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.




Arabian Romantic: A “Linear Descendant” of Early Arabic Classics

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018 7:05 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 a back-and-forth over email, Kurpershoek discussed why this sort of “romantic” poetry has disappeared from the landscape, why he calls it “romantic” at all, and how the survival of this type of poetry “hangs by a very thin, tenuous thread.” This is the first in a two-part series of interviews about Arabian Romantic.

The “Romantic School” of Nabati poetry, you write, came about in a particular region (the High Najd) with particular geography, cultural practices, and a particular relationship between sedentary villagers and dynamic Bedouin. You write that they represent a turn away from puzzle poems and wordplay-for-the-sake-of-wordplay, and a turn toward oral traditions. Who were the Romantic School’s predecessors?

cover of Arabian RomanticMarcel Kurpershoek: We do not know about the immediate predecessors. A lot of research for the book went into establishing context: the intellectual milieu of Ibn Sbayyil, inspired by Charles Pellat’s great book: Le milieu basrien et la formation de Jahiz; and the roots of his work and genre in the tradition of classical Arabic poetry. I read and studied whatever I could find on classical Arabic ghazal poetry. I made index cards for all aspects and themes and motifs in Ibn Sbayyil’s work. And I compared the two. The result was amazing: virtually every image, turn of phrase, motif, and theme had an exact correspondent in early Arabic poetry, up from pre-Islamic to the beginnings of the Abbasid period. The classical inventory has been made in greatest detail by Professor Thomas Bauer, in the German tradition of great precision and thoroughness, in his book Liebe und Liebesdichtung (one cannot really study Arabic literature without knowing German). Looking especially at the seventh century’s most famous ghazal poet ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah. I mapped these correspondences as well as the differences. So we can say for certain now that the Najdi (Central Arabian) ghazal, and Nabati poetry as a whole, are linear descendants of the early classical tradition.

It is, however, much harder to trace this line of descent during the intervening centuries. The early poetry was registered and published by the Arab philologists of Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad in the eighth through 11th centuries or so. The earliest manuscripts with Nabati poetry that we have date from the 19th century. There must have been much older ones, but they were lost or haven’t been found yet. It is simply unthinkable that there is no direct link and that the two arose separately. How the continuity happened, we can only surmise: I’d say a combination of oral and written traditions and their interaction, as explained in Saad Sowayan’s Nabati Poetry.

I think this book, as the previous one, was as much or more about research as about translating, because it is still very much a virgin field, whereas most of LAL’s classical texts have been part of an Orientalist canon for centuries, which translators can draw on and refer to. And here we come to a hidden objective: to get Nabati poetry accepted as part of or an adjunct to the studies of classical literature, overcome the prejudice and technical hurdles. That was the purpose of the contextualization and is mostly found in the notes to the translation, which are in fact an independent study of this subject in their own right.


What do you see as the technical hurdles for getting Nabati poetry accepted as part of, or adjunct to, the studies of classical literature?

MK: Many reasons, in all Arab countries. But the problem is especially acute and intractable in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia Saad Sowayan—who is highly respected as a great scholar, and who has devoted his life to the study of the indigenous traditions—has fought this battle ad nauseam. In essence the opposing argument is that studying and appreciating Nabati poetry and storytelling (which is not exactly the same as “vernacular,” and in a sense it is even more classical than modern classical Arabic because it is replete with vocabulary, images, and phrasing that are more akin to the earliest Arabic, even pre-Islamic models) encourages elevating the vernacular to an officially recognized status, thereby undermining centuries of Islamic and pan-Arabic scholarship and the religion of Islam, based on the ultimate model of the best Arabic, the holy Qur’an. Secondly, once this Pandora’s box is opened, there is no stopping it: in a huge country like Saudi Arabia there are many regional vernaculars. At worst, it is seen as a conspiracy to undermine the religion of Islam and the cultural unity of the Arab world.

Map of Arabia. Public Domain via the Dutch National Library and Wikimedia Commons.

In actuality, of course, there is no contradiction between teaching and studying classical Arabic and studying and appreciating what exists as a matter of fact, practiced by millions, such as Nabati poetry, which has festivals devoted to it, like Million’s Poet (admittedly in the Emirates, but with majority participation from Saudi). In Saudi Arabia, this subject is turbo charged because the country is the guardian of the holy places Mecca and Medina, because its political legitimacy is built on a very strict and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and of course because it encompasses the birthplaces of the Arabic language itself.

The glaring paradox is that there is no country with such a vibrant vernacular literary tradition (Nabati) as Saudi Arabia, probably because of its long isolation and because of the tribal, regional, and familial identities that have been enshrined in Nabati poetry and attendant narratives and have been nurtured over centuries in oral transmission. Saudi princes were enthusiastic about my Al Arabiya television series on Nabati poetry that included an episode about Hmedan al-Shwe’ir, who wrote Arabian Satire, and I was filmed talking to the head of the library of the holy mosque in Mecca, who happened to be one of Hmedan’s offspring and who was very proud of his ancestor, and so on.


What was the genre divide in the Najd between a poet and a storyteller?

MK: In the Najd, or Cental Arabia, there is no profession of story-teller, or ḥakawati, as in Syria or as there used to be in Egypt. In each group of people, you find people who know poems and stories. Some are very good at it and like it a lot, and on social occasions they entertain company. Of course, poets always know poems or verse by other poets and recite them. Poems are usually associated with an occasion that is explained in a story, and these stories start to lead a life of their own down the chain of transmission.

After a while, the story is what people believe to be the occasion or the explanation of a verse. The poem itself changes, though probably less than the story because of its form (rhyme, meter). At least, people believe that a poem is the original “truth” or cannot be changed, because people know it and would detect attempts at “falsification.” Compared to Syria and Egypt, therefore, the Najdi tradition is one of an interactive, strongly participatory oral culture. I think it is connected to tribalism, because each member of a tribe feels responsible for the “correct” version of its history.


You suggest this style of poetry has now run its course. In the Nabati poetry being written now, do we see echoes of this “Romantic School,” or are the concerns and context are too different?

MK: I deliberately made the point of tracing Ibn Sbayyil back to ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah in the seventh century and forward to al-Dindan, the poet I have known personally, as I recorded and edited and translated his oral diwan. He died in 2004 (he was paralyzed and his tent burned down). The imagery and language depends on the natural desert environment. By then people who knew it, who rode camels instead of cars, had gone. And so did the poetry, naturally. Even the oral capacity of ability to memorize has gone. I noticed that poets in the most recent Million’s Poet competition were allowed to read their poems from an iPad, unlike a few years before—the horror!


When I think of “romantic” poetry, I often think of poets like Nizar Qabbani, where poetry acts to woo a lover (or to woo the reader, anyhow). But this is not that. What was its social and literary function? What did it do for the men who listened to it (sung, read)? At one point, you referred to Mutawwa Nifi’s poetry in particular as “a social game that explores the boundaries of the acceptable.”

MK: I like Qabbani a lot and a verse by him was the title of one of my books in Dutch and my inaugural lecture as a professor in Leiden: Who tolls the bell of death for the Arabs (a bit English Dutch, probably). But he is a poet in the Western tradition of Arabic poetry. Therefore, the western concept of “romantic” applies to him. He composed poetry in the western way: as a literate man, pen and paper in hand, so to speak. He is not part of a tribal oral tradition. He certainly would have trouble understanding and appreciating this kind of poetry. Also because he takes the literate classical view without bothering about its oral roots. For your precise question, I ventured an answer in one of the notes (also to do with al-Mijmaj I believe), i.e. it was seen as a suitable, politically neutral pastime, amusing as a game with many variations, that oiled the machine of social gatherings with acquaintances and strangers in the circle.


Can you talk about why you translated madrasah wijdāniyyah as “Romantic School” (vs. for instance sentimental, nostalgic, passionate, wistful)? You talk, in the introduction, about why sentimental would be wrong, with its association of feelings as a guide to truth, and in the modern sense, trite. But why did you settle on romantic when, as you say, the Anglophone idea of “romantic” is distant from this poetry?

First edition of Goethe’s Werther. © Foto H.-P.Haack via Wikimedia Commons.

MK: I include Goethe’s Werther in the category of “sentimental,” and by romantic I mean the traditional British view of the Bedouin, a more robust romanticism. There are many reasons for the British enchantment with the Bedouin. But what matters here is that I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of Ibn Sbayyil’s view of the Bedouin to the traditional British one. In my book, I try to explain why Ibn Sbayyil takes this view. But as I argue in a forthcoming article on the influential early 19th century Arabian traveler and scholar J.L. Burckhardt, this British view itself seems to have antecedents in much earlier Arab views of the Arabian desert culture, e.g. in 15th century Egyptian scholar al-Suyūṭī’s work.


You have described the best of the Romantic School love ghazals here and elsewhere as “delicate.” Can you talk about what you mean by that? To me, their appeal is that they are vivid and muscular in painting a portrait of an internal and external landscape, particularly the extended camel and bird-of-prey metaphors.

MK: They are delicate in comparison with macho Bedouin poetry. In a footnote of Brill volume 2 [Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia, Volume 2 Story of a Desert Knight], on the poetry of a desert knight, Shlewih al-‘Atawi, I mention that the transmitter and Shlewih’s great-grandson Khalid considered Ibn Sbayyil a kharrāṭ, a man who chatters and gossips like an old woman, and ghazal as an unmanly occupation, rather shameful. I had trouble persuading him to recite some poetry by poetesses of his tribe (which he did in the end).

So “delicate” means: he makes an effort, in a poetic sense, to put himself into the shoes of the beloved, and makes her argue her point of view.


And yet does he really put himself in her shoes? A few scholars have lately started reading classical Arabic love poetry with something like a #metoo lens. While he suggests he doesn’t force himself on women, he cannot seem to imagine a woman might just not be into him, and if she is, she should probably get stones kicked in her face. What can we guess about women’s lives from the poetry?

MK: All this is part of convention, the censurer, the slanderer. Not necessarily any relation to his real life. He may have been a hundred percent faithful and solid and stolid husband. Most likely, actually. It is poetry and fantasy, I think. It is not meant to inform you about women’s life at the time. Also, he obviously refers to daughters of powerful chiefs, high class privileged women. He is far from that social level, but allowed the surrogate of dreaming about them. In the end, therefore, it may, or may not, tell you something about some of the workings of his mind and that of his audience.


Would his daughter Sarah have been one of a few women who knew Ibn Sbayyil’s work? I suppose there is no way for us to know how many women were listening behind doors, memorizing the works.

MK: And behind the tent wall separating men and women’s compartments. There would always be holes in it, and there are many stories how women would intervene in the discussions of Bedouin men, which was less easy and common in settled communities (see Hmedan al-Shwe’ir’s view of it). I was only told about Sarah, not about other women from his household.


Read the second part of Marcel’s interview here.

Did Poetry Die?: The Unrelenting Fire of War Songs

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018 12:00 pm

In her novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt writes about learning a classical language. For her, each language has a different character, each with a different idea of “fire.”

“I can only say that an incendium is entirely different from the feu with which a Frenchman lights his cigarette, and both are very different from the stark, inhuman pur that the Greeks knew, the pur that roared from the towers of Ilion or leapt from the funeral pyre of Patroklos… How can I make you see it? This strange harsh light… inarticulable in our common tongue?”

Copies of War Songs

A similar sensation passes over the modern reader of War Songs, a new translation of poetry by the sixth-century Arab warrior-poet ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād. ʿAntarah’s world was a bleak and violent one, where man stood alone against the elements. In Arabic, the word for fire is nār (نار‎). In Antarah’s poetry, this nār is unrelenting. It bakes the earth during the “snarling days.” It springs from dawn raids and flashes on the Indian steel of the soldiers’ swords. At night, that same nār surrounds a “fortress near the stars,” crackles from “the fires of War” stoked high and shines on the armor of “troops blazing / through the darkness / like embers.”

Through his translators Montgomery and Sieburth, the power of ʿAntarah’s poetry is unchanged by time. He still transports his reader to another world, but be warned: it is a bleak landscape washed in this burning light, more recognisable to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction than of ancient poetry.

“The cosmos of the pre-Islamic qasida poets is stark,” the translators warn us in their introduction. “Everything is governed by Time (or Fate)… [but] at the heart of the cosmos stands man.”

The bleak landscape amplifies the human subject: their courage and loves, their loss and their longing. In this bare cosmology, the figure of the warrior-poet rides alone through a bleak land, through abandoned encampments and the crumbling remnants of the past, ongoing battles and raids, all of it taking place in the endless flat plain of the desert. The elements are simple, but what arises from them is a poetry of astonishing variation and color.

In Europe, ʿAntarah would have been a knight. Like the European knightly class, he was part of a society that valued manly virtue (muruwwah) and honour (ʿir) in its fighting men. His poems are everywhere infused with brass and machismo; violent poetry for a violent time. Spines are torn out, noses are cut off.

“My steeds live for War,” ʿAntarah warns in one poem. “My swords are not for show.” In another, he boasts “I felled him / that champion / amid rusty armor / and severed heads. / The vultures waited / on him like maids / attending a bride.”

By the time he died, ʿAntarah’s society, his culture, and the very definition of poetry in the Arab world had undergone sudden and turbulent change. “Like the society the warrior-poets lived in,” the translators tell us in their introduction, “poetry was in a state of turmoil.” But this turmoil had given rise to the new poetic form of the qasida, and an “an astonishing variety of experimentations, manipulations, conceptualizations, and imaginings.”

Qasr Al Kharranah

Image credit: Qasr al-Kharranah, Jordan, by Graham-H. CC0 via Pixabay.

Indeed, ʿAntarah’s poems are not only songs of war. In a landscape scoured by battle, the knight-poet also absorbs the melancholy sight of abandoned campsites, sacked towns, and ancient courts with beautiful and tender touches. The ruins of the past act as a counterpoint to the fury of battle. They are lonely places where a man confronts the passage of time and the prospect of his fate. The ruins are “tired playthings / of Time / and the thunder / and rain.” Where great houses once lived, the crumbling ruins of their halls come to represent the falling fortunes of man and the hand of Fate moving tirelessly over the world.


“Clan Hind lived here once.

You can’t visit them now—

Fate has spun

their thread.”


Ruins are places of contemplation where ʿAntarah can escape to mourn his lost love ʿAblah. They are scars on the landscape: Like Ṭarafah, another great pre-Islamic poet, ʿAntarah uses the image of the ruin as an old tattoo inscribed on the landscape, half-faded on the skin.


“ʿAblah’s camp at Ṭawī,

traced like tattoos

on a bride’s wrist,

engraved now

like Persian mumbled

at Kisrā’s court.”

The ruins are even places that can be spoken to, and listened to—but we don’t always know how to speak their language. “The ruins were deaf—refused to reply / then shouted out in a foreign tongue.” Ruins in the poems of War Songs are open-ended signifiers which leave open the question of causality, and which evade easy interpretation.

The motif of the aṭlāl (“ruins”) is as old as the qasida as a form, and features in the work of a great many pre-Islamic and later poets. The trope was so ubiquitous that the later poet Abū Nuwās (ca. 762–813), famous for his thirst for wine and his love affairs with men and women, openly mocked other poets’ constant pondering over ruins:


“The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite,

While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.

May God never dry the tears of those who cry over stones,

Nor ease the love-pangs of those who cry over tent pegs.”

(Abū Nuwās, The Wretch Paused)


Despite an obvious fondness for the romantic evocations of ruined places, ʿAntarah can also find their melancholy solitude at odds with the manly cries to battle that fill many of the other poems. In his poem “Damn the Ruins!” this tendency reaches its utmost.


“Damn the ruins! Damn you!

Stop dwelling on the past again.

Damn you! Stop all this talk—you

won’t ever get the sweet times back.”

In the lines that follow, ʿAntarah exults in the force of battle, in all its noise and tumult, and juxtaposes this with the quiet and peace of the ruined sites. But where ʿAntarah differs from his peers is in viewing the ruins as non-static entities. They too are subject to the ongoing deteriorative forces of time and weather, just as the human characters in the poems.


“The years passed

and the East Wind blew.

Even the ruins

fell into ruin—”


T.S. Eliot, in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” describes tradition as taking place within a “historical sense,” an appreciation “Not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence.” Ruins in ʿAntarah’s work convey this paradox in material form: they are timeless but also wear the passage of time; they remind man of his mortality but reassure him that many things will last long after he is gone: his victories, his courage, and his poetry.

Indeed, ʿAntarah argues for poetry as a kind of ruin, a remnant left behind that will linger long after the death of the poet. In the collection’s opening ode, he asks “Did poetry die in its war with the poets?” The fact that fourteen centuries after his death, we are able to read the work of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and still lose ourselves in that world, baked in the harsh desert sun and crackling with the fires of war, proves that it did not.


Paul Cooper is an author from the UK. He is currently studying for a PhD at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and his first novel River of Ink was published in 2016.

Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures [video]

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018 4:55 pm

On September 24th, the Library of Arabic Literature hosted a public conversation on the stakes, challenges, and rewards of editing and translating premodern texts from the world’s great literary traditions. Mellon Foundation Vice President Mariët Westermann moderated a panel featuring the general editors of six groundbreaking publishing projects that specialize in facing-page translations. Topics of discussion included the parameters and methodologies for establishing parallel-text translation series in Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Latin, Old English, and Sanskrit and other Indian languages. Watch the video recording of the event on Vimeo or below.

Panel Members
Whitney Cox, Editor, Murty Classical Library of India
James Hankins, General Editor, The I Tatti Renaissance Library
Jeffrey Henderson, General Editor, Loeb Classical Library
Philip Kennedy, General Editor, The Library of Arabic Literature
Paul W. Kroll, Senior Editor, Library of Chinese Humanities
Jan Ziolkowski, General Editor, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

Future Humanities: Translating World Literatures from Hagop Kevorkian Center at NYU on Vimeo.

Entirely Genuine and In No Way Conventional: Muhammad al-Tunisi’s In Darfur

Monday, July 16th, 2018 7:00 am

Humphrey Davies, editor-translator of the recently-published In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People, by Muhammad al-Tūnisī, came to the book through another Library of Arabic Literature text: Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over LegDavies, an award-winning translator of some twenty works of modern and classical Arabic literature, is also editor-translator of Leg over Leg, as well as Yusuf al-Shirbini’s strange and fascinating Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.

Here, in the second part of a two-part interview, Davies talks with M. Lynx Qualey about the more novelistic aspects of this text: the larger-than-life characters, the relationships between fathers and sons, and the women whose lives are both obscured and illumed by the text.

MLQ: For which audiences do you think this will be of particular interest? Certainly any scholar working on 19th-century Sudanese histories, but who else? I thought food-history scholars would be interested, those interested in the sartorial practices of the region, historians of medicine. The material also felt ripe for a Jurji Zaydan-esque historical novelist. 

HD: It’s its novelistic aspects that, in the end, appeal most to me. True, the book is a mine of information on a little-known but powerful and sophisticated country still living—though not for much longer— the “innocence” of a pre-colonial existence, but I find the account of the political wheelings and dealings, the hard-fought military campaigns, and the larger-than-life figures that dominate the historical overview given in the first half very compelling. They have the raw energy of the stories that Shakespeare took as material for many of his historical plays and tragedies. Shaykh-Father Muhammad Kurra, perhaps the most important political figure in the kingdom in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and one whom the author met, was accused when a young man of dallying with one of the sultan’s slave girls. He went into a room, cut off his genitals, and presented them to the sultan. “Then,” the author notes, “he fainted.” What would not the Bard have done with that?!

MLQ: Well, perhaps some new bard will yet take it on…

How important is this as a historical source? What can we learn from his errors, from what he gets wrong about Darfur?

HD: Al-Tūnisī was the only Arab and Muslim to reside in and write an account of the Sultanate of Darfur. The only others to do so were W.G. Browne (several decades before al-Tūnisī), a grumpy Englishman who didn’t want to be there anyway, and the German doctor Gustav Nachtigal, an insightful and sympathetic observer, who was there on the eve of the invasion and occupation of the country by Egypt in 1874. Al-Tūnisī’s much longer stay, most of which was spent on his father’s estates outside the capital, and his position as the son of a man of learning (visiting shaykhs were honored by the sultans, who saw them as lending prestige to their rule) gave him access to areas of life, and indeed of the country, that Browne and Nachtigal didn’t have. True, he himself sometimes says (as when speaking of human sacrifice and the possible use of a boy and a girl as ingredients in a ragout served at an annual sultanic loyalty jamboree) that there were things Darfurians wouldn’t talk about even with him. But his inquiring mind and youthful enthusiasm (he was 14 when he set off, 22 when he returned) to get out there “and see” (as he puts it) took him far, even to the dreaded cave-prisons of Jabal Marrah, reserved for rebellious princes and courtiers, and to the people of that mountain, who had red teeth and eyes and thought he was a delicacy sent them by the sultan. More sober historians may find nits to pick but given that he is an almost unique witness, I can’t see that those would be many.

MLQ: One of the most emotionally interesting parts of the narrative is the relationships between fathers and sons. The narrative contrasts the cold, indifferent al-Tūnisī father and grandfather with a warm and apparently loving youngest paternal uncle. What genre traditions is he drawing on, besides rihlah literature, in deciding what parts of his life and journey to include and exclude?

HD: The nonchalance with which fathers treat sons in the book is amazing. Two months after the author finally makes it to Darfur and is reunited with his father, whom he hasn’t seen for years, the father abandons him again! Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that they were long-distance merchants, whose business trips could take them thousands of miles and keep them away for decades, making them emotionally thick-skinned. The sadness and even bitterness this engendered in the author, however, is palpable, even though he speaks of his father with respect and with pride in his claimed scholarly achievements. I am no expert, unfortunately, in the wider field of rihlah literature, and there is a fast-growing body of literature on the expression of emotion in older Arabic works in general, on which I am also no expert. I can only say that the expression of emotion, limited though it may be to a few passages, strikes my ear as entirely genuine and in no way conventional.

MLQ:  It’s also hard for me to reconcile how he talks about Iya Kuri Kinanah or Um Habib (as fully rendered humans) with how women appear in Vol. 2, where “women are at the root of every disaster that occurs” and they are largely stereotypes. What stylistic and tonal differences did you find between the more personal stories in Vol. 1 and the generalizations of Vol 2?

HD: The author often speaks negatively about women, it is true, and not only when generalizing—there is for example the anecdote about the sex-crazed mother of Sultan Muhammad Fadl, who forced herself on one of the author’s friends—but he was by no means alone in this. Few books of this period that I’ve read (Leg Over Leg is the massive exception) make it to the end without taking a sideswipe at the mischief caused by women (and eunuchs, and people of low origin, etc.). It’s part of the cultural landscape. Perhaps more interesting, then, is the fact that al-Tūnisī does acknowledge and seems to respect historical female figures who made a mark. More generally, I think the difference between the two volumes lies more in the purposes of each. The first volume sets the scene by describing the author’s family situation, his journey along the Forty Days’ Road to Darfur, and the political dramas (the wars of succession, the invasion of Kordofan, the attempted power grab—if such it was—by the eunuch Muhammad Kurra) that provided the backdrop to his stay. The second is a systematic description of the country covering governance, clothing, marriage, health, food, animals, flora and fauna, currency, trade, magic, and more.

Needless to say, the second part is more schematic, but it remains very much a personal account. He’s describing personal spirit guardians? He tells of the unintended and unfortunate consequences that befell a friend who acquired one. Plants? He recounts how a Fur woman cured him with a certain weed after chili pepper had blown into his eye. Etc. His personal experience informs and enriches the material.

Drawing of a bird trap from In Darfur

MLQ: Al-Tūnisī’s drawings are remarkable; even if not completely accurate, to have remembered so much thirty-some years later is stunning. He also seems to remember local languages quite well three decades on. Do we have any sense of whether he kept a journal at the time, or whether this was all drawn from his memory three decades later? Or would he have asked others who’d traveled more recently to Darfur to shore up his knowledge?

HD: I agree, it was a remarkable feat to recall after all that time how a bird-trap, for example, was set up, or where all the different tribal territories fell on the map of Darfur, or the layout of the sultan’s compound, including just where the house of Maternal Uncle Fazārah (a character who doesn’t even figure in the text) was located and where the girls who ground flour sat. Even more remarkable is his reproduction of phrases, conversations, and even whole songs in Fur. Modern informants, it is true, sometimes had difficulty in understanding these, but that could just as well be due to changes in the language as to a faulty memory. He says nothing about a diary but does mention that when in Cairo later, he met and talked with a man from Takrur (here referring to Bagirmi, a sometime state southeast of Lake Chad) and that he was visited there by the chief judge of Wadai, where al-Tūnisī also lived briefly. That visit took place around 1840, i.e., more than thirty years after he had left, so it seems he kept up contact with people from the region. Perhaps he consulted them when writing his book.

MLQ: What were the challenges of putting this together—the editing, the translating, the research into Darfur in the early nineteenth century?

HD: All of the above (as with any book). The language, as mentioned, is unusual (though unlike most Arabic dialects, Sudanese does have a serious dictionary, by Awn al-Sharif Qasim, which was helpful), the editing issue being then how much of that roughness to retain and how much to correct. I took the approach that the text should be left unchanged so long as it was comprehensible; it will read, therefore, less smoothly that the excellent edition made by Egyptian scholars Khalil Mahmud Asakir and Mustafa Muhammad Musaad in 1965.

The translating likewise required the preservation of a degree of orality that would fit with the language. And the material was, indeed, arcane and in need of research in many aspects. Fortunately, I had the support of Rex Sean O’Fahey, the doyen of historians of Darfur, both through his works on the subject, which are fundamental, and his availability for Skype conversations.

MLQ: What are you most curious about, about the composition and process of creating the book? If you could conjure up Perron and al-Tūnisī, what would you ask them about it?

HD: I’d ask al-Tūnisī how he found Perron as a student and Perron how he found al-Tūnisī as a teacher.