who associates activity and joy with impiety, moral transgression, and shameful acts.
Images related to immobility and indifference occupied Arab intellectuals since the late 19th century. Many argued the idea that culture, religion, and civilization should not change in response to the circumstances of the modern world, and stifled the development of the East. In modern Arab intellectual discourses, the root causes for the stagnation [jumud] of the East were related to a host of practices and beliefs: the conduct of illogical ulama’, the fact that contemporary Muslims turned their back on scientific inquiry, or, as argued in the mantra of some nationalists, the foreign influences (Turkish or Persian) that caused Arab culture to standstill. In Balbul’s poem, stagnation is considered an extremely negative feature. It is associated with the sponge, a creature that clings to the familiar and the traditional, prizes inactivity, and is envious of those who lead a liberated life. It is worth noting that Iraqi political elites as well as religious authorities often rebuked the young effendia (the urban middle classes) for wasting their time in the pursuit of worldly pleasure and leisure. The sponge, then, could have signified any group of conservatives, religious and secular alike, who are hostile to free movement and mobility.
As opposed to the rigidity of the sponge, the poem celebrates movement. Social mobility, transformation, and movement were important themes in modern Iraq. Starting in the 1860s and continuing more vigorously in the interwar period, Iraq’s communication and transportation services improved: construction of roads, bridges on the Tigris and the Euphrates, railways, and the pavement of streets within the cities linked quarters of the cities together, and made the movement from city to city safer and quicker. Iraqi intellectuals articulated the position that these acts were not only a mere improvement of one’s living conditions, but rather symbolized modernity itself. The emergence of Baghdad as the cultural and political hub of interwar Iraq changed the movement of individuals within the city itself. As reading clubs and societies were opened and the number of schools increased, spatial practices transformed accordingly; individuals who walked the city’s streets now included children moving between neighborhoods on their way to schools and students going to the colleges in the city; young men on their way to cafés, cinemas, literary salons, and nightclubs; as well as shoppers interested in merchandize in al-Rashid street or the newest Western commodities sold in Rozdi Beg Department
180 BANIPAL 72 – AUTUMN/WINTER 2021