On the Hanging Odes of Arabia

Gabriel Levin

Vol. 30, Nos. 1 & 2


Back in the eighth century, Hammad al-Rawiya—Iraq’s last reciter of tribal poetry—compiled the timeless Hanging Odes.

Hammad al-Rawiya, last of the true rawis or reciters of tribal poetry, was renowned among the newly urbanized Arabs of Damascus and Baghdad for declaiming poems he had heard recited by the Bedouin of the Arabian heartland. In the latter half of the eighth century he put together a collection of seven remarkable poems known collectively as the Mu‘allaqat, or Hanging Odes. They have always been shrouded in mystery. Legend tells that in the sixth century, some years before the rise of Islam, the poems were transcribed in letters of gold on the finest Egyptian linen and suspended from the Ka’ba in Mecca as trophies during the Sacred Months of Peace, when the Bedouin laid down their arms and went on their annual pilgrimage to the fairgrounds of ‘Ukaz, near Mecca. Rival clans mingled in the marketplace, and, when not feasting or buying and selling wares, gathered round as the rawis swayed and pitched their lines to the rapt audience. Could these performances have been transcribed at such an early date? The notion has been contested by both medieval and modern scholars. Yet the legend lives on, bolstering the iconic status of the Mu‘allaqat in the collective imagination of the Arabic-speaking world. The image of pagan poetry hung from the holy shrine of the Ka’ba serves to bind the ancient world of desert lore to Islam, and the poets themselves — Imru al-Qays (“the Vagabond Prince”), Tarafa (“the One the Gods Loved”), Zuhair (“the Moralist”), Labid (“the Man with the Crooked Staff”), Antara (“the Black Knight”), Amr Ibn Kulthum (“the Regicide”), and Harith (“the Leper”) — have passed into legend, each lapped in a vast oral tradition.

The Mu‘allaqat are the most famous — and among the earliest — examples of the qasida (commonly translated as “ode”), a form that frequently runs to some hundred and twenty lines. The term may derive from the root qasada, meaning “to aim” or “go forward,” or else from qasar, “to break,” in reference to the mandatory division of the line into two rhythmically equal halves — a binary thrust and parry not unlike the alliterative line in Anglo-Saxon verse. The qasida is distinguished as well by the masterful application of various quantitative meters and a single, unifying end-rhyme announced in the second (locking) hemistich of the first line. As for structure, it is divided into three parts: the nasib, or erotic prelude; the rahil, or chase; and the fakhr, or boast. And it is punctuated by a series of obligatory motifs — the deserted campsite; the recalled departure of the beloved bobbing in her decorated howdah; the slaughter of the naqa, or she-camel — that are modified and reshuffled with great ingenuity.

The first such motif, with which each of the Mu‘allaqat begins, is the atlal, an evocation of the abandoned encampment of the poet’s beloved. Traces of her tribes ephemeral presence — charred firewood, blackened hearthstones, shards of pottery, shreds of wool, camel dung — are found in the blank terrain, and these touch off anguished riffs on love and loss. All that is needed is the faintest of signs, a token of an ancient passion, and remembrance ignites like a fuse. “One quickly enters the linguistic territory of the ‘detective story,’” writes Harold Schimmel in his tractate on the qasida, which takes the form of over a hundred aphoristic fragments scattered like flints in the desert. “Motives, evidence, clues, tracks, signs, details. A portion of specific circumstances of what happened.”

Here is the atlal of the earliest of the qasidists, Imru al-Qays, who is thought to have died around 550 and whom Mohammad, legend has it, proclaimed “the most poetical of the poets, and their leader into Hellfire.” The translation — the first into English — is by William Jones and dates from 1782:

Stay — Let us weep at the remembrance of our
beloved, at the sight of the station where her tent
was raised, by the edge of yon bending sands
between Dahul and Haumal,

Tudih and Mikra; a station, the marks of which are
not wholly effaced, though the south wind and the
north have woven the twisted sand.

And here is a modern version, by the Irish poet Desmond O’Grady:

Halt here friends.

Allow me private pause alone

to remember a love, a longing, an unrequited right

here where the sand dune’s rim whorls between where

we’ve abandoned and where we’re bound for.

Here you’ll still see

the old camp markers

despite that dangerous whirl

of the south wind,

nerves’ nag of the north wind.

Here where they staked out their haggard,

there in those parched hollows

you can still see the dried dung brickshot like dried dates.

And here are the opening lines from the atlals of Tarafa and Zuhair. I quote from A.J. Arberrys translations, published in 1957, which keep close to the originals. First Tarafa:

There are traces yet of Khaula in the stony tract of Thahmad
apparent like the tattoo-marks seen on the back of a hand;
there my companions halted their beasts awhile over me
saying, “Don’t perish of sorrow; bear it with fortitude!”

And now Zuhair:

Are there still blackened orrs in the stone-waste of Ed-Darráj
and El-Mutathallam, mute witnesses to where Umm Aufá once dwelt?
A lodging where she abode in Er-Rakmatán, that appears
like the criss-cross tattooings upon the sinews of a wrist —

The Mu‘allaqat approach the condition of song and recall the sinuous cadences played in endless permutations by Bedouin shepherds on the shababa, or reed flute: a single, undulating line that offers a multiplicity of choices. Jaroslav Stetkevych has spoken of the qasida’s sonata-like form, while its improvisations, rhythmic energy, and ceaseless delight in folding back on itself cannot but suggest the analogy of jazz.

Even as the sand sweeps over the desert and effaces every trace of man, a voice ascends in song and asserts its transitory presence in rhythms that are said to have originated in the camel’s tread. And what if that voice, the earliest in Arabic poetry, drew repeatedly on the wilderness, on its vacant stare, precisely in acknowledgement of a void inherent to being. “For the desert,” Jacques Berque observed, “surely, is one sort of void. And the poet, or his utterance, in the desert is truly a being endeavoring to situate himself in a negativity no longer endured but voluntary.”


“Cocooned in her litter,” as Stetkevych puts it, the beloved sets out on her journey. “She is the repository of all the tenderness, and at times playfulness, of nasib lyricism, and the poetic topos she generates is classical Arabic poetry’s eternal adieu.” Imru al-Qays, as we have seen, gives us the barest outline of such a scene, but Zuhair invites us to prolong our gaze. The poet stares hard at the bleak sight of the ruined abode he can hardly recognize after a twenty-year absence — scraps of stone waste, the detritus of a long-lost love — and then comes the sudden rush of involuntary, replenishing memory, so palpably real that the reader remains uncertain whether he is reliving his past or pointing to an actual procession of camels. Again I quote from O’Grady:

Look over that way, friend.

Do you see ladies travelling on high howdahs

on that high-road above the waterline?

They will have passed across rough ground to your right.

How many friends, enemies live there?

Their howdahs should pile hung with dark damasks

and finely spun veil transparencies

with rose-red fringes.

In their costly clothes they should look coyness personified.

And the trusses of dyed wool where they alighted

resemble uncrushed red berries.

At sunrise they stirred. At dawn rose.

And when they went to the blue water in that brimming well

they stuck their sticks as you’d pitch a tent to stay.

Sweet sight to gentle eyes.

Beauty for who’s bound to beauty.

The ladies in their high howdahs would not stay. Loyal to the clan, they followed the customs of nomadic life, pitching for a season the long, low tents that the Bedouin call bayt al-sha‘r (“house of hair”), and then bundling their sparse belongings and moving on to new grazing grounds.

The ruined camp triggers off a series of bittersweet memories. First comes the fade-away, or za‘n. To convey a sense of powerful emotion, Imru al-Qays uses, as metaphor, the hard-shelled colocynth, or bitter apple: “Upon the morn of separation, the day they loaded to part, / by the tribe’s acacias it was like I was splitting a colocynth” (Arberrys translation). The prickly umbrella acacia was commonly associated with the pre-Islamic moon goddess Uzza, while the pulp of the colocynth induced abortions and coarse oil was pressed from its seeds. These specificities (along with their connotative value) are swept aside in O’Grady s version, but what is lost in detail is gained in immediacy:

On the day of departure,

the dawn they loaded to move on,

by those thornbushes

I broke up like burst fruit.

Friends reined in above me.

“Don’t break for heartbreak.

Stick tough,” they called.

Later, alone, I howled my eyes out at that dark.

What’s left to lean together with, longing against

when life’s outlines get swept away?

The blurring or erasure of life’s outlines — as in a sandstorm — is what provokes the poet’s riposte, which consists of both a ribald roll-call of sexual conquests and a chivalrous account of the stages or stations of love. Early Arab commentators have described Imru al-Qays’s depiction of ravaging another man’s wife as comprising “the most indecent verses ever spoken by an Arab poet”:

And the day I hopped up into her howdah

She screamed:

“Damn you.

Get out of here.

Do you want me to walk?”

The howdah rocked with the rare pair of us in there.

She shouts:

“Get out! Get down!

You’ve hocked my camel.”

I teased:

“Ride on.

Loosen the rein.

Don’t refuse me your fruity ripeness.

You’re not the first pregnant woman I’ve got into nor the first

nursing mother I’ve got at night-times

and distracted her from her darling

with his magic amulet against the evil eye.

When he bawled behind her

she’d half twist her body to him

but hold her lower half

hard against

under me.”

The power of the nasib derives from its polarities. On the one hand, there is a forthright lasciviousness, as epitomized by the passage above. On the other, there is a lyrical idealization of the beloved — the figure of Baydah (“Egg”) in Imru al-Qays, for example — that would, in later years, become a commonplace in the urbane poetry of the Abbasids and the Golden Age of Andalusia, which may in turn have left its mark on the troubadours of Provence, whose poems Pound spoke of as being “a little Oriental in feeling.

Early Western theorists of classical Arabic poetry spoke disparagingly of the piling up of seemingly irrelevant detail in the qasida; such vertigo of similes was, as one despairing orientalist claimed, no more than “versified geology and anatomy.” But in effect the qasidas technique is cinematic: slow pan, close-up, quick-cut, flashback, voiceover. Its vision is complex, working like the eye of the sand lizard. The seeming disjunctions that baffled the early critics now appear to complement modern theories of perception. Kenneth Rexroth’s comment on Pierre Reverdy’s cubist poetry might also apply to the qasida: “It is the conscious, deliberate dissociation and recombination of elements into a new artistic entity made self-sufficient by its rigorous architecture.”

In 1770, before he sailed for India and revolutionized philology by pointing out the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin, the polymathic William Jones, then only in his mid-twenties, published a magisterial essay on Arabic poetry, “The Poetry of the Eastern Nations.” An incorrigible romantic, Jones could not help seeing the poet-warriors of the Mu‘allaqat as noble savages, their verse full of an archaic, explosive power.

His enthusiasm for the “ancient simplicity” of the nomads and their terrain was boundless: “Arabia, I mean that part of it, which we call the Happy, and which the Asiatics know by the name of Yemen, seems to be the only country in the world, in which we can properly lay the scene of pastoral poetry…. It is observable that Aden, in the Eastern dialects, is precisely the same word with Eden, which we apply to the garden of paradise.” In keeping with the pastoral mood of his renditions, Jones shifts the region in which the early qasida evolved from the inhospitable “Arabia Deserta” of northern and central Arabia to the southern extremity of the peninsula, the fertile “Arabia Felix.” Ancient home of the Sabaeans, famed for frankincense, myrrh, and gum-resin, the rain-fed terraced hills of Yemen contrast sharply with the savage wastelands to the north.

Jones’ Arcadian setting may sound fat-fetched, yet the motif of the paradisal lost garden lies at the heart of the nasib, embedded in the poet’s sifting over the vestiges of his beloveds encampment and in the ensuing resurgence of memories. One of the predominant rhetorical modes in Arabic poetry is antithesis, and we see it dramatically at work in the qasida, where the friction between opposing states of emptiness and replenishment causes an acute disturbance of the senses. Just so, the desolation of the campsite evokes in Imru al-Qays a counter-memory of sexual prowess, set forth in a series of delightful vignettes of erotic play and plenitude; the return to an Edenic idyll is figured in purely libidinal terms. In the Mu’allaqa of Labid, meanwhile, the stark contrast between the speechless stones of the empty site and the poet-hero’s reminiscence of green sloping valleys is made apparent at the very beginning of the nasib. Here we have a wistful backward glance at the briefest, yet most intoxicating, of earthly paradises, swathed during the short spring in a carpet of delicate blooms. In pre-Islamic poetry — and perhaps the motif goes further back, to the gardens of the Song of Songs and even of Gilgamesh — the encampment-cum-ruined garden suggests at once permanence and evanescence, destruction and restoration. Hence the image of erosion in Labid’s atlal, as translated by Michael Sells: Labid begins by describing “…the torrent beds of Rayyan / naked tracings, worn thin, like inscriptions / carved in flattened stones” but quickly reverses himself as he recalls the revivifying effects of a sudden spring shower, when “The rills and the runlets / uncovered marks like the script / of faded scrolls / restored with pens of reed….”

In search of fodder for their flocks and camels, tribes crisscrossed the peninsula, the pitching and striking of their low-hung goathair tents dictated by climatic conditions and the location of boreholes and watercourses. Winter and spring found them in their natural habitat, the steppes of the Najd, or Inner Arabia, encamped in wadis briefly transformed by rain into aromatic beds of precious herbage. During the long summer months, when the desert turned into a blazing cauldron, they drifted west toward the oases of the Hijaz. But Inner Arabia was the Bedouin’s true home, and the atlal, the ruined abode haunted by the phantom of the beloved, undoubtedly served as the memory trace of those ephemeral moments suspended between gain and loss, homecoming and dispersion.

From their very first lines, the Mu‘allaqat abound in place names, which serve firmly to fix — triangulate, one might say — the atlal into place. Did such names serve as guideposts? Was the qasida, among other things, a sort of map of the desert? Here, after all, were identifiable landmarks in otherwise blank surroundings. Even after the Mu‘allaqat came to be treated as relics of an earlier nomadic life, their toponyms remained immensely suggestive as the aural repository of lost origins.

Returning to Imru al-Qays, we read, in Arberry’s version, “Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging / by the rim of the twisted sands between Ed-Dakhool and Haumal, / Toodih and El-Mikrát….” Ed-Dakhool, according to Adnan Haydar, is derived from the verb dakhala “to enter,” which connotes sexual penetration, while Haumal stems from hamil, “pregnant,” and specifically refers to “clouds black by reason of the abundance of their water.” Imru alQays locates the atlal on an edge or margin, a strip of “twisted sands” running between the desert and the sown, depletion and replenishment. The Arabic term for twisted sands is bi-siqti liwa. According to Haydar, siqti refers to “a fetus that falls from the belly of the mother abortively or in an immature, or imperfect state … or dead …” while al-liwa derives from the verb lawaya, “to become withered.” Right from the start, then, contrary modes of being are suggested by the very toponyms: the eviscerated and the life-bearing, their sounds woven into the sand dunes, just as the opposing weave of the south and north winds batter but cannot completely efface the ruined encampment.

It was in spring that the tribes observed the Sacred Months of Peace. The importance of this yearly cessation of strife cannot be underestimated, especially with regard to the sixth century, the time of the great qasidists of the Mu‘allaqat. Arabia as a political entity, or loose confederation of tribes, was far from being the idyllic dreamland of “ease and leisure” fancied by Jones. The Byzantines to the west and the Persians to the east posed a constant threat to the north of the peninsula. The south, meanwhile, having been invaded by the Ethiopians and then the Persians (who occupied it until the advent of Islam), was in the throes of change, with Monophysite and Syriac Christianity, Judaism, and even Zoroastrianism vying with each other to such an extent that Arabia Felix came to be known as “the breeding ground of heresies.”

Yet the boundaries between north and south were no longer as clearly delineated as in the past. An increasing number of Arabs from the south migrated north after the bursting of the great dam of Ma’rib, which, according to legend, was the first in a series of catastrophes that led to the depopulation of the country (and the coining of the proverb “Dhahahu aydi Saba,” “They dispersed like the people of Saba”). As South Arabic and its unique script gradually died away, the dialect of the north flourished. It was soon to be perfected in the idiom of the qasida, which formed the basis of al-arabiyya (classical Arabic), language of the Koran.

As Inner Arabia gained ascendancy, its nomadic populations came into closer contact with the outside world. The Bedouin began riding out of their hinterlands and offering their services to the great powers to the east and west. When not showing off their equestrian skills and military prowess, they served as caravaneers to the long camel trains threading northward toward the Fertile Crescent, or westward to the Mediterranean. As a result, the Hijaz and Najd were transformed from an “ethnic reservoir,” in the words of Irfan Shahid, to an intermediary zone or “transit area.” The Bedouin could now choose to lead either a nomadic or a semi-sedentary life, as the oases of western Arabia became way stations on the trade route, the via odonfera.

This period — roughly a hundred years before the advent of Islam — also witnessed a remarkable efflorescence of Bedouin poetic activity. The Mu‘allaqat are its showcase pieces, but scores of other poets fill the thirty-three-volume Kitab al-Aghani, or “Book of Songs,” which Ibn Khaldun called the “register of the Arabs.” Antara’s depiction of the atlal suggests, in fact, that already in the sixth century he felt a certain lack of elbow-room, even in the wastes of Arabia: “Have the poets left a single spot for a patch to be sewn? / Or did you recognize the abode after long meditation?” Far from suffering through an “Age of Ignorance” — as Jahiliyya, the standard term for the pre-Islamic era, is usually translated — many of these pagan poets were well-traveled, wily troubadours, often of noble lineage, who lived at a time of religious and cultural eclecticism.

The authors of the Mu‘allaqat donned and shed various guises -protector of the tribe, vagabond, soldier of fortune, outlaw — as they reaped the benefits, and sometimes paid the penalties, of venturing ever farther afield. (Zuhair appears to have been the only one to spend his entire life in Najd.) Imru al-Qays, for instance, is said to have been warmly received at Constantinople by Justinian I, only to be murdered by the emperor by means of a poisoned shirt, supposedly in revenge for the poets seduction of a princess. Tarafa, too, wandered the desert in search of patronage and eventually incurred the fatal wrath of a monarch, namely the formidable Amr Ibn Hind, King of al-Hira, who had the poet ambushed and killed for having boasted of a dalliance with the king’s sister. It was at the magnificent court of al-Hira as well that Labid’s talents as a poet were first recognized, and the aging al-Harith, we are told, cut his hand on the strings of his bow as, overcome by emotion, he recited his qasida in front of Amr Ibn Hind. At the kings final encounter with a Mu’allaqa author, however, it was he and not the poet who bled: Amr Ibn Kulthum had, according to legend, come to al-Hira to strike him down in revenge for the murder of Tarafa.

Like the poets themselves, the poems radiated out in all directions, and in so doing finely registered their surroundings. Thus Tarafa compares his naqa to a Byzantine bridge, her neck to “the rudder of a Tigris-bound vessel,” her cheeks to “Syrian parchment,” and her lips to “a tanned hide of Yemen.” The poets’ repeated scoring of the vast peninsula on their “silent great shuffle-footed beast[s],” trekking between tribal encampment, oasis, and caravan city, and penetrating even into the Fertile Crescent, was not unlike the way the Greek pastoral poets — Theocritus, for instance — plied the Mediterranean, all the while writing a poetry at once intensely local and, in its absorption and melding of diverse strands of Greek, cosmopolitan. Bahr bi-la ma (“sea without water”), the Bedouin sometimes called their desert wilderness, and caravans were frequently compared to seafaring vessels. Writes Tarafa (in Arberrys translation):

The litters of the Máliki camels that morn in the broad
watercourse of Wadi Dad were like great schooners
from Adauli, or the vessels of Ibn-i Yámin
their mariners steer now tack by tack, now straight forward;
their prows cleave the streaks of the rippling water
just as a boy playing will scoop the sand into parcels.

How to fully grasp the resonating power of the nasib? Loss and reminiscence are undoubtedly embedded in the Bedouin’s seasonal migrations; the ruined encampment and the caravan fading into the distance were recurring sights that would have assumed heightened symbolic value over time. Yet one cannot help wondering whether the atlal did not also express a larger, more complex vision of dispersion.

Here I must briefly digress.

Scattered about the Arabian peninsula, incised in its rocks, are thousands of inscriptions, classified today as Thamudic, Sabaean, Nabatean, Safaitic, or Lihyanic, and dating roughly, it is thought, from 800 BC to AD 400. They seem to be largely shepherds’ graffiti and include assertions of identity (“And this is Hadir, drowsy because of illness”), boasts of valor (“Bi-ha-Shirkat gave assistance in the war against Dedan, spying out for Salm”), and declarations of love (“Hslt loves the mouth of Gall” and the far more explicit “And Z’g and Zufray have committed adultery. / And this deed stinks worse than a stinking fart”).

These inscriptions, transcribed by such near-legendary explorers as Charles Doughty, Alois Musil, Douglas Carruther, St. John Philby, A.J. Jaussen, and R. Savignac, disprove the widely held notion of Bedouin illiteracy before the advent of Islam. What is more, such brief declarations of illness and recovery, of love and war, were not the only writings that the poets of pre-Islamic Arabia were bound to encounter during their peregrinations. Also cut into outcroppings were numerous funerary inscriptions; the most famous, written in Nabatean and dating from the fourth century, is dedicated to Imru al-Qays’ namesake (though not his ancestor, as the poet’s real name was Hunduj):

This is the funerary monument of Imru al-Qays,
son of ‘Amr, prince of all of Arabia, the one who
wore the diadem, who subjugated the [tribes] of
Asad and Nizar, as well as their princes, who dispersed
Madhhidj to this day, who brought success
[?] at the siege of Nadjran, city of Shammar, who
subjugated [the tribe] of Ma’add, who put his sons
in charge of the tribes and delegated them to the
Persians and Romans. To this day no prince has
attained such glory. He died the year 223, the 7th
day of kaslul [December 7, 328].

Such monumental epitaphs cannot but suggest the presence, in the heart of the desert, of a former grandeur, equal perhaps to the ruins of the rock-carved funerary temples of Meda’in Saleh, and, further north, of Petra.

The nomadic poets of Arabia, I would like to suggest, were well acquainted with these monumental ruins, as they were with the numerous stone sanctuaries, rock drawings, and horizontal, vertical, and even boustrophedal graffiti scattered about the peninsula. Mute traces of once-flourishing cultures haunted the sand wastes, from the Himyarite kingdom at the southern tip of the peninsula to the Nabatean empire in the north. How frail, how ephemeral was the material world of the Bedouin! And yet when he looked about he found that, for those who abandoned the desert ethos of frugal subsistence, the glory was illusory and brief.

It follows that the atlal should perhaps be read not only in terms of personal loss but as a kind of communal memento mori, a reminder of the ever-present dangers of cultural diminishment and tribal fragmentation, even dissolution, as nomadism was gradually replaced by the sedentary life of towns and oases. It is against this background that we must hear the call of the great qasidists to halt and pause awhile at the deserted campsite.

Might such a sense of imminent change, even within the seemingly immutable desert landscape, explain the qasida’s extreme mood swings within and between each of its movements? After the nasib comes the devil-may-care plunge of the rahil, which quickly moves from reminiscence to action. Imru al-Qays’ challenge to the wolf, at the beginning of his rahil, is a case in point. Though playing fast and loose with the original (which includes no mention of crucifixion), O’Grady’s lively, colloquial rendition excels at conveying the nimble, alliterative music of a fast-talking gamester:

Many a waterbag of bravura wastrel brother madness

I’ve carried as comrades’ crucifixion

and many’s the desert valley,

bare as a donkey’s belly,

I’ve traversed where the prodigal wolf

howls over her progeny

and I howled back:

“Well, wolf!

There’s two of us in it

and neither of us making a much of it.

If either of us manage a muckle today,

it’s a mickle tomorrow.

Our tillage turns shallow.

Our bargains and barter beggar.”

Later qasidists give to the hero’s journey a specific destination, namely the patrons court, where the poet’s final lavishing of praise may be heard. In the Mu‘allaqat, however, he simply gallops into the desert wastes. Not infrequently the day-journey is preceded by a gloom-filled night-passage punctuated by the hooting of an owl. His naqa (or sometimes his faras, or horse) is now his only companion, and what ensues is a detailed catalogue of its features, an obsessive tallying accompanied by ever-widening associations. Some of Tarafa’s naqa similes have already been mentioned, but he also compares parts of her anatomy to coffin planks, a waterbag, the double doors of a fortress, the casing of a vault, a kind of shrub, a water carrier lugging two full pails of water, wedged-in roof beams, and an anvil. Such extended similes reach to the heart of the animal (“quickened, compact, / like a stone hammer / against a hardened slab”), the statuesque yielding to the kinesthetic, which in turn yields to the sense-organs: ears, lips, nose, and, in Sells’ scrupulous rendition,

Eyes like two mirrors

sheltered in the rock

browbone’s caves,

two carved-out pools,

eyes shielded from dust

like the two dark ones

of a frightened doe oryx

with fawn…

The long-necked desert beast, head carried high above the windswirled sand, is the protean, transforming agent of the rahil. It will frequently trigger, by way of comparison, scenes or episodes involving other desert creatures, such as the ostrich, the sand grouse, the pigeon, the hawk, the wild ass, the gazelle, the antelope, and, perhaps most famously, in Labid’s Mu’allaqa, al-thawr al-wahshi, the so-called wild bull. The naqa stood for overwhelming cosmic forces as well as for the aesthetic perfection of material culture. Perhaps most significantly, it embodied both the trials and hardships of the warrior-poet and the grace and desirability of the beloved.

The naqa, as distinct from its more cumbersome male counterpart, was prized in Bedouin society for the variety of its uses. It was swift; it provided sweet milk; according to Doughty, mothers washed their infants in its urine; and it was even — as we shall see momentarily — an object of ritual sacrifice. Should it outlast its owner, the naqa was tethered to his tomb and left to die. Hence in Labid’s Mu’allaqa we read, “To the shelter of my tent-ropes comes every forewearied woman / starved as a tomb-tethered camel, her garments tattered and shrunk.” Precisely because of its overdetermined, symbolic role in the life of the tribe, its proper name was rarely used in the poetry of the Jahiliyya, and in its stead appear — as with the poet’s horse, or faras — a wide array of connotative epithets and synonyms.

In the naqa-sacrifice scene, which usually occurs toward the end of the rahil the animal is offered up not to any god or spirit but to the tribe itself, as a token of cohesiveness and plenitude in the midst of lack. Labid, perhaps the gentlest and most prudent of the Mu‘allaqat poets, pledges meat to the poor. Imru al-Qays is irreverently playful as he turns the scene — which appears, atypically, in the nasib — into a titillating game of catch as the meat is tossed about by young girls. On the other hand, Tarafa, the most rascally of the seven, fobs off not his own camel but that of an “old stick of a man,” and thereby incurs the wrath of the tribe. It is, in Michael Sellss words, a “sacrifice gone wrong,” and Tarafas ensuing boast is tinged with the anxiety of being misrepresented, and of having his reputation tarnished: “Don’t make me a man / whose resolve wasn’t my own / who could never replace me / or cast my shadow.”

Deep in the sandy recesses of Wadi Rumm, the hunting of oryx, wild ass, ostrich, addax, onager, and ibex is depicted on boulders. Stick figures pursue their quarry, brandishing lances, perched on spindle-legged, hugely bumped camels. Such petroglyphs are the pictorial equivalent of the chivalrous hunting scene in the rahil. For it was in hunting and raiding that the Bedouin proved his mettle -this being perhaps the closest equivalent in English to the elusive but all-pervasive Arabic term muruwwa. Resolution, steadfastness, generosity, nobility of character, loyalty to one’s clan and genealogy, and a fierce enthusiasm for life, even in the face of the harsh powers of fate: All these fall under the rubric of muruwwa, which yokes qualities of control and foresight-what Sells calls “trail sense” — to a paradoxical impetuousness, an expansive élan and joy, that easily turns into unbridled passion and recklessness. The qasida, particularly its second and third movements, was the primary vehicle for expressing, often hyperbolically, such supreme virtues.

Among the Mu‘allaqat poets, the one who perhaps best encapsulates muruwwa is Zuhair, toward the end of his rahil. Meticulous, clear-voiced, terse, the most sententious of the seven, Zuhair the Moralist, also called Abid al-Shi’r (“the slave to poetry”), wrote his great qasida after the cessation of war between the tribes of Abs and Dhubyan, which was rumored to have lasted forty years. As spokesman for the tribe of Ghatafan, the poet praises the peacemakers, Harim and al-Harith, and in so doing describes the ritual circling of the Ka’ba — before the advent of Islam: “so I swear, by the Holy House about which circumambulate / men of Koraish and Jurhum…” He inveighs against the horrors of war, then offers a series of gnomic sayings whose balanced, languid movements are best conveyed in William Jones’ eighteenth-century English:

He, indeed, who rejects the blunt end of the lance, which is presented as a token of peace, must yield to the sharpness of the point, with which every tall javelin is armed.

He, who keeps his promise, escapes blame; and he, who directs his heart to the calm resting-place of integrity, will never stammer nor quake in the assemblies of his nation.

He, who trembles at all possible causes of death, falls in their way; even though he desire to mount the skies on a scaling-ladder.

He, who possesses wealth or talents, and withholds them from his countrymen, alienates their love, and exposes himself to their obloquy.

He, who continually debases his mind by suffering others to ride over it, and never raises it from so abject a state, will at last repent of his meanness.

He, who sojourns in foreign countries, mistakes his enemy for his friend; and him, who exalts not his own soul, the nation will not exalt.

He, who drives not invaders from his cistern with strong arms, will see it demolished; and he, who abstains ever so much from injuring others, will often himself be injured.

He, who conciliates not the hearts of men in a variety of transactions, will be bitten by their sharp teeth, and trampled on by their pasterns.

He, who shields his reputation by generous deeds, will augment it; and he, who guards not himself from censure, will be censured.

Committed to an ethos of tribal survival and moral rectitude, the poet, or sha‘ir (“knower”), celebrated in the qasida the delicate social fabric of nomadic life, which was constantly under threat. The knowledge of the sha‘ir  ran deep. He was tribal propagandist and encomiast, elegist and lampoonist, arbiter and assessor, but also visionary and soothsayer. His powers were said, in fact, to be allied to those of the jinn, or desert demon.

This may explain the qasida’s darker, more transgressive side. Time and again, particularly in the rahil, the poet-warrior presents himself not only as a clan leader but as a rebel and trouble-maker, a reviler, a man on the run or companion to a band of outlaws. When deviance dominates the qasida, we have m essence a su‘luk (brigand) poem. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the qasida’s very vitality lies in its incorporation of su’luk-like elements. Consider Imru al-Qays, who, though of royal descent, was banished by his own father for composing verses, and who for the most part led the life of a fugitive. His night journey, “wolf scene,” and description of bedding another man’s wife could have come straight out of a su‘luk poem.

Because it ends with the fakhr, or boast, it has been suggested that, like a well-aimed arrow, the qasida inevitably sought out its mark in the glorification of the poet-hero, who concludes the poem by vaunting his lyric and martial prowess. But the poets of the Mu‘allaqat talk big in a variety of ways. For these poets, memory was essentially dual, overlaying personal confession and a tribal vision or mythopoeia. The qasida’s fluidity allows for both an individual and a collective voice to be heard, and sometimes, as in Labid’s Mu’allaqa, personal bragging is replaced by extravagant praise of the clan. Again the translation is Arberry’s:

When the assemblies meet together, we never fail
to supply a match for the gravest issue, strong to shoulder it,
a partitioned bestowing on all the tribe their due,
granting to some their rights, denying the claims of some
for the general good, generous, assisting liberality,
gentlemanly, winning and plundering precious prizes,
sprung of a stock whose fathers laid down a code for them,
and every folk has its code of laws and its high ideal.

And yet, for all the cocksureness of the fakhr, a profound fatalism lies at the heart of the qasida; the poet’s bravura is asserted more often than not in the teeth of death. The fakhr tries to shake off an underlying sense of despondency, already intimated in the abrupt transition between the atlal and the headlong journey into the desert. Tellingly, the boast frequently comes during, or soon after, an evocation of the maysir, a ritual lottery played with notched arrow shafts.

Consider, for instance, the fakhr of Antara’s Mu’allaqa. Known as the Black Knight, Antara was born to an Abyssinian slave-girl bedded by his father, and was accepted as a true son of the clan only after dramatically proving himself in battle. His boast, running to over thirty lines, reads, not without irony, as a danse macabre, a grim display of courage that devolves into unconstrained bloodletting. And yet it is precisely here, “as the whirl of death / dragged champion after champion down,” that the poet abandons for a moment all posturing and deflects his helpless anguish onto his mount. The translation here is by Sells:

“Antara!” they cried,
their spears like well-ropes
netting the fore-chest
of my deep black stallion.

I hurled him,
head-blaze and breast-pit,
again and again upon them
until he was shirted with blood.

With forequarters from the spear-fall
twisting away,
he complained to me
through tears and snorting.

Had he known how to speak
he would have protested.
Had he known to use words
he would have let me know.

One cannot help bur read these lines as an instance of emphatic atonement, where the eloquent and the painfully mute, the spoken and the unspoken, converge and are made whole in the qasida’s grand finale.

In later centuries, in Damascus and Baghdad and elsewhere, the kind of clan panegyric seen in Labid’s fakhr gave way to courtly compliments, as Umayyad and Abbasid poets, writing in the new urban style of tahbir, or embellishment, turned the qasida into a decorative pendant, its vigorous weave of desert motifs reduced to over-refined filigree. There were of course exceptions — one has only to think of al-Mutannabi, of the mocking Abu Nuwas and the great ironist Abu Tammam, of Dhu al-Rummah, who brought about, in Gustave von Grunebaum’s apt phrase, “the Indian summer of the classical qasidah,” or of the Andalusian Ibn Zaydun, lamenting the fall of Cordoba in the gentlest, most melancholy of nasibs. At the time of Ibn Zaydun, qasidas were also written in Hebrew by Judeo-Andalusian poets, notably Shmuel HaNagid, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Yehuda Halevi.

And yet for the most part, cut off from its natural environment, the qasida lingered on as a douceur, a nostalgic gesture to an idealized past. Nomadic life had fostered not only strength of character but also badaha, a naturalness and spontaneity that was becoming increasingly rare. (So much so, in fact, that the “settled” Arab population of Mecca sometimes handed their infants over to be suckled and raised by Bedouin wet-nurses, in the belief that the desert would encourage vitality and purity of speech.) The eleventh-century Persian poet Manuchehri goes so far as to equate the vanished age of the pre-Islamic qasidists with the demise of poetry: “Who keened over the bones of dead encampments and fallen tents,” reads Basil Bunting’s elegant rendition, “Amru’l Qais and Labid and Akhal and blind A’sha and Qais / As we mourn for the ruins of poetry and broken rhymes.” Not for nothing were the seven poets of the Mu‘allaqat known as “the pedigree stallions,” for they could outrun all others.


The following is a partial list of works quoted or consulted:

Adnois, An Introduction to Arab Poetics (University of Texas Press, 1990), A.J. Arberry, The Seven Odes (Alien & Unwin, 1957), Jacques Berque, Cultural. Expression in Arab Society Today (University of Texas Press, 1978), Andras Hamori, On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature (Princeton University Press, 1974), Adnan Haydar, “The Mu’allaqa of Imru al-Qays: Its Structure and Meaning, I,” Edebiyat 2, no 2 (1977): 227-61, Alan Jones (Ed. and Trans.), Early Arabic Poetry, Volume Two: Selected Odes (Ithaca Press, Oxford, 1996), R. A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge University Press, 1976), Desmond O’Grady, The Seven Arab Odes (Agenda Editions/Raven Arts Press, 1990), Harold Schimmel, Qasida. Trans. Peter Cole (Ibis Editions, 1997). Michael Sells, Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes (Wesleyan University Press, 1989), Jeroslav Stetkevych, The Zephyrs of Najd: the Poetics of Nostalgia in the Classical Arabic Nasib (University of Chicago Press, 1993). J. Stetkevych, “Name and Epithet: The Philology and Semiotics of Animal Nomenclature in Early Arabic Poetry,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol 45, 2 (April 1 986): 89-125, Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “The Su’luk And His Poem: A Paradigm of Passage Manqué,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104.4 (1984), A. El Tayib, “Pre-lslamic Poetry,” in The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, Vol I (Cambridge University Press, 1983), F. U. Winnett and W.L. Reed, Ancient Records from North Arabia (Toronto, 1970).



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