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.