It is an ancient celebration of the resurrection of Tammuz, the shepherd, and his wife, the goddess of love Eshtar, whose union flooded the face of the earth with greenery and fertility," reads the book that sails swiftly on the banks of history where the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded and written human history, was found.
The book then depicts the gems of Iraqi Arab and Islamic civilisation and marvels at its golden era. "I love you twice, once like lovers do and the second is because you deserve to be loved" are the Sufi verses of one of the most inspirational women/Sufi figures Rabaa El-Adawia who was born in Basra. Another key Iraqi figure that left their mark in history is Sibaweih, the author of the first book to compile the grammar of the Arabic language. And then there is Ibn Al Haytham. Known as "the prince of light”, the first Arab physician to dissect the human eye, Al-Haytham founded the principles of the camera and the laws of optics in general.
Then the book embarks on one of the seventh voyages of Sindbad, the legendary sailor that sailed the seven seas and came back with pearls of wisdom and endless stories that enriched Arabic heritage. Sindbad the Iraqi sailor.
The palm trees also remembered the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, which was the golden era of Islamic civilisation. Prosperity in arts and culture was the main theme in this reign, highlighting the excellence and brilliance of poets like Al-Motanabi, and master of muashahat (the classical Arabic music genre) Othman Al-Mawseli.
The book also follows the trails of Abraham, Khedr, Idris and Younis, all prophets mentioned in the holy books, who lived in this part of the world and left a deep legacy.
Then we reach the east bank of Degla river where we take notice of Samraa or (Sur Man Raa, meaning "it gives joy to whoever sees it”), the spectacular over 5,000 year old city that beholds the ruins of the largest palaces in the Islamic world.
Then comes El-Kufa where Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the fourth Rashidin Caliph, was killed in one of the most tragic episodes in Islamic history.
"If being fanatic is necessary, then do side with good manners and deeds," was one of many teachings and humanitarian philosophies that Ali Ibn Abi Taleb left in his wake.
The book also beholds a brief history of Arabic calligraphy.
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