On Ibn al-Hajjaj, Whose Poems Schoolboys Were Beaten for Memorizing

If there were two disappointments I had while reading the opening chapter of Sinan Antoon’s The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic PoetryIbn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf: Genealogies,” they were: 1) that the full book is listed at more than $70, and 2) that there wasn’t a companion historical novel that gives full imaginative license to a re-crafting of Ibn al-Hajjaj and his contemporaries:

51Tef7thPVL._SY300_As an opening chapter, “Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhf: Genealogies,” is a delight. Ibn Hajjaj (941 – 1001 CE) was, as Antoon notes, the great al-Mutanabbi’s (915 – 965 CE) “contemporary, erstwhile enemy and ultimate ‘other[.]'”

While al-Mutanabbi’s poetry has remained a part of the Arabic canon, al-Hajjaj’s has fallen off in recent times, something Antoon calls “one of the most serious cases of cultural amnesia and academic neglect.”

It’s not hard to see why Ibn al-Hajjaj and his signature sukhf were disappeared from the canon. A manual composed three century after al-Hajjaj’s death “instructs teachers to prohibit boys from reading or memorizing any of Ibn al-Hajjaj’s poems…and to be beaten if they are found doing so.”

As Antoon further notes, this both underlines al-Hajjaj’s threat to conservative schoolteacher morality as well as his lasting popularity and fame.

Antoon goes to some lengths to discuss what is and isn’t sukhf (as a poetic mode), and where it overlaps mujun and hazl. The art of sukhf is variously understood as “gross language and comportment upsetting to the squeamish,” “foolishness, obscene or nonsensical” and an “incessant breaching and violation of boundaries of all sorts.”

From al-Hajjaj, trans. Antoon:

Had I wanted to write serious poetry
It would not be difficult for me

But then I would merely be like
all those who write poetry in our age

Were it not for me, sukhf would never
have been written down or read

And to him who faults me for my sukhf I say:
You most foolish of all people!

Generally, Antoon writes, modern critics — Arab and non-Arab — have also been fools in failing to render al-Hajjaj his poetic due. Antoon quotes Abdelfattah Kilito as saying that “If Ibn al-Hajjaj is forgotten, it is because his poems do not reproduce that image of Arab culture desired today. No textbook, on the other hand, can afford to ignore the likes of Abu Firas [al-Hamdani] and al-Mutanabbi, who glorify war and represent a reverent image of the past.”

In any case, don’t you forget: the first chapter, Ibn al-Hajjaj and Sukhfis available online with many wonderful translated poems and poem-fragments that contemporary schoolchildren would surely get suspended for repeating.


  1. Infuriating, isn’t it? I’ve just reviewed a great book by Anna Bernard on Palestinian and Israeli literature – eighty quid from Liverpool UP. And there’s one on the histories written by an eighteenth-century barber from Damascus that I’d love to get my hands on, but again it’s $70 or so from Stanford UP. There’s no excuse for it nowadays – the line always used to be that libraries wanted HBs – but with library budgets being squeezed left, right and centre there seem to be plenty of PBs popping up where librarians have realised that maybe it’s better to buy 3 volumes in ppbk than one in hbk. Don’t university presses and other academic publishers realise that there is a general market – a small one, granted – for their publications? Or, more likely, don’t they care? There really is no excuse either – if Pluto can do ppbk as standard for all publications so can a big player like Palgrave. And it’s even more bloody outrageous to find Stanford charging $60 for the ebook – ie the same as the Hdbk. It would be nice to see academics boycotting publishers that pull this kind of stunt, but everyone is so desperate to get published for career reasons that they wouldn’t say boo to a goose.

  2. Go Sarah Irving. I just had a friend borrow a book of Abu Nuwas’s Khamriyyat for me. A SLIM volume, good translations, no reference to originals besides an academic serial number, no Arabic text, a short introduction, published by Kegan Paul, and it’s a staggering $175, new on amazon. And $300 used!

    1. * borrow a book of the Khamriyyat from a university library. I hit send too fast!

      1. Yes, Sinan noted when I originally complained that $70 is not anywhere near the most expensive among academic books. Still, $70!

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