[Viewpoint]The poetry of leadership“Who may you be? You torture and I forgive/ Who may you be? You argue and I reconcile/ And all you own, you are a gazelle grazing/ The first among thousands of eyes/ Why love and obey, who may you be?/ Who may you be to govern my fate?/ And why divert, for your eyes, my way?/ I submit to your command, wondrous, and you my captive/ Leaving me between suspicion and illusion.”
Those are the opening lines of the poem, “Who may you be?” Written in a lyrical style loved by Arabs since the 16th century, its tone is similar to “Submission,” written by the Korean poet Han Yong-oon, who was a spiritual leader here when the country was under Japanese rule.
The author of this lyrical poem is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president of the United Arab Emirates and prime minister of Dubai, the man credited with helping to turn Dubai into “the New York of the Middle East” with his aggressive development agenda.
Sheikh Mohammed, who turned 57 this year, has been writing poetry since his school days. Sixty-six poems are posted on his Internet home page on such diverse subjects as life, love and politics. One concerns the death of a young Palestin-ian boy who was killed in the war between Israel and Palestine.
“Poetry is useless if it fails to describe the desires, dreams, hopes and pain of the people,” Mohammed has said. “Poetry has contributed to the development of the United Arab Emirates.” He bemoaned in an interview that “people often forget that everything in our life is beautiful,” because they are spending too much time chatting on the Internet. His is a sigh of grief from one who knows the beauty of verse.
It seems that the prime minister of Dubai, who recently concluded his first official visit to Seoul, has a dual personality. On the one hand, he is an artist, and on the other, he is a ruler of a dynamic Arab emirate. But is there a reason to decide between the two? He is both.
What he has done in Dubai is frankly amazing. Mohammed has built indoor skiing slopes so that people can enjoy snow in the land of hot sands where the temperature can climb above 50 degrees centigrade. He has expanded the coastal area of Dubai by creating man-made islands in the shape of a world atlas, and he is constructing a hotel under the sea that might have been the subject of science fiction. Also under construction is Dubai-land, which will be the largest theme park in the world, over eight times the size of Disneyland in the United States. In Dubai-land, such world-famous attractions as the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and India’s Taj Mahal will be reproduced along with such ancient wonders as the hanging gardens of Babylon and other vanished treasures. These are the accomplishments of what Mohamm-ed calls the will to build a “post-oil economy” in preparation for the exhaustion of Dubai’s reserves.
But the new Dubai was only made possible by changing the paradigm. From the outset, it was not something that could be approached simply with cool calculation or shrewd political maneuvering. I wonder if the prime mover in this transformation wasn’t really the pure desire and imagination of a poet.
In world history, there were a few national leaders who had ample artistic talent. Roman Emperor Nero was more interested in singing, painting and writing poetry than in politics. He participated in almost all the poetry and music contests he could manage. He was so obsessed with singing that he even made competitors with superior skill withdraw from contests by bribing them with money. He murmured, “Qualis artifex pereo (What an artist dies in me)!” when he ended his life by committing suicide.
Similarly, Guazong of the Qing Dynasty of China, who is known as the Qianlong Emperor, wrote 41,863 poems during his lifetime and published them in five collections.
But it is only Sheik Mohammed who has succeeded in sublimating the artistic imagination to work as the prime mover of national reform.
Let’s take a look at the situation in Korea. There is no exact data, but I understand there are around 10,000 poets who are actively writing now. The number would be much bigger if the people who wrote poetry when they were in school is included.
In a word, Korea is a country of poets. Literary men visiting Korea from abroad used to express their surprise at the number of poetry collections sold in bookstores here. In fact, the scholastic tradition of Korea, from the latter part of the Goryeo Dynasty to the Joseon Dynasty, was writing poems.
What would happen here if a national leader with the imagination and sensibility of a poet emerged from our rich literary tradition? Would it not be possible for us to demolish obsolete boundaries that divide us and plan for the future in a more generous and leisurely manner? I believe it would be possible for us to achieve accomplishments that go far beyond what Dubai has achieved if only we could smooth down the tough realities of our national life with the bright inspiration of a poet.
*The writer is the senior editor of the sports and culture desk of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Ha-kyung