Questions for Stones

Eric Ormsby

Vol. 25, No. 1, 2001


Our thoughts reverted to Arabia Persia and Hindostan—the lands of contemplation—and dwelling place of the ruminant nations…       

 —Thoreau, Journal (1842-44)


The desert landscape is so stark as to suggest an opulence of emptiness. The few things that are there throng the eye: light especially and the sky, but also the infinite delineations of the sand dunes, which move their slopes and crests incessantly like a troubled sleeper twitching his covers all night long. Shadow too is plentiful, though it shifts without letup as the wind remodels the sands. When you step into the desert, whether in Arabia or Egypt or the Maghrib, you feel the sun leech every molecule of moisture from your pores. Desiccation and erosion whittle the land into ergs and inselbergs. For all its barrenness, the terrain is peopled with memories; the wind may efface the visible tokens of human intrusion but memory, a clever tracker, unearths well-loved vestiges from impersonal sand.

The classic stance of the pre-Islamic poet is one of musing on ruins, of seeking to decipher, and then to recapture, some vivid memory, and to do so by a hermeneutic of scraps: old fire-stones, cinders, panic grass, the droppings of beasts. In a landscape that incessantly revises itself like a fastidious scribe who writes and then erases, begins again and strikes over, the poet holds fast to what has been, however paltry and mean it may seem. The early poet Labid opens his most famous poem in this way:

Pavilions and lean-tos have been wiped away at Mina; Ghawl and Rijam have reverted to wilderness. The gorges of the torrents of Rayyan are blurred and worn like stones where old inscriptions cling, Where travelers lay down to rest, only black ash remains. The years with their repetitious rounds, their festivals, have poured over them, fed by the rain of the spring stars, thunderheads’ gushes and the fine, vaporous, continual rain from the clouds that flow by night and darken towards the dawn, and from the clouds at evening whose reverberations roar.

In his desolation, Labid questions the ruins themselves:

There I stood interrogating stones but how should we question the deaf everlasting stones whose speech is obscure? Denuded rocks where once the whole tribe dwelt…!

The world is portable; the history of a clan is carried in the sounding strings of an individual name: “Father of …, Son of …, Daughter of …, Mother of …,” back to remote forefathers and places of origin. And what “history” there is—days of battle or days on which a superb colt, or a poet, is born—lies stowed in the saddle bags of the poet’s memory. Nothing commemorates a famous victory but the verses that it occasioned. So, too, no shame lives longer than that preserved in verse; a tribe might smart for generations from a well-aimed lampoon. Poetry is memory but also a weapon. Words retain incantatory force; the bigger and rarer the words, the better to quell enemies, whether human or not (the redoubtable jinn, the ghoul [from Arabic ghûl] lurking by the path, the wayside wolf, the jackal-dog). An Arab poet would have felt dishonored by writing the sort of parched and minimal verse so in favor among American poets; such poems would have betokened verbal debility and a lexical stinginess not dissimilar to avarice, most loathed of vices. True poetry glories in being copious. In abundant language, the poet exalts himself or a patron or a magnificent riding beast; he extols the prey he hunts as well as the dog who assists him. Bragging is not merely permissible, it is obligatory, and can take on cosmic dimensions. The tenth-century poet al-Mutanabbi, about whom more below, is a good example; a youthful sally reads:

What pinnacle shall I surmount? What colossus should I fear? For all that God created, and all that He did not create, are insignificant beside my aspiration and contemptible as a single strand of hair on the peak of my skull.

(The second line may puzzle; he means not only what God has already created, but the entire realm of possible creation—a typically grandiose conceit!)

Conversely, poetry wounds and injures; there is a rousing tradition of vituperation (hijâ’), of exuberant obscenity. A poet was to be feared and, if possible, bought off by a patron. Where nothing—and certainly not the ephemeral tents and encampments of nomadic tribesmen—can withstand the wreckage of time, the only abiding presence lies in words that are committed not to the frailty of paper, but to the stubborn clutch of human memory.

The desert would appear to be an unpromising milieu for poetry, but the harshness of the terrain compels a fine-tuning of the senses almost unimaginable to us today. The early Classical Arabic poets cultivated an eye of microscopic intensity for the tiniest details of the land, and they drew upon a correspondingly rich vocabulary to invoke it. Swaggerers and braggarts all, they trumpeted their prowess in long intricate lines, each hemistich of which is typically self-contained, but each of which braids itself to its predecessors and successors on a kind of vocalic loom of surprising range and fullness. Because poetry was oral and unwritten, there were professional memorizers and reciters, often poets themselves; these were the rawis, “reciters,” who learned thousands of verses by heart and excelled at declamation. Literary Arabic, like ancient Greek, is a quantitative language, and so the rhythm and melody of the verse demanded an intricate prosody, synthesized early on by Khalil ibn Ahmad, who reportedly got the idea for a metrical scheme from listening to the variable beats of the coppersmiths’ hammers in the souk. In Classical prosody, some fifteen meters, with their many variants, are recognized.

Because Arabic poetry was initially oral, it is not surprising that so much value was placed on the sheer sound of verse. This is obviously impossible to carry over in a translation, just as the quantitative measures cannot be conveyed. In addition to its long and short vowels, Arabic possesses some twenty-nine consonants, many of them with no equivalents in English or other European languages; these range from the ha’, which resembles a hissing exhalation of breath, somewhat like the sound when you blow upon your glasses before cleaning them, to emphatic velarized consonants like d (a bit like the sound of the din “Duhh”), to pharyngeals such as `ayn, audible as a contraction deep in the throat. Moreover, a good reciter, like a singer, may draw out the long vowels, especially on the rhyme, so that a reverberation seems to linger in the ear.

The earliest Arabic poems are striking in a number of other respects. Even those a hundred or more lines long use a single rhyme throughout. Enjambment is uncommon. Occasionally epithets, like the formulae of Homer, appear. Though there are established features, such as the so-called “erotic prelude” (nasib), the longer poems do not always have an obvious structural unity, except for what monorhyme may confer. The traditional genres are few: the long celebratory ode, the elegy (ritha), the fragment (a brief lyric known as qit ‘ah), gnomic verse, iambic doggerel. The longer poems often give us portraits of their authors; at this distance it is hard to know how idealized these may be. Part of the purpose of such poems was to celebrate a poet’s skill in all imaginable ways: Grandiloquence and legerdemain were conspicuously on display and employed to extol one’s strength and fortitude, endurance and bravery, as well as to celebrate specific exploits not only in battle but in the lists of love.

Probably the greatest, and certainly the most influential, of the pre-Islamic poets is the so-called “wandering king” Imru’l-Qays, the sixth-century author of one of the early odes (from the group known as the mu’allaqat, or “suspended [poems]”). Though the 82-line qasidah, or formal ode, depends upon standard tropes—the erotic prelude, the flight into the desert—it is one of the most appealing features of this magnificent composition that its author comes through as a fully realized personage in his own right, as well as a poet in complete command of his art.

Imru’l-Qays begins by addressing his two companions:

Draw rein and weep, let your tears commemorate a lover and the encampment where she dwelled at the edge of the sandy ground where the stones begin between ad-Dakhul and Hawmal, between Tudih and al-Miqrat.

The terse imperative and jussive with which the ode begins (qifa nabki in Arabic) epitomize the conventional posture of the early poet. So too the use of sonorous place names, as if it were possible to pinpoint the actual spot where memory remains amid the otherwise anonymous sands; place names, as it were, that endure only as such, detached from their topography, at once ghostly and exact. (The beloved often appears as a revenant in these poems.)

A. D. Hope, the great Australian poet (who died last August), is unique among English-language poets in his evocation of Imru’l-Qays in the poem “A Mu’allaqat of Murray’s Corner.” Hardly surprising in a poet of Hope’s erudition, he even employs Arabic words as rhymes and attempts to suggest, if not duplicate, the cadence of the original:

I have returned to myself, Imr al-Qais, even as you when you wept at the camping site between Ad-Dakhul and Haumal among the dunes and looked for the trace of her fire, the marks of her tent still there, scattered with antelope dung. Bear with me now: I have been all kinds of a fool…

As Hope makes dear by his admiring allusions, the ancient ode is no vague and maudlin moping over a charred campsite; in such a poet as Imru’l-Qays, the poignancy of recollection is overshadowed by graphic particulars, as when he recalls making love to a married woman while she nursed her child:

Many a woman like you, pregnant or nursing, have I visited by night, and diverted her from her baby with its amulet; when it cried behind her she turned her torso to nurse it while beneath me, her lower body did not budge by an inch.

The passage gave scandalized delight to pious commentators. Quite shameless, the poet goes on to brag of his proficiency in love:

Many a virgin, cloistered in her camel-hair tent, have I enjoyed and with her amused myself lingeringly…

The poet’s lechery requires a cosmic context; while he makes love,

the Pleiades in the sky displayed themselves sideways like the gleam of a gem-studded belt…

But what disturbs the commentators more than his goatish gusto is the poet’s audacious ear. They fault him more for unusual collocations of consonants than for erotic escapades; thus, one early critic chafes at line 35 of the ode—

ghada iruhu mustashziratun ila’l- ula tadillu `l-‘iqasu fi muthannan wa-mursali  (locks of hair twisted upwards, with plaits vanishing within braids and tumbling down)

—because the conjunction of such consonants as sh and z in the word mustashziratun (“twisted upwards”) is unpleasant to the ear (a fault known as tanafur, the “mutual antipathy” of difficult sounds). Of course, it is just this complex texture of sounds that makes the poem, for later readers, memorable and distinctive.

Imru’l-Qays is a master of description, and many of his sharp-sighted lines have become proverbial. A famous example is his description of his horse:

Deft-turning, side-shying, forth-plunging all at one time, a ragged boulder a flood sweeps down from on high…

In the original Arabic the sounds mimic the action:

mikarrin mifarrin muqbilin mudbirin ma’an ka-julmudi sakhrin hattahu s-saylu min ali

His description of a thunderstorm concludes the poem and is justly celebrated. “My friend, do you see the lightning?” he asks and then, in what is a striking feature of such poetry—the comparison of natural phenomena to human activity, often of a humdrum sort—compares the flash to “the lamp of a hermit who has been excessively generous with oil on the twisted wick.” The storm’s violence makes the peak of the mountain spin “like the whirl of a viodle.” Its deluge cascades down the way a “Yemeni camel casts its saddle bags of textiles on the ground.” The poem ends with an evocation of the aftermath of the storm, when “the drowned wild beasts lie strewn to the farthest reaches like uprooted sprigs of wild onion.”

Women poets are rare in the Classical tradition; or, at least, those whose verses have been preserved are rare. In the standard bio-bibliography of Arabic literature to the beginning of the eleventh century, the modern Turkish scholar Fuat Sezgin lists a grand total of twelve women poets—six pre-Islamic, six Islamic—whose names are known. Others must be sought out in Classical anthologies, where we find verses, or mentions of verses, by princesses as well as slave girls. Much of this verse was extemporaneous and almost all of it went unwritten; where it survives, we find it cited within the accounts of more famous male counterparts. Women were often proficient, and even expert, in such “Islamic sciences” as the study of sacred traditions (hadith), as well as in the arts of poetry and music. Indeed, certain litterateurs, like the combative Ibn Hazm of Cordoba, were raised exclusively by women. Ibn Hazm learned the Qur’an as well as the art of composing verses in the harem (to be sure, he claims to have learned all about “violent jealousy” there as well). Ibn Hazm is one of the only Arabic authors to have recorded his debt to his women teachers, although his compatriot, the influential and prolific visionary Ibn al-`Arabi’ was first guided and trained in the mystic way by three women Sufis whom he too later acknowledged.

Tumadir, the daughter of `Amr, otherwise known as Al-Khansa’ (“the Snub-nosed”), is a striking exception, not only because of her sex but because her existing diwan, or collection, has survived. Her verse deals exclusively with her grief at the deaths of her brothers Mu’awiyah and Sakhr. As Alan Jones puts it, “her obsession with lament was all-engulfing—unhinged does not seem too strong a description of her personality.”

Probably born around 590, al-Khansa’ was married three times and had several children, one of whom became a poet as well. Her life overlaps with the Islamic period though there are few traces of Muslim piety in her surviving work. (According to one report, `A’ishah, the Prophet’s widow, whom al-Khansa’ met in Medina, remarked to her on hearing of her past life, “Islam has destroyed all that you describe.”)

Poems for her brother Sakhr predominate over those for Mu’atwiyah, perhaps because (as Jones unkindly speculates) Mu’awiyah, with its five syllables, is metrically more difficult to use in a line of verse than Sakhr. Of the latter she laments:

 Remembrance makes me sleepless at evening but by dawn I am worn raw by my brimming disaster because of Sakhr—O what young man is like Sakhr on a day of war when the fighting turns to the cunning spears?

Sakhr embodies all the classical virtues of the pre-Islamic warrior; he is not only brave against enemies but strong against the “pummel-blows of time” (or “fate”—the same word [dahr] is used for both). The warrior virtues, and especially endurance and self-discipline, carry over into Islam and re-emerge in later times as mystical virtues among the Sufis. The warrior is one who “refuses himself” but is magnanimous to others, even slaughtering his last camel to provide a feast for guests.

Other women, such as Janub al-Hudhaliyah, also wrote elegies. Perhaps the most moving of these laments is that composed by an anonymous woman writer for her brother, which I cite in part:

He wandered in search of safety and yet, even so, he died. How I wish that I knew what wicked thing had killed you! Were you sick? Were you alone? Did an enemy surprise you? Did the random fist of fate that seized the chick snatch you? The Fates wait to ambush a young man wherever he rides. What loveliness could a warrior possess that you did not have? Everything’s an assassin when you come to the end of your doom…I wish that without you my heart could be patient just for an instant; I wish that my soul had been cast to the Fates, and not yours.

The strange ragtag group known as the “thieves” (lusus), or Robber Poets, flourished on the fringes of tribal society; far from being spokesmen for their clans, they thrived on defiance. Alienation, contempt for tribal mores—indeed, for society at large—and a magnificent awareness of the desert terrain and its creatures expressed with an amazing verbal precision, characterize these “outlaw” poets of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic period. Known in Arabic as sa’alik (“destitute ones”), they were outcasts from their tribes, men condemned to wander. Glorifying their isolation, as though destitution, hunger, and ostracism were badges of honor, they liken themselves to wolves or foxes and not only boast of their adeptness at both arms and verse, but assume an almost shamanistic role amid the forces of nature. One of the greatest, ash-Shanfara, wrote:

so you see me like the snake, that daughter of the dune, naked to the sun and tortured, foot-weary and without sandals. Still, I am a man of endurance. For my weapon I don the jackal’s heart. I shoe myself with resolution.

A Rastafarian avant la lettre, ash-Shanfara glories in a redolent dishevelment:

[I have] a thick mane of hair and when the wind blows it sends my matted locks flying from the uncombed sides; hair far from the touch of oil or delousing, full of dried ordure, unwashed for a whole year long…

The Robber Poet Tahman ibn ‘Amr al-Kilabi, the little-known author of a small but representative collection of poems, wrote in almost all the genres favored by the early poets. Tahman, who had lost a hand, probably as a punishment for his thievery (he addresses a rather gruesome threnody for his lost hand to one of the caliphs), lived into Umayyad times, i.e., the hundred-year period ending in 749, when the triumphant ‘Abbasid dynasty established itself in its new capital of Baghdad. Even so, Tahman remains a throwback to a different age. His first, and best, ode begins with a much-loved and well-worn motif: Tahman fervently calls on clouds dense with rain to pour down over Layla, his distant lover—not, be it noted, in order to “rain on her parade,” but to send quickening refreshment (later the Prophet Muhammad will be described as a “mercy” [rahmah] sent by God and “a rain cloud of blessing”):

May a rain-swollen cloud that cries hab hab to the necks of companion clouds spill over Layla’s house in ar-Raqashan, a gushing white-streaked cloud of spring, whose dangling veils look like Bactrian camels heaped with burdens in rows…

Tahman had a less tender side; in another poem he exults over an enemy he has defeated and revels in the pleasures of butchery:

It made me glad to chop down Hani’ and to see his suppliant fingers encounter the slitting edge of my sword. I am glad that he is left lying dead at al-Barratan, tossed to the earth, while his mother and wives wail over him! Once I thought well of him but he was a tight-fisted man —may his scabbard and belts remain tattered forever!

Tahman can be as clinical as Homer:

I struck the fat slave with my sword, and he nicked it. So with one slash I laid bare the bones of his spine…

Like his fellow brigands, Tahman possessed a “microscopic eye” and loves to arrest the motion of his poems by freezing vivid details:

How many deserts, where the eggs in the sandhole of the mother ostrich lie hidden—some unbroken but others shattered—stand between Layla and me! And how many a wild restless antelope buck, who when he passes from the coolness of the coverts seems a noble stallion—a bull who at evening roots up rukhama plants till his muzzle looks whitened by flour!—roams between Layla and me! And how many dust gray wastelands where the morning mist-shimmer is darkened with grit, and no path is to be found, have I cut across while the chameleon of noon was sunning itself and a rasping came from the locusts that struck at the stone-scattered hillsides with their feet!

The poet wants to extol his own powers but, to give his self-praise verisimilitude, feels constrained to inject tiny, idiosyncratic details-the partially shattered eggs of the ostrich, the bull white-muzzled from browsing—which interrupt the rodomontade and serve both to temper and intensify it. In addition, such details illustrate his powers of observation. The same technique that is used here for self-celebration will later serve to embellish panegyrics; the action will be frozen for one exquisite detail that adds a realistic touch, even as it flatters, and so renders praise credible.

The Umayyad kings nurtured a nostalgia for the desert that appears not only in the poems of that period but in their domestic architecture (as witness the ruins of the superb desert palaces at Mshatta and Khirbat al-Mafjar, with their delicate stonework traceries). The `Abbasid revolution brought the almost complete extermination of Umayyad princes and pretenders; only one prince escaped to make his way to Muslim Spain, where he founded the long-lived dynasty of the Spanish Umayyads. The `Abbasid dynasty which arose in the new “round city” of Baghdad after 749 was to endure, if shakily, for half a millennium until finally extinguished by the Mongol leader Hulagu, who in 1258 had al-Mu’tasim, the last `Abbasid caliph, sewn into a sack and trampled by horses. During this long period, Islamic culture reached its most refined heights in a poetry of engaging wit, sophistication, and melody. Wine drinking, energetic fornication, and casual skepticism verging on impiety dominate the work of the “moderns,” as opposed to the “ancients,” or pre-Islamic poets. It is remarkable how rapidly after their consolidation of power—a mere fifty years or so—the `Abbasids began to parade a world-weary decadence. Poets still drew on the old forms and tropes, but there was a new and impudent sense of freedom from the past. The short lyric, often sardonic, prevails, and no theme, however audacious, is shunned.

No figure could be at once more representative of the new dynasty and yet more utterly individualistic than the irrepressible ninth-century poet and bon vivant known as Abu Nuwas (a nickname meaning “the man with the forelock”). A committed profligate at the court of Harun al-Rashid, addicted to the pleasures of wine, slave girls, and “beardless boys” with “ripe, swelling buttocks,” Abu Nuwas encompassed in his rumbustious career the full arc from delicate ghazal to exquisitely detailed hunting poem to, most notably, wine songs (khamriyat) in the Anacreontic mode, as well as to raunchy and obscene ditties. His closest counterpart in the West is perhaps Heine, whom he resembles in both his tenderness and his sarcasm. No translation can capture the complex music of his verse, which draws not only on the full range of the Classical language, with its immense vocabulary, but also on puns and double-entendres, stray snippets of Persian, and various argots, such as the slang of pederasts, the termini technici of the hunt and of falconry, and the nuanced lingo of oenophiles, with its many gradations of hue and bouquet. This oeuvre is capped by a body of ascetic lyrics (zuhdiyat), presumably composed towards the end of his career, in which he repents the excesses of his youth, perhaps more to parade his virtuosity than to exhibit last-minute contrition. Abu Nuwas had a jaundiced eye for old poetic conventions such as the “interrogation of the ruins”:

I’ve spent too much time sniveling over the traces of houses and my teary lamentations have long since grown tedious…Now when such grief looms upon me I swerve my camel mare I away from all ruins, no matter how wailing besieges me, and head for the wine seller’s house where his watch dogs won’t give me away, nor will he begrudge me the time I spend at his shop…

But Abu Nuwas was also celebrated for tender and allusive lyrics:

She took off her robes to bathe and a quick blush reddened her face. Before the breeze she stood, naked, slim-figured, more delicate than air, and stretched out her hand like water to the water that stood in the ewer. But when she had finished and was eager to hurry into her garments again, she saw an onlooker draw stealthily near. She let down a darkness over her radiance, daybreak disappeared under night, while water kept on trickling into water…Glory be to God who fashioned her the loveliest of women on the earth!

Anecdotes about the poet abound. For example, Abu Nuwas was fond of a slave girl named `Inan, with whom he played various verbal games. One day she asked him whether he was any good at scansion; when Abu Nuwas replied boastfully that he was superb at it, she said, “Try scanning this verse:

I ate Syrian mustard on a baker’s platter…

(akaltu `l-khardalah sh-sha a’mi fi safhati khabbazi…)

Abu Nuwas broke the line into metrical feet and responded:

Akaltu ‘l-khar…ti-tum ti-tum

which means:

I ate some shit ti-tum ti-tum…

The assembled courtiers broke into loud laughter at the poet’s expense. Not to be outdone, he asked `Inan whether she could scan the following (rather nonsensical) verse:

Keep your church far from us, O sons of the wood-carrier …!

(hawwilu anna kanisatakum ya bani hammalati l-hatabi …)

She too had to break up the metrical feet to produce:

hawwilu ‘an tum-ti tum-ti nakani…

which comes out as

Keep away tum-ti-tum-ti he has fucked me….

Abu Nuwas was an innovator in Arabic poetry. He was, for example, one of the first to exploit the genre of the hunting poem, with its minute and exquisite depictions of weapons, terrain, and animals. Emanating largely from his example as well is a robust tradition of obscene and scatological lyric, often celebrating or maligning the genitalia, male and female. (In this tradition, a concitoyen of his two centuries later, the Shi’ite poet of the Baghdad souk known as Ibn al-Hajjaj, would boast that his own poetry was one “from which the sewer streams from two sides: my brain and my throat” and that it “produces a gust stinking with rank tropes.”) Abu Nuwas is one of the few early writers—the great prose writer al-Jahiz, his near contemporary, is another—to avail himself fully of irony, a rare mode in Classical Arabic. Many of his lines have become proverbial, such as his famous response to a critic of his drinking habits:

Stop blaming me! I am spurred on by blame. Cure me with that from which the sickness came!

Though Abu Nuwas emphatically preferred taverns and brothels to the life of the desert, he was a master of the ancient tropes as well. Side by side with orgiastic verses about the pleasures of a threesome (“How beautiful when Mufaddal is on top of my delicate lady Pearl while I am atop Mufaddal, his second rider, and thread two pearls at one stroke!”) are pungent evocations of camel mares and lonely waterholes. He is undoubtedly the most versatile of all Arabic poets, ancient or modern.

Even today, Abu Nuwas is seen as disreputable and his poems are routinely bowdlerized, whereas the poet generally considered the greatest of the Classical poets, that insufferable braggart and self-promoter Abu Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, is lionized and enjoys such sobriquets as “the Shakespeare of the Arabs.” AI-Mutanabbi would surely have concurred; the following boast is all too typical:

If I’m arrogant, it’s the arrogance of a wonder of nature who’s never found anyone superior to himself.

His nickname of al-Mutanabbi means “the would-be prophet” (nabi), and perhaps alludes to some affiliation with certain of the clandestine, dissident movements prevalent in the tenth century, such as the radical Isma’ilis (who later split to form the Assassins, scourge of Sunni Muslims and Crusaders alike). A1-Mutanabbi was a hired word-slinger, a verbal mercenary, available to the highest bidder. His practice was to laud and exalt a patron as long as the largesse held out. When a patron wearied of him or stinted, al-Mutanabbi would depart and issue a torrent of scabrous invective; the poetry of praise (madh), at which he excelled all others, gave way to vituperation, a genre for which he exhibited an abundant talent. Thus, after praising the Ikhshidid ruler al-Kafur, a black eunuch, in several panegyrics, he turns to lampoon when the patronage dries up, quipping that before meeting Kafur he believed that intelligence resided in the head but now he realizes that it lodges in the testicles.

Al-Mutanabbi is difficult for us to appreciate, in part because the notion of a court poet, paid to flatter, offends, if we see this, however, as a way of “dancing in chains,” that is, as a formal restraint within which the poet must operate, we may come to admire the artistry, if not the sincerity, of an al-Mutanabbi, Moreover, al-Mutanabbi is a poet of unabashed glory; for him verse must be full-voiced, resonant if not echoing, and encompass every tone from the softest to the most thunderous. He must be declaimed rather than merely read, and this too sits ill with us:

Do not consider glory to repose in wine or a singing slave-girl; glory is to be found only in the sword and in pristine violence, in lopping off the heads of kings and in witnessing whirlwinds of black dust and a looming army….

I cannot read these lines without hearing again the voice of one of my teachers, the Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Nuwayhi, who would recite them with such force that I sometimes wondered whether the rafters would not crack. When he came to the phrase “lopping off the heads of kings” (wa-tadribu a’naqi’l-muluki), he drew out the long vowels extravagantly and came down with such vehemence on the consonants that you seemed to hear the sword crunching its way through the vertebrae of some hapless monarch. Perhaps my teacher overdid it, but he gave me a vivid illustration of at least one reason why al-Mutanabbi stands apart in his mastery: His command of the music of a line of verse is incomparable. The play of sounds in a single line can be daunting:

qalaqu ‘l-malihati wa-hya miskun hatkuha wa-masiruha fi’l-layli wa-hya dhuka

Literally translated, this means “the movement of a beautiful woman—for she is musk—reveals her / and her stirring by night [reveals her], for she is the sun.” Alas, the translation gives nothing of the beauty of the line, though we glimpse the play of opposition between concealment and disclosure, as well as the parallelism in the description of the lady’s movements. Rather, the beauty lies in the alternation of short and long syllables, together with the unexpected and delicious concatenations of intricate consonantal patterns, especially the light Arabic l that threads the sounds together.

Though al-Mutannabi was a court poet, he claimed a close acquaintance with the desert, insisting that he was as adept at life in the open as in the plush confines of a palace. This particular boast was to have disastrous consequences. While traveling from one court to another, in 965, his caravan was attacked by highwaymen. At first he fled on foot, but when his servant cried out lines for which al-Muttannbi had already become famous—

The horsemen and the night and the desert know me, and the sword and the lance, the paper and the pen.

—the poet, shamed by his own braggadocio, turned and made a last stand. He was cut down where he stood.

Long before Omar Khayyam there was Abu al-`Ala’ al-Ma’arri, skeptical provocateur par excellence. Blind from the age of four, al-Ma’arri cultivated a memory of elephantine capacity and developed into one of the most skilled and idiosyncratic of Arab poets. Al-Ma’arri began as a fervent imitator of al-Mutanabbi and his first collection (still his most popular) is called Saqt al-zand, or “Sparks from the Flint,” in acknowledgment of his debt to his predecessor. A strict vegetarian (and so suspect to mainstream Muslims, since vegetarianism was associated with Hinduism), al-Ma’arri possessed a rare sympathy with the animal world, which he considered superior to that of humans; his compassion was far-reaching, as this extract from one of his letters shows:

It is stated that the Creator is merciful and compassionate but why does the lion spring to attack gentle creatures that are neither harmful nor robust?…Why do hawk and falcon swoop upon the grain-gleaning bird? The grouse leaves her thirsting chicks and sets out early to reach water which she would carry to them in her craw, but a hawk finds her far from them and devours her. So her chicks perish of thirst.

It is reported, though this may be an exaggeration, that al-Ma’arri believed heaven to be reserved not for humans, but for animals, because of their undeserved sufferings. He seems to have liked scandalizing his readers, even going so far as to produce a parody of the Qur’an. But his most famous work is the massive compilation of poetry entitled The Obligation of What Is Not Obligatory (Luzum ma la yalzam); the title refers to al-Ma’arri’s virtuosic use throughout of complex triple-tiered rhymes. The entire book is a tour de force of poetic skill.

Arab poets, like Persian and Turkish poets later, enjoyed “the fascination with what’s difficult” and often imposed constraints upon themselves, not only as a way of showing off but as a kind of astringent to counter the natural poetic exuberance of their (otherwise dissimilar) languages, much as an Italian poet might shun rhyme just because rhyming in Italian is too easy. Sometimes, of course, the constraints were imposed by nature: The eighth-century theologian Wasil ibn `Ata’, known as “The Giraffe” because of his long neck, could not pronounce the letter r—a grave handicap for a preacher who must in his homilies invoke the Lord (rabb) and His sovereign mercy (rahmah), among many other key names and concepts beginning with the fatal consonant. Crowds flocked to hear how Wasil contrived to avoid the letter in Friday sermons and marveled more at his lexical cunning than his ira theologica. (Such constraints, natural or self-imposed, are reminiscent of the lipograms of such writers as Georges Perec, whose novel La disparition was written without using the letter e; Perec would have admired al-Ma’arri and Wasil.)

There are, unsurprisingly, no good translations of al-Ma’arri in English; however, the following does give some sense of the artifice of the original (though I find the result inadvertently comical):

There is a palace, and the ruined wall divides the sand, a very home of tears, and where love whispered of a thousand years, the silken-footed caterpillars crawl.

(translated by Henry Baerlein, 1908)

It seems to be the sad fate of much highly wrought Arabic poetry that in translation it becomes the creaky abode of “silken-footed caterpillars.” I offer a more literal version of another poem:

Our pleasures are the slaughter-camels of time which weariness, death’s brother, robs from us. The man who drinks the daughters of the vine, however tethered, has a darkened mind. Even lords of men, when veiled in wine, display impulses only intellect can keep at bay. Evil’s an instinct in us, however sage we be, our every breath lays bare its throbbing artery.

In trying to give some sense of Classical Arabic poetry through a few of its best practitioners, I feel somewhat like one of those early poets teasing inferences from the fragmented ruins of old encampments; for what have I not left out in this rapid survey? I have said nothing about the ghazal and the poetry of love, whose exponents include Majnun Layla, the “man driven mad by his love for Layla,” or Jamil al-`Udhri, unlikely representative of “Platonic love” in its eastern manifestation (and familiar to readers of Heine from his poem “Der Asra”). Nor have I given any consideration to the immense corpus of didactic and gnomic poetry. Such verse, though often enough doggerel, was used to present every imaginable field of human endeavor: There are verses on mineralogy and gems, on armor, on cooking and on chess; odes on grammar and syntax, lexicography, prosody, and logic; mnemonic ditties on the Aristotelian categories and the Eisagoge of the Neo-Platonist Porphyry (“Furfurius” in the Arabic tradition), not to mention ethics, metaphysics, ontology, and much else. Such poems were meant to contain in distilled and easily memorizable form the essentials of their disciplines. Nor was all didactic poetry doggerel: There are lofty poems by Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn al-`Arabi, and their many followers, on the soul and its symbolic journey to ultimate truth, I’ve similarly neglected the whole body of devotional verse in Arabic, ranging from such beautiful encomia as the “Mantle” poem of al-Busiri, a twelfth-century Sufi—whose 160-line love-ode for the Prophet Muhammad is still used as an amulet to ward off evil and to cure diseases—to mystical poetry of almost seraphic intensity by such ardent poets as the Egyptian Ibn al-Farid, who draws on the potent symbols of wine, the vineyard, drunkenness, and the tavern to convey supra-sensible truths. On a more mundane level, I have left out the corpus of poems on falconry, which still crowd the shelves of the book dealers of Riyadh, for the genre is very much alive today. Also completely lacking from these pages is any description of Arabic rhymed prose (saj’), best exemplified by the Qur’an itself but still used today for the more sumptuous official pronouncements of self-exalted potentates. At the other extreme, I have passed over in silence the poetry of dissident groups, such as the esoteric and occult verse of gnostics and “heretics,” and also of socially suspect and outcast groups; in Arabic, there is a lively poetry of the underworld as well as of those crudely known as luti (perhaps from the biblical Lot), that is, pederasts and their catamites. I have also scanted poetry in the various dialects of Arabic, including folk ballads and popular epics (there is no epic in Classical Arabic). Worse still, I’ve said nothing about the poets of Muslim Spain and Sicily, among whom are some of the finest and most original poets in Arabic literature, from the randy Ibn Quzman to the suave and plangent Ibn al-Labbanah. And yet, with so many rich traditions to describe, how could I have proceeded otherwise?

Classical Arabic poetry remains undiscovered by English readers, mainly because there are so few readable translations; in this respect, Persian has fared far better than Arabic, thanks to Edward Fitz-Gerald and others. Even so, there was a time when Arabic poetry-or, better, “Eastern poetry”—drew the attention and interest of American writers, Emerson and Thoreau in particular. Through knowledge of German literature, notably the West-ostlicher Divan of Goethe, but also through the translations of the nineteenth-century Austrian scholar Joseph yon Hammer-Purgstall, Emerson and others became acquainted not only with Hafez and Sa’di among the Persian masters, but with some Arabic verse as well. To Thoreau at least, this “Asian” lore came to seem something already present in his very nature. In a journal entry of 1842, for example, he wrote: “In the New England noon tide I have discovered more material of Oriental history than the Sanscrit contains or Sir W. Jones has unlocked…. Was not Asia mapped in my brain before it was in any geography?”

As exotic or even alien as the poets and traditions I have discussed may appear to American readers, I would submit that we have much to learn from this neglected body of poetry. Verse has occupied an exalted position in cultured Islamic society at all periods, including the present. Arab poets today write largely in free verse, but the best of them do so against the tacit backdrop of the Classical traditions. However much Arabic verse may have transformed itself, the intrinsic value of poetry itself has fallen little in the minds of readers since the days when the ninth-century polymath Ibn Qutaybah could write, in a magnificent summation, that

Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs and the book of their wisdom, the archives of their history, the reservoir of their epic days, the wall that defends their exploits, the impassable trench that preserves their glories, the impartial witness for the day of judgment. Whoever cannot offer even a single verse in defense of his honor and the noble virtues and praiseworthy actions that he claims for his ancestry will exert himself in vain, even if they were gigantic. But he who bound them together with the rhyme of a poem, reinforced them with its rhythm, and made them famous with a rare verse, a popular proverb, and a fine concept, delivered them from unbelief, and put them above the deceptions of enemies and made the envious lower his eyes in shame.

(translated by V. Cantarino)

Arabic poetry, even at its best, may still represent “questions for stones”—that is, a body of verse without echo or reply. But the stone itself is more likely to be that of the freeways and sidewalks of cities than of the desert, now ravaged by all-terrain vehicles and hunters with semi-automatic rifles. (The customary polite query in the Gulf region used to be, “How many bustards has Your Excellency bagged today?” but is now more liable to run, “How many bustards has Your Excellency machine-gunned today?”) Nevertheless, the poetry that arose from that huge and scintillant emptiness, and which still resounds with its passionate accents, continues to be composed, collected, quarreled over, elucidated, cherished, recited, declaimed, and sung, with wailing musical accompaniment or a capella, wherever the Arabic language is spoken, from Morocco to the borders of Iran and Turkey, and not merely by critics and academics but by ordinary readers with no credentials beyond a fervent and seemingly inexhaustible affection for words.


Further Reading

Most English translations from Classical Arabic poetry make dismal reading. The best approach is to seek out strictly literal, rather than verse, renderings. An excellent anthology of this sort (to which I am much indebted in the present essay), and one which includes Arabic text, literal translation, and extensive commentary, is Alan Jones, Early Arabic Poetry (Reading, England: Ithaca Press, 1992), in two volumes. A compendious and witty new anthology of Arabic literature is Robert Irwin’s Night & Horses & the Desert (New York: The Overlook Press, 2000). The best discussion of Arabic poetry from an aesthetic, rather than historical or philological, standpoint is still Andras Hamori, On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974). For Abu Nuwas, see Philip E Kennedy, The Wine Song in Classical Arabic Poetry: Abu Nuwas and the Literary Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), which gives texts, translations, and a full discussion of the genre. The important modern Arabic poet Ali Ahmad Sa’id, better known as “Adonis,” has written An Introduction to Arab Poetics (London: Saqi Books, 1990), which contains much interesting information. A brisk but vividly detailed overview is available in Roger Allen, An Introduction to Arabic Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). Finally, for a superb treatment of Classical poetics as formulated by medieval Arab critics and theorists themselves, see Vicente Cantarino, Arabic Poetics in the Golden Age (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1975).



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