In this latest addition to the LAL blog, AJ Naddaff sits down with James Montgomery to discuss his latest book Fate the Hunter. For the first portion of this two-part interview, Montgomery talks over what intrigues him about the work of Imruʾ al-Qays, al-Shanfarā, and jāhilī poetry in general. He discusses the rich sounds of the poetry as well as the origin of the book’s title.
AJ Naddaff: Thanks so much for joining us today. Oh, hi there.
James Montgomery: This is my Jack Russell terrier—he will be with us for part of the conversation too.
AJN: Beautiful. In anticipation of today’s conversation, are terriers hunting dogs?
JM: They were used on farms for killing rats, so they have very developed paws with sharp nails and quite slender back legs because all their energy is front-loaded.
AJN: Interesting. Moving on to the topic at hand, I want to follow up on a point from the last time we spoke. You said that you were studying Ancient Greek, Latin, and Arabic at the University of Glasgow when you discovered the pre-Islamic poet Imru’ al-Qays, describing it as “unlike any universe that [you had] entered before.” You have a special relationship to Shanfarā, too, and the pre-Islamic jāhilī corpus in general, as evidenced by this new book. Can you talk about what it is about this poetry that speaks to you?
JM: What a question to get started with. Thanks for that. I think initially—and possibly this has continued throughout—it is the sheer strangeness of the universe. There’s virtually nothing in that poetry which in terms of my own life and my own background I can immediately associate with. I’ve never been to Najd. I’ve never even been to Saudi Arabia. I cannot ride a horse. I used to shoot a home-made bow and arrow as a child. I have never wielded a sword or brandished a spear. So, in some ways, the real attraction to me was the kind of enormous imaginative effort that was involved in getting from zero experience to a level where I could start to hear things ringing in my head. I was a tabula rasa, a complete blank. And this poetry somehow wanted to speak to me, in a way that I think great works of art can do in certain situations and contexts but in ways that are kind of beyond expression.
AJN: I’m wondering what it is about jāhilī poetry that makes it recognizable as a universal poetics, that allowed and allows for it to ring in your head or “dance” rather than “walk,” as the French poet Paul Valéry wrote about poetry.
JM: Another difficult question. I should say that, of course, for many generations of scholars in the West, it was sort of denied the status of poetry. It was seen basically as a linguistic treasure trove or a rich lexicon, and it was not really put on par with the poetry of, say, Tu Fu in China or the poetry of Pindar. There is something distinct that makes this art for me, which can also operate on me like the way a piece of music can—this has only happened I think two or three times in maybe the course of 40 years. But it is the ability to connect on a basic emotional level, that has almost always remained elusive but has been tantalizingly often just at the edge of my grasp. I suppose my relationship to this poetry is as someone who somehow feels always on the edge of grasping this in a way that might be similar to other aesthetic experiences. But like a will-o’-the-wisp, it always remains just beyond grasp. From an intellectual and emotional point of view, I find that very fascinating.
AJN: But that says more about you than it does about the poetry.
JM: I think it’s what the ancient critics used to call the jazālah of the style, the kind of robustness. There is a Scottish word “strenthy” which is sort of like strong but a bit stronger. The poetry has a kind of strenthiness and you can hear that when you listen to it recited, and when you read it aloud to yourself, you can hear that. It’s got a raw energy to it that somehow communicates itself over centuries.
AN: This is somehow distinct from narrative.
JM: Yes, I mean that’s what makes this unique. It is sort of as if it is a bit like the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley or Wadi Rum, as if it’s been hewn out of the rock. It’s immense. It’s there. It’s sort of alive, yet immobile. It’s almost as if it’s been sculptured over the centuries and it just stands there in front of you and almost challenges you to engage. You have to imagine yourself away from the written page and somewhere in a cathedral of sound. It is overwhelming with its monumentality.
AJN: This is a great segue into my next question about the memorization of this poetry. I have a friend who is an emerging Yazidi Arabic poet who is against memorization because of its pedagogical and ideological status in his own context growing up under Saddam’s Iraq. At the same time, I see the value in memorization in that it could help you embody the poetry. I’m curious to hear where you stand on this. Have you memorized the poetry throughout the years?
JM: I have tried but my memory doesn’t work like that. I can’t even remember the lyrics of a favorite pop song.
AJN: Oh, I am like that too. That’s reassuring.
JM: I am just not like our friend and colleague Huda Fakhreddine. Memory is a funny thing because for me the blocks of the poem are not memorized but I will read something and I will think that reminds me of so and so. I have internalized it over the years but put me in the chair and say you’re going to win a million bucks if you can recite the first five lines of a poem you have read 100 times, I can’t do it. I am in awe of the people whose brain does. I had a friend who taught Persian at the University of Oslo and during my time there he was memorizing the whole Diwan of Hafez.
AJN: Let’s go to a softball question that I maybe should have started with. I think readers will want to know why the title “Fate the Hunter.”
JM: If, like me, you’ve read a fair amount of scholarship on pre-Islamic and Arabic poetry over the years, the one thing that struck me about the hunting scenes is that scholars discuss the context of the victorious animals, so the oryx, or the onager, or wild ass, or the ostrich. And no attention is really paid to the human situation in that encounter. I build on the recent work of Nadia Jamil on pre-Islamic poetry, whose scholarship I find extremely compelling, about the position of man in the universe. The great enemy in pre-Islamic poetry is the concept of time. That time is cyclical and brings with it both good and bad. As I was preparing this material, because my intention has been to collect as many examples of hunting scenes as I could, I started to realize that the hunting scenes were epitomizing this basic paradox of pre-Islamic poetry: while man can act as a hunter towards other creatures, man is himself hunted by fate. Whilst man may be successful or unsuccessful in a hunt, he is always being hunted by the concept of time, dahr, or fate, manāyā, or death, and these are all complexes of the same notion.
That was basically used to frame the whole project, to say “Look, what we’re getting in these scenes is not a distraction but a window into the basic jāhilī ethos.”
AJN: There are myriad examples of fate as ethos or theme, but I think it would help to provide more specificity of this idea of man being hunted by time.
JM: I think you could take poem nine in the book, whose translation is actually called “Fate the Hunter.” It’s a poem by Abū Dhuʾayb, the mukhaḍram poet, on the death of his sons. He begins each section of the poem from line 15 onwards with the phrase, literally in Arabic, “Time, nothing withstands its events or attacks, nor even X, Y, Z.” I translated this as “Who can flee Fate the Hunter?” The first example he takes is the wild ass, the onager, with his harem of four mares. And then the next example he takes in line 36 again is now the oryx, which is hunted by the dogs. And then in verse 49, he takes two ironclad warriors on the battlefield. “Who can flee Fate the Hunter? Not the helmeted, ironclad warrior whose face is covered in rust and sweat . . .” And then you get the very last line where he almost negates the value of the whole warrior system by saying both these fighters lived for glory and fame, but then he asks “why?” Because both of them kill each other in the end.
AJN: This strikes me as an unusual poem from the jāhilī corpus.
JM: In so many ways, yes. It comes from the Hudhayl tribe, part of the southern Arabian (Ḥijāzī) rather than the northern Arabian (Najdī) poetic tradition. But it is a poem that provides a key, when you think about it, read it, and listen to its message. I thought to myself, “I am hearing something bigger here—not just grief of a father for his sons who have all died of a plague or when fighting in the battles of the conquest in Egypt.” What I’m hearing here is an old man who, at the end of his life, is asking, you know, what’s the point? Why do we celebrate these? We’re all going to be hunted in the end. And once I came to that conclusion, all the other pieces in the book came to fit together very nicely.
James Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall. His latest publications are Fate the Hunter: Early Arabic Hunting Poems, and Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein.
AJ Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.