During the war in the Gulf, traditional Bedouin poetry became a weapon in the arsenal of Arabs confronting each other. For hours on end, Saudi, Iraqi and Kuwaiti (in exile) television broadcast readings by poets. Like Balaam, they were summoned to curse in rhyme, and their repertory was the pièce de rèsistance of the propaganda feast served up by the local media each day.

The two Arab camps traded insults over the airwaves in archaic language, following strict rules, and in rhyme.

Thus, this ancient Semitic tradition lives on to our day in the culture of Bedouin Arab societies. For centuries, the most adored poets in the canon of Arabic literature have been not the writers of love poems (though there has been no lack of these) but rhymesters such as Ta‘abatta Sharran (loosely, “He Who Carried a Snake Under His Arm”), who in the sixth century won this colorful epithet with his flair for offense, insult and scathing doses of verbal venom. He was not alone. A whole gallery of ancient poets who specialized in the art of cursing and blessing are known to almost every Arab schoolchild.

The rhymed pronouncements of these ancient bards—a highly developed genre known as hija’, or execration poetry—are composed in a handful of formats with meters and rhyme schemes as rigid as those of a Shakespearean sonnet. In its classical form, for example, hija’ poetry always begins with a barrage of boasting. One typical and famous opening boasts, “Oh, I am the man whose honor has never been soiled. / And each robe I wear is exquisite,” After a few stanzas, the poem gets down to the business of vilification. “Lower your eyes, for you come from the tribe of Numire / And will never attain the stature of Kilab” is its warm-up to a stream of abuse.

Classical hija’ poetry dates from the pre-Islamic era, which Muslims refer to as the Jahiliya, or Age of Ignorance, a term they have come to use as a metaphor for anything crass or boorish Arab discourse or behavior. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, the Arab peoples involved in the confrontation reached back to their earliest cultural roots for form that would serve their needs.

The result was the revival of hija’.

The hija’ programs served as far more than popular entertainment. Besides helping audiences to psych up for a shooting war, they provided channels for a kind of offbeat diplomacy by which messages were transmitted across the lines. By the strength of the vitriol or by a shift from mocking the enemy’s leaders to exalting one’s own, one could gauge the mood of adversaries. Saddam Hussein and King Fahd are said to have received daily summaries and “intelligence assessments” of what the other side’s bards had to say.

The poems treat a number of themes, but their rancor was usually aimed at the other side’s leader. Every possible negative trait and contemptible deed is ascribed to him, but above all he is berated for being a bad neighbor, attacking by stealth at night and forgetting past favors—all gross violations of the old Bedouin ethic.

Other popular themes touched on associations with the non-Arab players in the Gulf drama. Women soldiers were a favorite subject in the poets’ fulminations. The Iraqis sneered at King Fahd for hiding behind their skirts—a variation on a classic motif in ancient Arabic verse, and probably the most degrading portrayal of the Arab male

The Saudis Hit back with the ultimate insult: denouncing Sadaam as a Jew! A Saudi bard Thundered into the microphone like the voice of doom:

“Saddam, O Sadaam,

Of our flesh not are you,

Claim not to be a Muslim,

For you are truly a Jew.

Your deeds have proved ugly.

Your face is darkest black,

And we will set fire

To your bottom and your back”

At times in the past, warfare has actually been averted when antagonists vented their aggression in verse. Although the curse-and-bless prelude was originally designed to gear enemies up for an armed clash, it has also had the effect of substituting for physical combat. The question of who is better, therefore, takes on considerable importance, whose barbs have been more devastating? Whose poets have produced more quotable quotes?

Few will deny that the Saudis won the verbal war hands down. Because their educational curriculum has helped to preserve tribal traditions, especially in rural areas, the Saudis’ rhymes have more authentic and resonant quality, whereas the Iraqis and handicapped by the pseudo-Marxist indoctrination of the ruling Baath Party, which has warped their native sensibility. Aware that they trailed, the Iraqis called in reinforcements in the form of Yemeni tribesmen from remote mountain regions, Egyptians from a community in Baghdad and an array of political exiles—Palestinians and others—who flocked to Saddam’s banner.

In the hija’ tradition, the switch from cursing to blessing, from biting a hand to kissing it, can be made swiftly, almost abruptly, without any loss of face. The poet who heaps invective upon an enemy today can ooze unction on him tomorrow. Such prudent agility is one of the rules set down by the master of hija’ Ta’abara Sharan. Traditional Arabs applaud it as the epitome of finesse.

(Adapted from Atlantic magazine, “Curses in Verses,” February 1991.)