Maysan’s Pop Culture Stars Practise An Ancient Art

by Haider al-Husseini / Maysan

Singing Their Praises: 

In southern Iraq, singer-poets who are paid to sing the praises of honourees at weddings, funerals and other events are becoming as popular as your average pop star. But behind the trend lurk some worrying tribal trends. 

There is a new trend in popular culture in southern Iraq – but in fact, it is actually a far older trend. It concerns what are known as “the mahaweel” – in English, people who praise. These are poets and singers who are hired to poetically praise, for example, guests of honour at tribal gatherings, the bride or groom at a wedding or the deceased at a funeral.

These singer-poets tend to be a very tribal phenomenon. And as Iraqi tribes have gained in power and influence over the past decade, the singer-poets have also become more popular. Dozens of them have emerged and many young people have become fans of what they do. There has even been an association formed for the poets.

“Each of the mahaweel have their own fans – a base who follows them, listens to their songs and takes pictures with them, if they meet,” explains Ismail al-Mousawi, a local poet. “There are many videos posted online – a number of them are from Maysan – and young people seem to be addicted to them.”

“The videos of Maysan’s mahaweel are becoming so popular,” adds Ahmad Uraibi, the owner of a local shop selling and servicing mobile phones. “Every day we get requests to download these songs onto people’s mobile phones. In fact, some people are even buying CDs of the mahaweel to listen to in their cars.”

Mahaweel are paid for their work. The amount depends on the fame and popularity of the poet-singer but on average a meewhal (the singular of mahaweel) earns around US$400 per occasion. Part of this amount comes from tips given by the audience.

Uday al-Kaabi, 37, heads the Mahaweel association in Maysan province and he thinks the current phenomenon has its roots in ancient times, both in the pre-Islamic and Islamic era. “Arab poets would use satire to attack their enemies and then songs of praise to earn money,” he told NIQASH.

Historically the poet-singers used to praise kings and caliphs and they were rewarded with cash and gifts. A big difference between the new generation of mahaweel in Maysan and the ancient ones is that those of Maysan sing their praises in old southern Iraqi dialect, rather than classical Arabic.

Modern mahaweel are also trying out new kinds of performance, such as having several of the poets singing together when they just used to sing solo before. Some mahaweel are also enlisting the aid of real poets and writers, who compose lyrics and give them to the mahaweel to sing; the composers and performers share the fees and the glory.

Mahaweel show up at all kinds of occasions. They are almost compulsory at funerals and weddings. But they are also invited to events like the homecoming of a detainee, politicians’ visits, festivals or when pilgrims return from a visit to Mecca.

Most of the poet-singers don’t even study classical poetry. Indeed, some of them are illiterate.

For example, one local meewhal Haider al-Kaabi is a farmer – but his grandfather was a famous meewhal and he too can memorise poetry. “My love of poetry means that I can memorise poems easily,” he told NIQASH. “I want to follow in the footsteps of important poets.”

Some tribes keep their own mahaweel, so that the singer-poets can praise their leaders and the clan. A tribe may have a chief meewhal who leads a group of other poets, all of whom write verse and sing.

“Some of the mahaweel stay out of politics and they only write poems praising their own tribes,” notes Ali Sami, a Maysan poet-singer.

Today many singer-poets try to avoid controversy, al-Kaabi concedes. “We might respond to things that happen on quiet occasions,” al-Kaabi says.

There are some mahaweel who are more daring though. Ashour al-Asadi is a meewhal who addressed the Iraqi Parliament in this way, describing the conditions of life under the current regime. 

Not everyone is happy about the cultural phenomenon.

The re-emergence and growing popularity of Maysan’s mahaweel is due to the growing power of tribal groups in Iraq, suggests Abdul Muhsen al-Naqabi, a local historian. The “tribal class” as it is known, is becoming more powerful than the state, al-Naqabi suggests. “This kind of unjustified praise and these baseless compliments bolster egos and that misplaced pride, in turn, causes fighting between the sons of the tribes,” al-Naqabi complains.

“Some of the praise is beyond reality and isn’t justified,” agrees Ammar al-Ali, a Maysan tribal leader. “People are being praised for qualities they just don’t have. It’s so far beyond reality, it’s not funny. The mahaweel are just doing this for money, praising people who do not deserve it.”