Arabian Romantic: A ‘Linear Descendent’ of Early Arabic Classics

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 Najdand 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 a back-and-forth over email, Kurpershoek discussed why this sort of “romantic” poetry has disappeared from the landscape, why he calls it “romantic” at all, and how the survival of this type of poetry “hangs by a very thin, tenuous thread.”

The “romantic school” of Nabati poetry, you write, came about in a particular region (the High Najd) with particular geography, cultural practices, and a particular relationship between sedentary villagers and dynamic Bedouin. You write that they represent a turn away from puzzle poems and wordplay-for-the-sake-of-wordplay, and a turn toward oral traditions. Who were the romantic school’s predecessors?

Marcel Kurpershoek:We do not know about the immediate predecessors. A lot of research for the book went into establishing context: the intellectual milieu of Ibn Sbayyil, inspired by Charles Pellat’s great book: Le milieu basrien et la formation de Jahiz; and the roots of his work and genre in the tradition of classical Arabic poetry. I read and studied whatever I could find on classical Arabic ghazal poetry. I made index cards for all aspects and themes and motifs in Ibn Sbayyil’s work. And I compared the two. The result was amazing: virtually every image, turn of phrase, motif, and theme had an exact correspondent in early Arabic poetry, up from pre-Islamic to the beginnings of the Abbasid period. The classical inventory has been made in greatest detail by Professor Thomas Bauer, in the German tradition of great precision and thoroughness, in his book Liebe und Liebesdichtung(one cannot really study Arabic literature without knowing German). Looking especially at the seventh century’s most famous ghazal poet ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah. I mapped these correspondences as well as the differences. So we can say for certain now that the Najdi (Central Arabian) ghazal, and Nabati poetry as a whole, are linear descendants of the early classical tradition.

It is, however, much harder to trace this line of descent during the intervening centuries. The early poetry was registered and published by the Arab philologists of Basra, Kufa, and Baghdad in the eighth through 11th centuries or so. The earliest manuscripts with Nabati poetry that we have date from the 19th century. There must have been much older ones, but they were lost or haven’t been found yet. It is simply unthinkable that there is no direct link and that the two arose separately. How the continuity happened, we can only surmise: I’d say a combination of oral and written traditions and their interaction, as explained in Saad Sowayan’s Nabati Poetry.

I think this book, as the previous one, was as much or more about research as about translating, because it is still very much a virgin field, whereas most of LAL’s classical texts have been part of an Orientalist canon for centuries, which translators can draw on and refer to. And here we come to a hidden objective: to get Nabati poetry accepted as part of or an adjunct to the studies of classical literature, overcome the prejudice and technical hurdles. That was the purpose of the contextualization and is mostly found in the notes to the translation, which are in fact an independent study of this subject in their own right.

What do you see as the technical hurdles for getting Nabati poetry accepted as part of, or adjunct to, the studies of classical literature?

MK:Many reasons, in all Arab countries. But the problem is especially acute and intractable in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia Saad Sowayan—who is highly respected as a great scholar, and who has devoted his life to the study of the indigenous traditions—has fought this battle ad nauseam. In essence the opposing argument is that studying and appreciating Nabati poetry and storytelling (which is not exactly the same as “vernacular,” and in a sense it is even more classical than modern classical Arabic because it is replete with vocabulary, images, and phrasing that are more akin to the earliest Arabic, even pre-Islamic models) encourages elevating the vernacular to an officially recognized status, thereby undermining centuries of Islamic and pan-Arabic scholarship and the religion of Islam, based on the ultimate model of the best Arabic, the holy Qur’an. Secondly, once this Pandora’s box is opened, there is no stopping it: in a huge country like Saudi Arabia there are many regional vernaculars. At worst, it is seen as a conspiracy to undermine the religion of Islam and the cultural unity of the Arab world.

In actuality, of course, there is no contradiction between teaching and studying classical Arabic and studying and appreciating what exists as a matter of fact, practiced by millions, such as Nabati poetry, which hasfestivals devoted to it, like Million’s Poet (admittedly in the Emirates, but with majority participation from Saudi). In Saudi Arabia, this subject is turbo charged because the country is the guardian of the holy places Mecca and Medina, because its political legitimacy is built on a very strict and fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and of course because it encompasses the birthplaces of the Arabic language itself.

The glaring paradox is that there is no country with such a vibrant vernacular literary tradition (Nabati) as Saudi Arabia, probably because of its long isolation and because of the tribal, regional, and familial identities that have been enshrined in Nabati poetry and attendant narratives and have been nurtured over centuries in oral transmission. Saudi princes were enthusiastic about my Al Arabiya television series on Nabati poetry that included an episode about Hmedan al-Shwe’ir, who wrote Arabian Satire,and I was filmed talking to the head of the library of the holy mosque in Mecca, who happened to be one of Hmedan’s offspring and who was very proud of his ancestor, and so on.

What was the genre divide in the Najd between a poet and a storyteller?

MK:In the Najd, or Cental Arabia, there is no profession of story-teller, or ḥakawati, as in Syria or as there used to be in Egypt. In each group of people, you find people who know poems and stories. Some are very good at it and like it a lot, and on social occasions they entertain company. Of course, poets always know poems or verse by other poets and recite them. Poems are usually associated with an occasion that is explained in a story, and these stories start to lead a life of their own down the chain of transmission.

After a while, the story is what people believe to be the occasion or the explanation of a verse. The poem itself changes, though probably less than the story because of its form (rhyme, meter). At least, people believe that a poem is the original “truth” or cannot be changed, because people know it and would detect attempts at “falsification.” Compared to Syria and Egypt, therefore, the Najdi tradition is one of an interactive, strongly participatory oral culture. I think it is connected to tribalism, because each member of a tribe feels responsible for the “correct” version of its history.

You suggest this style of poetry has now run its course. In the Nabati poetry being written now, do we see echoes of this “Romantic School,” or are the concerns and context are too different?

MK:I deliberately made the point of tracing Ibn Sbayyil back to ‘Umar ibn Abi Rabi’ah in the seventh century and forward to al-Dindan, the poet I have known personally, as I recorded and edited and translated his oral diwan. He died in 2004 (he was paralyzed and his tent burned down). The imagery and language depends on the natural desert environment. By then people who knew it, who rode camels instead of cars, had gone. And so did the poetry, naturally. Even the oral capacity of ability to memorize has gone. I noticed that poets in the most recent Million’s Poetcompetition were allowed to read their poems from an iPad, unlike a few years before—the horror!

When I think of “romantic” poetry, I often think of poets like Nizar Qabbani, where poetry acts to woo a lover (or to woo the reader, anyhow). But this is not that. What was its social and literary function? What did it do for the men who listened to it (sung, read)? At one point, you referred to Mutawwa Nifi’s poetry in particular as “a social game that explores the boundaries of the acceptable.”

MK: I like Qabbani a lot and a verse by him was the title of one of my books in Dutch and my inaugural lecture as a professor in Leiden: Who tolls the bell of death for the Arabs (a bit English Dutch, probably). But he is a poet in the Western tradition of Arabic poetry. Therefore, the western concept of “romantic” applies to him. He composed poetry in the western way: as a literate man, pen and paper in hand, so to speak. He is not part of a tribal oral tradition. He certainly would have trouble understanding and appreciating this kind of poetry. Also because he takes the literate classical view without bothering about its oral roots. For your precise question, I ventured an answer in one of the notes (also to do with al-Mijmaj I believe), i.e. it was seen as a suitable, politically neutral pastime, amusing as a game with many variations, that oiled the machine of social gatherings with acquaintances and strangers in the circle.

Can you talk about why you translated madrasah wijdāniyyahas “Romantic School” (vs. for instance sentimental, nostalgic, passionate, wistful)? You talk, in the introduction, about why sentimental would be wrong, with its association of feelings as a guide to truth, and in the modern sense, trite. But why did you settle on romantic when, as you say, the Anglophone idea of “romantic” is distant from this poetry?

MK:I include Goethe’s Werther in the category of “sentimental,” and by romantic I mean the traditional British view of the Bedouin, a more robust romanticism. There are many reasons for the British enchantment with the Bedouin. But what matters here is that I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of Ibn Sbayyil’s view of the Bedouin to the traditional British one. In my book, I try to explain why Ibn Sbayyil takes this view. But as I argue in a forthcoming article on the influential early 19thcentury Arabian traveler and scholar J.L. Burckhardt, this British view itself seems to have antecedents in much earlier Arab views of the Arabian desert culture, e.g. in 15th century Egyptian scholar al-Suyūṭī’s work.

You have described the best of the Romantic School love ghazals here and elsewhere as “delicate.” Can you talk about what you mean by that? To me, their appeal is that they are vivid and muscular in painting a portrait of an internal and external landscape, particularly the extended camel and bird-of-prey metaphors.

MK:They are delicate in comparison with macho Bedouin poetry. In a footnote of Brill volume 2 [Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia, Volume 2 Story of a Desert Knight], on the poetry of a desert knight, Shlewih al-‘Atawi, I mention that the transmitter and Shlewih’s great-grandson Khalid considered Ibn Sbayyil a kharrāṭ, a man who chatters and gossips like an old woman, and ghazal as an unmanly occupation, rather shameful. I had trouble persuading him to recite some poetry by poetesses of his tribe (which he did in the end).

So “delicate” means: he makes an effort, in a poetic sense, to put himself into the shoes of the beloved, and makes her argue her point of view.

And yet does he really put himself in her shoes? A few scholars have lately started reading classical Arabic love poetry with something like a #metoo lens. While he suggests he doesn’t force himself on women, he cannot seem to imagine a woman might just not be into him, and if she is, she should probably get stones kicked in her face. What can we guess about women’s lives from the poetry?

MK:All this is part of convention, the censurer, the slanderer. Not necessarily any relation to his real life. He may have been a hundred percent faithful and solid and stolid husband. Most likely, actually. It is poetry and fantasy, I think. It is not meant to inform you about women’s life at the time. Also, he obviously refers to daughters of powerful chiefs, high class privileged women. He is far from that social level, but allowed the surrogate of dreaming about them. In the end, therefore, it may, or may not, tell you something about some of the workings of his mind and that of his audience.

Would his daughter Sarah have been one of a few women who knew Ibn Sbayyil’s work? I suppose there is no way for us to know how many women were listening behind doors, memorizing the works.

MK:And behind the tent wall separating men and women’s compartments. There would always be holes in it, and there are many stories how women would intervene in the discussions of Bedouin men, which was less easy and common in settled communities (see Hmedan al-Shwe’ir’s view of it). I was only told about Sarah, not about other women from his household.

An 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.

You suggest that Ibn Sbayyil is the most prominent representative of the High Najd’s Romantic School, and at times he was credited for other poets’ work. What distinguishes his poetry from that of the other “champions”? If someone were to show you a poem, how would you begin to guess whether it was Ibn Sbayyil’s or someone else’s of the time? Are there particular characteristics that a close reader would look for in trying to separate them? If they were trying to guess if a poem was a “genuine Ibn Sbayyil”?

MK: Poem 7 was never included in any edition; I found it in a manuscript. Perhaps it was excluded because it is sexually more explicit. Still, I’d recognize it as Ibn Sbayyil’s, I’d like to believe. To explain why you’d need another essay.

 Some of the extended similes are really wonderful, particularly those with animals. Many of the ways of characterizing women’s forms feel worn, and make the women appear the same in poem after poem. Are the longer metaphors his individual stamp? Such as at 2.20, where the camel is running with the bucket, or, “In the kitchen, cooks jostle about like thirsty camels pressed around a waterhole.” And, in a different way, the vividness of the gossips’ throats being eaten out by syphilis and scrofula.

MK:Some of it is actually quite original, such as the comparison of her gait with the slow steps taken by the imam when he measures the shade in order to determine the time for the afternoon prayer. And I am sure there is much more.

 Hmedan talks about wives and family, but Ibn Sbayyil does not—except I believe he talks about fellow poet Mutawwa Nifi’s wives, Tarfah and Nurah. Is this true of the Romantic School in general that wives don’t feature?

MK:Well, this shows you how much individuality there can be in the work of Nabati poets who partake of the oral tradition and junks the view that it is just reshuffling the Lego pieces of convention. Hmedan is of course unique in this sense: he depicts himself as part of Peyton place theatre in 18th century poetry. Ibn Sbayyil’s way in this respect is more conventional. The Bedouin romantically enchanted him whereas Hmedan was utterly hostile to the Bedouin: perhaps in his time they were more likely to fall victim to their rapacious ways.

So you talk about him corresponding with Nifi and others, and yet—while Ibn Sbayyil was literate—this was primarily an oral culture. If they weren’t keeping in touch through the written word, how did it function? A traveler memorized the poetic correspondence, and then recited it to the recipient upon arrival?

MK: Exactly. The correspondence is not written but memorized and recited (or recited in his presence and then memorized). If there is a literate person who happens to be present, he may wish to write it down, as the interactions between oral and literate culture are endless.

Alois Musil recorded the poem around 1910; it was recited to him. I try to explain why his version, the oldest we know of, seems less accurate than what we find later in manuscripts. Musil was far north from Nifi and Central Najd, and it may have been mangled in transmission. Whereas those close to Ibn Sbayyil and his family presumably kept more correct versions.

When you translated, did you try to reflect meter, and the differences between the styles of the different poems? When translating, what aspects of how it functioned in the original — what it did for the reader — did you most want to capture?

MK: Not consciously, but unconsciously perhaps yes. I dress in the Arabic as a gown, smell it, feel it, and then look for words to reflect that.

 Is this your philosophy of translation, as it were? To immerse yourself as deeply as possible in the original and then grope for the ways in which to re-craft that?

MK: In crucial issues as these I just follow my instincts: reflecting upon it is dangerous and might kill the vital spontaneity. Better not to think about how you breathe or how you digest your food. Cherish your irrational functions.

Were there particular translational challenges this collection brought different from Hmedan’s work, or other poetry you have translated?

MK:I had to steep myself into the language of ghazal, not only the vocabulary but also the allusions and associations that are part of it for those who are in the know about the tradition – a bit like one must know the mystical concepts when you translate Sufi poetry. Without that background, one can go awfully wrong.

Could you give an example of how one might go wrong? Is it also necessary to study English-language poetic traditions (for instance how ghazals have been written in English?), when translating into the English, in order to re-create the poetry more fully in English?

MK:I confined myself to Arabic ghazal, including of course a lot of English translation of it. The ghazal in this book is a game of hide and seek. As I argue, you can never exactly tell when Ibn Sbayyil and his neighbor, al-Muṭawwaʿ are quite serious or speak tongue-in-cheek. You could argue that this in itself is a protection mechanism since if the audience took everything literally and dead serious they would be ostracized. But as I mention in the note on the evening session with a departing tribe and Mijmāj’s poem it seems that this kind of ghazal was accepted as a pleasant social pastime. In it are hints at other realities, like tribal relations, but in this kind of ghazal these hints can be included in a soft way, without risky sting. And the subject of love and passion is always of interest to people no matter where. In Arab tribal society, it is especially relevant because of the customary first cousin marriage: I give the example of the poets al-Mijmāj and al-ʿWēwīd, where the second won the bride of his choice because of closer family relation: the father instead of the mother. This poetry was a kind of safety valve enabling disappointed lovers to vent their feelings in an acceptable way. All speculation, of course.

Examples: I mention Jacobi’s lack of understanding of a metaphor in a pre-Islamic poem and I remember in 6.13, “I beg for tenderness, and she chooses to drive me mad,” but you’d have to refer to the Arabic: literally it is: he (she) made my run-away camel run away, while at first I thought it meant “I beg for tenderness and the return of my run-away camel.” The poet assumes that everyone knows that the “run-away” (even the word for camel is implicit) refers to the poet’s heart that went missing (in search of the beloved). Of course, a Bedouin whose camel went missing would go in search of it and ask other Bedouin if they had seen a camel so and so and with that brand and so on. It is all about allusion, metaphor, and simile. The very notion of ṭard al-hawā, “hunting after passion” has to be understood in the classical context of amorous passion as a chivalrous game, like the courtly love of the troubadours.

If someone were to leap off from this study, what areas do you think would be most interesting to examine?

MK:I think a more comprehensive study of the Romantic School would be a nice subject. But any such research is hard because it necessarily involves fieldwork and fluency in the tradition and language, not to speak about obtaining the necessary permits. Probably studies like mine (and Saad’s) will remain scholarly orphans.

Who do you imagine reading this translation, and the research in your notes? Who do you think this volume will be most of interest to? Who did you most want to reach with it?

MK:The community of scholarly Arabists. People like me, essentially. Ideally, it should be possible to read it at two levels. The other being people with a broader literary and cultural interest, for instance in the subject of ghazal and love poetry. There is a lot of social and anthropological context as well that might be of interest for students in those fields. The most important thing is that now this body of work has been edited and translated and commented upon according to the state of the art, and that it will be preserved for future generations. With this work that is not a forgone conclusion, because the community of specialists is exceedingly small and there are no institutions dedicated to perpetuation of these studies. Its survival hangs by a very thin, tenuous thread while its importance and uniqueness should make it a high priority.

This Q&A also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature website.


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