Category Archives: Books

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

Come see us at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair this week!

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013 10:30 am

This week, the Library of Arabic Literature will be exhibiting at the 23rd Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF), which runs from April 24-29 this week at the ADNEC exhibition center in Abu Dhabi.

Now that the Library of Arabic Literature has published books, we are delighted to have our own stand at the ADIBF for the first time. With over 700 exhibitors from more than 50 countries, the Fair is now one of the largest book fairs in the region, and while open to the reading public—last year the foot traffic reached something like 250,000 visitors over the course of the six days—it has become more of a professional book fair in recent years.

In a further bout of good news for this busy week, the publishing industry newsletter Publishing Perspectives is running our editorial today about the Library of Arabic Literature and the challenges of translating pre-modern Arabic texts. The editorial covers some of the issues that Philip F. Kennedy and I will be talking about in a conversation at the Fair on Wednesday, 5:30-6:30PM in the “Discussion Sofa” area. You can find more details about our session here.

If you plan to attend ADIBF, we’d love to have you attend our session tomorrow afternoon. Even if you can’t make it tomorrow, come visit us at Stand #11B37 and take a look at our new books for yourself!

Chip Rossetti
Managing Editor, Library of Arabic Literature


A great review for Classical Arabic Literature in The National

Monday, April 8th, 2013 11:24 am

Below is a photo taken recently at the Magrudy’s bookstore in the NYU Abu Dhabi Downtown Campus: as you can see, they have a stack of new copies of our books for sale! They do look quite nice on display.

However, I expect those bookstore copies won’t last long: if you haven’t seen it already, the UAE’s premiere English-language newspaper, The National, this weekend posted a glowing review of Geert Jan van Gelder’s anthology, Classical Arabic Literature. Among other things, the reviewer called the translations “a marvel, and often a tour de force—precise, highly readable and evocative.” A hearty mabrouk (congratulations!) to Geert Jan van Gelder on this very well-deserved praise for what is truly a remarkable feat of translation, covering such a broad array of genres, styles, registers, and subject matter in fluid English.

I was pleased to see that the reviewer, Marcel Kurpershoek, highlighted one of our key aims for the Library of Arabic Literature series: namely, to ensure that Arabic’s rich and varied written heritage ceases to be the preserve of scholars and experts outside the Arab world. In other words, by creating a library of these key texts in English, we hope that one day, well-read people, when asked to name their favorite pre-modern Arabic works and writers, will respond with more than just “a vacant stare,” as the review puts it.

Keep an eye out on this space, as we’ll be forwarding more reviews and news about the series as they come up!

Chip Rossetti
Managing Editor, Library of Arabic Literature


Our first Library of Arabic Literature titles are out in the world!

Friday, March 15th, 2013 3:23 pm

It took a great deal of work over the last two years to get this series off the ground, but we are quite pleased with the first fruits of our labors—an impressively wide-ranging anthology of poetry and prose; a foundational document of Islamic legal theory; and a compilation of the sayings and wisdom of a widely revered figure from early Islam. Hopefully that should convey some of the scope and ambition we have for the series, with more to come (please take a look at this site’s “Books” page for details about these books, as well as more LAL books that will be published later this summer.)

The editor-translators (Geert Jan van Gelder, Joseph E. Lowry, and Tahera Qutbuddin), with their scholarly rigor and sensitivity to language, are the primary reasons for these books’ excellence; their work was particularly challenging since they had to face all the snags involved in launching a new series. But I should also mention some others who made these books possible, starting with the Library of Arabic Literature Editorial Board, who over the last two years laid the groundwork for the series as a whole, from wrestling with the scope of these books to formalizing our guidelines for Arabic editions, reviewing manuscripts, and determining what we mean by “modern, lucid English translations.” Led by General Editor Philip Kennedy (and aided by Executive Editors James Montgomery and Shawkat Toorawa), the Board has created the framework for what we hope will be many more books over the next several years.

On the design and production side, credit is due to Stuart Brown, our digital production manager, whose XML and layout expertise ensure that these pre-modern Arabic texts are fully at home in the 21st century and look good on the page and onscreen.  Likewise, thanks go to typographer Thomas Milo, whose design advice was invaluable as we got the series up and running.  Milo (along with Mirjam Somers) is the designer of DecoType Naskh, the calligraphic typeface we use for the Arabic body text in our books. And a thank you as well to our calligraphers, Joshua Berer and Nihad Nadam, for their work on the jackets.

Before this blog post devolves into an Oscar acceptance speech, I will end here by simply noting that we will be posting on this blog on a semi-regular basis, so please keep an eye out for future posts—about upcoming events, new LAL publications, reviews of our books, and posts by and about our editor-translators!

Chip Rossetti
Managing Editor, Library of Arabic Literature