Arabic Poetry: Guzzle a Ghazal!

The Bedouins of ancient Arabia and Persia made poetry a conversational art form. Several poetic forms developed from the participatory nature of tribal poetry. Today in most Arabic cultures, you may still experience public storytelling and spontaneous poetry challenges in the streets. The art of turning a rhyme into sly verbal sparring is considered a mark of intelligence and a badge of honor.

The ghazal (pronounced "guzzle") is an intricate pre-Islamic poetic form that is thought to have developed through the practice of poetic challenges. It is a series of couplets, called shers, no more than a dozen or so, which are related, but not connecting in a narrative pattern. The first couplet, or matla, has a rhyme pattern, kaafiyaa, preceding a single word or short phrase refrain, radif, at the end of each line. Thereafter, every couplet shows a pattern wherein the first line doesn't rhyme, but the second line ends in the kaafiyaa and the radif. Finally, the last couplet, the maqta, contains the takhallis, the poet's name or pen-name.

This complex structure requires careful insights and an understanding of irony and word-play. It dates to pre-Islamic times, yet remains current, forming the lyrical base of much popular music in India, Iraq, and Iran. Students will enjoy discovering the rules of ghazal writing through observation and inference.

Guiding Questions

What is a ghazal, how did it evolve, and why has it remained a popular form of Arabic poetry until today?

What elements and structures does this pre-Islamic poetic form contain?

How does the rhyming pattern of the ghazal compare to that of common forms of poetry in English?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to: experience an Arabic poetic form

identify the elements: shayar, sher, beher, matla, radif, kaafiyaa, takhallis, and maqta associated with a ghazal

recognize the structure of a ghazal as a series of discrete couplets using rhyme and refrain in the second line of each couplet, and in which the author makes a self-reference in the final couplet, by observing similarities among three sample ghazals

speculate about the origin of the form and suggest reasons for the structure

appreciate the craft of incorporating word-play in writing a ghazal in order to retain interest in the refrain or to change the meaning of the refrain in context