Phillip Golub is a composer on the M.Mus course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London. Inspired by Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s verse, his choral piece, The Necessity of what is Unnecessary, is designed for six singers and will be premiered by the EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble, conducted by James Weeks, on March 3rd in Milton Court Concert Hall at 19:00. Below, he writes about discovering and reading The Epistle of Forgiveness through a surprising medium—music—and of its impact on his current work:
In early 2013, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Nusra Front were both fighting the Syrian Army in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan, strategically important due to its location along the supply route from Damascus to Aleppo. However, one bronze statue near the city’s central museum bore witness to the fact that the FSA and al-Nusra were enemies in ideology in as many ways as they were partners against Assad. The twice-life-sized bust of Abu l-ʿAla Al-Maʿarri, cast in the 1940s by a local sculpture student, was decapitated by al-Nusra. After the FSA recaptured Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, they relocated the now headless statue and took care of it, as can be seen in the below shot of an FSA fighter cleaning it.
I first became aware of al-Ma’arri through a Palestinian-Lebanese violinist. I had been telling her about Thomas Jefferson’s surprisingly severe comments on religion. This towering figure was integral to the founding of my country, yet this exceedingly important part of his worldview had never come up in my schooling in American history. Later, I would find out that a good number of the Founding Fathers had similar beliefs.
My friend responded with a did-you-know of her own: an 11th century vegan atheist from outside of Aleppo. It seemed inconceivable to me. My initial reaction reflected my ignorance and the stand-in notions of “East” and “West” through which I heard my friend’s words. My basic sketch of the world had seemed to deny that Jefferson, the man who said:
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in
alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own,
could have anything to do with al-Ma’arri (translated by Reynold A. Nicholson), the man who said:
religious rites were a means of enslaving the masses:
O fools, awake! The rites you sacred hold
Are but a cheat contrived by men of old,
Who lusted after wealth and gained their lust
And died in baseness—and their law is dust.
Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most
monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind,
Had they been left alone with reason,
They would not have accepted a spoken lie;
But the whips were raised to strike them.
Traditions were brought to them.
It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the book of Revelations], and I then
considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation
than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams,
The inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and
those with religion, but no brains.
Of course, the worlds of Jefferson and al-Ma’arri are radically different from one another and their thoughts on religion, insofar as we can even tell exactly what they really were, diverge often. But I find that it is useful to shift the focus from what divides us to what we share. I do not mean to suggest that “difference”—allowing for it, maintaining it, celebrating it, digging into the peculiarities it brings up—should not be a priority. This very website on which you are reading might not exist without a team of committed people studying some semblance of “difference” and without a decades-old cultural shift in the academy committed to protecting difference.
Still, Jefferson and al-Ma’arri’s lineage—broadly speaking—are a lot more connected than “we” in the West or “they” in the Middle East have been led to believe. That is at the heart of why I was drawn to al-Ma’arri and of what al-Nusra finds so threatening in his figure. Al-Ma’arri represents a tradition that profoundly upsets what al-Nusra’s vision—to turn the clocks back hundreds of years—would mean. He also represents a tradition that profoundly upsets what we think the origins of our “Western” ideas are.
This is the tradition from Cordoba to Baghdad of Ibn al-Haytham, who codified what we call the Scientific Method centuries before Francis Bacon; of Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. “Averroes”) whose notion of inertia would later be taken up by Johannes Kepler and whom Thomas Aquinas called simply “The Commentator” (on Aristotle, who for Aquinas was “The Philosopher”); of al-Khwarizmi, the great mathematician; and of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, a Renaissance-like polymath. As Kenan Malik says:
“[F]rom the twelfth century onwards, Christian thinkers, most notably Thomas Aquinas, rediscovered their Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers, through Muslim commentaries and translations, a development that would eventually lead to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and to the breaking asunder of the closed world of Christendom. Influential though they were, the Muslim Rationalists and freethinkers have, in the rush to insist that there exists a unique ‘Western’ or ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, been largely forgotten today. Forgotten, too, has been fact that that Western or Judeo-Christian tradition rests as much, if not more, upon the labours of pagan and Muslim thinkers as of Christian ones.”
Al-Ma’arri’s poetry came to me through my friend as if on cue for a choral piece I was working on. When a chorus of voices sings words, I take the ensemble to be something of a cross-section of the society. The words in a choral piece carry a weight that, in my view, is different from the more personal medium of the solitary singer on stage because of the sheer number voices we perceive. It is public music.
I dove into al-Ma’arri’s work, continually surprising (I think) my friend with new findings about his life and context or in the poetry itself. She would then respond with verses or aspects of his life and work that she remembered from high school. I knew vaguely that I was searching for a text for my upcoming choral work, but I was also just wandering around amidst what I could find in English.
Ameen Rihani and Reynold A. Nicholson’s translations of verses from The Luzumiyat, some of it quite polemical, were a first stop. But the translations were often quite old-fashioned and stylized in a way that I didn’t think would work for my choral work. I then came across the beautiful translation for the LAL of al-Ma’arri’s The Epistle of Forgiveness, a work that highly ironically depicts a journey to paradise and hell (pre-Dante). Because of the quality of the language, I thought I’d met my match, and I asked the LAL for permission to set some of the words, which they graciously granted me.
But after getting further into the Epistle, I realized that the content wasn’t quite right for the music I was imagining. The musical elements of my work had begun to develop and the fantastic visions of paradise, obsessive discussions about poetry, and general tone of mockery, though fabulous, were more appropriate for a dramatic work or at least music with a more dramatic character. Ultimately, I have taken lines from the older translations of The Luzumiyat and treated them like found artifacts, stringing bits of text together to form a short and digestible impression of al-Ma’arri’s worldview. I took the liberty with these older (and public domain) translations to chop them up and combine them as I saw fit for my musical purposes.
The music of the Maqam tradition (over 1000-year-old music from the Arab, Turkish, and Persian world) is built largely through the use of tetrachords, or, groupings of four notes. An imperfect parallel in Western music would be scales or modes. For example, one tetrachord is called “Rast” and another is called “Bayat,” just as Western music has “C major” and “G minor.” (These hardly represent equivalents, rather simply examples of the types of basic building blocks that are found.) In Maqam music, the tetrachords are defined melodically; in other words, over time, the notes of the tetrachord are played in a melody. What does not happen is multiple notes sounding at the same time, defining the groupings of notes harmonically, instead of melodically. It is important that some of the notes in this music are not in tune with our standard tuning system in Western music, called Equal Temperament—basically, the notes you can play on a piano, but not the pitches in between those notes.
In my contemporary work, I treat these tetrachords as found artifacts, rather as I have approached al-Ma’arri’s translated words. What I find so exciting about them is that, when re-contextualized, these musical artifacts begin to similarly defy clear answers to questions of musical-cultural origins. What I have done is to take these tetrachords—these groupings of four notes, that is—and have the pitches sound all at once. This makes them into harmonic clusters of notes, instead of melodic sequences of pitches. The result is a sound nothing like what one would ever find in traditional Maqam music. Instead, the sound closely resembles contemporary techniques, originating mostly in France, called “spectralism.” Composers who follow this school are interested in the natural resonance of sounds, causing them to write notes in their music with very specific tunings, also outside of Equal Temperament.
Here are the four notes of the tetrachord called “Rast” from the Maqam tradition made into a harmonic cluster. (It is worth noting that the tuning of these notes varies a bit, but this would be a standard tuning for “Rast.”) “Rast” could be said to be equivalent to “C major” in Western music—the first musical building block a child would learn to define. It has a beautiful ring to it that cannot be achieved using the “in-tune” notes on the piano.
Here is another four-note harmonic cluster derived using a spectralist approach. Here, the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th overtones (or partials) of a very low tone (that you do not hear) are played. This is just the sort of thinking that the spectralists pioneered and made a building block of their techniques. (The strange pulsing is an acoustical phenomenon on which there isn’t space to elaborate.)
Here is the spectralist approach again with the “fundamental,” as it is called, or, the very low note from which the other pitches are derived.
As can be clearly heard, the four notes derived from “Rast” and the four notes derived from the low “fundamental” sound almost identical. After accounting for the discrepancies of real instruments and live performance, they could actually be said to be virtually the same thing. All of this poses quite a problem if you have an interest in trying to maintain, from either end of the fence, that the Western and Middle Eastern worlds are musically opposed or incompatible in their thinking.
This “Rast” example, above, is the first sound of my piece. This and other similar artifacts make up its musical material. The text, adapted from al-Ma’arri, reads:
We are breaths of Earth
Bodies of Dust
Quake with a doubt uneasy
A blind man reads his fingers’ ends
Quake with a doubt uneasy
Blind, reading their fingers’ ends
Will you excuse me
Comet-dust and humankind are kin
Stephen K. Bannon—very likely the man with the most sway over the President of the United States right now—said to the listeners of his Breitbart News podcast on December 4, 2015: “It’s war. It’s war. Every day, we put up [on Breitbart News]: America’s at war, America’s at war. We’re at war. Note to self, beloved commander in chief: We’re at war.” Islam, all of it, he says, is the enemy in this “global existential war” that we are engaged in, as he then put in on June 29, 2016.
I would like to offer the slightest of retorts to such absolute nonsense, in the form of six white English singers in the aftermath of the horrifying siege of Aleppo, less than an hour’s drive from al-Ma’arri’s birth place, singing music and text that both speak to the kinship of our societies.
Due to popular demand, we’re rolling out a special promotion this season:
All pre-orders of either of our spring hardcovers placed between now and March 31 will automatically be accompanied by a complimentary LAL mug, shipped to you for free. Please note this applies only to orders within the U.S. and while supplies last.
Check out our new book offerings below and click on the links to snag yours now.
President Barack Obama recently told Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times: “At a time when so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify—as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize—is more important than ever.”
As a nod to this poignant reminder on a historic week, we’re harking back to Abdelfattah Kilito’s reflection on remembrance and convergence in The Epistle of Forgiveness, published in November in The Paris Review:
“The dead play a sly trick on the living: in dying, they pass on the duty of interpreting what they thought, of arguing over what they said—or might have said, or even what they never said. This is how we get the fantasy, as stubborn as it is unrealizable, of interrogating the dead directly and without an interpreter. To meet them, just once, and to ask them to clarify what they’d said—or even, in certain cases, to ask if they said it at all. If only they would speak, all outstanding claims would be resolved, the contradictions smoothed over, the ambiguities explained. Confronted with the light of truth, all men would agree and no argument would be possible.
This fantasy has produced an entire genre of literature: the dialogue with the dead. One example of the genre in Arabic is The Epistle of Forgiveness (Risalat al-ghufran) by the eleventh century poet al-Ma‘arri, which narrates a journey to the [after]life. Following the Day of Judgment, the hero Ibn al-Qarih is admitted into paradise, where he meets the poets he most esteems, or those whose verses have especially provoked his philological curiosity. During a sojourn in hell, he’s also permitted to interview the poètes maudits. And finally, returning to paradise, he meets Adam.
The Epistle of Forgiveness is a work of tremendous richness. My aim here is merely to examine what it says, directly or otherwise, about poetry and the forgetting of language.”
—Gemma Juan-Simó, Associate Managing Editor
Location: NYUAD Campus, Conference Center
And, if you haven’t yet, you can register for the event here.
We’ll see you soon!
Meme-makers, puzzle poems, and the great unwashed: Humphrey Davies on Brains Confounded and Risible Rhymes (Part Two)
Humphrey Davies, a multi-award-winning translator who works with Arabic literature from the Ottoman period to present, first read Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī’s seventeenth-century Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shadūf Expounded in the early 1970s. Since then Davies has “only come to further appreciate his originality in inverting and subverting the literary practices of the time.”
Brains Confounded borrows from a wide variety of Arabic literary traditions and includes one-liners, anecdotes, accounts of adventure, and verse—both “high” and “low.” Al-Shirbīnī presents mock-rural poems and subjects them to an over-the-top grammatical analysis. These rural poems may have been borrowed from a slightly earlier work by Muḥammad ibn Maḥfūẓ al-Sanhūrī, which Davies has just translated as Risible Rhymes, or both may have been borrowed from a stock of mock-rural verse in common circulation.
In the first part of an interview about the two seventeenth-century texts—al-Sanhūrī’s Risible Rhymes and al-Shirbīnī’s later Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded—Davies talked with M. Lynx Qualey about why he values Brains Confounded, how his reading of it has changed since the 1970s, the connections he makes between al-Shirbīnī and Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, and more.
This second part addresses the relationship between the two texts, what we do (and don’t) know about real rural verse in seventeenth-century Egypt, and what scholars, readers, and writers can learn from Brains Confounded. (more…)
Humphrey Davies, a multi-award-winning translator who works with Arabic literature from the Ottoman period to present, first read Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī’s seventeenth-century Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shādūf Expounded in the early 1970s. Since then Davies has “only come to further appreciate his originality in inverting and subverting the literary practices of the time.”
Brains Confounded borrows from a wide variety of Arabic literary traditions and includes one-liners, anecdotes, accounts of adventure, and verse—both “high” and “low.” Al-Shirbīnī presents mock-rural poems and subjects them to an over-the-top grammatical analysis. These rural poems may have been borrowed from a slightly earlier work by Muḥammad ibn Maḥfūẓ al-Sanhūrī, which Davies has just translated as Risible Rhymes, or both may have borrowed from a stock of mock-rural verse in common circulation.
In the first part of an interview about the two seventeenth-century texts—al-Sanhūrī’s Risible Rhymes and al-Shirbīnī’s later Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shādūf Expounded—Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about why he values Brains Confounded, how his reading of it has changed since the 1970s, the connections he makes between al-Shirbīnī and nineteenth-century author Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, and more.
The second part will address the relationship between the two texts, what we do (and don’t) know about real rural verse in seventeenth-century Egypt, and what scholars, readers, and writers can learn from Brains Confounded. (more…)
And we’re off to the 2016 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association this week (Nov. 17-19), with our usual array of discounted books—and, yes, swag—in tow! Come visit us at booth 72 at the Boston Marriott Copley Place starting tomorrow at 4 P.M. to stock up on new publications:
Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded
Volume One, Volume Two
By Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī
Edited and translated by Humphrey Davies
Come hear LAL’s Michael Cooperson (Virtues of the Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal), Humphrey Davies (Leg over Leg, Brains Confounded, Risible Rhymes), and General Editor Philip Kennedy speak at the Dubai Translation Conference this week, sponsored by the Emirates Literature Foundation. Some highlights from the event roster:
4PM: “The Untranslatable: Algebra and Zero to Selfies and Google” (Cooperson)
9-11:15AM: “Literary Translation: Should It Follow Established Canons or Be a Broader Act of Restoration?” (Kennedy)
2-4PM: “The Turath in English” (Cooperson)
4:30PM: “Literary Diplomacy: Changing Trends and Danger Zones in Translation” (Davies, Kennedy)
9:15AM-12PM: “Teaching Translation at the University Level” (Cooperson)
1:30PM: “Mastering Arabic: Unpeeling the Onion!” (Cooperson)
2:45PM: “The Future of Translation: Machines versus Humans” (Kennedy)
LAL has joined the Twittersphere. Follow @LibraryArabLit for regular updates on new books, upcoming events, and interviews with translators—and help us spread the word to others! Al-Shidyāq would probably want you to:
“I tell you, the world in your late grandfather’s and father’s day was not as it is now. In their day, there were no steamboats or railway tracks to bring close far-off tracts and create new pacts, to connect the disconnected, and make accessible what was once protected. Then, one didn’t have to learn many languages. It could be said of anyone who knew a few words of Turkish—Welcome, my lord! How nice to see you, my lord!—that he’d make a fine interpreter at the Imperial court.”
See you there!
Bruce Fudge, Professor of Arabic at the University of Geneva and author of Qurʾanic Hermeneutics: al-Ṭabrisī and the Craft of Commentary (2011), wanted to take a break from Qurʾan commentary to “read all the things that religious scholars told you not to read.”
So, when an opportunity arose to translate a text for the Library of Arabic Literature, Fudge suggested a collection of stories not unlike the 1,001 Nights. For, while much of scholarship about classical Arabic literature is focused on what one might call high literature, he says 1,001 Nights is just the tip of the iceberg of semi-popular stories. Fudge explains that when he first asked around Moroccan bookshops about A Hundred and One Nights, booksellers told him that he surely meant the 1,001. But, he insists, even if they are not that well known today, these types of tales were once enormously popular.
In the first part of an interview with M. Lynx Qualey about this edition-translation of A Hundred and One Nights, Fudge talks about where the stories might have come from and how they traveled, who might have produced and read the Nights, and what the use of Middle Arabic tells us about their composers, scribes, and audience. In this second part, they talk about which came first—the 101 or the 1001—and issues in translation. (more…)