Coaxing the Lizard Out of His Burrow: Marcel Kurpershoek on Hmedan al-Shwe’ir and Najdi Poetry Before Wahhabism

Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and soon was drawn to the diwan of Hmedan, “maybe the No. 1 poet” in the Nabati tradition. Kurpershoek, currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a specialist in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia and has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994-2005).

In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and M. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. In this second part of their discussion, Kurpershoek talks about the available manuscripts, the ways in which the print editions of Hmedan’s work were censored, the Golden Age of Nabati poetry, and more.

In the introduction to Arabian Satire, you note that you used 10 manuscripts. Does that represent what is currently available? Do we have any idea of how might have been purposefully destroyed by the Ikhwan of the Wahhabi movement?

MK: As far as I know, ten is what’s currently available. If I had known about more, I would also have used them.

There could be more. A lot of these kinds of manuscripts are held in private collection, even by princes of the Saud dynasty, but you don’t know if they’re there. They’re not publicly accessible.

On the other hand, some of these manuscripts are accessible on the internet. You have the website, for instance, of Saad Sowayan: www.saadsowayan.com.

Are there stories behind any of these manuscripts?

MK: The oldest manuscript—I discovered it.

Where did you find it?

MK: It was in France, in Strasbourg. One of the Arabian travelers, he brought it from a trip to Arabia in 1880.

It created a sensation in Saudi Arabia when they found out about it, so I got a copy from France for Leiden University in Holland, and they allowed me to take a microfilm copy to Saad Sowayan.

I also gave a copy to the owner of the bookstore, Qays Library, a learned man, Muhammad Hamdan, who helped me a lot with getting the books and copies I needed, and who also published a diwan of Hmedan’s poetry. In the introduction, he mentions how he got a copy of the French manuscript from me and used it. It is called the Huber manuscript, after the French traveler Charles Huber who bought in in the 1880’s. Huber was murdered in the desert by his guide, and people still mention it with shame. Hamdan was from a town that bordered the one Hmedan insulted, and he did not like that and said the poem was not authentic. But he took me to Hmedan’s town and the town of his asylum. He didn’t blame Hmedan for the poem, but instead the people who smuggled in these nasty verses – it always goes like that.

Among the printed copies, you note in your introduction, some of the sections of Hmedan’s poetry have been redacted. Yet this is not true of the manuscripts. Was it something about the shift to print, rather than a shift in time, that made compilers and editors remove parts of Hmedan’s work and replace them with ellipses?

MK: That shows you how current these poems are. If you publish something in America which is 300 years old, people wouldn’t care. But here they care, because all these towns are still there, and with many of the same families.

In the published edition, there are many ellipses in the poem which is, in the LAL book, on page 47.

This is when he returned from Iraq, and he talks about all these towns. Most of the families he mentions in the poem are still there, because these are old families, and you have this tremendous continuity. So even if you were to publish this poem today—which says that half of the people in this town are sissies, and the others of them are pansies—they would feel terribly insulted. Even though everyone knows that these words are in the manuscripts, and everyone knows these verses.

If you publish it, it’s different. It’s like it’s being said about them with the permission of the government. Because nothing is published there without the permission of the government. So, if it’s published, it kind of means that the government agrees this is true.

What about the poem that’s No. 19 in your collection, that begins: “Our plowmen labored in the fields / while he was distracted by little Sarah”? The one that describes sex between his son and daughter-in-law?

MK: The sexual scenes are considered less sensitive than what they say about families and tribes and towns, because he’s basically just talking about himself and his family.

The sexual as such is not as sensitive. There, it’s more what it means for people’s honor and status in society. If someone likes to make a fool of himself, they don’t care.

There are some ellipses in that poem, but much less than in the poem about the characterization of various towns and families.

I’d like to talk about his wide, varied, and vivid focus on anthropomorphized animal lives. Was it common to Najdi poetry or was it something of Hmedan’s own innovation? What does it tell us about the people and animals of the time?

MK: These poems are all emblematic, and they symbolize certain traits in men. Animals are taken as images of men, and we have a range from despicable birds that peck in the gutter to falcons. Or from a cow, which was a despised animal, to a camel, a symbol of all the important things in life.

What I like best is the poem about the spiny-tailed lizard, called a dabb. He tells it as an animal parable, because this is an animal that’s admired for its toughness. It’s very hard to kill it. Even if you put it in a cooking pot, it keeps on swimming in the boiling water. It’s very hard to stop its heart beating. And it lives in a burrow, which is a metaphor for the Najdi towns, where people can ensconce themselves against the enemy.

This poem-parable was about how to coax the dabb out of his burrow. As long as he’s in the burrow, you can’t get him. And it’s done by telling him: There is so much to eat, in this case swarms of locusts on the ground, as that’s what the dabb considers a delicacy.

This is all a moral tale. It points to how people are defeated by their greed.

So animals are used as a moral tale. But the poems also tell you something, nevertheless, about the animals, and how they are seen, and their lives. They play quite a role there.

In the history of Nabati poetry, from thirteenth c. to now, what sort of period did Hmedan compose in? Was it a golden age of Nabati poetry? Did Nabati have a “golden age”?

MK: We can speak about classical Nabati poetry, because I’m not talking about what you have today, the Millions Poets competition.

My research into this poetry still includes the first age of cars and airplanes. In the classical tradition, they would just replace the camel rider and messenger with someone driving a car or in an airplane. But there must be still something of the desert environment in it. My research stops somewhere around the year 2000 or so.

If you look at that period, I would say the time of Hmedan was part of a Golden Age. But when the Wahhabi movement started, it became less so, because they were against this kind of secular poetry, and against smoking, and against singing.

At first, the Wahhabis were not that strong, and then they were destroyed by the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali. Then they continued, but much weaker. They only came back in 1902, when the father of the present king re-conquered Riyadh, and then he started to rebuild the Saudi-Wahhabi state.

At that time, you had the Ikhwan, and I heard so many stories of families whose manuscripts they burned, or the families burned the manuscripts themselves because in many families at least some joined the movement. I even met people who had seen it. At the time I was there, thirty years ago, I met people who were 90 years old, and they had seen it happen.

That was a clear sign that the tradition was in danger, and had to go underground. The man I’m translating now, Ibn Sbayyil, he died in 1933. I think the last decades of his life, he practically did not compose any poetry. At least none we know of.

I think all of the nineteenth century, but especially the time of the Ibn Rashid court in Ha’il, was a lively time for poetry. Ibn Rashid was very much like the kings of old, who surrounded themselves with these poets for a purpose. You can see from the travelers’ accounts that Ibn Rashid was Wahhabi in theory, and to some extent in practice, but he definitely used tribes and poets as part of his politics and image-building.

So the 19th century is really the Golden Age for me.

What were some of the main translation challenges as you brought Hmedan’s diwan into English? Did you consider, at any point, end rhyme?

MK: My English is not good enough for that, I think, and I never considered doing rhyme. Also, I’m afraid I would’ve had to sacrifice too much of the content and precision. A lot of these things are not well-known in our culture, so you need a few more words to explain what it’s about.

In Nabati poetry, rhyme is an intrinsic feature, but I don’t think that means we have to emulate that. I think the idea is more to find ways to get the man and his poetry across.

Were there particular difficulties or challenges in translating these 34 poems?

MK: There are always obscurities in this old poetry. You do the reading you can, and still things remain obscure. So then you ask people who still live in the environment for information. Then you narrow it down to a few issues. After all this, a few points have remained obscure.

In the longer poems, and the more political poems, most of the problems arise through the process of transmission. At some point, these poems were written down, but we don’t know when. The manuscripts we have were copied from earlier manuscripts. Maybe with some oral input, we don’t know.

But we don’t know anything about the transmission process—up to the time when we got the first manuscript.

And if they are long and complicated poems about events that are obscure even 100 years later, then things can get mixed up. Poems with the same meter and rhyme can be easily confused. Parts of one poem migrate to another poem. Another thing is the order of verses, especially in the case of long poems.

I had to compare the 10 manuscripts. And then you just have to make your choices.

For instance, there is one poem that mentions two people who could not have possibly lived in the same time. He couldn’t have possibly meant Abdallah in this poem. There is one manuscript that gives the name Muhammad. I chose this manuscript, because that made more sense in the chronology. If nine manuscripts have it one way, that doesn’t mean the tenth is wrong. You have to compare it to the chronicles.

Abdallah might have been added because he was more well-known than Muhammad.

This also happened to poets. If one poet is more famous than the others, sometimes poems from the less-famous poet are ascribed to a more-famous poet. We can never forget that the classical poetry we have now is the same, and it originated in the same way. Some of these poems were written down for the first time 200 years after they were composed.

These are the sorts of things we can learn by working on more recent poems.

My favorite character is Sarah, who he also calls Sweera. She takes on such a key part in this diwan. Are there other such vivid female characters in Nabati poetry?

MK: I don’t know if you could call her a character, it’s more of a caricature. Through this diwan, he gives all kinds of messages about how to behave. I call his diwan a survival manual. Because he says, about Sarah or Sweera, that the way she behaves doesn’t contribute to the life of the community. She’s a drag on others, she’s egoistical, she’s not baking bread at night. She’s a luxury doll.

His poetry represents something we can hardly imagine now with Saudi’s oil wells and billions, and that’s a very austere, a very frugal society. Early Wahhabism doesn’t come from there for nothing. At any moment, you can have a drought that kills eighty percent of the population.

It’s very poor. And the life is very hard. So they have this kind of tough, sarcastic, no-nonsense mentality, where they’re suspicious of other people’s motives, and there’s constant war. It was a Hobbesian environment, and he tells people how to survive in that environment.

And yet it’s not black or white—it reflects life in a way people still recognize today.

This interview also appears at the Library of Arabic Literature website.

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Categories: Library of Arabic Literature, Saudi

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