One of the most enduringly popular toss-off posts on this site is something I wrote about love poems and Valentine’s Day. In truth, love poetry is not a genre I’ve particularly engaged. Nonetheless:

Ibn Hazm (994 – 1064)

Ibn Hazm inspired jewelry from Azza Fahmy.
Ibn Hazm inspired jewelry from Azza Fahmy.

Ibn Hazm’s name is synonymous with love; there’s even a line of jewelry inspired by him and marketed for V-Day. This is largely because of his Ring of the Dove, in uninspiring translation by A.J. Arberry. But this, trans. Ammiel Alcalay, is a poem I found in the new collection Poems for the New Millennium – The University of California Book of North African Literature. Please see a second translation, by Christopher Middleton and Leticia Garza-Falcon, down in the comments.

My Heart

I would split open my heart
with a knife, place you
within and seal my would,
that you might dwell there

and never inhabit another
until the resurrection and
judgment day — thus you
would stay in my heart

while I lived, and at my death
you too would die in the
entrails of my core, in
the shadow of my tomb.

Ibn Arabi (1165 – 1240)

Translated by Maurice Gloton, also from Poems for the New Millennium:

I BELIEVE IN THE RELIGION OF LOVE
Whatever direction its caravans may take,
For love is my religion and my faith.

Also,  part of a chapter from the Kitab al-Tajalliyat, translated in the form of a poem by Henry Corbin. From the Ibn Arabi Society:

Layla and Majnun
Layla and Majnun

Dearly beloved!
I have called you so often and you have not heard me
I have shown myself to you so often and you have not
seen me.
I have made myself fragrance so often, and you have
not smelled me.
Savorous food, and you have not tasted me.
Why can you not reach me through the object you touch
Or breathe me through sweet perfumes?
Why do you not see me? Why do you not hear me?
Why? Why? Why?

You can also read his “Gentle Now, Doves” and listen to podcasts from the Ibn Arabi society.

Abu Nuwas (756 – 814)

At the Princeton Online Arabic Poetry project, you can hear this poem read aloud as the words scroll by. Editors liken this poem to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It? and note that this is more a love poem for wine than for women. I’m using the translation from the new Library of Arabic Literature volume, Classical Arabic Literature, selected and translated by Geert Jan Van Gelder

Don’t cry for Layla

Don’t cry for Layla, don’t rave about Hind!
But drink among roses a rose-red wine,
A draught that descends in the drinker’s throat,
bestowing its redness on eyes and cheeks.
The wine is a ruby, the glass is a pearl,
served by the hand of a slim-fingered girl,
Who serves you the wine from her hand, and wine
from her mouth — doubly drunk, for sure, will you be.
Thus I am drunk twice, my friends only once:
a favor special, for me alone!

Al-Ma`arri (973 – 1058)

This is perhaps an anti-Valentine’s Day poem, trans. Tarif Khalidi, who is apparently working on a collection (to which we should all look forward):

A rain cloud
A rain cloud:
The sea had given its caravans to drink.
Once quenched, it took wing to high ground, jubilant.
But the king of the winds rose up to it with his troops,
And scattered it, unwilling, unfulfilled.
I wept for that cloud, having missed its quest,
Though neither its longing nor its passion was mine.
So too the nights:
They’re never generous when a creature pleads,
Never faithful to their promise.”
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There are, of course, many classical Arabic poems on the theme of love. However, finding those that work tolerably well in translation — or even better, that have been given a poetic reading and translation —  is not easy.
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What about love stories?
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Ahdaf Soueif wrote in the Guardian in 2009 about her favorite Arabic love stories, which were:  (1) Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door; 2) Naguib Mahfouz’s The Cairo Trilogy; 3) Colette Khoury’s Days with Him; 4) Enayat el-Zayyat’s Love and Silence, and 5) Layla al-Juhani’s Jahiliyya
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As far as I know, only al-Zayyat’s The Open Door and Mahfouz’s Trilogy are available in translation.
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7 thoughts on “Classical Arabic Love Poems for Valentine’s Day

  1. Woah! That Ibn Hazm is beautifully translated but (like so much ‘Valentine’ poetry) really, really creepy. I guess they didn’t do restraining orders in the 11th century! Reminds me of Sting’s ‘every breath you take’, ie the ultimate stalker-song…

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    1. Haha, yes, I suppose much love poetry does ride that razor’s edge between beautiful and keep-him-away-from-me.

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      1. Yes, just been reading Rasheed El-Enany calling Wuthering Heights, that great celebration of violently destructive co-dependence, the romantic novel ‘par excellence’ (and comparing Season of Migration to the North to it…). There’s a Valentine’s Day question: which is a scarier boyfriend prospect, Heathcliff or Mustafa Sa’eed? I guess the latter has a higher headcount but it’s a close-run thing!

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  2. Or what do you think of this version, by Christopher Middleton and Leticia Garza-Falcon? I don’t believe they worked from Arabic, but amazing anyway:
    Is there no way I might
    Open my heart with a knife
    I could slip you in
    And close the cut again

    Till the end of time
    Till the resurrection
    You’d be inside
    No heart but mine

    In the webbing of my heart
    You’d live my lifetime
    In the tomb’s twilight
    You’d die when I did
    (Ibn Hazm, 994-1063)

    Thomas Frick’s reflections on it (“a fiery, violent, grandiose sort of valentine”) are here: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Andalusian+dreams.-a0134777631

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