Coaxing the Lizard Out of His Burrow: Marcel Kurpershoek on Hmedan al-Shwe’ir and Najdi Poetry Before Wahhabism
Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and soon was drawn to the diwan of Hmedan, “maybe the No. 1 poet” in the Nabati tradition. Kurpershoek, currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a specialist in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia and has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994-2005).
In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and M. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. In this second part of their discussion, Kurpoershoek talks about the available manuscripts, the ways in which the print editions of Hmedan’s work were censored, the Golden Age of Nabati poetry, and more.
In the introduction to Arabian Satire, you note that you used 10 manuscripts. Does that represent what is currently available? Do we have any idea of how might have been purposefully destroyed by the Ikhwan of the Wahhabi movement?
MK: As far as I know, ten is what’s currently available. If I had known about more, I would also have used them.
There could be more. A lot of these kinds of manuscripts are held in private collection, even by princes of the Saud dynasty, but you don’t know if they’re there. They’re not publicly accessible.
On the other hand, some of these manuscripts are accessible on the internet. You have the website, for instance, of Saad Sowayan: www.saadsowayan.com.
Are there stories behind any of these manuscripts?
MK: The oldest manuscript—I discovered it.
Where did you find it?
MK: It was in France, in Strasbourg. One of the Arabian travelers, he brought it from a trip to Arabia in 1880.
It created a sensation in Saudi Arabia when they found out about it, so I got a copy from France for Leiden University in Holland, and they allowed me to take a microfilm copy to Saad Sowayan.
I also gave a copy to the owner of the bookstore, Qays Library, a learned man, Muhammad Hamdan, who helped me a lot with getting the books and copies I needed, and who also published a diwan of Hmedan’s poetry. In the introduction, he mentions how he got a copy of the French manuscript from me and used it. It is called the Huber manuscript, after the French traveler Charles Huber who bought in in the 1880’s. Huber was murdered in the desert by his guide, and people still mention it with shame. Hamdan was from a town that bordered the one Hmedan insulted, and he did not like that and said the poem was not authentic. But he took me to Hmedan’s town and the town of his asylum. He didn’t blame Hmedan for the poem, but instead the people who smuggled in these nasty verses – it always goes like that.
Among the printed copies, you note in your introduction, some of the sections of Hmedan’s poetry have been redacted. Yet this is not true of the manuscripts. Was it something about the shift to print, rather than a shift in time, that made compilers and editors remove parts of Hmedan’s work and replace them with ellipses?
MK: That shows you how current these poems are. If you publish something in America which is 300 years old, people wouldn’t care. But here they care, because all these towns are still there, and with many of the same families.
In the published edition, there are many ellipses in the poem which is, in the LAL book, on page 47.
This is when he returned from Iraq, and he talks about all these towns. Most of the families he mentions in the poem are still there, because these are old families, and you have this tremendous continuity. So even if you were to publish this poem today—which says that half of the people in this town are sissies, and the others of them are pansies—they would feel terribly insulted. Even though everyone knows that these words are in the manuscripts, and everyone knows these verses.
If you publish it, it’s different. It’s like it’s being said about them with the permission of the government. Because nothing is published there without the permission of the government. So, if it’s published, it kind of means that the government agrees this is true.
What about the poem that’s No. 19 in your collection, that begins: “Our plowmen labored in the fields / while he was distracted by little Sarah”? The one that describes sex between his son and daughter-in-law?
MK: The sexual scenes are considered less sensitive than what they say about families and tribes and towns, because he’s basically just talking about himself and his family.
The sexual as such is not as sensitive. There, it’s more what it means for people’s honor and status in society. If someone likes to make a fool of himself, they don’t care.
There are some ellipses in that poem, but much less than in the poem about the characterization of various towns and families.
I’d like to talk about his wide, varied, and vivid focus on anthropomorphized animal lives. Was it common to Najdi poetry or was it something of Hmedan’s own innovation? What does it tell us about the people and animals of the time?
MK: These poems are all emblematic, and they symbolize certain traits in men. Animals are taken as images of men, and we have a range from despicable birds that peck in the gutter compared to falcons. Or from a cow, which was a despised animal, to a camel, a symbol of all the important things in life.
What I like best is the poem about the spiny-tailed lizard, called a dabb. He tells it as an animal parable, because this is an animal that’s admired for its toughness. It’s very hard to kill it. Even if you put it in a cooking pot, it keeps on swimming in the boiling water. It’s very hard to stop its heart beating. And it lives in a burrow, which is a metaphor for the Najdi towns, where people can ensconce themselves against the enemy.
This poem-parable was about how to coax the dabb out of his burrow. As long as he’s in the burrow, you can’t get him. And it’s done by telling him: There is so much to eat, in this case swarms of locusts on the ground, as that’s what the dabb considers a delicacy.
This is all a moral tale. It points to how people are defeated by their greed.
So animals are used as a moral tale. But the poems also tell you something, nevertheless, about the animals, and how they are seen, and their lives. They play quite a role there.
In the history of Nabati poetry, from thirteenth c. to now, what sort of period did Hmedan compose in? Was it a golden age of Nabati poetry? Did Nabati have a “golden age”?
MK: We can speak about classical Nabati poetry, because I’m not talking about what you have today, the Millions Poets competition.
My research into this poetry still includes the first age of cars and airplanes. In the classical tradition, they would just replace the camel rider and messenger with someone driving a car or in an airplane. But there must be still something of the desert environment in it. My research stops somewhere around the year 2000 or so.
If you look at that period, I would say the time of Hmedan was part of a Golden Age. But when the Wahhabi movement started, it became less so, because they were against this kind of secular poetry, and against smoking, and against singing.
At first, the Wahhabis were not that strong, and then they were destroyed by the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali. Then they continued, but much weaker. They only came back in 1902, when the father of the present king re-conquered Riyadh, and then he started to rebuild the Saudi-Wahhabi state.
At that time, you had the Ikhwan, and I heard so many stories of families whose manuscripts they burned, or- the families burned the manuscripts themselves because in many families at least some joined the movement. I even met people who had seen it. At the time I was ther
e, thirty years ago, I met people who were 90 years old, and they had seen it happen.
That was a clear sign that the tradition was in danger, and had to go underground. The man I’m translating now, Ibn Subayyil, he died in 1933. I think the last decades of his life, he practically did not compose any poetry. At least none we know of.
I think all of the nineteenth century, but especially the time of the Ibn Rashid’s court in Ha’il, was a lively time for poetry. Ibn Rashid was very much like the kings of old, who surrounded themselves with these poets for a purpose. You can see from the travelers’ accounts that Ibn Rashid was Wahhabi in theory, and to some extent in practice, but he definitely used tribes and poets as part of his politics and image-building.
So the 19th century is really the Golden Age for me.
What were some of the main translation challenges as you brought Hmedan’s diwan into English? Did you consider, at any point, end rhyme?
MK: My English is not good enough for that, I think, and I never considered doing rhyme. Also, I’m afraid I would’ve had to sacrifice too much of the content and precision. A lot of these things are not well-known in our culture, so you need a few more words to explain what it’s about.
In Nabati poetry, rhyme is an intrinsic feature, but I don’t think that means we have to emulate that. I think the idea is more to find ways to get the man and his poetry across.
Were there particular difficulties or challenges in translating these 34 poems?
MK: There are always obscurities in this old poetry. You do the reading you can, and still things remain obscure. So then you ask people who still live in the environment for informatio
n. Then you narrow it down to a few issues. After all this, a few points have remained obscure.
In the longer poems, and the more political poems, most of the problems arise through the
process of transmission. At some point, these poems were written down, but we don’t know when. The manuscripts we have were copied from earlier manuscripts. Maybe with some oral input, we don’t know.
But we don’t know anything about the transmission process—up to the time when we got the first manuscript.
And if they are long and complicated poems about events that are obscure even 100 years later, then things can get mixed up. Poems with the same meter and rhyme can be easily confused. Parts of one poem migrate to another poem. Another thing is the order of verses, especially in the case of long poems.
I had to compare the 10 manuscripts. And then you just have to make your choices.
For instance, there is one poem that mentions two people who could not have possibly lived in the same time. He couldn’t have possibly meant Abdallah in this poem. There is one manuscript that gives the name Muhammad. I chose this manuscript, because that made more sense in the chronology. If nine manuscripts have it one way, that doesn’t mean the tenth is wrong. You have to compare it to the chronicles.
Abdallah might have been added because he was more well-known than Muhammad.
This also happened to poets. If one poet is more famous than the others, sometimes poems from the less-famous poet are ascribed to a more-famous poet. We can never forget that the classical poetry we have now is the same, and it originated in the same way. Some of these poems were written down for the first time 200 years after they were composed.
These are the sorts of things we can learn by working on more recent poems.
My favorite character is Sarah, who he also calls Sweera. She takes on such a key part in this diwan. Are there other such vivid female characters in Nabati poetry?
MK: I don’t know if you could call her a character, it’s more of a caricature. Through this diwan, he gives all kinds of messages about how to behave. I call his diwan a survival manual. Because he says, about Sarah or Sweera, that the way she behaves doesn’t contribute to the life of the community. She’s a drag on others, she’s egoistical, she’s not baking bread at night. She’s a luxury doll.
His poetry represents something we can hardly imagine now with Saudi’s oil wells and billions, and that’s a very austere, a very frugal society. Early Wahhabism doesn’t come from there for nothing. At any moment, you can have a drought that kills eighty percent of the population.
It’s very poor. And the life is very hard. So they have this kind of tough, sarcastic, no-nonsense mentality, where they’re suspicious of other people’s motives, and there’s constant war. It was a Hobbesian environment, and he tells people how to survive in that environment.
And yet it’s not black or white—it reflects life in a way people still recognize today.
For those in Abu Dhabi, NYUAD will be hosting a conversation between LAL General Editor Philip Kennedy and LAL Editor Maurice Pomerantz on December 12, 06:30-08:00pm. The discussion will focus on Kennedy’s most recent translation project: a sardonic novella called the Da`wat al-Aṭibbā,’ or Doctors’ Dinner Party, by Ibn Butlan (d. 1066 CE). Kennedy will discuss the significance of the work, as well as the particular challenges of translating it for a contemporary 21st century audience.
If you would like to attend, please register for the event here.
And if you would like to read more about Philip Kennedy’s translation of Ibn Butlan, check out this article from The National from September!
We hope to see you there, inshallah!
Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and soon was drawn to the diwan of Hmedan, “maybe the No. 1 poet” in the Nabati tradition. Kurpershoek, currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a specialist in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia and has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994-2005).
In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and M. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. In this first part of their discussion, Kurpershoek touches on the relationship between this poetry and pre-Islamic works; how it illuminates life in the eighteenth-century Najd; what we know about Hmedan’s life; and how his poems live on in contemporary Central Arabia.
Can you talk a bit about that moment in 1987 when you first came across Hmedan’s work? What first struck you about it? How has your relationship with Hmedan and his poetry changed over the intervening decades?
Marcel Kurpershoek: I was a working as a diplomat then in Riyadh. I got interested in this kind of poetry because I was looking for ways to reach beyond the normal diplomatic life, which is a bit superficial. You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all.
I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy.
These poems were tantalizing. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not?
Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently.
And when you first came across Hmedan’s work?
MK: People told me that he was a great poet, and this collection was available—there were not too many books of Nabati poetry. I started reading the collection, and there was a classical Arabic introduction that I could read without difficulty. Then I sat with Saad Sowayan, who is the greatest authority on Nabati poetry, and with Abdalah al-Fawzan who had just published his PhD and an edition of Hmedan’s poetry: he is from the same town as Hmedan, al-Qasab.
Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period.
In your introduction, you note that Hmedan’s voice and words are “immediately recognizable to a large audience of cognoscenti in Riyadh and beyond.” Where is the beyond? Where is his work known?
MK: Basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia. I have asked people here, in the Emirates, and very few know him.
What about elsewhere in Saudi Arabia?
MK: Not very much. Even in the Hijaz they might not know them. It’s mostly central Arabia. But for all the people who know poetry in Riyadh and the rest of Central Arabia, the province of Najd, —and there are a lot of them—he is very important. He is maybe the No. 1 poet. He’s quite famous.
From there—what inspired you to want to translate the poems?
MK: This idea has been around for a long time, because this poetry has not been very much translated in a scholarly way. We discussed it—Saad Sowayan, Philip Kennedy, and I—at a conference here on Nabati poetry at NYUAD.
LAL has so far only published works that are in classical Arabic, and not this kind of poetry—you cannot really say it’s dialect, but it’s a mixture of Najdi colloquial and very old Arabic. So let’s call it Nabati. They have not done any translations from that heritage. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate.
Hmedan was an obvious choice, because he’s always been regarded as one of the foremost, and the other one I’m preparing now, for executive review, is a nineteenth century poet, Ibn Sbayyil.
It’s a big step for the Library of Arabic Literature to move beyond the classical canon into this kind of field, and I think it pays off. It’s not only the first work published outside the literature in classical Arabic, but it’s also the only source we have for what people thought in that part of the world before the Wahhabi reform movement. We have no other sources. We have only the chronicles, and they are very dry. They say there was a drought, or there was a flood, or it rained, or there was a war, and that tribe marched from here to there.
But nothing at all about how people lived, how they interacted, what they thought.
Who do you imagine reading it, beyond historians? Those who enjoy good literature?
MK: I sent it to some friends in Holland, who are interested in literature, and one of them told me, “It still smells like fresh bread.”
The collection is very old, but it’s a voice that’s immediately very striking. Immediately, you start to imagine a certain kind of person—who likes to rail, and who likes to unmask hypocrisy, who has a very sharp critical mind.
And what sort of scholars?
MK: This is something new—in an unknown field, an unknown area. And it’s not just any area. It’s the exact area where the Arabic language started.
If you look at the oldest pre-Islamic Arabic poets, they’re all from there. So this is interesting from a scholarly perspective. There was an uninterrupted tradition of poetry there, that continued even in the centuries that disappear from view.
The center of gravity moved out of that area—to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Spain. That area remained behind, and was kind of forgotten. But apparently the people kept the tradition alive, and it emerged almost as it was when it disappeared. You have a dinosaur, and you thought it was extinct, and then suddenly you find some of that species somewhere.
But you didn’t start translating this collection straight after you read it, in the 1980s or 1990s.
MK: I started by doing my own fieldwork. I had a tape recorder, and I went out into the desert to meet real, live poets. At that time, you still had great Bedouin poets, and I thought this was the priority: These people were still alive, I could record their work. So I traveled all through the country with my tape recorder, and I published a lot of them in the five Brill volumes.
That was the sort of work Arabic collectors were doing in the eighth and ninth centuries. They used to go into the desert and collect the poetry. That’s the classical poetry we have now—the work of those collectors at that time. I thought this had absolute priority, because if they die, it’s gone. Maybe some others will still know their verses, but the best authority is always the poet himself.
I spent a lot of time on that. And now, finally, I can finish what I started with.
Which of his poems were most well-known?
MK: The poems that are forbidden are always the most well-known.
The most extreme things are what he’s still famous for. He’s famous for this poem when he returns from Iraq and he ridicules every town he comes back to, on his way. And he’s famous for this poem where he ridicules his own son. And especially for the lurid sex scenes with his son’s luxury-loving wife.
It doesn’t necessarily mean he had a son like that. We don’t know. Maybe this is all art of a theatrical set of characters. But this is what he’s known best for—these two poems.
They’re also recognizable for their meter, which creates a mocking tone. People like that, it’s fun.
You note in your introduction that this is not one of the usual classical meters. You call it a more “deadpan” meter.
MK: Most of his really sarcastic poems are in that meter. It’s funny to see how meter and content are connected—there’s not too much written about that.
No, it’s not classical. The language requirements are not there in classical, because short vowels are elided in Najdi. So these meters are adapted from classical meters, but in accordance with the development of the vernacular.
I have been trying to get my head around a biographical sketch: Hmedan was born in al-Qasab around 1680 as part of the al-Sayyari clan. Before he flourished as a poet (1705-1740?) he worked as an agricultural laborer in Iraq (1702-1703?), and perhaps he cultivated a grove of date palms in al-Qasab after his return? Then, around the middle of his productive decades, he disputed with his kinsmen and sought refuge in Uthafiyah (around 1725?) after other towns perhaps declined his request for asylum. He later instigated Uthafiyah to rise up against Tharmada’? Do we have an idea of his biography?
MK: Everything we know is in the book.
Basically, we know his poetry, and that’s the only source we have. He is mentioned in the chronicles, but these chronicles quote his poetry. Sometimes, with oral literature, there is tendency to take poetry as proof of story. So often, the story itself has derived from poetry, which makes it a circle.
Many of these poets have become legendary figures. For instance, there’s a poet called Nimr ibn Adwan in what’s now Jordan. He has a famous love story in which his wife died young, of cholera, and it became a fairy tale or legend. So you see Hmedan in all kinds of folktales. They say they know exactly how he looked—that he was a very small guy, and he walked with a bent gait, he had a long white beard, and when he spoke everyone else is silent. But all these things are derived from his poetry.
And it’s the same in classical poetry, I’m sure. There are certain poems and people who readers and listeners start to fantasize about, and make stories about. And these stories are related from one generation to the next. It’s part of the oral culture performance context.
But there are some things we can guess about his life.
MK: Basically, we have to make deductions. For instance, he has a famous poem of apologies to a very powerful ruler in his time, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mu’ammar, whom he seems to have insulted, which put his life in peril. This has been compared to a very famous poem of apologies by a pre-Islamic poet, al-Nabigha al-Dhubyani. There are indeed parallels.
We know when the ruler dies (1725-26), because this is in the chronicles. And of course he wouldn’t have sent the poem after the ruler died.
He also speaks about when he came back from Iraq, and he connects it with a famine. This clearly has something to do with what you read in the chronicles about severe drought in certain years. You can look up in the chronicles the dates of droughts.
Also, this is not a poem of an old person. He speaks of hardship, and he speaks in a defiant, mocking voice. It’s a very daring piece. And so you can choose between this drought (1702-03) and that drought (1715-18).
It’s like archaeology, you find a lot of shards, and you try to piece them together.
Some of the works attributed to Hmedan you haven’t included in your collection.
MK: Of course, some of the poems are of doubtful authenticity.
Some people doubt the authenticity of these very rough poems with the sex scenes, in which his son appears, or his daughter-in-law, or himself in a not very flattering way. Some people ask: How could he write something like this about himself?
Some say: The first part of the poem, before the sex scene starts, maybe he composed that one. But the other part was added by his enemies.
We don’t know! The only thing we know is that all his manuscripts have these poems. If it’s in more than one manuscript, there’s no reason to take it out. We try to give as complete a picture of his work as possible.
In any case, the picture that emerges is very much of a real person. That’s the amazing thing.
I think that there really must be an authentic core there—because the work hangs together. Ideas that turn up in one poem, you see it in another. The images, the tone. It matches, let’s say.
How does he relate to other poets?
MK: He mentions another poet who praised this ruler, but he says, I will do better.
I think he was also competing with other poets, because he clearly says, My renown shot beyond the stars. Of course this is normal. All the great poets, they used to compete.
But he didn’t compose poems for money?
MK: No, I don’t believe that he earned money by his trade.
Of course he had supporters.
When I started doing research for this publication, I went to Hmedan’s town, and also to the town where he sought asylum. People still know him there, and they could still point out his grove of palm trees.
I think when he came there, he was honored. They had a famous person in their hometown. And they could use him—how he composed poetry, how he ridiculed their enemies. It’s having like a television station in your country, like Al-Jazeera in Qatar or Al-Arabiya in Dubai.
So he didn’t get paid for his poetry, but it enhanced his status as a person. It had many advantages, even without being paid.
Part two of this interview will appear next week, on December 13.
For those in Paris, LAL Executive Editor James Montgomery will be discussing and reading from his new book of translated poetry by the sixth-century Arabic poet al-Khansāʾ. The talk will be held Thursday, 9 November at the American University of Paris, University Room: C-104, from 18:30-20:00. Here is more information from the AUP site:
LOSS SINGS: A READING AND TALK BY PROFESSOR JAMES MONTGOMERY
University Room: C-104
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 9, 2017 – 18:30 TO 20:00
James Montgomery is the Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and the Executive Editor of the prestigious Library of Arabic Literature. He is also the author of Loss Sings, the latest in Cahiers Series run by AUP’s Center for Writers & Translators.
This evening, he will read from his cahier and discuss how he came to translate poems written by the sixth-century Arabic poet al-Khansāʾ, whose laments for her dead brothers had always seemed to him to be cliché-ridden, until his own experience of trauma and loss led him to a new connection with them.
We’ve been delighted to see some of our readers attempting the recipes from LAL’s 13th century cookbook, Scents and Flavors. Most recently, Anny Gaul tried her hand at jūdhābat tabbālah, a medieval Syrian recipe similar to m’sakhan – one of her favorite Palestinian dishes — and documented it on her Middle East cooking blog!
As a nod to contemporary m’sakhan, Anny adapted the original recipe to include toasted pinenuts and caramelized onions. She added as well a Moroccan spice mixture, also called m’sakhan, composed of cumin, ginger, allspice, and cinnamon. She confirms that, true to the original recipe’s claim, the final dish “comes out very nicely.”
If you’d like to try Anny’s adaptation of jūdhābat tabbālah, jump to her blog, Cooking with Gaul, here. You can also check out her recipe for chicken with caraway, mint, and garlic – another Scents and Flavors adaptation – here.
Be sure to pick up your own copy of Scents and Flavors here.
And let us know if you have tried any recipes from Scents and Flavors yourself!
In a recent essay for Tamawuj, Marina Warner describes how, after writing the foreword for LAL’s recently released Consorts of the Caliphs paperback, she felt compelled to communicate the stories of the qiyan to a broader audience. Ballet, Warner imagines, provides the perfect medium to tell these stories, with the dancers’ “curvilinear arcs and feats of vertical balance” that evoke arabesque design (for which a central pose in classical ballet is also named). “Arabesque designs,” says Warner, “aren’t in motion, but the rhythmic patterns and variations make them seem to be, and the pulse comes to an end only when they meet a border or frame, strongly implying that otherwise they would extend ad infinitum in space and time.” Further, ballet mimics ornament and calligraphy due to the “dancer’s implied gliding and soaring, which echo the strokes of Arabic calligraphy as the scribe’s hand dances across the page.”
Warner is currently working on a series of ballet scenes of stories from Consorts to weave together these concepts of literature, dance, design, and calligraphy.
You can read more about Warner’s experimental dance project, in her own words, here on the Tamawuj site!
tamawuj.org is the online publishing platform of Sharjah Biennial 13. Throughout 2017 it has been commissioning a continual series of essays, short fictions, and audiovisual materials in relation to the biennial’s four keywords: water, crops, earth, and culinary.
LAL’s own tireless General Editor Philip Kennedy was featured in today’s issue of The National discussing his upcoming translation project – The Doctors’ Dinner Party, a sardonic novella by Ibn Butlan.
“Ibn Butlan was a respected doctor of his time and known for his technical writing. He travelled to Cairo around 1040 to study under Ibn Ridwan, a self-made man of poor origins who monopolized the study of medicine.
In this period, being a doctor was not just about one’s medical and scientific knowledge but also about being a man of philosophy and the arts. The two men did not see eye to eye….
The two accused each other of bad practice and eventually Ibn Ridwan used his influence to get Ibn Butlan driven from Cairo. He moved to Constantinople where he penned his sardonic novella. The Doctors’ Dinner Party may be fictional but it reflects the disdain Ibn Butlan no doubt harboured towards his former mentor. It draws on both the romantic, lyrical poetry of its age and popular medical literature, written at a time when quackery was rife and books were written on how to tell an honest practitioner from a charlatan. It also draws on another theme of its age: a dinner of words, devoid of food.”
Read more about Ibn Butlan by going to the full article here!
On Teaching with Classical Arabic Texts That “Capture a Sense of Marvel, Wonder, Humor, And, Above All, Adventure”
Sean W. Anthony — a historian and professor at Ohio State University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures — is editor-translator of LAL’s The Expeditions: An Early Biography of Muḥammad.
Here, M. Lynx Qualey speaks with Anthony about teaching with the LAL texts, including — as it’s Women in Translation Month (#WiTMonth) — Consorts of the Caliphs, which collects writing by and stories of thirty-eight free and slave women who were consorts of men in power:
Which works do you teach from van Gelder’s Classical Arabic Literature anthology, and–with these works—what are you hoping to illumine?
Sean Anthony: Van Gelder’s anthology is an especially rich and exceptional specimen of the anthology genre for a number of reasons. I’ll just name a couple and get to the point. Principally, it is exceptional because the translations come from a single scholar’s pen—and quite an accomplished scholar, too. The translations, therefore, do not suffer from the unevenness of quality so typical of anthologies. They also have a nice, readable, and modern style. Another thing that I like about the anthology is that it includes formidable Arabic texts that are difficult to translate and that have, therefore, remained long-revered by specialists but neglected by translators. As a result, there are many gems in this anthology, but I’ll single out just a few.
One small section of the anthology I often return to is the collection of early oracles of the pre-Islamic soothsayers. The pre-Islamic qaṣīdah, or ode, usually dominates most discussions of pre-Islamic literature and, as a result, tend to crowd out the oracles. These oracles were composed in a type of rhymed, rhythmic prose called sajʿ in Arabic The rhyme and rhythm tends to be the first thing to go in translation; however, van Gelder’s little section manages to explain what sajʿ is and to demonstrate how sajʿ works pretty well alongside his translations. This is important. Much of the Qurʾan is also written in a type of sajʿ, and I find that van Gelder shows how the oracles of the soothsayers and the early Meccan chapters of the Qurʾan resemble each other in profound ways structurally. The comparison, however, redounds to the benefit of the Qurʾan, too, and is also highly instructive – the comparison really helps highlight how the message of the scripture elevated and transformed this medium of expression.
Two texts from the anthology that I often pair are Bashshār ibn Burd’s poem lampooning the tribal Arabs and Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī’s prose essay on the superiority of the Arabs. I return to these texts so often because they intrinsically raise the question of who “owns” Arabic and because our contemporary society is so obsessed with identity—what privileges this or that identity confers, what identities are valorized or which ones are deprecated, how identity relates to societal values such as equality, etc. Both works were written in the shadows of debates over Arab political and cultural supremacy vis-à-vis the multitudes of non-Arab peoples who populated the vast and cosmopolitan Abbasid commonwealth. They are also great texts for showing how Arabic, much like English, transcends “Arabness” as a parochial ethnic identity. I’m actually looking forward to introducing the recently published volume by Ibn Qutaybah, Excellence of the Arabs, into this mix as well.
One other selection I’ll mention is the story of Qays and Lubnā, which was excerpted from the Kitāb al-Aghānī of Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī. It’s a G-rated (or, “chaste”), tragic love story that offers a nice mix of poetry and prose, but it is also a great story for observing societal change in the post-conquest period and the changes in literary aesthetics that came with these societal upheavals. Love stories and poems aren’t as frivolous as they might seem at first blush, especially tragic ones, as they offer interesting windows into literary critiques of society and its hierarchies. Tragic love stories seem to inculcate the sense that their two protagonists ought to be together but are prevented by an unsympathetic society that ultimately destroys not just their chance at union but also their very persons. The subtext often seems to be: What’s wrong with society that makes their love impossible? Qays and Lubnā, in any case, makes for an excellent specimen for demonstrating this literary dynamic in Arabic literature.
What sections from the Two Arabic Travel Books do you use, or do you assign the whole text(s)? Are the students meant to read them one-sided or bilingually? What sorts of discussions have you had around the travel books, and how does travel writing help us understand histories of those writing and those written about? Tim Mackintosh-Smith said he’d like all seventh and eighth graders to read his…I assume you have slightly different discussions than would take place in the middle-school classroom.
SA: Firstly, these are fun texts that capture a sense of marvel, wonder, humor, and, above all, adventure. In a university setting, both of these texts get at a fundamental human problem that I enjoy highlighting: How does one write about and represent cultures and peoples other than one’s own? What pitfalls await even a sympathetic observer? I usually assign the entirety of Ibn Faḍlān, and I often single out the passages on China from al-Sirāfī. Both texts give vivid accounts of what diplomacy and trade looked like in the Abbasid period and also how beliefs about geography and classes of people shaped perceptions of the larger world outside the so-called Abode of Islam. Then there’s the texts’ particular strengths. Ibn Faḍlān affords a great opportunity to discuss how conversion and diplomacy intertwine as well as the influx of prestigious Islamic silver to northern lands and contacts with the Rūs and Vikings. Al-Sirāfī’s descriptions and tales of trade with Tang China I usually supplement with a discussion of seafaring, an explanation what the hell ambergris is anyway, and a study of historically relevant material finds, especially, Alain George’s wonderful study of the Belitung shipwreck discovered in Indonesia, which contains the remains of an Arabian dhow from circa CE 830.
How much of Consorts do you use, and why Consorts? To get at the possibility of seeing / reconstructing what we know of women’s lives in the times the works were written and compiled?
SA: The lives of unfree persons and of women, let alone their voices, pose notoriously formidable challenges for historians of the distant past to reconstruct. In this way, Consorts is an exceedingly precious source. I tend to use the first half of it in my classes on Arabic literature and Abbasid history.
How have students responded to the works in Consorts, for better or worse?
SA: Reactions vary and continue to surprise me – every teacher learns a great deal from the reactions of his or her students, I think. Some students are puzzled by the form of slavery on display, and some are shocked that slavery existed in this period at all. Others sometimes think that the phenomenon of singing-girls and accomplished court poetesses is foreign and distant. I beg to differ with that second sentiment. How do such women compare, for example, to the child celebrities whose commodified lives seem to solely exist for the propagation of popular culture and its profits? One shouldn’t overdo it, of course, but the discussion is important. Surely, the life of the courtesan ʿArib differs in fundamental ways from, for example, the likes of a Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, or even a Justin Bieber. But how exactly? Listening last year to a Radiolab podcast on K-Pop, I was again struck by how modern some aspects of these women’s lives were.
And about your own book, The Expeditions— in what classes have you used it, and how?
SA: There are several passages that I continually return to: Muḥammad’s marriage to his first wife, Khadījah, and his earliest revelations and experience of persecution in Mecca; his wife ʿĀʾishah’s firsthand account of how rumors of adultery spread against her and how she was exonerated; and passages on the final days of Muḥammad’s life and the controversies over his secession, especially as narrated in a speech attributed to the second caliph ʿUmar. It’s hard to sum up how or why these stories are important—they become such titanic narratives. I like the version of these stories found in the Expeditions because they are so early and, thus, easily compared with later stories in order to observe how they evolved over time. Such comparative readings are highly instructive when it comes to developing an understanding of how the past is constructed and the role of narrative in that process. I use these selections from the Expeditions in my introductory courses (whether to Islam or to Arabic literature) as well as in my more advanced courses on the Qurʾan and Islamic political thought because they are foundational narratives. As foundational narratives, revisiting them always proves rewarding in a classroom context because you’re simultaneously equipping students with religious literacy and demonstrating how these old stories remain cherished today and maintain their power to evoke strong responses from us today.
–M. Lynx Qualey
Peter Webb, a lecturer in Arabic literature and culture at the University of Leiden, is author of Imagining the Arabs: Arab Identity and the Rise of Islam (2016), and editor-translator of the entertaining second part of the Library of Arabic Literature’s The Excellence of the Arabs, “Excellence of Arab Learning.”
The two-part interview with the translator of the first half, Sarah Savant (one, two), discussed the challenges of translating Ibn Qutaybah, his central place in Western scholarship, and his apparent incapacity for humor.
In the first part of a two-part discussion with Webb, he spoke with M Lynx Qualey about the construction of Arab identity during the early period of Islam, the importance of translating Ibn Quataybah, and why this book should be interesting to those who study medieval history.
In the second part of this discussion, Webb talks about poetry as proof, the roles of women in proving Arab excellence, and the translation challenges — including the varied horse terminology.
Poetry is a key part of Ibn Qutaybah’s proof-making. Not only does he say the Arabs were the best of all poets, he supports his claims about astronomical and meteorological knowledge with poetry. Can you talk a bit about the cultural authority of poetry?
Peter Webb: Very early on, Arabs became associated with being producers of poetry. The fact that Arabs have a mastery of poetry is something that distinguishes them as a unique quality of their learning.
By Ibn Qutaybah’s time, it was firmly established that poetry was a very, very special mark of the Arabs. They had the ability to compose good poetry, and they had put their knowledge in poetry. Learning the poetry by heart, being aware of its obscure words and obscure meanings, was one of the most important things you needed to do in order to participate as a cultured member in Ibn Qutaybah’s urban Iraqi society. They have an interest in poetry, a broad knowledge of poetry, and a nostalgic love of poetry. So you have all these urban Iraqis in the ninth and tenth century, singing poems about the desert, and they’d never even visited it! But they loved the idea of using desert imagery in poetry.
As a result, poetry became not only an art form, but it was so closely identified with Arab identity, history, and knowledge, that quoting poetry was essentially about finding facts. You could pick out a line or two, that had a point that was relevant to some cultural argument that you wanted to make, and the poetry would be considered proof of that.
Ibn Qutaybah’s audience collectively knew tens of thousands of lines of poems. And, when they were articulating arguments about the Arabs, or about certain forms of cultural endeavor, these lines would materialize, and they would use them to help their argument.
One of the things that Ibn Qutaybah makes a very strong point of is that the Arab excellence is based on their wonderful vocabulary. This is tied to the idea that the Arabic of the Qurʾan is God’s language, and therefore Arabic is the world’s greatest language, and therefore the greatness of the Arabs is revealed in the breadth of their vocabulary. An example of this is when a really weird word appears—a word that Ibn Qutaybah, or you and I, don’t know—but it’s in a pre-Islamic poem, and that shows the Arabs had developed a very advanced vocabulary.
Sometimes, he would just cite lines of poetry to show an existence of a word in the past, and you’re to infer from this that the word could not have existed unless the Arabs had been thinking about language in a very serious way and had developed a very perfect language system.
Poetry was evidence of obscure words, which was associated with the greatness of the Arabic language. Poetry was also associated with the knowledge and the history and the tales of the Arabs.
The prose sections are also short, easy-to-memorize bits that feel very much tied to an oral tradition.
PW: Here, you have two kinds of prose: one is sajʿ, a rhyming prose, and the other is the prose maxims, another cornerstone of what would’ve been considered quintessentially Arab culture. Some of these maxims were connected with memories of Arab history. Very frequently, when we look at tales of history of pre-Islamic Arabia, these aphorisms appear in them, and they’re intimately connected with stories of pre-Islamic heroes. Also, the aphorisms were important because they show that the Arabs were clever, and they were able to think in a conceptual way just like everybody else.
There’s a nice example in a book written by al-Tanūkhī, who wrote a large collection of tales, Nishwār al-Muḥāḍar. There was a story within that about kingship, and I think the moral of the story was that, although a king’s legitimacy based on his ancestry, all kings originate with some usurper, at some point in time. And in order to make this story, the Indian writer who originated it related a fairly long fable, and it took a couple pages to come to the point that a usurper king can become legitimate. The story ends with an Arabic maxim that says the exact same thing in about four or five words.
Thus, you see, the Indians had to tell a whole story in order to make a point, but the Arabs were able to sum it up in a couple words.
Once again, the maxims show that Arabs are participating on a philosophical or an intellectual level equal to other peoples, and perhaps they’re even doing it better, because the other people need to tell long-winded stories. So Arabic must be the world’s best language, the fastest and most efficient.
As you note, many of these sources are from early in the formation of an Arab identity, or even before such a conception, and so much of it pre-Islamic. For instance, his respectful discussion of fortune-telling and then telling us to reject it.
PW: The overall question is about ways in which Muslims have regarded Arabia’s pre-Islamic past. The easy answer would be they reject it as a Dark Ages before Islamic enlightenment.
But of course Ibn Qutaybah, in this book, shows this really isn’t the case. Because the Arabs of pre-Islamic Arabia were the first people to join Muhammad’s message, you need them to be useful people. These are the people who brought Islam to the rest of the world, so it’s important that they’re okay. The way in which pre-Islamic jāhilīyah is articulated in Arabic writing by Ibn Qutaybah and many other people exhibits this plus and minus, hot and cold, where there is a tremendous effort to rehabilitate pre-Islamic Arabia, while, at the same time, a certain unease at those things that were going on in pre-Islamic Arabia that should be repudiated.
Ibn Qutaybah takes an even-handed middle ground, where he praises what they did in pre-Islamic times, yet admits that maybe we won’t continue with all those things.
Also, there’s a connection with the way in which Muslims thought about the Arabic language and Islam: They needed pre-Islamic times to be an era of good Arabic. They understood pre-Islamic Arabic as a linguistic ideal, with a climax in the Qurʾan, and therefore there was a respect for pre-Islamic Arabian language, because there was a respect for the language of the Qurʾan.
So they have this difficulty of needing to praise pre-Islamic times whilst at the same time recognizing that Islam had replaced it. But there are all sorts of different takes on pre-Islam. I think Ibn Qutaybah has a very middle-of-the-road one. There were some people, especially writing in the generations before him, who really tried to give a positive spin to pre-Islamic Arabia.
We can understand this from a very practical perspective: The early Muslim elite had come from pre-Islamic Arabia, and these were their ancestors, and they were now in charge of the caliphate. So it would have behooved them to show how great their ancestors were. People writing two or three generations before Ibn Qutaybah, when Arabs really were a powerful faction across the caliphate, wrote all sorts of very nice things about pre-Islamic Arabia. The rush to repudiate pre-Islamic Arabia was certainly not there at all.
Women appear, in his discussion of pre-Islamic times, in very empowered positions. For instance, there is the Bedouin woman who tells off those ogling her with poetry, and the girl soothsayer who can not only predict the deaths of others, but can even suggest how to avoid them. Are certain forms of women’s power placed in an unattainable past? How do you see the book’s relationship to creation of gender ideas and ideals?
PW: From a historical perspective, one of the things that seems somewhat clear was that we had a matrilineal society in pre-Islamic Arabia—you established your identity on the genealogy from the direction of your mother. And there are examples of warrior queens of pre-Islamic Arabia that pop up, Zenobia of Palmyra is a famous example.
In the early period of Islam, from a genealogical perspective, there was a change, for a number of reasons. Several things happened to shift the status from matrilineal genealogy towards a more patrilineal genealogy.
So in Ibn Qutaybah’s time, women were not given much political importance, but stories were remembered about women in pre-Islamic Arabia, and these formed a body of knowledge, which he drew on. So when he was saying that the diviner girl who’s predicting the deaths of different people—you could also find examples where men were doing that job. There are also examples where eloquent women are speaking, but you can also find men giving very similar speeches. Poetry was another realm in which women were remembered.
So there was plenty of scope in which Ibn Qutaybah to imagine that women also embodied an eloquent Arabic ideal, which is something that the men had as well. What’s important for Ibn Qutaybah in early Islam is this mastery of language, this ability to observe nature, observe the signs, and produce poetry, and I don’t think he would consider gender to be a barrier to that.
Can we talk about horses, and the work they do? Is his other work on horses still extant?
Horses formed a chapter in one of his books, Jāmi‘ al-Nah w al-Kabīr, which is a two-volume work in the modern Arabic edition, which is just an absolute maze of poetry.
There are a lot of monographs about horses that survive as well. Not by Ibn Qutaybah, but by his contemporaries. You had the genealogy of horses, or knowing the pedigree of horses. One of those that survived is by Ibn al-Kalbi. That book connected horses with prophecy, because it said the Arab horses either originated as the horses of Suleiman or as the horses of Ismail.
Most importantly, the Muslim conquerors used horses in their conquest wars. Their ability to cover ground quickly, and to use horses to their advantage in battle, is very important. So I think the notion of an Arab in early Islam, in the late seventh and eighth centuries, was a horse-mounted warrior elite. So horses were something that was very important to them, and it was basically the object that enabled them to make these conquests. And as the Arabs articulated their genealogy, they wanted a prophetic lineage for their horses as well.
So horses have a political and cultural importance. But at the same time, the horse poetry has an enormous array of extremely rare and difficult Arabic words. The mere fact that Arabs had all this jargon for horses was, to Ibn Qutaybah, proof that their language was amazing, that they had sat down and thought about horses in a serious way. And even though they, for instance, hadn’t written books on horses, they had developed this great horse vocabulary.
In Ibn Qutaybah’s imagination, he would probably have thought that, in pre-Islamic Arabia, people sat around a campfire and used all these very complex words for horses when talking about horse husbandry.
Did you have a horse expert read the text?
PW: No—but in order to figure out how to translate some of these words, I had to read up on the anatomy of horses in much greater detail than I ever thought I would. The terminology goes quite far beyond what can be translated into English. I think Ibn Qutaybah would be extremely happy to hear that, because he could then point to the fact that Arabic is much more advanced in its horse vocabulary than the European languages, proving his point—the Arabs think about horses more.
Beyond horse terminology, what were the other translation challenges?
PW: Making sense of the poetry. Ibn Qutaybah was interested in the most difficult of Arabic poems, because he wanted the ones with the most obscure words, and then he was often quoting the poems out of context. As we mentioned earlier, the readers of this book would’ve known this context, because these poems were circulating in an oral format everywhere.
So one of the jobs was to figure out where the poems came from, and to look at the bigger context, in order to figure out how to translate the poem. When one line comes at you out of context, you need to go back to the original, read the whole poem. It’s very difficult to translate some of them without knowing the context, because you don’t know who the pronouns are referring to, or where the actions are going.
Not only were the poems challenging in that respect, the manuscript itself had quite a lot of variations in the way the poems were narrated.
But you enjoyed it.
PW: It was fun! And what I quite liked about it is that it was tremendously educational, and it compelled me, in having to translate these poems, to really figure out what they said, and to participate in the intellectual culture of ninth-century Iraq. One of the advantages is that, in other projects that I’m working on, I’m seeing many of these poems coming back. And now I have a much more personal relationship with the poetry.
So these aren’t obscure poems, that only Ibn Qutaybah would’ve known. They’re part of a known body of work?
PW: It’s a bit of both. I don’t think there’s any poem in here that is not recorded anywhere else. I do believe I found all of them somewhere. So that does imply that there is a relatively well-known shared body of poetry. Whether a reader would’ve known all of those lines—I doubt it. But I think most readers would’ve known most of the lines. There would’ve been some people, among Ibn Qutaybah’s contemporaries, who would’ve known all of them. But I think even the non-poetry specialists would’ve known quite a few of them.
–M Lynx Qualey
Just in time for the forthcoming fall release of its English-only paperback, the Times Literary Supplement ran a wonderful review of Bruce Fudge’s A Hundred and One Nights a couple of weeks ago:
“Stories, like salt and silk, travel trade routes. They mutate as they migrate, as they are passed from mouth to ear, from memory to paper, from one tongue to another. Bruce Fudge’s erudite translation of A Hundred and One Nights, a slimmer relation of The Arabian Nights, compiled in the Maghreb around the ninth or tenth century and hitherto unknown in English, is a major contribution to the field and promises to intrigue and beguile the general reader as well as to become indispensable to literary scholars. Fudge’s introduction, meticulously footnoted and indexed translation and the parallel text give fresh insight into the origins and routes of transmission of narrative.”
-Amanda Yee, Assistant Editor