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Stability lets Basra, a city of poets, return to its roots

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But poetry here goes back centuries. To Iraqis, it is like breathing. In radio programs in Baghdad, callers phone in to request poems the same way one requests a favorite song. The death of a major poet is an occasion of national mourning.

Basra, as part of ancient Sumer, had an advanced civilization 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians were believed to have invented the first system of writing. The city, on the Shatt al-Arab, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet, is the setting for the epic tale of Sinbad the Sailor and tens of thousands of poems that followed.

Poets, poets everywhere

These days, you can barely turn around in Basra without running into a poet.

On the corniche along the Shatt al-Arab, where families stroll after dusk, two earnest young poets carrying copybooks lean against the railing watching the boats go by.

One of the boats carries a wedding party – young men wearing denim jeans beating drums and dancing with joyous abandon on the roof – a sight unthinkable before last spring.

Ali al-Munsury and Saif al-Hilifi, both university students at the University of Basra, write shaaby poetry – popular or street poetry – written and recited in colloquial dialect rather than the more complex classical Arabic. Often turned into popular songs, it's poetry for the masses.

"We are writing popular poetry because of our love and respect for traditional literature," says Mr. Mansury, complaining that government cultural officials don't take them seriously. When Basra was recently declared Iraq's cultural capital by the Iraqi government, no popular poets were invited to the ceremony, he says.

Love – and security – are favorite topics

In the intensely emotional Arab culture, most poems are about love, much of it the hopeless kind. But among Basra's younger generation of poets, there's a twist. "Most of the poetry we write is about the security situation and the tragedy in Iraq – I write about the widows and orphans," says Mansury, whose biggest concern isn't romance – it's finding a job when he graduates.

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