Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Folk Poetry: Integral Cultural Heritage

Iraqi Folk poetry is a unique and popular cultural tool that illustrates the daily life of all Iraqis by tackling all social and political topics.

Iraqi Folk Poetry
A mural depicting Iraqi poet Muzzafar al-Nawab was drawn on a concrete structure in the capital Baghdad on April 26, 2022. AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

Folk poetry is one of the most widespread icons of Iraqi popular culture. Interestingly, Iraqi youth memorise verses of folk poetry composed in the Iraqi dialect and share them on social media.

Folk Poetry plays a significant role in the day-to-day existence of Iraqis. A celebrated poet becomes a voice for the people, skilfully capturing and portraying their experiences in various life aspects, whether at home, at work, or in general.

The post-war generation certainly knows their folk poets: Erian Al-Sayed Khalaf, Muzaffar al-Nawab, Kazim al-Qate’ and Kazim al-Samawi. However, they may not be familiar with great Iraqi poets such as Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati.

There are multiple reasons why folk poetry holds a prestigious status in Iraq. Firstly, the poets themselves are deeply ingrained in the lives and worries of everyday Iraqis. Furthermore, their poetic expressions create artistic imagery that resonates with both the educated elite and the working class.


Folk poetry in Iraq bears many names, such as Nabati and Badawi.

Folk poetry is called Nabati because it is derived from Classical Arabic poetry. There are different explanations for the origin of this name. Some attribute it to Wadi Nabat, located near Medina in Saudi Arabia. Others connect it to the Nabataeans who inhabited ancient Iraq.

Additionally, Iraqis refer to this genre as colloquial poetry because it deviates linguistically, grammatically, and in other ways from the norms of classical poetry.

The term “Badawi” is also used to refer to folk poetry. Its vocabulary is derived from the Bedouin dialect. Many of its poets come from Bedouin backgrounds. This type of poetry is predominantly found in rural areas and gained prominence in urban centres as people began migrating there. Ibn Khaldun may have been among the first to mention this kind of genre. He is widely regarded as the first to document colloquial poetry and draw comparisons with classical poetry.

In the first volume of Tareekh Ibn Khaldun, the well-known historian stated that: “The tongue of the Mudar tribe [classical Arabic] did corrupt.” According to him, their language, whose rules were duly inscribed, became mingled with foreign elements. As a result, Arabs turned aside from the language of their forebears in its entirety, both in the matter of grammar, morphology, and others.

And likewise, in urban areas and frontiers, “another language did arise among the dwellers, differing from the tongue of the Mudar in grammar, morphology, and syntax,” added Ibn Khaldun.

These changes did not hinder poetry, as Ibn Khaldun thought. However, Arabic poetry became heavily influenced by the poet’s dialect. For example, in the Maghreb, poems written in the local dialect are called Asma’iyyat after the poet al-Asma’i. In Mashreq countries, it is called Bedouin poetry.

Based on what Ibn Khaldun stated, folk poetry has apparently ancient roots and its origin preceded the well-known Arab sociologist and historian.

It should also be noted that some do not consider folk poetry derived from Classical Arabic but precedes it. Colloquial Arabic existed alongside Classical Arabic during its most influential era.

In his book “History of Arabs Literature”, Mostafa Saadeq al-Rafe’ie provides insight about this thought. “We do not know the origin of colloquial poetry or its origin,” he writes, “However, we do not doubt that it is ancient and appeared around the first Hijri century.”

Characteristics and Types

Folk poetry in Iraq embodies a compilation of colloquial verses that showcase the genuine essence of everyday life for Iraqis. While classical poetry portrays a polished image of Iraq, folk poetry unveils the common people’s authentic experiences, joys, and sorrows. It also delves into the love lives of the younger generation, which greatly captivates their interest and fascination.

Another advantage of folk poetry is that it is more singable than classical poetry. Folk poetry deals with praise, lamentation, flirtation, satire, pride, sadness, joy, pain, and public and private events.

Folk poetry is divided into over 42 genres. The most famous are al-Amoudi, al-Hurr, al-Darmi, al-Zuhairi, al-Abuthiyya and al-Ataba.

Al-Darmi poets have a distinct poetic style. They craft a unique form of verse, organising it into two parts with a single rhyme, akin to a tweet, to convey a story or event. This style of poetry enjoys popularity in the southern Iraqi regions, particularly in Nasiriyah. Here are some examples of prideful al-darmi poems:

Who faces death from you does it without a trembling heart,
No self-blame, nor retreat, plays their part.

Amoudi poems are the most common type of folk poetry. It is built on one or more rhymes. Iraqi dialects, such as Baghdadi, Mosuli, Jazrawi, Ramadi, and Southern, are all used in composing Amoudi poems.

Al-Zuhairi poems often consist of seven parts, each telling a story. The first and second three parts each end with a different paronomasia. The Zuhairi poem concludes with a final seventh part that ends with the same paronomasia as the first three.

Zayer al-Duwaij wrote an excellent example of this kind of poetry. His poem can be translated as the following:

Oh, my companion, tears flow in vain,
Whenever you call, my heart echoes in pain,
Beware! I forbid you to part with me again,
For my body ails, damaged by your separation’s toll.
Since you left, I gaze upon your trail,
I place my hand on my horse’s reins, yearning to follow you.
Wherever you may go, my spirit is bound to you and shall faithfully pursue

Abuthiyya consists of four parts. The first three parts end with the same paronomasia, while the fourth ends with the Arabic letters “Yaa” and “Haa’”. A good example of an Abuthiyaa is a poem of Sabah al-Hilali. It can be translated as the following:

Nights of separation passed like years in stride,
The once delicious food now tastes bitter inside.
My heart leapt upon hearing the mobile phone ring aside,
For I felt my soul was reaching out to my beloved.

On the other hand, paronomasia in Ataba poems is more important than rhyming.

The Three Pillars of Poems

Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish did not exaggerate when he wrote in his poem I Remember al-Sayyab:

I remember al-Sayyab … Poetry is born in Iraq,
So belong to Iraq – become a poet, my friend!

Iraqi poets are known for preserving the magic classicism of Arabic poetry while being able to modernise, develop and create something unique. Arab writers call Iraq “the country of poets.” This title includes not only classical poetry, but also folk poetry.

The list of most well-known Iraqi poets includes Muzaffar al-Nawab, Arian Al-Sayed Khalaf and Kazim al-Qate’. These three poets channelled Iraqi society through their poetry. They also delved in-depth into social and political issues, using colloquial vocabulary and poetic imagery adapted from Iraqi reality. The impact of their poems often exceeded classical poetry.

Muzaffar al-Nawab is one of the main renovators of Iraqi folk poetry. He innovated a new style away from the prevalent themes. His masterpiece Violet Night was also a major cultural phenomenon because of its supple symbolism. In this poem, al-Nawab sets a wonderful example of the sweetness of Iraqi spoken poetry, with its delicacy and simplicity that can also be deep. Al-Nawab creates a serene character in this poem through his exceptional recital abilities.

Following al-Nawab is his disciple, fellow prisoner, and poet, Arian Al-Sayed Khalaf. According to Iraqi writer and critic Ali Jawad Al-Taher, Khalaf elevated folk poetry to stand alongside classical poetry. It is reflected in how popular Khalaf and his poems are.

Poet Saadi Youssef says of Khalaf: “This is a folk poet whose poems are printed in tens of thousands. When recited, these poems touch the hearts of the listeners.” A prime example is the following verses:

“Amidst pain and worry’s distressing thrall,
I rise with determination, standing tall.
Excessive praise holds no allure for me,
Nor do my foes’ words occupy my reverie.”

As al-Nawab and Khalaf, Kazim al-Qate’ is a prominent folk poet. His poetry is characterised by the freshness of the poetic imagery. His poems are very personal and illustrate the reality of daily life. One of the main traits of Al-Qate’ is his reliance on easy and simple vocabulary. He is known for his lamentation poems, especially for his son Haidar, who was mysteriously killed, and his wife, Zakiya.

One of his most famous and saddest poems is Tonight I Die:

Tonight, I die.
Tonight is the final night.
The cloud extends its hand over my head,
And the rain pours heavily.
Tonight, life is like a water vessel
Filled with sleepless love and pouring drops.
Oh mother, oh mother,
Hold me tight on the night of my death.

In short, Al-Nawab, Khalaf, and Al-Qate’ contributed significantly to popularising folk poems in Iraq and the rest of the Arab world.

Dialect’s Challenge

The secret to the success of Levantine and Egyptian folk poems lies in the popularity and simplicity of the vocabulary of those dialects. In contrast, the Iraqi dialect relies on a more pronounced vocabulary. Iraqi folk poems are written in the colloquial dialect, which can be difficult for non-Iraqis to understand.

Egyptian music and soap operas helped the Egyptian dialect spread, especially since many Arab singers, regardless of nationality, use it. In contrast, the Iraqi soap opera industry is not very popular outside of Iraq.

According to Iraqi poet Adham Moussa, Arabs do not understand the Iraqi dialect because they are not exposed to it. In an interview with Fanack, Moussa said: “Let’s reverse the question: Why is the Egyptian dialect so easily understood? Because Arabs got to know it in two ways: First, through film and soap operas, which are so popular throughout the Arab world. Second, Arabs are familiar with the Egyptian dialect through music. Without these two factors, we would not understand the Egyptian dialect.”

He added: “Unfortunately, our audience is limited to Iraq and some eastern provinces of Syria. To reach the rest of the Arab world, we must first popularise our culture and dialect.”

Another reason preventing the spread of Iraqi folk poetry is the many long-term wars and conflicts Iraq has experienced.

Most Famous Iraqi Songs

Iraqi music has always played a significant role in Iraq’s artistic history. Since the 1950s, Iraqi music has become an aesthetic icon. However, Iraqi music exploded in the 1960s, when a brilliant generation of musicians emerged. The most popular songs of the time were based on Iraqi folk poems.

Perhaps the most prominent of these poems is No Sadness, but Sad by Muzaffar al-Nawab and sung by Saadoun Jaber and Yas Khader. At the time of writing the poem, former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein banned writing or singing any sad poems. Hussein’s decision prompted Al-Nawab to write the poem.

Notable poems that found their way into Iraqi music include The Train and Hamad by Al-Nawab and Miss Me by Arian Khalaf.

Educated Audience

Some attribute the popularity of folk poetry to the decline of Classical Arabic. However, many poets are against that notion. Folk poet Anas al-Mohammed informed Fanack that many of his readers are intellectuals with university degrees. “Folk poetry derives its status and influence today from its ability to connect to all citizens, even the illiterate ones,” he added.

Ali Kazim, an owner of a café, told Fanack that social media and the exposure of rural society to the world have greatly helped spread folk poetry. “The Hussainiya mass meetings also played a vital and significant role in the spread of folk poetry,” he added.

Whether we agree or not, folk poetry has become decisive in the life of all Iraqis. It is very difficult to erase it from the minds and hearts of people who have come to use it for weddings, sorrows, and even proverbs.

Fanack Water Palestine