Friday, April 7th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog, PhD student Maggie Freeman discusses and illustrates through a series of photographs the landscapes and geographies in Ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love. The Arabian desert provided rich imagery for Najdi poets such as Ibn Sbayyil. 19th and 20th century photographs help bring to life the places described by Ibn Sbayyil and the people who occupied them.   

The poetic corpus of Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, composed by ʿAbdallāh ibn Sbayyil during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Saudi Arabia’s Najd province, represents a classic example of what translator Marcel Kurpershoek calls the “romantic school” of Najdi poetry. These romantic poets exhibited what anthropologist Saad Sowayan in turn has called “desert nostalgia…a yearning for Bedouin life.” Poet Ibn Sbayyil was not a nomadic Bedouin himself, but rather the headman of the town of Nifī in central Arabia, where Bedouin tribes would camp during the summer months. Like many sedentary Arabs during this period, Ibn Sbayyil idealized Bedouin lifestyles, his poems expressing both an awareness of his differences from the Bedouin as well as a longing for the mobility and freedom that nomadism seemed to him to entail.

Although he himself is thought to have traveled little, Ibn Sbayyil’s poetry alludes to a vast and varied world beyond his doorstep in the small town of Nifī; a landscape populated by Bedouin tribes whose lives are organized around access to key ecological features such as water and pastureland. They moved through this landscape alongside other people (pilgrims, caravans, merchants) and animals (wolves, birds of prey), migrating between wadis, markets, pastures, and cities. Allusions to landscape and geographical features, and the metaphoric use of such features, are characteristic of Najdi poetry, capturing the extent to which the pastoral nomadism practiced by the Bedouin relies on symbiosis with the natural environment.

There is no doubt that Ibn Sbayyil’s geographical surroundings provided rich fodder for his poems. His lover’s body is compared to rolling hills, his despair at his beloved’s departure to a dried-up well. But more than just a source of literary inspiration, we should remember that these references are inspired by real places in the Arabian desert through which the Bedouin migrated. Photographs of this landscape, often taken by Europeans exploring the Arabia during Ibn Sbayyil’s lifetime, illustrate the natural world that Ibn Sbayyil and his Bedouin counterparts occupied and help us understand how and why certain geographical features were so important in a nomadic context that they were commonly invoked in poetry.

So where were these places – the fertile plains, the deep wells, the bustling market towns, the arid deserts – that served as the backdrop to Bedouin lives? Let’s take a look.

The high place

Prominent features in the landscape, such as mountains, hills, and cliffs, are frequently invoked in Najdi poetry, and also served an important function in Bedouin migrations as lookouts, geographical markers, and sites of religious significance. Ibn Sbayyil describes the use of mountain lookouts in one poem: I climbed to the lookout, a peak marked by cairns / a refuge for love’s devotee who mounts its slopes / A lonely height for one whose heart was shattered / his gaze fixed on silhouettes fading in the distance / But for the shame, I would scale a precipitous high crag.

Rock outcropping in central Arabia, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 52]

The “peak marked by cairns” is a reference to Bedouin practices of erecting stone cairns to mark migration routes, watering holes, or graves of important figures. In the pre- and early Islamic periods, cairns on mountaintops also denoted sacred spaces and served as the focus of religious worship. Although this practice eventually ceased, mountains themselves remained important sites of religious pilgrimages, as this photo of pilgrims encamped at the foot of Mecca’s Mount Arafat exemplifies.

East side of Mount Arafat outside Mecca with encampment of Hajj pilgrims, photographed 1889 by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje [New York Public Library b14215427]

The market

Settlements, from larger cities like Mecca to villages like Ibn Sbayyil’s Nifī, were vital to the Bedouin, especially for trade and commerce. Despite the differences in their lifestyles, nomadic Bedouin and sedentary village-dwellers were closely connected and relied heavily on one another. The Bedouin depended on towns in order to purchase products like grain or raw materials like silver; in turn, they exchanged the meat and dairy products of their livestock or finished products like textiles. Although we tend to associate the Bedouin solely with the high desert, they also migrated to coastal towns, such as the ports pictured below, to trade for fish.

The coastal port town of al Wajh in northwestern Arabia, photographed 1914 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 84]

The coastal port town of Yanbu in northwestern Arabia, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 83]

Ibn Sbayyil’s poems paint a picture of Nifī as a sleepy town transformed and brought to life each summer by the Bedouins’ arrival. How I love the approach of their summer camp, he exclaims; I delight in watching crowds in the market / colorful, like myriad threads woven into woolen cloth. As soon as the nomads’ tents are pitched, they head to the village to trade and shop / if they have friends, they call on them first […] Afternoon, they throng the village square. From such descriptions, we can better understand the milieu in which Ibn Sbayyil’s poems were composed, one based on not only commercial but also social and cultural intermingling between nomad and villager.

The watering place

Water, the source of all life, is an especially important commodity in arid zones, where its availability cannot be taken for granted. References to watering places – wells, wadis, reservoirs – abound in Najdi poetry. Access to towns’ wells was another aspect of sedentary life that the Bedouin relied on, and where nomad and settled would come into contact. When the Bedouin summer camp departed from Nifī, Ibn Sbayyil is lost in memories of their summer camp / and how they used to come and go at our wells / How their young Bedouin women would visit, walking over to greet and chat, each in turn.

Group of women at a village well, photographed 1894 by William Henry Jackson [Library of Congress LC-W7- 148]

Drawing water was not only essential for survival of the tribe but also an important social activity among Bedouin women, as Ibn Sbayyil’s verses and photographs such as the above capture.

Wadi al Hamd in northwestern Arabia, photographed 1910 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 61]

Beyond the towns of Arabia, wadis, springs, and natural reservoirs dotted the arid landscape and constituted the focal points of Bedouin migrations. The image of the wadi, either abundant and overflowing or dried-up and barren, was used to conjure up extreme emotions in Najdi poetry. When the poet is aching with desire for his beloved, he describes her as like a moon rising from the valley of seduction [wādi al-ghayy]. In moments of despair, My heart is like a wadi struck by drought.

Wadi al Aqeeq outside of Medina, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 73]

The polarities of emotions evoked by references to wadis and wells remind us that for the Bedouin, availability of water was nothing less than a matter of life or death. Arriving at a wadi and finding it verdant and alive with plant and animal life was cause for jubilation, knowing that the tribe and their livestock were safe for the foreseeable future, whereas a dried-up well was one of the greatest calamities imaginable. Poets used the imagery of water to express the vagaries of life, reminding us that for the nomadic Bedouin their own survival and that of their livestock rested entirely on factors of the natural world outside of their control.

The desert

The high desert of northern and central Arabia, in which the Bedouin tribes known to Ibn Sbayyil spend most of their time, appears as the backdrop to most Najdi poetry. The desert is commonly invoked in contrast to the abundance of the wadi. Desert terrains are termed waterless wastes, used to express life’s many hardships. Woe to a heart perplexed by the Bedouin’s departure, Ibn Sbayyil cries, lost like a helpless child cast into waterless wastes. When his beloved has left him, All that lies between her and me are fields of terror / waterless wastes of dread and thirst.

Near Dhat al Hajj in the Hisma desert, northern Arabia; photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 5]

The fear-inducing image of the “waterless waste” again reminds us of the importance of water in a nomadic context. But at certain moments, Ibn Sbayyil also captures the surprising richness of the desert in which the Bedouin pastured their flocks; the desert green, with its wholesome plains and flowering meadows. Taken together, these poetic allusions, as well as the photographs shown here, of fields and mountains, towns and wells, plants and animals, and the emotions associated with the landscape, from love to fear to hope, illustrate the diversity of the natural environment and the complexities of nomadic relationships with their surroundings.

Maggie Freeman is a PhD student in History, Theory and Criticism of Art & Architecture and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her dissertation examines colonial uses of architecture as a mechanism of control over nomadic peoples during the British Mandate in the Middle East. She also talks about and interviews experts on all manner of topics related to nomadism in her podcast, Nomads, Past and Present.