Don’t you tell me what I can and cannot do:
By Kevin Blankinship
Thanks to all who took part in last week’s inaugural PHASE 2 challenge. Your contribution is what makes it fun! Just as a reminder, the challenge goes up every Tuesday, and then you have until that Friday at noon to send your translations via the comments section below, Facebook or Twitter (@AmericanMaghreb, ideally using #ArabicTranslationChallenge), or email at firstname.lastname@example.org — submit wherever you like, but please do submit! Then we’ll do a highlights roundup on Saturday to showcase your talents. Please bear in mind that it’s not a contest, but a chance to celebrate each other’s work in as broadminded a way as possible. The more, the merrier!
Now on to this week’s challenge. Continuing the theme of “Crime” broadly defined, this time we have one of the most celebrated gems in all of Arabic literature: the opening and penultimate lines of a qasidah khamriyyah by Abu Nuwas, “Who Has Dangling Locks” (d. 813/15 CE), world class philanderer, mocker of religion, free spirit, and above all the baron of classical Arabic bacchism:
…دَعْ عَنْكَ لَوْمي فَإِنَّ اللَّوْمَ إغْراءُ وَداوِني بِالَّتِي كَــــــانَتْ هِــــــــيَ الــدَّاءُ
فَقُلْ لِمَنْ يَدَّعِي في العِلْمِ فَلْسَفَة ً حَفِظْتَ شَيئًا وغابَتْ عَنْكَ أَشْيَاءُ
Often bowdlerized, the poem that these lines come from pits a radiant wine against the Mu`tazilite theologian Ibrahim al-Nazzam — one of Mu‘tazilism’s tenets is that God does not forgive grave sins (kaba’ir), only “small” misdemeanors (sagha’ir). If this is what you believe, says Abu Nuwas to the would-be philosopher, “You have learned some things, but much more escapes you!” More than that, he concludes, taking away my pleasure — i.e. stopping me from drinking wine — is itself a crime, since it also robs me of God’s forgiveness! Philip Kennedy translates thusly from his Oneworld book on Abu Nuwas:
[Do not scold me, for it tempts me all the more
Cure me rather with the cause of my ill…
Tell him who would claim philosophy as part of his knowledge:
You have learned some things,
but much more escapes you!]
Alex Rowell also published a version of these lines in Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas:
“Cease your reproach, for reproach is but temptation
And cure me with the very cause of my debilitation …
As for the would-be philosopher, say:
‘Knowing one thing doesn’t make an education'”
And Mansour Ajami renders just the first line in his recent, topically arranged bilingual anthology, Pouring Water on Time:
[Blame me not
for blame is temptation
But rather cure me
with what was
Of course, here the poet is talking specifically about wine, but let’s broaden our imaginations a bit. What are some favorite “guilty” pleasures that merit a defense against the scolds? What is something that, the more we’re told not to do it, the more we want to? Of what could we cheerfully say, “Better to ask forgiveness than permission”? Very excited to see how you interpret Abu Nuwas’s revelry in the good things of life!
Kevin Blankinship is a scholar, poet, critic, and translator. As assistant professor at Brigham Young University, he teaches Arabic language and literature, Islam, and the Qur’an.