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Contents

Introduction

A Desert Encampment

Refuge from Danger

Her Mouth

In Praise of His Love

Storm in the Desert

Age and Wisdom

Wine and Generosity

Raging War

A Swift Camel

Enjoyment of Life

Sources 

 

 

Introduction

In the Arabian Peninsula in the Sixth Century CE, the emergence of  poet in a tribe was considered an important event. Amid a rich tradition of oral poetry, it meant that the history of the tribe would become preserved in memorable verse and that the tribe would be entertained by accounts of the adventures and thoughts of its prominent individuals. In the Eighth Century, much of this oral poetry of earlier times was collected by one of the great humanists of Islam, Hammad ‘The Transmitter’, a man of prodigious memory. This he used to good effect in memorizing the poetry he encountered in his travels among the Bedouins. From his memorized collection, seven qasida (odes) by individual authors came to be written down in an anthology. The name of this work, The Mu’allaqat, has been translated as Suspended Odes, or Golden Odes, or Collected Odes.

Each poet would decide on a meter of his own choosing, but he was constrained to use a single rhyme at the ends of lines. The poem would typically deal with subjects in the following sequence: deserted dwelling places, talks with desert people, amorous encounters, journeying on a horse or camel, and a panegyric to a host. In the course of the poem there would be various digressions into the subjects such as storms, wine, wisdom, battles, youth, and age.  

The Mu’allaqat poets were famous throughout the Arab world, with their poems being frequently memorized and quoted. Their fame brought with it exaggerated legends about their lives, so that it is difficult to know the true facts concerning these remarkable individuals. The fame of Imr Al-Qais, ‘The Wandering King’, was said to have caused him to be summoned to the court of the Emperor Justinian at Byzantium in 530. Tarafa, ‘The Murdered Boy’, is said to have started to write poetry at the age of seven and to have been treacherously put to death in his early twenties (perhaps in 564) for writing satires on tribal leaders. Zuhair, ‘A Slave to Poetry’, belonged to a family of poets and was said to be sufficiently affluent to have time to polish his verses to perfection. Labid, ‘The Man with the Crooked Staff’, was said to have lived 150 years; he expressed a certain weariness of life in a poem written on his 120th birthday.

 Antara, ‘The Black Knight’, was the son of a tribal leader and an Abyssinian slave girl. He became renowned for his poetry and for his skill in warfare; ultimately he became the hero of an extensive legend, the Romance of Antar.  Amr became a chieftain of his tribe at the age of fifteen and is also said to have lived 150 years. One account has him giving lucid advice to his sons on his deathbed; another says that he drank himself to death with wine.

 The following short extracts from these odes, deal with familiar concerns of human life.

 

 

1   A Desert Encampment

 The abodes are desolate, halting-place and encampment too,

at Miná: deserted lies Ghaul, deserted alike Rijám,

and the torrent-beds of Er-Raiyán—naked shows their trace,

rubbed smooth, like letterings long since scored on a stony slab;

blackened orts that, since the time their inhabitants tarried there,

many years have passed over, months unhallowed and sacrosanct.

The star-borne showers of Spring have fed them, the out­pouring

of thundercloud, great deluge and gentle following rain,

the cloud that travels by night, the sombre pall of morn,

the outspread mantle of eve with muttering antiphon.

Then the branches of aihakan shot up, and the ostriches

and antelopes brought forth their young on both valley-slopes,

and the great-eyed cows that had lately calved stand over their brood

while in the spreading plain the little lambs form their flocks.

Then the torrents washed the dusty ruins, until they seem

like scrolls of writing whose text their pens have revivified,

or the back and forth of a woman tattooing, her indigo

in rings scattered, the tattooing newly revealed above them.

 

So I stood and questioned that site; yet how should we question rocks

set immovable, whose speech is nothing significant?

All is naked now, where once the people were all foregathered;

 

                                                            Labid

 

 

2   Refuge from Danger

 

Does the blackened ruin, situated in the stony ground
between Durraj and Mutathallam, which did not speak to me
when addressed, belong to the abode of Ummi Awfa?

 

And is it her dwelling at the two stony meadows, seeming
as though they were the renewed tattoo marks in the sinews of the wrist?

 

The wild cows and the white deer are wandering about
there, one herd behind the other, while their young are springing up

from every lying-down place.

 

I stood again near it (the encampment of the tribe of
Awfa) after an absence of twenty years, and with some efforts
I know her abode again after thinking awhile.

 

I recognized the three stones blackened by fire at the
place where the kettle used to be placed at night, and the
trench round the encampment, which had not burst, like the source of a pool.

 

And when I recognized the encampment I said to its site,
'Now good morning, O spot!
May you be safe from dangers.'

 

                                                            Zuhair

 

 

3   Her Mouth

 

When she captivates you with a mouth possessing sharp and white teeth,
sweet as to its place of kissing, delicious of taste.

 

As if she sees with the two eyes of a young, grown up gazelle from the deer.
It was as though the musk bag of a merchant in his case of perfumes
preceded her teeth toward you from her mouth.

 

Or as if it is an old wine-skin, from Azri'at, preserved long,
such as the kings of Rome preserve.

 

Or her mouth is as an ungrazed meadow,
whose herbage the rain has guaranteed,
in which there is but little dung;
and which is not marked with the feet of animals.

 

                                                             Antar

 

4 In Praise of His Love

I went out with her; she walking, and drawing behind us, over our footmarks,
The skirts of an embroidered woolen garment, to erase the footprints.

 

Then when we had crossed the enclosure of the tribe,
The middle of the open plain, with its sandy undulations and sandhills, we sought.

 

I drew the two side-locks of her head toward me; and she leant toward me;
She was slender of waist, and full in the ankle.

 

Thin-waisted, white-skinned, slender of body,
Her breast shining polished like a mirror.

 

In complexion she is like the first egg of the ostrich—white, mixed with yellow.
Pure water, unsullied by the descent of many people in it, has nourished her.

 

She turns away, and shows her smooth cheek, forbidding with a glancing eye,
Like that of a wild animal, with young, in the desert of Wajrah.

 

And she shows a neck like the neck of a white deer;
It is neither disproportionate when she raises it, nor unornamented.

 

And a perfect head of hair which, when loosened, adorns her back,
Black, very dark-colored, thick like a date-cluster on a heavily laden date-tree.

 

Her curls creep upward to the top of her head;
And the plaits are lost in the twisted hair, and the hair falling loose.

 

And she meets me with a slender waist, thin as the twisted leathern nose-rein of a camel.
Her form is like the stem of a palm-tree bending over from the weight of its fruit.

 

In the morning, when she wakes, the particles of musk are lying over her bed.
She sleeps much in the morning; she does not need to gird her waist with a working dress.

 

She gives with thin fingers, not thick, as if they were the worms of the desert of Zabi,
In the evening she brightens the darkness, as if she were the light-tower of a monk.

 

Toward one like her, the wise man gazes incessantly, lovingly.
She is well proportioned in height between the wearer of a long dress and of a short frock.

 

The follies of men cease with youth, but my heart does not cease to love you.
Many bitter counselors have warned me of the disaster of your love, but I turned away from them.

 

Many a night has let down its curtains around me amid deep grief,
It has whelmed me as a wave of the sea to try me with sorrow.

 

Then I said to the night, as slowly his huge bulk passed over me,
As his breast, his loins, his buttocks weighed on me and then passed afar,

 

"Oh long night, dawn will come, but will be no brighter without my love.
You are a wonder, with stars held up as by ropes of hemp to a solid rock."

 

Imr-Al-Quais

 

5 Storm in the Desert

But come, my friends, as we stand here mourning, do you see the lightning?
See its glittering, like the flash of two moving hands, amid the thick gathering clouds.

 

Its glory shines like the lamps of a monk when he has dipped their wicks thick in oil.
I sat down with my companions and watched the lightning and the coming storm.

 

So wide-spread was the rain that its right end seemed over Quatan,
Yet we could see its left end pouring down on Satar, and beyond that over Yazbul.

 

So mighty was the storm that it hurled upon their faces the huge kanahbul trees,
The spray of it drove the wild goats down from the hills of Quanan.

 

In the gardens of Taimaa not a date-tree was left standing,
Nor a building, except those strengthened with heavy stones.

 

The mountain, at the first downpour of the rain, looked like a
giant of our people draped in a striped cloak.

The peak of Mujaimir in the flood and rush of debris looked
like a whirling spindle.

 

The clouds poured forth their gift on the desert of Ghabeet, till it blossomed
As though a Yemani merchant were spreading out all the rich clothes from his trunks,

 

As though the little birds of the valley of Jiwaa awakened in the morning
And burst forth in song after a morning draught of old, pure, spiced wine.

 

As though all the wild beasts had been covered with sand and mud,

like the onion's root-bulbs.
They were drowned and lost in the depths of the desert at evening.

 

Imr-Al-Quais

 

6 Age and Wisdom

I have grown weary of the troubles of life; and he
who lives eighty years will, may you have no father
if you doubt, grow weary.

 

And I know what has happened to-day and yesterday,
before it, but verily, of the knowledge of what will happen
tomorrow I am ignorant.

 

I see death is like the blundering of a blind camelhim
whom he meets he kills, and he whom he misses lives and will
become old.

 

And he who does not act with kindness in many affairs
will be torn by teeth
and trampled under foot.

 

And he who makes benevolent acts intervene before
honor, increases his honor;
and he who does not avoid abuse, will be abused.

 

He who is possessed of plenty, and is miserly with his
great wealth toward his people, will be dispensed with,
and abused.

 

He who keeps his word, will not be reviled;
and he whose heart is guided to self-satisfying benevolence
will not stammer.

 

And he who dreads the causes of death, they will reach
him, even if he ascends the tracts of the heavens
with a ladder.

 

And he who shows kindness to one not deserving it, his
praise will be a reproach against him, and he will repent of
having shown kindness.

 

And he who rebels against the butt ends of the spears,
then verily he will have to obey the spear points joined to
every long spear shaft.

 

And he who does not repulse with his weapons from his
tank, will have it broken; and he who does not oppress the
people will be oppressed.

 

And he who travels should consider his friend an enemy;
and he who does not respect himself
will not be respected.

 

And he who is always seeking to bear the burdens of
other people, and does not excuse himself from it,
will one day by reason of his abasement, repent.

 

And whatever of character there is in a man, even though
he thinks it concealed from people,
it is known.

 

He who does not cease asking people to carry him, and
does not make himself independent of them even for one day
of the time, will be regarded with disgust.

 

Many silent ones you see, pleasing to you,
but their excess in wisdom or deficiency
will appear at the time of talking.

 

The tongue of a man is one half, and the other half is his
mind, and here is nothing besides these two, except the shape
of the blood and the flesh.

 

And verily, as to the folly of an old man,
there is no wisdom after it,
but the young man after his folly may become wise.

 

We asked of you, and you gave, and we returned to the
asking and you returned to the giving, and he who increases
the asking, will one day be disappointed.

 

Zuhair

 

 

7 Wine and Generosity

Praise me for the qualities which you know I possess, for,
verily, when I am not ill-treated, I am gentle to associate with.

 

And if I am ill-treated, then, verily, my tyranny is severe,
very bitter is the taste of it, as the taste of the colocynth.

 

And, verily, I have drunk wine after the midday heats have subsided,
buying it with the bright-stamped coin.

 

From a glass, yellow with the lines of the glass-cutter on it,
which was accompanied by a white-stoppered bottle on the lefthand side.

 

And when I have drunk, verily, I am the squanderer of my property,
and my honor is great, and is not sullied.

 

And when I have become sober, I do not diminish in my generosity,
and, as you know, so are my qualities and my liberality.

 

                                                                Antar

 

 

8 Raging War

And war is not but what you have learnt it to be, and
what you have experienced, and what is said concerning it,
is not a story based on suppositions.

 

When you stir it up, you will stir it up as an accursed
thing, and it will become greedy when you excite its greed
and it will rage fiercely.

 

Then it will grind you as the grinding of the upper millstone
against the lower, and it will conceive immediately after
one birth and it will produce twins.

 

                                                            Zuhair

 

 

9 A Swift Camel

Ah, but when grief assails me, straightway I ride it off

mounted on my swift, lean-flanked camel, night and day racing,

sure-footed, like the planks of a litter; I urge her on

down the bright highway, that back of a striped mantle;

she vies with the noble, hot-paced she-camels, shank on shank

nimbly plying, over a path many feet have beaten.

Along the rough slopes with the milkless shes she has pastured

in Spring, cropping the rich meadows green in the gentle rains;

to the voice of the caller she returns, and stands on guard

with her bunchy tail, scared of some ruddy, tuft-haired stallion,

as though the wings of a white vulture enfolded the sides

of her tail, pierced even to the bone by a pricking awl;

anon she strikes with it behind the rear-rider, anon

lashes her dry udders, withered like an old water-skin.

Perfectly firm is the flesh of her two thighs—

they are the gates of a lofty, smooth-walled castle—

and tightly knit are her spine-bones, the ribs like bows,

her underneck stuck with the well-strung vertebrae,

fenced about by the twin dens of a wild lote-tree;

you might say bows were bent under a buttressed spine.

Widely spaced are her elbows, as if she strode

carrying the two buckets of a sturdy water-carrier;

like the bridge of the Byzantine, whose builder swore

it should be all encased in bricks to be raised up true.

Reddish the bristles under her chin, very firm her back,

broad the span of her swift legs, smooth her swinging gait;

her legs are twined like rope uptwisted; her forearms

thrust slantwise up to the propped roof of her breast.

Swiftly she rolls, her cranium huge, her shoulder-blades

high-hoisted to frame her lofty, raised superstructure.

The scores of her girths chafing her breast-ribs are water­courses

 furrowing a smooth rock in a rugged eminence,

now meeting, anon parting, as though they were

white gores marking distinctly a slit shirt.

Her long neck is very erect when she lifts it up

calling to mind the rudder of a Tigris-bound vessel.

Her skull is most like an anvil, the junction of its two halves

meeting together as it might be on the edge of a file.

Her cheek is smooth as Syrian parchment, her split lip

a tanned hide of Yemen, its slit not bent crooked;

her eyes are a pair of mirrors, sheltering

in the caves of her brow-bones, the rock of a pool's hollow,

ever expelling the white pus mote-provoked, so they seem

like the dark-rimmed eyes of a scared wild-cow with calf.

Her ears are true, clearly detecting on the night journey

the fearful rustle of a whisper, the high-pitched cry,

sharp‑tipped, her noble pedigree plain in them,

pricked like the ears of a wild-cow of Haumal lone-pasturing.

Her trepid heart pulses strongly, quick, yet firm

as a pounding-rock set in the midst of a solid boulder.

If you so wish, her head strains to the saddle's pommel

and she swims with her forearms, fleet as a male ostrich,

or if you wish her pace is slack, or swift to your fancy

fearing the curled whip fashioned of twisted hide.

Slit is her upper lip, her nose bored and sensitive,

delicate; when she sweeps the ground with it, faster she runs.

 

                                                    Tarafa

   

 

10 Enjoyment of Life

          

Did Nawár not know then, and was she not aware that I

am skilled to knot the bonds of friendship, and break them too?

I am quick to be gone from places when they're unpleasing

            to me

except, as happens, its destiny fetters my spirit there.

Ha, but you have no idea, my dear, how many nights

of agreeable warmth, delicious in sport and companionship,

I have passed chatting, how many a taverner's hoisted flag

I have visited, when the wine it proclaimed was precious dear,

and I've forked out a pretty penny for an old, brown wineskin

or a pitch-smeared jar, newly decanted and seal broken,

for the pleasure of a song on a wet morning, and a charming

            girl plucking

with nimble fingers the strings of her melodious lute;

yes, I've raced the cock bright and early, to get me my spirit's

            need

and to have my second wetting by the time the sleepers stirred.

And many's the morning of wind and cold I've kept at bay

when its reins lay in the fingers of the bitter north

and defended the knights, my bristling panoply burdening

a swift-stepper, its bridle at dawn flung about my shoulders.

I have climbed to a look-out post on the brow of a fearful ridge

the dust of whose summits hung closely about their standards

till, when the sun flung its hand into dusk's coverlet

and darkness shrouded the perilous marches of the frontiers,

I came down to the plain; my horse stood firm as the trunk

of a tall, stripped palm tree the gatherers shrink to ascend.

Then I pricked her on, to run like an ostrich and fleeter still

until, when she was warm and her bones were light and pliant,

her saddle slipped about, and her neck streamed with sweat

and the foam of her perspiration drenched her leather girth;

she tosses her head, and strains at the rein, and rushes on

as a desert dove flutters with the flight swiftly to water.

 

                                                    Labid

 

Sources

 1, 9, 10   The Seven Odes: The First Chapter in Arabic Literature by A.J. Arberry. Translated by A.J. Arberry  Copyright 1957 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London. Part of the Ode of Tarafa is presented on the Internet by Cornell University Middle East and Islamic Studies.

 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8   The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Charles F. Horne, ed. Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, New York, 1917. Text modernized by Professor Arkenberg, presented as part of the Internet Medieval Source Book © Paul Halsall 1998.