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A slam with a difference

From Ali & Nino, a novel by Kurban Said (first publ Vienna 1937,).
My reading group is reading this at the moment and a couple of pages jumped out, for what they say about performance poetry. With apologies for the sexism in the excerpt, and tongue in cheek, do they have any hints for how we might run competitions now?

In the novel - a conversation about 100 years ago between Ali and Mustafa, a resident of town called Shusha in the Caucasus with a mixed Muslim Armenian population

“Were all these poets from Karabagh too?” I interrupted.
“No, noble sir, but our poets are better, even if they refuse to imprison their words in dead letters. They are too proud to write down their poems – they just recited them.”
“Who are these poets? The Ashouks?”

“Yes, the Ashouks,” the man said weightily. “They live in the villages around Shusha, and tomorrow they hold a competition. Will you go and marvel at them?”

Native poets live in almost every village of Karabagh. They compose poems throughout the winter, and in spring they come out into the world to recite their songs in huts and palaces. But there are three villages which are populated by poets only, and to show the high esteem in which the Orient holds poetry, these villages are freed from all taxes and tributes. One of these villages is Tash-Kenda.

It needed but one glance to show that the men of this village were no ordinary farmers. The men wore their hair long, their robes were of silk, and they looked at each other suspiciously. Their women walked behind them, looking depressed, carrying their musical instruments. The village was full of rich Armenians and Mohameddans, who had come from all over the country to admire the Ashouks. An eager crowd had gathered in the little main square. In the centre stood two valiant lords of song, who were here to fight a hard duel. They looked at each other with scorn. Their long hair fluttered in the breeze. One of them cried: “Your clothes stink of dung, your face is that of a pig, your talent is as thin as the hair on a virgin's stomach, and for a little money you would compose a poem on your own shame.”

The other answered, barking grimly: “You wear the robe of a pimp, you have the voice of a eunuch. You cannot sell your talent, because you never had any. You live off the crumbs that fall from the festive table of my genius.”

So they went on slanging each other fervently and not a little monotonously. The public clapped. Then an old grey-haired man with the face of an apostle arrived and announced the two themes for the competition: 'the moon over the river Araxes' and 'the death of Aga Mohammed Shah!' The poets looked up to the sky. Then they sang. They sang of the grim eunuch Aga Mohammed Shah, who travelled to Tiflis, there to regain his lost virility at the sulphur springs. When the springs failed to help him, the eunuch destroyed the town and had all men and women in it cruelly executed. But fate overtook him on his way back in Karabagh. During the night, when he was asleep in his tent, he was stabbed to death. The great Shah had not enjoyed life. On his campaigns he had suffered hunger, had eaten black bread and drunk sour milk. He conquered innumerable countries and was poorer than a beggar in the desert. The eunuch Aga Mohammed Shah. All this they recited in classic verses. One of them described at great lengths the sufferings of the eunuch in the land of the most beautiful women in the world, while the other described at equally great length the execution of these women. The public was satisfied. Sweat fell in heavy drops from the poets' foreheads. Then the more soft-spoken one cried out: “What is like the moon over the Araxes?”
“The face of thy beloved,” interrupted the grim one.
“Mild is the moon's gold!” cried the soft-spoken one.
“No it is like a fallen warrior's shield,” replied the grim one.

In time they exhausted their similes. Then each of them sang a song about the beauty of the moon, of the River Araxes, that winds like a maiden's plait through the plain, and of lovers who come to the banks at night to look at the moon reflected in the waters of the Araxes.....The grim one was declared to be the winner, and with an evil smile he took his opponent's lute. I went to him. He looked glum, while his bowl was being filled with coins. “Are you happy to have won?” I asked him.

He spat disgustedly. “This is no victory, sir. In former times there were victories. A hundred years ago the victor was allowed to cut the vanquished one's head off. In those days art was held in high esteem. Now we have become soft. No one gives his blood for a poem any more.”
“You are now the best poet in the country.”
“No,” he repeated. “I am just a craftsman. I am no real Ashouk”
“What is a real Ashouk?”
“In the month of Ramadan,” said the grim one, “there is a mysterious night, the night called Kadir. During this night all nature sleeps for an hour. Rivers cease to flow, the evil spirits do not guard their treasures. Grass can be heard growing and trees talking. Nymphs arise from the rivers, and those men who are fathered during this night become wise men and poets. On this night the poet must call the Prophet Elias, the patron saint of all poets. At the right hour, the Prophet appears, lets the poet drink from his bowl and says to him: “From now on you are a real Ashouk, and you will see everything in the world with my eyes”. He who is thus blessed, rules over the elements: animals and men, winds and seas obey his voice, for in his word is the Power of the Prophet.” The grim one sat down on the ground and rested his face in his hands. The he wept quickly and bitterly. He said “But nobody knows which night is the Night Kadir, nor which hour of the Night is the Hour of Sleep. And there are no real Ashouks any more.”

Fri, 17 Jun 2011 02:29 pm
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stella jones

;) Aye I know a couple of grim ones..beheading would be a tad messy although I have a few ideas and none tooo perverse!
Fri, 15 Jul 2011 10:00 pm
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Mmmm, beheading must be messy but the illegality might be a bigger problem. Don't expect it'll catch on here.
Sun, 17 Jul 2011 09:35 pm
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This sounds like a club I used to go to in Barnsley.
Mon, 18 Jul 2011 11:08 pm
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stella jones

Do tell John I am intrigued LOL
Wed, 20 Jul 2011 11:18 pm
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