The Quintessence of Reality: An Interview with LAL Fellow Mohammed Rustom

Thursday, March 21st, 2019 9:02 am

Two Library of Arabic Literature Fellows, Mohammed Rustom and Bilal Orfali, recently sat down together to discuss the edition and translation projects they’ve been working on this year at NYU Abu Dhabi. Here, Bilal Orfali interviews Mohammed Rustom about his work on ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s Zubdat al-Haqa’iq (The Quintessence of Reality).

Who was ‘Ayn al-Qudat, and why was he so important in the Islamic tradition?

‘Ayn al-Qudat was a major theologian, philosopher, jurist, and Sufi who died in the middle of the 12th century CE. The Seljuq government had him put to death because he was a critic of their corrupt administrative practices and they feared his influence among his students, many of whom worked for the Seljuqs.

‘Ayn al-Qudat was the disciple of Shaykh Ahmad al-Ghazali, who was of course the brother of the famous Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali. ‘Ayn al-Qudat is significant because he wrote in both Arabic and Persian, and was equally influential on both the Arabic tradition and the Persian tradition. Many of the important Sufi authors writing in Persian after him were influenced by him, such as Farid al-Din ‘Attar, Jalal al-Din Rumi, and Mahmud Shabistari. They drew on his writings, especially his original discussions on love and the imagery of the lover and the beloved, the moth and the flame, etc. The authors writing in Arabic, such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Nasir al-Din Tusi, and Mulla Sadra were also influenced by his theoretical discussions on God, the nature of knowledge, and the path to acquiring true knowledge.

Among his books is the Zubdat al-Haqa’iq (The Quintessence of Reality) that you are translating and editing for the Library of Arabic Literature. How did you discover this book?

Mohammed Rustom

Library of Arabic Literature Fellow Mohammed Rustom

I had seen references to the Quintessence in books by modern scholars, and read a couple of useful articles on it as well. So I was aware of its importance, but when I began to read this book and all of ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s other works, I was able to see what he was doing in the Quintessence that was so unique. There have often been discussions about what text in the Islamic tradition was the first to merge philosophy and Sufism, and people often point to books by Ghazali and sometimes even Avicenna as examples. But it is clear from the Quintessence that this book deserves that honor—it is the first clear-cut exposition of Sufi metaphysics and epistemology, using the language of philosophy and theology. At the same time, ‘Ayn al-Qudat shows how philosophy can help mysticism, and how philosophical methods of argumentation can pave the way for demonstrating the supremacy of mystical knowledge.

But in order to appreciate what ‘Ayn al-Qudat is doing in the Quintessence that is so unique, one has to be familiar with the other works written before him which seem to do the same thing, that is, merge philosophy with mysticism. Compared to the Quintessence, these works, such as the Mishkat al-Anwar (The Niche of Lights) of Ghazali, do not try to present what it is about Sufi metaphysics that makes it so unique. That is, they are not arguments in favor of the science of philosophical Sufism as much as they are particular applications of this science to specific intellectual and text issues and questions.

What are the Quintessence’s most important ideas?

The Quintessence theoretically exposits a number of philosophical and theological doctrines that are characteristic of the later Islamic intellectual tradition. It contains, amongst other things, remarkably lucid expositions of the problem of the eternity of the world; the fact that there is a discernable order of causation in creation, but that God is the only real cause; the manner in which concepts such as “before” and “after” are accidents of time; and how existentiation is a process of continuity, and results from divine self-intellection.

In the Quintessence, ‘Ayn al-Qudat also demonstrates the level of his indebtedness to Ghazali when he argues against the Avicennian notion of God’s inability to know particulars except in a universal way, and the idea that the universe is eternal. ‘Ayn al-Qudat also takes up the familiar line of argumentation in Ashari rational theology against the notion that the divine names are somehow superadded to God’s Essence. He maintains that they inhere in God’s Essence, but in a way that does not make God more than one. Rather, the names are not God and are not not God.

‘Ayn al-Qudat also makes a unique argument for divine simultaneity, which is the view that God is with things but that nothing is with God. All of these discussions are then seamlessly tied into ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s most important argument in the Quintessence (partly taken from Ghazali), namely that the knowledge of the mystic stands beyond the scope of the intellect, and is the result of dhawq or “tasting.” This knowledge is different from normal, rational knowledge, which always keeps God separate and distinct, treating God like an “object” of knowledge. ‘Ayn al-Qudat says that God is not only to be known by the mind, but to be experienced by the heart and tasted by the soul—and the only way this can be done is if one trains one’s mind until it cannot go any further. Then, one has to devote oneself to prayer and the remembrance of God (dhikr) until one attains proximity to God, and can thereby come to have a more intimate knowledge of Him. This is why this kind of special knowledge is called “tasting,” since when you taste something, its reality is made much more clear to you than if you had only theoretical knowledge of it.

How historically significant has the Quintessence been?

The Quintessence was historically very significant. Already within thirty years of ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s death, it was taught in the curriculum at the famous Madrasa Mujahidiyya in Maragha (in Western Iran), and it was therefore read by the many influential scholars who came out of this school, such as Suhrawardi and Fakhr al-Din al-Razi. The great Spanish Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi also cites the Quintessence in one of his works which he wrote when he was still in the Maghrib—this indicates that the Quintessence travelled from Iran to the Maghrib in a very short period of time. We also know that the famous philosopher and scientist Nasir al-Din Tusi translated the Quintessence into Persian, but this text does not seem to have survived. The Quintessence was also influential on later early modern authors, such as ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nablusi, who also discusses its main ideas, especially the entire question of “tasting” and ‘Ayn al-Qudat’s emphasis on the stage beyond the intellect. Even today, the Quintessence is taught and read in places such as Turkey and Iran.

What can the Quintessence tell us today, as modern readers?

The greatest teaching in this book for modern readers is that they should not feel so sure of the things that they know. This is because the nature and even structure of reality is often very different from what can be known by the human mind. Look at the domain on contemporary physics: you have, on the subatomic level, an entire universe that is hidden to the naked human eye, but which contains the building blocks of our physical world. On that level, the structure of things appears to be quite contrary to what we take for granted as the constitutive “stuff” of the comic order. For example, we think that light has one kind of nature, but quantum mechanics has demonstrated clearly that it can behave like a wave and a particle. Indeed, the entire quantum world shows us how unstable our cosmos is, and it therefore throws our own certainties about the world into question.

This is what ‘Ayn al-Qudat wants to do in the Quintessence, but he does not take recourse to physics: he makes the simple observation that if you want to know what life is all about, the only way you can do it is to hang up your reliance on your own intelligence and try to cultivate humility and a good heart through prayer and invocation. This will allow you to see the underlying structure of things, and will also cause you to fall in love with both the Creator of all things and all things themselves. As I see it, that is the heart of the matter, for there is no greater teaching for our time than the importance of true love and respect for the divine, ourselves, and every other sentient being.

For more discussion, including how Mohammed Rustom chose the title “The Quintessence of Reality,” watch the video below:

“Some Works Just Capture You”: An Interview with LAL Fellow Bilal Orfali

Thursday, March 14th, 2019 2:54 pm

Two Library of Arabic Literature Fellows, Mohammed Rustom and Bilal Orfali, recently sat down together to discuss the edition and translation projects they’ve been working on this year at NYU Abu Dhabi. Here, Mohammed Rustom interviews Bilal Orfali about his work on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī and other projects.

What are the books that you are working on for the Library of Arabic Literature?

I just completed with Maurice Pomerantz an edition of al-Hawamil wa-l-shawāmil by al-Tawḥīdī (d. ca. 1023) and Miskawayh (d. 1030) which was translated by Sophia Vasalou and James E. Montgomery. This edition-translation will be published in two volumes in Fall 2019, under the title The Philosopher Responds: An Intellectual Correspondence from the Tenth Century. I am currently working with Ramzi Baalbaki and Maurice Pomerantz on an edition and translation of ʿUqalāʾ al-majānīn of al-Naysābūrī (d. 1014), and with Maurice Pomerantz on an edition and translation of the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī (d. 1008). I have also prepared a short anthology, which is illustrated, from Tanukhī’s (d. 994) works al-Faraj baʿd al-shiddah (Relief after Hardship) and Nishwār al-muḥāḍara (Table Talk) for school children.

From wise fools to beggars and tricksters, tell us more about the Maqāmāt.

Bilal Orfali

Library of Arabic Literature Fellow Bilal Orfali

The Maqāmāt, refers to a form of fictional Arabic prose literature that has played an important role in Middle Eastern and global literary history. Invented in Arabic in the 4th/10th century in Eastern Iran, maqāmāt works are collections of picaresque tales that narrate the various adventures of a trickster’s travels across cities of the medieval Islamic world. They cast the exploits and speech of its characters in flowery prose. The tales are often ironic, parodic, and darkly humorous. They often mock aspects of the society or the reader’s knowledge and perception of literature, religion, science, and philosophy. Over the centuries, the genre has exhibited remarkable capacity to travel and transform. Maqāmah writing spread to most regions of the Muslim world and traversed linguistic, religious, and cultural boundaries, as writers composed maqāmāt collections in Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Ottoman Turkish, and Hausa.

The first person to compose a maqāmah was Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī. In creating the maqāmah form, al-Hamadhānī adapted many pre-existing features of the Arabic courtly literary tradition before him. However the works are innovative in several respects, such as his use of rich textures of rhymed prose that accentuated the speaker’s performances, and the distinctive style of narrative poetics, the maqāmah form.

In the maqāmah of Mosul, for example, a mad healer prophet and his partner ʿĪsā ibn Hishām intervene in a funeral claiming to be able to revive the dead man. In the course of the story, this prophet figure transforms the somber scene of mourning into a comedy where baffled onlookers from the town are seized by the possibility of the miracle. Will this stranger bring the corpse back to life? Is he truly a healer or a prophet? Is the man truly dead?

Those familiar with Hamadhānī’s Maqāmāt will suspect that this stranger is the protean hero Abū l-Fatḥ al-Iskandarī in another disguise. And according to plan, after receiving food and gold from the townspeople, his powers prove unable to revive the corpse. Abū l-Fatḥ and his companion, exposed as frauds, exit the town dodging the slaps and blows of the angry townspeople.

The two heroes then travel to a new location where Abū l-Fatḥ promises to save a group of villagers from an impending flood. Assuming the guise of the prophet Moses, Abū l-Fatḥ commands the villagers to slaughter a golden heifer, and further, asks to deflower one of the village’s virgin girls. The episode comes to a close when, in the midst of the very prayer act that was designed to save the inhabitants from the flood, Abū l-Fatḥ and ʿĪsā flee the scene.  Abū l-Fatḥ describes how he has exchanged his false words for charity at the close of the maqāmah.

Why are you working on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī and not al-Ḥarīrī’s for example?

One very good reason perhaps is that our colleague Michael Cooperson has completed translating the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī. But you know, some works just capture you. I first read the Maqāmāt of Hamadhānī as an undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut, and it was love at first sight. Hamadhānī created a text that is in dialogue with most Islamic disciplines, but at the same time the text seems irreverent. Ḥarīrī does something similar, but with him the genre is more fixed. His Maqāmāt are overly concerned with literary form in my opinion. With Hamadhānī you can feel the freshness of the genre, the search for a form, linguistic register, and characters. Ḥarīrī’s text became more popular and enjoyed a rich tradition of commentaries. The text however is more stable—likely because of the large numbers of students who purportedly studied with the author. Hamadhānī’s text on the other hand is a challenge and many questions pertaining to its history remain to be answered.

You are writing a book on the Maqāmāt of al-Hamadhānī—what is the subject of the book?

After several years of working on the text of al-Hamadhānī, Maurice Pomerantz and I recognized that despite the fame and importance of the text, basic questions about the circumstances of the text’s authorship, collection, and transmission still remain to be answered. It is the regrettable common practice in studies and translations of Hamadhānī’s Maqāmāt to refer to the seriously defective “standard” editions of the late 19th century, the best of which is prepared by the esteemed scholar and reformer Muḥammad ʿAbdu. ʿAbdu not only censored the text to meet the norms of a conservative audience but also relied on later Ottoman manuscripts replete with errors. Relying on these defective editions not only compromises the results of modern scholars’ investigations of Hamadhānī’s text, but also prevents them from appreciating the literary culture that created this work. How were the individual maqāmāt composed? How were they performed? How were they recorded, lost, found, collected, and transmitted? How did they gain their titles and various readership notes and commentaries? These are only some of the questions that our book addresses.


To see Bilal Orfali discuss more of his projects, watch the video below:

General Editor Philip Kennedy Reads from Consorts of the Caliphs

Monday, March 4th, 2019 10:00 am

“ʿInān was the first poet to become famous under the Abbasids and the most gifted poet of her generation…”

In this video produced by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, the General Editor of the Library of Arabic Literature Philip Kennedy discusses Consorts of the Caliphs and reads an entertaining excerpt from the book. Watch the video here:

“The Secretarial Art Is a Noble Craft”: An Excerpt from The Sword of Ambition

Monday, February 25th, 2019 8:00 am

The Sword of Ambition

In this excerpt from The Sword of Ambition: Bureaucratic Rivalry in Medieval Egypt, translated by Luke Yarbrough, the unemployed bureaucrat ‘Uthman ibn Ibrahim al-Nabulusi describes what he believes are essential qualifications for being a good secretary. The work as a whole makes a polemical argument against the employment of non-Muslims as secretaries and offers us “an unusual opportunity to situate virulent religious polemic in the particular historical context that generated it,” as Yarbrough writes in his introduction. “The author’s patent desperation and autobiographical candor make it clear that the project was not suggested to him by sacred texts or abstract reflection alone, but instead was inspired by historically specific, self-interested motives.”

A Description of the Secretarial Art

Since the subject of the secretarial art has been broached, and since we have had occasion to mention those who unworthily don its robes and thereby encroach upon its sublime offices, it is fitting that I describe what it is. Indeed, it is appropriate that I bedeck the end of this book with a description of those men whom the secretarial art has adorned and that I offer a sample of their merits.

Therefore I would state clearly that the secretarial art is a noble craft, a splendid and lofty rank for those who master it. He who is ignorant of its excellence has surely never known one of its true practitioners. As for those secretaries worthy of the name, they are in truth the very meaning of existence; they are the kernel within the shell of this present world, the spirit in the body of this creation and the sheen upon its mirror, which reveals all excellence in its perfect clarity.

An Account of Those Men Who May Properly Be Called Secretaries, along with Some of Their Achievements in Prose, Though It Be but a Single Phrase to Demonstrate the Excellence of Each One

“Cairo from the Mosque of Ibn Touloun.” Public domain via the Library of Congress.

I am of the view that the only men who may properly be called secretaries are those who combine knowledge of divers sciences and who comprehend every branch of knowledge. The true secretary will have recited the Illustrious Qur’an, spent time in the study of religious law, heard and narrated hadith and understood its principles and fine points, studied inheritance law, mastered Arabic, scaled the twin summits of poetry and prose, gained complete command of epistolary style, recounted poems and aphorisms, read the epic tales of old, and understood the nuances of poetry and its varieties and forms. He will have committed to memory a great many poems, by Arabs and non-Arabs alike, and studied their battles, their speeches, their biographies, their historical chronicles, and the record of all events concerning them. He will have learnt a goodly amount of arithmetic. Indeed, he will have entered into every arena of learning by the widest gate. Refined literature holds a singular place in his preparation; it is his special adornment, for the Muslim community knows nothing more lovely, nor is there any garment more comely for ambition to wear. It frees the tongue of any hobble and allows men to speak with supreme eloquence. Only he may be associated with its refinement whose brilliant light shines forth, whose excellence glitters, and whose character is ennobled to such a degree that he gives rest to souls and joy to spirits. Neither does his flowing stream of excellence dry up, nor does any impurity cloud the clear pool of his learning. Fate is moved to rejoice by such men, and in them she displays her kindness. By them the spark of Destiny is kindled; from them the star of Fortune is never concealed. God, glorified be He, has said concerning those angels who in all nobility and knowledge play the part of secretaries: «Yet there are over you watchers noble, scribes who know whatever you do.»

One of the most renowned secretaries and noted men of culture was ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd ibn Yaḥyā, the secretary of the last Umayyad caliph, Marwān, who was killed at Būṣīr Sidr in the vicinity of Giza. ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd was the first to elucidate the proper methods that guide the secretarial art and the use of the pen, and to formulate the conventions of composition and rhetoric. He has many well-known epistles and many praiseworthy virtues as well.

It has been said concerning him, “The secretarial art began with ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd and ended with Ibn al-ʿAmīd.”

Among his excellent sayings are, “The pen is a tree the fruit of which is meaning, and the heart a sea the pearl of which is wisdom.” And also, “Practice forgiveness, that the grace of your power may endure.” And, “Do not let your share in this world cause you to forget your share in God’s mercy.”

Here follows an instance of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd’s loyalty that history has preserved for us so that the ignoble might feel shame and the honorable might follow in his steps. When his master Marwān realized that his rule was coming to an end with the rebellion of al-Saffāḥ, he said to ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd, “This authority shall surely pass from us and revert to those people,” meaning the Abbasid caliphs, who are of the Prophet’s family. “I advise you to transfer your allegiance to them, for they shall advance you in their service because of your estimable qualities. It may even be that you shall still do me some good by serving those whom I leave behind.” But ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd replied, “How shall the people know that this is your command? If I obey you, the people will curse me!” Then he recited these verses:

Am I to be loyal in secret and flaunt perfidy?

what excuse could I give to convince people?

Thereafter ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd stayed at Marwān’s side until he was slain by Ṣāliḥ ibn ʿAlī.

For more stories of the best—and worst—secretaries in history according to Ibn al-Nabulusi, check out The Sword of Ambition, newly published in paperback.

Boss Moves Are Bloody Moves

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018 6:00 am

In this article, Rachel Schine, author of the blog “Lyric Poets,” writes about ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and what his poetry has in common with the lyrics of Cardi B. She notes: “The artist and essayist Max King Cap has said that one’s identity is ‘neither prescriptive nor proscriptive; it doesn’t dictate or disallow.’ Thoughtful art, according to him, embodies this principle, yet, when I was invited to write a comparison between the half-black (hajīn) ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād and a contemporary rapper (more likely than not to be a person of color), I was initially apprehensive that I would be making it look like ‘Antarah’s identity was indeed prescriptive, and that it dictated his comparability with other literary figures. I hope to convince you otherwise and show some of the uses of comparing Classical Arabic poetry with contemporary rap.”

According to legend, when the pre-Islamic warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād ran into his first battle, he did so screaming “I am the half-blood ‘Antarah!” He has since earned a reputation as the epitome of the underdog hero. If we believe his semi-fantastic biography, ‘Antarah metamorphoses through sheer grit and prowess from a half-Ethiopian slave spurned by his free Arab father and tribe into an elite warrior, bringing his kin sizeable quantities of booty in war and a commensurate profusion of honor. ‘Antarah’s empowerment is, of course, staked on his extreme capacity for violence, making unambiguous the connection between bloodshed and socioeconomic gain in his world. Once socially redeemed, though, violence still never leaves ‘Antarah—he keeps fighting until old age and infirmity set in, which, according to the Kitāb al-Aghānī, made for thin final years because he could no longer go on raids.

For ‘Antarah, violence is no simple means to an end. His pugnacity not only bootstraps him out of his birth station but also becomes his noble prerogative once he has become well-to-do. This emerges in lines from his diwan like, “Clad in the garb of Yemen’s kings, a long coat of mail, rippling like the sea, I wielded a keen white blade, answering War’s touch with slash and cut […],” and is distilled in a sentence from ‘Antarah’s biography, which asserts “slaves don’t attack,” because it is the honor and privilege of the free. War-making is also the focal point of the conspicuous consumption in ʿAntarah’s  poetry through which he signals his material success, as he accouters himself only with the finest swords and armor, the sturdiest steed whom he feeds with rich milk (much to the chagrin of his wife with a camel-milk craving, in one poem), and imported spears, even as he lives the otherwise sparse life of a desert-wearied soldier. This is, of course, because in ‘Antarah’s context amid the pre-Islamic Bedouin culture of the Najd highlands, warfare and raiding was not only necessary but also glorified. Folks accessorized accordingly.

"I'm invincible!" gif

‘Antarah’s attitude toward violence is rather similar to one of the credos that repeats itself often in rap: you have to scrap to get to the top, and once you’re there, the use of violence and aggression endures as a divine mandate of the elect—it’s a way of preserving one’s status, to be sure, but also something the successful use and flaunt because they can. This is a powerful symbolic inversion of the deprivation that the black artists who dominate the genre experienced before they attained high status, and moreover it often harkens to the collective oppression experienced by black Americans across history. In this vein, wealth sometimes itself becomes a metaphor for violence and exploitation: in Childish Gambino’s “Bonfire,” the line “[a] brand new whip for these n****s like slavery” plays on the double meaning of “whip” as both a lash and a luxury car, and renders his ostentatious display of wealth a historically poignant cudgel against those beneath him.

The biggest and most buzzed-about rap anthem of 2017 deals cleverly with the overlap between violence and status. Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” chronicles her journey from working as a stripper to becoming a reigning queen of hip-hop. The video for the song (perhaps not coincidentally) is one of the most Orientalist music videos I have ever had the perverse delight of watching, but there isn’t room to discuss it here. Reading Cardi’s lyrics alongside ‘Antarah’s verses, violence emerges in the two as tightly linked with material gain in a complex and often ambivalent way, echoing the privileges and burdens of upstarts. The lucre described in Cardi’s lyrics drips with figurative blood, both a marker of triumph and of warning. Meanwhile, ‘Antarah’s verses are frequently caught between a soldier’s austerity and a braggart’s lavishness, and at times the two mingle together in eerie ways, such that in almost the same breath, ‘Antarah’s hand brings both rain, that is charity, and death. All of this conveys much about ‘Antarah and his society, in which men were expected to be both resolute and open-handed, and in which the link between the two was consummated through ghazwah, or inter-tribal raiding.


I’m a Boss, You a Worker

        Here’s the video for Cardi’s song—if you haven’t seen it yet (and seriously where have you been?), you should watch it now:  

And here are the lyrics:

Cardi B, née Belcalis Marlenis Almánzar, grew up poor in the Bronx, and is now one of the most successful female rappers currently in the game (“I used to live in the P’s, now it’s a crib with a gate”). Apropos of this, Cardi’s song is a boastful ode (fakhr, if you’ll indulge me) to her own class ascent—she no longer needs to “dance,” which is to say strip, because now she has a real cash flow and can pursue her own financial interests freely, also known as making “money moves.” The oblivion this produces sets in immediately—now that Cardi’s on top, she looks down her nose at those beneath her, guarding her property from them (“you can’t f*ck with me if you wanted to, these expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes”) and putting them in their place (“I’m a boss, you a worker, b*tch, I make bloody moves”). A similar sort of denial of double consciousness comes through in ‘Antarah’s poems, in lines where he speaks admiringly of a foe by remarking on how they do not comport themselves like slaves, calls one of his enemies a bastard child (ibn laqīṭah), or boasts of serving up wine to people who have never shown weakness or false pretense, i.e. the “high-born and brave” (laysū bi-ankās wa-lā awghāl). It is hard not to see a vision of a champagne room, or perhaps a scene of palatial ṭarab, in Montgomery’s rendering,

I’ve served wine

        To high-born and brave

At dawn,


Pert-breasted girls

        With a flicker of shyness

In their eyes,

        White as the marble

Effigies of goddesses

Both Cardi and ‘Antarah treat their lowly pasts with a similar disinterest, evincing little sympathy for the folks who fail to pull themselves up out of similar conditions. They transform words like “worker,” “slave,” and “bastard,” their own former labels, into watchwords for their superiority. For ‘Antarah, this is especially embodied in his ability to woo white-skinned women, previously precluded by his slave status; the first line of poetry he recites about his future wife, ‘Ablah, in his sīrah speaks of her fairness (wa-bayḍā’) before all else.

The premising of this fresh superiority on the capacity to do harm to others is patent in Cardi’s lyrics, as when she switches from the refrain “I make money moves” to “I make bloody moves.” For Cardi, the use of violent language is part of a performance of power that relates not only to her class, but to her gender, and she playfully dresses up her threats in feminine attire while also mainly addressing female competitors throughout the song. Such maneuvers are far from new among female rappers. In his essay, “Caricature and Obscenity in Mujūn Poetry and African-American Women’s Hip-Hop,” Adam Talib amply demonstrates that male rappers (and their medieval Arab counterparts) have no monopoly on the obscene, and that women rappers will intentionally appropriate the language of masculine prurience—which tends to idealize uneven, violent, or humiliating sexual relationships—to articulate their own desires, wearing terms like “b*tch” and “hoe” as badges of honor and fantasizing openly about sexually dominant men, thus, “parody[ing] the mainstream, hypersexual male paradigm” of the genre; this is no less true with violence. In the song’s most recurrent image, Cardi makes a particularly eloquent parodic stroke, taking something typically viewed as an extremely feminine accessory—high-heeled shoes, which in the music video are an especially vertiginous and glossy pink confection, with the classic Louboutin cherry-red sole—and imbues it with violent significance. The shoes are “bloody,” a reference not only to their famous red-lacquered bottom but also to the pools of blood Cardi stands in after besting her competition. In another line, Cardi parrots a masculine articulation of sexual desire, reframing it as a violent assertion, saying, “if you a p**** you get popped,” in reference to 2 Live Crew’s song, “Pop that P****.” Reformulated as an if-then statement and voiced by a woman, though, the meaning of p**** morphs here from female genitalia into a weak man, and “pop” transforms from a thrusting motion into a fatal gunshot wound. No longer a stripper, Cardi won’t be popping her p**** any more, instead, she can now credibly threaten to cut down any man–or woman–she likes.

gif of Cardi B saying "I ain't about to sleep on my dreams for no man!"

Iced-over watches and designer shoes may not be staples of ‘Antarah’s knightly stomping grounds, but his poetry nonetheless plays similarly with the relationship between extravagance and violence, often in the reverse direction—rather than lucre being coated in blood, his gored military accoutrements and the bodies of his enemies instead evoke finery, as in,

I turned my wounded horse

        His flanks shredded by arrows

His halter red with blood

        Like the fringes of a rug.

The mount’s bloodied halter here here seems like the fringes of a qirām, a type of red wool textile that famously appears in the following hadīth: ‘Ā’isha puts up a qirām embellished with figures (fīhā tamāthīl) in a place that is in Muḥammad’s line of sight during prayer, and he asks that it be removed (whereupon she makes a few cushions out of it). Elsewhere, ‘Antarah’s sword glitters with such radiance that women would forget to ornament themselves when faced with its luster,

My soul has been mired

        In battlemurk—

The blade’s glister

        Would make you forget

All your henna

        And your kohl

In yet another line, the gored head of a fallen enemy has hair that appears darkened as if dyed with indigo; rivers of blood streaming from enemies’ chests resemble jiryāl, a reddish-gold dye. In an earlier blog for the LAL site, Paul Cooper comments on the starkness of ‘Antarah’s world, a desert awash in flame. And yet, verses such as those indicated above ironically transform ‘Antarah’s unforgiving battlefield into an almost lush space, well-appointed with vividly-colored, gleaming objects—true to Montgomery’s idea that in the diwan reality is constantly being “transformed and mutilated and metamorphosed.” The transformation of weaponry into an adorned bride or of guts into bright tinctures play on the finer things (including lovely ladies) that ‘Antarah and his men have left behind during their raiding, and perhaps also on the ennobling, fruitful nature of raiding itself. Moreover, these references render ‘Antarah as a regal figure in his desert domain—a sovereign of the battlefield, per the earlier reference to his chain mail being like that of Yemen’s kings. That wealth is only ever vaguely hinted at in scenes otherwise dominated by war and struggle permits very little luxuriating on ‘Antarah’s part. Instead, the hustle always continues: he satirizes his brothers for getting fat while their true instruments of power and prestige—their camels—grow thin. The reward of choice food comes to ‘Antarah only after “nights twisted in hunger.” Despite her comparative density of references to enjoying things like diamonds, designer clothes, and fancy cars, Cardi echoes ‘Antarah’s sentiments about hard work, saying that her hard-earned wealth is a cut above the money given to other women by their “baby fathers.” Cardi has “no time to chill,” using her wealth to pay her family’s bills and continuing to produce music at a pace few can match. Rather than stopping to bask, ‘Antarah and Cardi revel in the crucible of their respective labors.

gif of Cardi B saying "I make money moves."

In keeping with this work ethic, ‘Antarah visibly grapples in his poetry with the extent to which he cares for the things money and prestige can afford—in his “golden ode,” or mu‘allaqah, he elaborately describes the bottle of fine wine he drinks at twilight, “paid for with minted gold” (bi-l-mashūf al-mu‘lam), and sipped “from a streaked yellow glass/strained from a gleaming jug/held fast in my hand.” And yet, when battle comes a few lines later, he declines the spoils, motivated only by the fight itself. He affirms elsewhere he’s no slave to desire. Nonetheless, grand displays of generosity—which necessarily require having a surplus of things to give—remain of immense value to ‘Antarah, and act as one of his answers to anyone who would denigrate him for his blackness:


Fools may mock my blackness

        But without night there’s no day!

Black as night, so be it!

        But what a night

Generous and bright! (khaṣā’ilī bayāḍun wa-min kaffayya yustanzalu al-qaṭru)

        All the paltry ‘Amrs and Zayds

My name has eclipsed.

        I am the Lord of War!

‘Antarah’s whiplash-quick transition from impressing with his bounteousness to impressing with his pugnacity—he is the Lord of War!—serves as a reminder that ‘Antarah affords others wellbeing through two major means, proffering his possessions and defending with his sword. In so doing, he also dwarfs the efforts of others (all the ‘Amrs and Zayds), imperiling their pride of place. This hearkens to a similar statement made by Cardi B towards the end of her song (balāghah nerds, take note of the jinās tamm):

I need to fill up the safe,

I need to let these hoes know

That none of they n****s is safe

Here, money and security are intertwined at a few different levels: Cardi mentions needing to “fill up her safe,” placing her wealth in a guarded place. Cardi shoring up her own wealth has an inversely proportional effect on the comfort of others—she threatens that nobody’s man is safe, because her wealth has made her a threat to would-be emcees and has afforded her the liberty to use and pursue people and pleasure as she wishes. Articulating this idea in terms of a general lack of male safety reverses the dynamics of Cardi’s prior work as a stripper, in which one lives or dies by how well they compete for wealth given predominantly by male patrons. True to this reversal, Cardi’s whims are fleeting. If we recall the chorus, she states that she’s quick to cut people off, and cautions them not to “get comfortable” in their relationships with her. In a testament to their respective power, both ‘Antarah and Cardi assure us that they can give, but they can also take away.



In a recent essay, feminist writer and culture critic bell hooks warns against the glorification of violent acts in popular culture, even if they come from an unexpected and often subjugated source, saying: “Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts. Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence.” And yet, the appeal of violence-as-vindication is unmistakable, and its luster is an ancient one. We might say that the same, somewhat lizard-brained impulse to exult in depictions of gleeful vengeance is a big part of the positive reception enjoyed by the legendary warrior poet ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād, in whom we find the ultimate narrative of vindication against haters as he goes from a shunned figure to one universally recognized, admired, and feared.

        For ‘Antarah and Cardi B alike, such prestige is a thing that must be earned and aggressively maintained. However, it’s not until ‘Antarah and Cardi begin winning victories—be they in war or in the studio—that their threats start to acquire real significance. In this fashion, literal and figurative bloodlust pave the path of their social ascent and become their recognized purview once they have “arrived.” This arrival entails a certain amount of other benefits, too—the luxury of arrogance, of wealth, of being able to threaten and to take and to control with relative impunity. Perhaps this is all deserved, and perhaps we should yield to our impulses and let ourselves fall in love with what Peter Cole calls the “action-hero or rapper-like over-the-topness” of ‘Antarah’s boasts (I know I have). But perhaps we can also hold in mind the classed and/or raced anxiety that dogs both Cardi’s and ‘Antarah’s works and that is betrayed by their pretensions to limitlessness—an anxiety that Peter Cole points out in his beautiful introduction to War Songs. To again paraphrase bell hooks, both texts, in their own way, glamorize harsh and often contradictory worlds in which high status is at worst unattainable and at best ephemeral for the preponderance of folks that start out where ‘Antarah and Cardi did. This truth can only deepen our appreciation for the fact that ‘Antarah, ever exceptional, has had a unique capacity to transcend, to illuminate, and now, to get stuck in all of our heads (once you unstick “Bodak Yellow,” of course—sorry, not sorry).


Rachel Schine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Her current research focuses on the relationship between race and the representation of black heroes in the popular sīrahs, a corpus of medieval legendary conquest literature in which ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād receives what we might call the Hollywood treatment (absent Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, though, who nearly brought ‘Antarah to the silver screen). When she is not writing her dissertation, she’s tweeting about it here. She also muses occasionally about the connections between Classical Arabic poetry and contemporary hip-hop/rap on her blog.

Upcoming Events for War Songs in the UK

Thursday, November 8th, 2018 5:00 am
James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event

James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event in New York City. (c) Ariel Roberson

James Montgomery will speak about the poetry of ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad and read from his new translation War Songs at three events in London and Cambridge this month. We hope to see you at one of them! All three events are free and open to the public, but please RSVP where requested.

•   Friday 23 November, at the Poetry Cafe in London:  RSVP here.

•   Wednesday 28 November, at Trinity Hall, Cambridge:  Claim a free ticket here. This event is organized by Heffers Bookshop.

•   Thursday 29 November, at SOAS in London:  See more details on the SOAS website.

If you attend any of these events, we’d love to hear from you! Tweet at us @LibraryArabLit or use the hashtags #WarSongs or #Antarah.

James Montgomery on Listening to the ‘Antarah in His Bones

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018 11:17 am

With ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs, the Library of Arabic Literature has launched its first-ever collection of classical Arabic poetry. The collection brings together poetic works composed by the ‘Antarah of the sixth century and poems from the ‘Antarah-inspired epic composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.

All the works are edited and translated by James E. Montgomery, an LAL executive editor, the author of Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books, and Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. To craft a vibrant and resonant translation, Montgomery worked with Richard Sieburth, an award-winning translator of works by Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, Walter Benjamin, and Friedrich Hölderlin.

In this second of a two-part conversation, which took place in New York City just after the book’s September 21 launch, Montgomery and ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey talked about this seminal pre-Islamic poet and how to translate his work in a way that captures its vibrant, shape-shifting, qasida-ripping grotesquerie and in a way that brings pleasure to a twenty-first century English-language audience.

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Photo by Jerry Avenaim. CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons.

In the book Loss Sings, where you translate the sixth-century Arabian poet Al-Khansāʾ, you talk about how you came to her poetry from a particular emotional ground, at a particular point in your life. We know, from the introduction to War Songs, how ‘Antarah came to the Library of Arabic Literature: that, in early 2012, “Philip Kennedy received an invitation from a production company that was looking to make an English-language movie of the adventures of ʿAntarah, possibly to star Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the title role.”  

But what about you? How did you meet Antarah? From what associational ground?

JEM: If it hadn’t been for that conversation between Philip and the production company, if LAL had approached me independently and asked me to do a pre-Islamic poet, I wouldn’t have done ‘Antarah.

I‘ve always been fascinated by his mu’allaqa, but it wouldn’t have been ‘Antarah I’d have chosen. I think I probably would have chosen Tarafah, or maybe ‘Alqamah, because there’s a fascinating archaism, a feel of real antiquity about the latter, and there’s something so attractive and romantic about Tarafah’s doomed youth. I first read the pre-Islamic poets when I was in my early twenties, and first encounters are when you make your first emotional attachments. ‘Alqamah was as close as I could hear to Pindar, who was one of my poetic heroes at the time, and Tarafah had the glow of a life lived large and fast, like a James Dean character.

So I might either have proposed either of those poets as a volume for LAL, or I might have answered, we have to translate the mu’allaqāt as a collection in itself. But I’m more hesitant about thinking that’s an answer I would have given, as it’s quite a terrifying prospect to think about tackling all of the mu’allaqāt.


And tackling the muallaqa of Antarah was also…terrifying?

JEM: It’s not an exaggeration to say that the mu’allaqa of ‘Antarah almost broke me as a translator. If you have a look over the articles I’ve published in the last few years, you’ll see bits where I’m trying to work at it. I went away and re-read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, and I re-read Gawain and the Green Knight, especially in the version by one of my translator heroes, the poet Simon Armitage.

I immersed myself in Middle English. I translated a surah of the Qu’ran into Middle English, all as experiments. I tried a translation of the mu’allaqah in the style of Beowulf, and parts of it in the style of Ted Hughes’ translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

I was looking for a magic key. The Victorian and Edwardian translators of pre-Islamic verse thought of meter and rhyme as the magic key that would unlock the poetry. I was looking for assonance and alliteration, which also come naturally to me, because of where I grew up, on the west coast of Scotland with an Irish Catholic background.

But these weren’t magic keys, they were cul-de-sacs, they were red herrings.


Then, if ‘Antarah wasn’t (initially) your dream job, why you?

JEM: Because I was the only person on the LAL board who’d specialized in pre-Islamic poetry. I was the expert.

That’s why it was entrusted to me. But then I had this amazing eureka, road-to-Damascus moment. It was at one of the first workshops on translating the poetry, and we were working on poem 49, “’Ablah’s Wraith.” I had done a perfectly acceptable, ordinary, scholarly, workaday crib version of the poem for the group. And then it was projected onto the screen, and everyone had a free-for-all, a discussion in which my version of the poem was completely taken apart. I (in the form of my translation) became like the camel in Antarah’s muallaqa. Totally dismembered.

It was very, very liberating to have gone through that experience—to be forced to be honest with myself. I’d done an okay job. I’d done a really good job if I was going to publish an academic monograph. So I’d done an acceptable job. But as a translation it was rubbish.


James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event

James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event. (c) Ariel Roberson.

Why was that…liberating?

JEM: Because I think I’d known. I’d known that I was translating as a scholar, and I wasn’t listening to what the poem might be doing in my head, or in my bones, or in my ears.

But the really liberating part was realizing that I didn’t need to have a one-to-one correspondence between the Arabic and the English. One word in an Arabic poem normally ends up being rendered as three or four words in English, but I saw that it didn’t have to be like that.

One of the things that Peter Cole did, pretty cleverly, was encouraged us all to sit down on the second day of the workshop, and take the poem, produce our own versions of it, and read it out line by line as it was projected on the screen. Having realized the day before that my wordy persiflage wasn’t going to help me at all, it was almost as if I took Antarah’s sword and started hacking away at language.

I came up with a minimal version, one so minimal and sparse that Ernest Hemingway would’ve been proud of it. There were so few words on the page. And that was the point at which I thought: I can do this.


Previous to that, you didn’t have a close relationship to ‘Antarah’s work?

JEM: I published a book on pre-Islamic poetry in 1997. It was very well received, and I think it was a good book, but it had left me in a real quandary, because I felt that I had taken a tradition of poetry that I felt great enthusiasm for, that I in fact loved, and had somehow suffocated it in scholarship.

After that, I stopped working on poetry, and turned to the other things, out of a sense of disappointment.


So this translation, War Songs, was a process of un-suffocating it.

JEM: Yes. And that’s why I’ve become so interested in translating Arabic poetry over the last five or six years, because translating it has given me an access to exploring in English how I respond to the poems that academic discourse doesn’t give me.


War Songs paperback coverIn Loss Sings, you write that your translations of Al-Khansāʾ’s poems are a testament “to the time when they sang to me,” the voice of your personal relationship to them. With ‘Antarah, did the collaborative nature of the project change that relationship?

JEM: One of the things that was unsatisfactory about the first draft [of War Songs], the draft based upon the translations prepared communally over a number of years by the editors of LAL, was that I only really let myself loose, as a translator, in the poems that I personally translated, whereas I thought it vital and important to show great respect for my friends’ work. As an editor of other people’s work, I was like the invisible translator; I simply wanted to let their work speak.

I only really inhabited those poems that I was translating myself. I viewed the other translations more in an editorial capacity, as a facilitator for the words of others.

That, in the end, led to an uneven and disjointed body of translations, an unevenness that actually worked to the detriment of ‘Antarah in translation.

Because this is our first volume of classical Arabic poetry, it is a really big moment for LAL. It represents a moment of confidence that I think the project has been building up to—and I was absolutely thrilled by the way in which my friends and colleagues on the board welcomed the suggestion that I re-do the volume.


Why did you give the poems titles?

JEM: Many of the modern published editions of classical poetry in the Arabic-speaking world give the poems titles taken from the poems. But in my original version of War Songs, there were no titles, apart from a numerical sequence, just 1,2,3,4,5,6. Then, in conversations, we thought that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to give a little bit of rooting, or a grounding, for the reader who knows nothing about this tradition of poetry. When we made the editorial decision to move the explanatory remarks about the poems out of the endnotes to the body of the work, then we also need to tie those introductions to a title.


The tiny introductions to the poems—none more than a paragraph or two—are a very light touch.  

For instance, the introduction to “Pay for My Blood,” tells us only: “A short piece threatening vengeance on a foe in return for an arrow injury, consistent with the occasional, responsive, and belligerent features of non-qasida poetry.”

Guests at War Songs reading. (c) Ariel Roberson.

Guests at War Songs reading. (c) Ariel Roberson.

JEM: In those little snapshots, I wanted to give as light, crystal clear, and as delicate an entry into the poem as possible. The whole book is driven by the desire to make it possible for the reader to have as confident an access to the poems as she wants.

Whilst there’s quite a lot of clutter and paraphernalia and information in the book, and whilst in many ways the poetry becomes a sort of hortus inclusus, or a secret garden, hidden behind a barrage of information, that wasn’t my intention. And I have to be honest, as well as being a scholar, and a translator, I’m also a teacher. I started university teaching in 1986, and after 32 years in the classroom, I have an idea of the sorts of things people struggle with in accessing this material.

Ultimately, I would love to publish a pamphlet version of the book that contained nothing but the poems, at a stage when people were confident enough to pick that pamphlet up and read it as you would any other poetry book on the market.


What was the role of punctuation in creating these poems? In some ways, this reads as a theatre text, a text that’s on the page, but with a particular relationship to being spoken aloud. How did you decide on the various ways in which to stage these poems on the page?

JEM: At one point, many of the poems were translated “linearly”—that is, into sequences of individual lines, so there was no enjambment. They were laid out in a series of lines in a paragraph on the page. And the poems struggled to come to life.

We needed the interplay, on the page, between words and space. Word processing has made this much, much easier to do, and there were often five or six different versions of the poem where the words stayed the same, but they were constellated over the page in radically different ways.

I don’t know why I decide on the version that I do. But whenever I get that feeling that this seems right, I don’t analyze it any more, I stop there.


Can you talk a bit about how you used commas in the poems?

JEM: We never really resolved the question of the use of the comma. The first version that I produced had no commas in it. But when Richard and I tried to read it aloud, we were stumbling. So we introduced strategic commas, but as sparingly as possible. Then, interestingly, when the book went out to the copyeditor, and when it has gone to copyeditors since, as when it appeared in The Paris Review, the copyeditors added commas.

I had to go through the whole document and remove the commas they’d added.

The thing I learned from Richard, and from Peter’s advice, is that the drive of the poem is what keeps the reader with it. And it’s so easy to lose that drive. You over-punctuate, and the reader’s mind will get distracted. In the end, as I said, we never fully resolved the issue of the commas. But I like the fact that there are things in the book that are unresolved, and I like the danger that a misplaced comma can trip up a translation of a whole poem, like playing a wrong note during a recital.


Map from War Songs

One of the maps from War Songs. Design by James Montgomery, Cartography by Martin Grosch.

At the launch event at Poet’s House, you talked about how you spent eight months working on one of the maps at the front of the book. Could you talk about why the maps were important enough to take up eight months of your life?

JEM: The first map (that of tribal territories in pre-Islamic Arabic around 600 AD) was easy; the second was nigh-on impossible.

In earlier articles and in previous publications, I had been interested in the topography of pre-Islamic poetry. There’s a very good book from 1958, by Ulrich Thilo (Die Ortsnamen in der altarabischen Poesie, Wiesbaden), where he takes place-names from pre-Islamic poetry and locates them on the map. One of the things I used to like doing when I was reading the poems was to photocopy the maps and to chart the place names I’d come across. I’d sit with a map and red and blue pencils, and I’d try and work it out.

Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. And it worked more often than it didn’t work, so I thought, Hey, there’s something to this.

When I was working on the project, the thing that struck me was that the place names in ‘Antarah are so resonant. Often they’re the focal point for the poem, and certainly in the opening of the mu’allaqa, there’s that list of place name after place name after place name. And it’s not just sonorics or semantics, it’s not just for aural effect. When you put it on the map, you see that there’s something very, very specific that’s going on.

I was really fortunate to work with an amazing cartographer, Martin Groesch. I started by doing what I’d done all those years ago: I sat with a map, and I plotted it and plotted it. But because Martin’s a professional cartographer, he said, No these are just guesses, you need to give me GPS coordinates.

And I thought: How can I give GPS coordinates?

So I went back to the topographical lexica and I read through the entries, and I plotted each place, often in the context of other places it was said to be next to. Then I was on the internet, typing in as many variations of the place-names as I could find. Often a website such as, say, TripAdvisor would say, “Stay at the Hotel Jiwā’.” And I would click, and look, and there was Jiwā’, and there was Jiwā’ on my map!

What’s astonishing is that a lot of these place-names are ancient. They exist in slightly different forms nowadays, but they have the same morphemic makeup as the old place-names. I’m not so much a skeptic as to think they’re not the same place.


How does the map change how we can read, enjoy, or have access to the poems?

JEM: The payback for all the effort is the inner circle of place-names (represented in bold on the map), all of them located in the Najd. And the reason I got really excited was this seemed to be a way of approaching the authenticity or inauthenticity of the tradition. Then later on, when I started working on the prefaces that the commentators give to each poem, which I published as Appendix Three in the book, I found that the tribal register compiled in Arabic by Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 204/819) (Jamharat Nasab al-‘Arab) was also astonishingly accurate—the book gave me a much better access to the tribal context that so many of ‘Antarah’s poems belong to. And, in fact, there was one line in a poem where I had translated a personal name as an adjective, and if I hadn’t done this work as I was preparing the glossary, I wouldn’t have realized this was actually an important ancestor in ‘Antarah’s own tribal lineage.

So the composite picture I was building up was that, if you want to think that these poems are inauthentic, then you have to have a kind of Orwellian Newspeak in mind. When I look at it, I think that the balance of probability suggests that there’s a core there, that there’s a long tradition that has in fact been memorized, and it’s all summed up in that circle of names in bold on the map.

And so that was why I took so long over it. It then became a heuristic.


What do you take from this six-year, multi-phase translation experience, which you so dramatically discuss in the book’s introduction? What can you borrow from this as you move to your next project?

JEM: Confidence. I still don’t have it in bucketloads. But if I can do this, then I can have a go at other poets, at other poems, be they pre-Islamic or from other classical periods.


Also the pleasure—the thrill in seeing people respond to it enthusiastically. It’s a very joyful and life-affirming thing, to communicate this poetry to new audiences.

Global Literature in Libraries Initiative Shines “Publisher Spotlight” on LAL

Wednesday, October 24th, 2018 11:04 am

Epistle of Forgiveness coverThe Global Literature in Libraries Initiative strives to raise the visibility of world literature for adults and children at the local, national, and international levels. Today the Library of Literature is proud to be featured on their blog as a “Publisher Spotlight.” The feature highlights three LAL books:

  • The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu l-‘Ala al-Ma’arri, translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, “showcases the maverick writer’s wit and radical thinking in the first complete translation of the work into any language.”
  • What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us by Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, translated by Roger Allen, is “an important work for a number of areas” that “take[s] a long, hard look at the changes enacted in society during the 19th and early 20th century.”
  • Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology, also translated by Geert Jan van Gelder, is “a delectable selection of words that illustrate areas of the Arabic literary pantheon that are sometimes overlooked.”

Click here to read the full Publisher Spotlight on the Global Literature in Libraries Inititative’s website.


James Montgomery on When ‘All Poets Were Warriors’

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018 6:00 am

With ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād’s War Songs, the Library of Arabic Literature has launched its first-ever collection of classical Arabic poetry. The collection brings together poetic works composed by the ‘Antarah of the sixth century and poems from the ‘Antarah-inspired epic composed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE.

All the works are edited and translated by James E. Montgomery, an LAL executive editor, the author of Al-Jahiz: In Praise of Books, and Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge. To craft a vibrant and resonant translation, Montgomery worked with Richard Sieburth, an award-winning translator of works by Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, Walter Benjamin, and Friedrich Hölderlin.

In this first of a two-part conversation, which took place in New York City just after the book’s September 21 launch, Montgomery and ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey talk about the genres inhabited by this seminal pre-Islamic poet; how his cousin ‘Ablah may not have been a symbol of Love, but of Death; and how all warriors might not have been poets, but all poets were warriors.

James Montgomery at the War Songs launch event

James Montgomery reads at the War Songs launch event. (c) Ariel Roberson

In describing the Arabian Peninsula on which the sixth-century poet we know as ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād came of age, you talk about its isolation. At one point, you call the peninsula of that time a “near-island.” Do you emphasize its isolation because of how this might allow something different to emerge, poetically, like some sort of literary Galapagos Islands?

James E. Montgomery: I think my starting point for that comment was an observation was made by Andrew Marsham, a historian of late antiquity and one of my colleagues at Cambridge. He once said to me, “What really fascinates about Arabia is that it looks as if it’s part of the late antique world, and it looks as if it’s not.” So it’s almost as if Arabia’s an idiolect, or perhaps it’s like the Galapagos: things developed in the way in which they did because of this apparent isolation.

I say apparent not because I don’t think it was isolated, but partly because we can’t really know and partly because it was in a sense isolated (it was remote), and in another sense not isolated (it was not completely cut-off). And as I said in the introduction to the book, look at the weapons Antarah fights with and where they come from, and the images he uses. Then you start to see that it’s part of a bigger world.


As you say, ‘Antarah’s poems refer to the surrounding world through his use of Indian, Yemeni, and Syrian weapons. But what do we know about the imported poetic weapons he might wield? What do we know about the relationships, or generic influences, from surrounding literary territory: Roman, Sassanian, other?

JEM: We don’t know where any of the poetry comes from, in the sense of its prehistories, or contacts with the poetries of earlier Arabian cultures and other non-Arabian cultures. There are those who, like Marcel Kurpershoek, point to the close connection between the tradition of Nabati poetry in the Najd and the classical corpus, thereby indicating the long history of the survival of poetic forms and dialects on the peninsula. I’ve had in the back of my mind in the last 30 years of reading this material that there are oral genres, many now lost, that almost subtend the artistic material that has survived, and have no doubt that we have concentrated too much on the artistic material in our thinking about pre-Islamic poetry. Most theories of its interpretation have been driven and dominated by the canon of formal odes, qasidas, by pre-Islamic poets that tradition has handed us and has not focused enough on the shorter or more occasional pieces, such as raiding poems, curses, insults, or animal descriptions composed as spells to ensure a successful hunt.


The start of ‘Antarah’s mu’allaqa, or his “Golden Ode,” the most canonized of the works: Is there anything left to say, has poetry died… Well, it’s a funny place to begin a tradition.

JEM: But when you read ‘Antarah, you realize that the different bits and pieces of his poems seem to breathe a living but ancient tradition. Antarah’s muallaqa is a radical refashioning of the components of the formal qasida—I’d prefer almost to say a demolition of the formal qasida, but the structure of the qasida is almost intact at the end of the poem, in the sense that it is recoverable and identifiable—well almost. Some scholars have suggested that it is in fact a patchwork of different pieces attributed to Antarah and brought together at a much later stage in the tradition so as to constitute a poem. The first line of his muallaqa positions him squarely in combat with earlier poems and their poets. It’s a battle-cry, a challenge, and so very typical of his ethos.


What are the genre traditions he’s inhabiting?

JEM: There are a number of things that seem to be happening in the ‘Antarah corpus. At the basic level, there’s the genre of celebrating tribal victories and raids. There’s a lot of that poetry that survives and it has not received much scholarly attention. It all stems from North Arabia, from Najd.

The raiding poetry that we have examples of in ‘Antarah’s corpus is similar to that composed also by poets belonging to tribes who were neighbors with Antarah’s clan, Abs, and both groups were often at war with each other. There’s clearly a pattern, or a tradition or a genre, whatever you call it, that’s happening there.

Then there are the soothsayer-like pronouncements, the very short poems that are difficult to disentangle because they are couched in a sort of enigmatic and almost vatic style, where the poet or the speaker is perceiving reality in a way that is not accessible to the rest of his audience.

The strangest poem in the whole corpus is the mu’allaqa. It is, in terms of its poetic reach, unlike almost anything else that’s in the diwan, until you see it—as Richard [Sieburth] suggested—as a series of set-scenes, and then you can begin to draw out connections in the mu’allaqa with the rest of the corpus.


cover of Loss Sings

You also recently translated work by the sixth-century Arabian poet Al-Khansāʾ as part of your cahier Loss Sings. She’s from a similar time and place, although her work approaches Death in a very different way.

JEM: Al-Khansāʾ was from the same tribal group as ‘Antarah, and was probably a younger contemporary. At a lexical level their poems have a lot in common. We haven’t properly studied tribal traditions amongst the pre-Islamic poets in enough detail. There’s some work that’s being done by my Cambridge colleague Nathaniel Miller in distinguishing between a Southern Arabian poetics and this Northern Arabian poetics. That work is pretty much in its infancy, but it’s starting to suggest very productive connections and distinctions.


At the launch event at Poet’s House, you started to talk about the relationship between violence and poetry, which is certainly one of the animating elements of this body of work. Could you talk a little more about how violence works inside these poems?

JEM: These are the poems where the poet is “ripping the lid off reality and plunging his arms in”—I think the phrase is Anne Carson’s. Those are the ones that I really like, and certainly in the mu’allaqa that’s what’s happening. In the poem, all of reality is being torn apart and transformed and mutilated and metamorphosed, whether it be creatures like the camel, whether it be opponents, whether it be objects. There are the amazing passages where his war horse is moaning at him, almost endowed with speech.

And then again, this poem looks like a love poem for ‘Ablah, but actually, I think, it’s a prayer to Death. As I mentioned at the talk on Friday, its ending features the avatars of death: the vultures, the hyena. I think myself that ‘Ablah is an avatar of Death.


Not love, but Death.

JEM: My hypothesis is that there was some form of goddess worship prevalent in this warrior cult, in a way that I can’t flesh out properly yet; it’s just a hunch. But we have the word ‘Ablah, whose name can mean a lance, for example, and there’s a lot of fetishization of weaponry in ‘Antarah’s poetry. I think there’s a component to the conceptual universe of pre-Islamic poetry at work here that we’ve not quite got yet.

The work by Nadia Jamil at Oxford in her book [Ethics and Poetry in Sixth-Century Arabia] has been very, very important in helping me see this, especially her ideas about time, and about chance, and about understanding pre-Islamic poetry as a symbolic language and not as an “accurate” record of the thoughts and feelings of sixth-century Bedouins.

The poetry could quite conceivably be that record, and that is how the Arabic tradition has seen it, but I’m much more interested in thinking about it as a symbolic language. The problem is I haven’t worked out yet what all the symbols are.


A 19th-century tattooing pattern depicting 'Antarah and 'Ablah

A 19th-century tattooing pattern depicting ‘Antarah and ‘Ablah. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Golden Ode, or the mu’allaqa, is doing many different things.

JEM: You have what looks like the nasīb [an amatory episode], then you have what looks like the raḥīl [the desert adventure], and the waṣf al-nāqah, the camel description. And then it sort of collapses, at the end, and you get what resembles the mufākharah [description of tribal exploits], and the boast, “I killed this, I destroyed that.”

There is a structure that holds it together, but it’s done in such an unusual way that many scholars have argued that it’s just a patchwork of individual poems that were put together by Abbasid scholars or those later.

But actually, what’s happening is that the qasida is also being transmuted: It’s being given a new shape, forced to change like the she-camel who, at the beginning of the section, can’t lactate because she’s been mutilated in order to improve her stamina. Then, at the end, we learn that she’s been masculinized, that is, she’s become as big as a stallion male. So I think the same thing is happening to the qasida as is happening to the animals and the weapons and the human beings in the poem.


You wrote, in one of the footnotes to the mu’allaqa, that the fact that ‘Ablah’s name changed several times was “a sign of the poem’s instability.”

JEM: What I was referring to was how the fact that ‘Ablah has four different names is an indication of this destabilization of the qasida form.

It looks like what we would call a conventional pre-Islamic poem, but when you scratch the surface, it actually contains pain and anguish and grotesquerie. Not that I think there actually is such a thing as a typical pre-Islamic poem, but, in what we usually think of as a conventional pre-Islamic poem, there’s one woman, she has a name, she’s then given a number of epithets.

In ‘Antarah’s poem, she’s ‘Ablah. But then she’s also Daughter of Mālik. She’s also Daughter of Makhram. She’s also Mother of Haytham. And the fact that these are recognizable names within the system of Arabic nomenclature and not epithets struck me as significant. She’s constantly changing her position in the poem.


And changing her relationship to others?

JEM: Her relationship to others, and possibly to ‘Antarah.

And then of course there’s the name ‘Ablah itself. The adjective ‘Abl may mean a slender and supple spear, and maybe ‘Ablah is in fact the epithet and not the name. That gets me back to how maybe she’s an avatar of Death, and maybe she’s a personification of weaponry or a fetishization of weaponry. I don’t know the answers to these thoughts; all I know is it’s important to keep open, to stay receptive to the possibilities.

In other words, it’s important to welcome and embrace the uncertainties rather than to dismiss them, when taken together, as “not constitutive of an authentic poem.”

On the subject of authenticity, there are clearly some poems that were not composed by a sixth-century Antarah ibn Shaddād but belong to a much later stage in the development of his legend. So they cannot, therefore, be authentic in the sense that they did not originate in sixth-century Arabia. As I said at the end of the introduction, one of the key moments for me was when I realized that, in order to translate the later poems from the Epic of ‘Antar well, I had to treat them as authentic. The scholar in me was telling me that these were pastiches or parodies or rhetorical exercises, so my translations just weren’t working.


Antar the Black Knight comic

Antar the Black Knight comic.

I did wonder why you included the later poems, from the Epic of ‘Antar, creations not by the poet ‘Antarah as we know him (or don’t know him), but from so many hundreds of years after the poet died. Although they’re certainly very popular, they don’t have the same inventive ka-zaam.

JEM: I included them as an act of piety.

That is: They were part of the selection of poems chosen for us by Peter Heath. This is very much a communal book; it’s a book that’s grown with the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), and that grew out of the LAL community. We’d approached Peter Heath who was the world expert on The Epic of ʿAntar. I felt that, when Peter died, sadly far too young, it was important that his selections be retained as a central part of our community.

Also, I liked the fact that they added to the scope of the book because they showed that these poems were, in some ways, the precursors to the ‘Antar comic [by Nnedi Okorafor]. It showed how ‘Antarah was kept alive.

I think there’s a street in Jerusalem called ‘Antarah ibn Shaddād Street. He’s very much alive as the embodiment of overcoming the odds, of succeeding despite all the disadvantages that you’re confronted with. So I think, in the end, that they make for an interesting exploration of the phenomenon of ‘Antarah.


To go back to the poetry by ‘Antarah, and to the relationship between poetry and Death, or poetry and violence, well: Is it necessary for a warrior to be a poet?

JEM: I don’t think that all warriors were poets, although I think that probably all poets were warriors.


There were no quiet, retiring poets among the men of the sixth-century Najd.

JEM: Not as far as I can see. Even the poetry of Zuhayr ibn Abī Sulmā, often referred to as the “moralist,” exudes the warrior ethos. And the surviving poetry that was composed by women such as Al-Khansāʾ commemorates those dead in battle. I think that the poetic celebration of these martial exploits is an attempt to fix them in words, to anchor or root them in Time, and that this is an important part of keeping one’s ancestors alive.

You the poet are, at this moment, the last of a long line of glorious ancestors, and if you do not try to immortalize their exploits by fixing them in a language rooted in Time, then you’re not being true to the lineage, and there’s a chance that the ancestors will then disappear.


Thus poetry is another way of doing battle?

JEM: It is. I think the ancestors are, in a sense, ever-present in this poetry and what’s really interesting about ‘Antarah, of course, is that he doesn’t automatically have access to this glorious lineage because of his birth—at least in the standard version of the ‘Antarah story, which I don’t see much reason to doubt. It seems as plausible as any other.


Film poster for The Adventures of 'Antar and 'Ablah, 1948.

Film poster for The Adventures of ‘Antar and ‘Ablah, 1948. Via IMDb.

As you wrote in your introduction, the commentaries all seem to agree that ‘Antarah was the son of a notable father and a mother who was a Black slave.

But I was interested in how the commentaries you’ve included disagree about his attitude toward his heritage. While Ibn Qutaybah seemed to read pride in his biracial background, suggesting ‘Antarah meant, “I use my sword to defend the rest of my lineage, the half that belongs to the blacks, and in this way I bring it honor,” Iṣbahānī read, in your translation, “my sword strokes make up for my mother’s ignobility.”

JEM: Let’s begin with an observation. What’s really striking is that, in both the Ibn Qutaybah and the Iṣbahānī, there is no mention of ‘Ablah. Whereas by the thirteenth-century version of the epic it’s “’Ablah and ‘Antarah.” So we have to remind ourselves that versions of the legend reflect the preoccupations of their narrators, compilers, and audiences—they belong to what some historians call “collective memory.”

The version of the poem that’s quoted in Iṣbahānī—I don’t know whether all of it is genuine or not. But it conceivably reflects attitudes consistent with Iṣbahānī’s society, but different from attitudes consistent with Ibn Qutaybah’s. So the different versions say more about the anthologizers than they do about ‘Antarah.

Ibn Qutaybah was himself an outsider from Persia writing for a cosmopolitan elite. This elite was fascinated and scrupulous about lineage. And in many ways ‘Antarah becomes a puzzle: How can someone be so valorous, and so chivalrous, and have his exploits ring so loud, when he doesn’t have the breeding that society thinks you need in order to achieve those things?


Back again to the poet as warrior. One of your footnotes refers to how these poems were later used, in Umayyad times, to incite warriors before battle. To what extent is that the poetry’s voice?

JEM: That is certainly the voice of many of the poems translated in the book. But I was conscious that there was always a danger, when translating these poems, of lapsing into a kind of facile stridency.

‘Antarah’s Arabic is often highly developed, highly stylized. It is no less sophisticated than some of the other great pre-Islamic poets renowned for their verbal accomplishments, say Imruʾ al-Qays or Al-A’sha. And I felt I had to be true to the language I was listening to. I knew we were effectively dealing with a legend, so if I had said to myself—this is all about one man’s attempt to gain recognition in a society, I would have started listening to that narrative instead of listening to the poetry.

It wasn’t until a later stage, when I was collaborating with Richard, that it became desirable to create the voice consistently across the collection. It’s not that the voice is an imposition on the material, it is certainly ever-present, but it wasn’t my starting point as a translator.


Did you discover the voice or create the voice?

JEM: A bit of both. Once it worked in one place, then life as a translator become a bit easier, as it could be replicated in another.  But I was very keen throughout to avoid latching onto monotone, a single voice in one register. I tried very hard not to lapse in to a facile stridency.


Click here to read the second part of this interview.

Arabian Romantic: Translating and ‘Cherishing the Irrational’

Friday, October 19th, 2018 6:00 am

Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of ‘Abdallah ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia. He has also translated Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd and is currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, where he specializes in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia. He has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994–2005).

In this second part of a back-and-forth that took place over email, Kurpershoek discussed what is unique about Ibn Sbayyil’s work and the translational challenges of bringing it into a contemporary English. The first part of the two-part interview can be found here.

cover of Arabian RomanticAn important part of the poetry, as with Hmedan’s, is how Ibn Sbayyil turns himself into a character (a lover, a chaser-of-women, a sometimes-desperate appreciator-of-women’s-forms, a spurned adorer). Is this one of the reasons for his popularity, his overall poetic personae, rather than the particularities of any individual work? 

MK: He is much subtler than [his predecessor] Hmedan [al-Shwe’ir]. It is basically introspective: the emotional arc of his poem’s trajectory, from despair to joy and confidence to resignation and vice versa, and so on. You might compare it to self-therapy of love sickness. This may somehow reflect a real sense of spleen or longing, though it is mostly playful and therefore ambiguous, which is the safe way in that society I guess. Indeed his extended similes on the subject of a lover’s agony are much admired.


You suggest that Ibn Sbayyil is the most prominent representative of the High Najd’s Romantic School, and at times he was credited for other poets’ work. What distinguishes his poetry from that of the other “champions”? If someone were to show you a poem, how would you begin to guess whether it was Ibn Sbayyil’s or someone else’s of the time? Are there particular characteristics that a close reader would look for in trying to separate them? If they were trying to guess if a poem was a “genuine Ibn Sbayyil”?

MK: Poem 7 was never included in any edition; I found it in a manuscript. Perhaps it was excluded because it is sexually more explicit. Still, I’d recognize it as Ibn Sbayyil’s, I’d like to believe. To explain why you’d need another essay.


Some of the extended similes are really wonderful, particularly those with animals. Many of the ways of characterizing women’s forms feel worn, and make the women appear the same in poem after poem. Are the longer metaphors his individual stamp? Such as at 2.20, where the camel is running with the bucket, or, “In the kitchen, cooks jostle about like thirsty camels pressed around a waterhole.” And, in a different way, the vividness of the gossips’ throats being eaten out by syphilis and scrofula.

MK: Some of it is actually quite original, such as the comparison of her gait with the slow steps taken by the imam when he measures the shade in order to determine the time for the afternoon prayer. And I am sure there is much more.


Hmedan talks about wives and family, but Ibn Sbayyil does not—except I believe he talks about fellow poet Mutawwa Nifi’s wives, Tarfah and Nurah. Is this true of the Romantic School in general that wives don’t feature?

MK: Well, this shows you how much individuality there can be in the work of Nabati poets who partake of the oral tradition and junks the view that it is just reshuffling the Lego pieces of convention. Hmedan is of course unique in this sense: he depicts himself as part of Peyton place theatre in 18th century poetry. Ibn Sbayyil’s way in this respect is more conventional. The Bedouin romantically enchanted him whereas Hmedan was utterly hostile to the Bedouin: perhaps in his time they were more likely to fall victim to their rapacious ways.


Diwan ibn Sbayyil

An edition of the poetry of Ibn Sbayyil from 1988, via Goodreads

So you talk about him corresponding with Nifi and others, and yet—while Ibn Sbayyil was literate—this was primarily an oral culture. If they weren’t keeping in touch through the written word, how did it function? A traveler memorized the poetic correspondence, and then recited it to the recipient upon arrival?

MK: Exactly. The correspondence is not written but memorized and recited (or recited in his presence and then memorized). If there is a literate person who happens to be present, he may wish to write it down, as the interactions between oral and literate culture are endless.

Alois Musil recorded the poem around 1910; it was recited to him. I try to explain why his version, the oldest we know of, seems less accurate than what we find later in manuscripts. Musil was far north from Nifi and Central Najd, and it may have been mangled in transmission. Whereas those close to Ibn Sbayyil and his family presumably kept more correct versions.


When you translated, did you try to reflect meter, and the differences between the styles of the different poems? When translating, what aspects of how it functioned in the original — what it did for the reader—did you most want to capture?

MK: Not consciously, but unconsciously perhaps yes. I dress in the Arabic as a gown, smell it, feel it, and then look for words to reflect that.


Is this your philosophy of translation, as it were? To immerse yourself as deeply as possible in the original and then grope for the ways in which to re-craft that?

MK: In crucial issues as these I just follow my instincts: reflecting upon it is dangerous and might kill the vital spontaneity. Better not to think about how you breathe or how you digest your food. Cherish your irrational functions.


Were there particular translational challenges this collection brought different from Hmedan’s work, or other poetry you have translated?

MK: I had to steep myself into the language of ghazal, not only the vocabulary but also the allusions and associations that are part of it for those who are in the know about the tradition – a bit like one must know the mystical concepts when you translate Sufi poetry. Without that background, one can go awfully wrong.


Could you give an example of how one might go wrong? Is it also necessary to study English-language poetic traditions (for instance how ghazals have been written in English?), when translating into the English, in order to re-create the poetry more fully in English?

The town of Ushaiger, in the Najd region of Saudi Arabia. By hamza82. Creative Commons via Flickr.

MK: I confined myself to Arabic ghazal, including of course a lot of English translation of it. The ghazal in this book is a game of hide and seek. As I argue, you can never exactly tell when Ibn Sbayyil and his neighbor, al-Muṭawwaʿ are quite serious or speak tongue-in-cheek. You could argue that this in itself is a protection mechanism since if the audience took everything literally and dead serious they would be ostracized. But as I mention in the note on the evening session with a departing tribe and Mijmāj’s poem it seems that this kind of ghazal was accepted as a pleasant social pastime. In it are hints at other realities, like tribal relations, but in this kind of ghazal these hints can be included in a soft way, without risky sting. And the subject of love and passion is always of interest to people no matter where. In Arab tribal society, it is especially relevant because of the customary first cousin marriage: I give the example of the poets al-Mijmāj and al-ʿWēwīd, where the second won the bride of his choice because of closer family relation: the father instead of the mother. This poetry was a kind of safety valve enabling disappointed lovers to vent their feelings in an acceptable way. All speculation, of course.

Examples: I mention Jacobi’s lack of understanding of a metaphor in a pre-Islamic poem and I remember in 6.13, “I beg for tenderness, and she chooses to drive me mad,” but you’d have to refer to the Arabic: literally it is: he (she) made my run-away camel run away, while at first I thought it meant “I beg for tenderness and the return of my run-away camel.” The poet assumes that everyone knows that the “run-away” (even the word for camel is implicit) refers to the poet’s heart that went missing (in search of the beloved). Of course, a Bedouin whose camel went missing would go in search of it and ask other Bedouin if they had seen a camel so and so and with that brand and so on. It is all about allusion, metaphor, and simile. The very notion of ṭard al-hawā, “hunting after passion” has to be understood in the classical context of amorous passion as a chivalrous game, like the courtly love of the troubadours.


If someone were to leap off from this study, what areas do you think would be most interesting to examine?

MK: I think a more comprehensive study of the Romantic School would be a nice subject. But any such research is hard because it necessarily involves fieldwork and fluency in the tradition and language, not to speak about obtaining the necessary permits. Probably studies like mine (and Saad’s) will remain scholarly orphans.


Who do you imagine reading this translation, and the research in your notes? Who do you think this volume will be most of interest to? Who did you most want to reach with it?

MK: The community of scholarly Arabists. People like me, essentially. Ideally, it should be possible to read it at two levels. The other being people with a broader literary and cultural interest, for instance in the subject of ghazal and love poetry. There is a lot of social and anthropological context as well that might be of interest for students in those fields. The most important thing is that now this body of work has been edited and translated and commented upon according to the state of the art, and that it will be preserved for future generations. With this work that is not a forgone conclusion, because the community of specialists is exceedingly small and there are no institutions dedicated to perpetuation of these studies. Its survival hangs by a very thin, tenuous thread while its importance and uniqueness should make it a high priority.