In Deadly Embrace is a collection of Abbasid hunting poems by Ibn al-Muʿtazz. In this blog post, editor and translator James E. Montgomery sits down with AJ Naddaff to discuss the significance and history of Arabic hunting poetry, the culture of the hunt, and running themes of masculinity in the genre.
AJN: To start, can you tell us more about your translations of the hunting poetry genre, the ṭardiyyāt?
JM: Maybe the best way to explain this is to describe the overall arch of the project. There will be four volumes of Arabic hunting poems and translations in total, and then there will be a fifth volume which will be a scholarly edition with full apparatus, and focused on the manuscript history of some of the diwans.
One of the reasons I wanted to initiate this is because the hunting poem, the ṭardiyyah, is pretty much secondary in studies of Abbasid poetry, looked on as a sort of cul-de-sac; it is not given the same attention as the love poem or the wine poem or the ascetic poem. Even though there is a famous book by the late Jaroslav [Stetkevych] on the hunt, the centrality of the notion of hunting to the history of Arabic poetry and also the development of a powerful Islamic society out of pre-Islamic Arabia has not really been properly studied.
AJN: I applaud this ambition, which reminds me of the LAL’s ethos not only of trying to creatively translate works that have not reached global audiences in modern times, but also perhaps of also trying to push the boundaries of conventional scholarship.
JM: I am encouraging us to contemplate a central revision of the first four centuries or so of Arabic poetry, by crafting these volumes as a sort of unofficial literary history of Arabic poetry. I see the ṭardiyyāt not as a peripheral, not as a sort of side interest, but in many ways as absolutely central to how Arabic poetry developed, how the Arabic poets of the pre-Islamic and early Arabic, Umayyad, and Abbasid periods understood and looked at the world, and also how in many ways the poetic genres developed.
AJN: When opening up In Deadly Embrace, we are struck by love epigraphs. What does love, or romance, have to do with hunting poems?
JM: I am not sure hunting poems per se have a lot to do with romance. It seemed to me that both the epigraphs I used in the book captured the essence of the hunting poem that I thought had been overlooked. I describe my thinking on this in the introduction to the book, particularly in the section “the homosocial world of the ghazal,” which is the Arabic love poem. The two genres, it seems to me, are completely porous. There are a couple examples In Deadly Embrace of ṭardiyyāt which are also ghazal poems. There’s a common theme in Arabic love poetry of the poet as a lion hunting the love object, a gazelle, but the gazelle (usually through the power of its gaze) destroys the lion. And in working on this volume by Ibn al-Muʿtazz it became clear to me just how closely side-by-side the ṭardiyyah and the ghazal exist.
AJN: What about the choice of the quote by the 20th century French literary critic Roland Barthes?
JM: Another thing that I find fascinating that runs through Ibn al-Muʿtazz’s Ṭardiyyat in particular is the vulnerability of heroic masculinity. And that was why I chose this quote by Roland Barthes as an epigraph. He seemed to capture that vulnerability in his uniquely pithy way when he says: “a man is not feminized because he is inverted but because he is in love.” It is quite fascinating to look at these late 3rd/9th century Abbasid hunting poems and to think of them in terms not only of Abbasid society’s cultural heroes—of which ibn al-Muʿtazz certainly is one—but also the fragility of the notion of heroic masculinity.
AJN: Do we know the temporal or geographic origins of hunting? Was it always imbricated in the dynamics of power (the aristocracy for example)? Why was it popular in the Abbasid elite circles?
JM: It’s a good question. In the first book in the series, Fate the Hunter, I make a distinction between the royal hunt and the subsistence hunt. The subsistence hunt is basically an attempt to provide food for you, your family, and your dependents. And there are examples of that from pre-Islamic Arabia, and some of those are discussed in Fate the Hunter. But by and large, hunting from a very early phase seems to emerge into history as very symbolic, as an index of royalty and almost the divinity of the hunter.
When we turn to Ancient Greece, we find Xenophon inhabiting the same conceptual universe of hunting as Imruʾ al-Qays in the pre-Islamic period or Abū Nuwās or Ibn al-Muʿtazz—it is quite a fascinating system of cultural transmission but also polygenetic in the sense that I think the spectacle of hunting lends itself to being considered in this way. We’ve got to think of pre-Islamic Arabia as not being totally cut off from the world of late antiquity but perhaps as a sort of idiolect, that is, a dialect of the same cultural language, if I can put it like that.
AJN: And of course, a lot of these hunting expeditions took place in the grounds of Iraq’s Christian monasteries, where the hunting party could have easy access to wine and its associated pleasures.
JM: Precisely. As we learned from Hilary Kilpatrick’s wonderful edition and translation of al-Shabushtī’s Book of Monasteries (Kitāb al-Diyārāt) these were kind of pleasure outings as much as anything. That doesn’t mean of course that they weren’t also occasions for this sort of theater of masculinity or leadership. But the grounds of monasteries provided almost everything that the hunt required. Yet the poems are not as interested in the locale as much as the they are invested in the chase that they’ve pursued. I think there’s an idea that these hunts take place in a sacred garden; the topography of the hunting poetry in the Abbasid period seems to participate in the notion of a charmed or mystical garden that the hunting expedition is allowed entry into.
AJN: Why the title In Deadly Embrace?
JM: It comes from a poem in which a cheetah is described trapping his quarry. One of the features of descriptions of cheetahs is that they are sometimes depicting as flirting with the quarry. What I like about “In Deadly Embrace” is it does have this love overtone, which I talked about earlier. And as far as I’m aware, I think there’s only one other book, which is also a movie, called Deadly Embrace, by the English romance novelist and actress Jackie Collins. Now the mischievous side in me couldn’t resist riffing on a lurid Jackie Collins best-seller.
Part two will be up Dec. 8.
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.