‘Their Beauty is Absolute’

ArabLit hosted its third edition of the Arabic Translation Challenge starting May 26, 2020:

By Rachel Schine

In the words of the eternally iconic Coco Chanel, we “think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute.” Authors throughout history have played with the cosmic dichotomy of black and white in various ways—some, like ours, to capture nature’s multidimensional beauty. Others, more disturbingly, to pit the one against the other in a polarity that the towering scholar Frantz Fanon calls “Manichaean” for its moral simplicity—it is a dangerous thing to view the world and its people as a conflicting play of light and darkness. Both of our lines instead toyed admiringly with the elements of this dyad—with blazing haunches complementing black faces, or with light and dark grapes marrying on a vine and, later, in the goblets of an offstage symposium. But how to capture this color palette in a novel way—one that does justice to the unique vocabulary used?

For some of our submitters, this raised more questions than answers. One person preserved these ambiguities in the translation. Matthew Keegan went on a hunt for the Imru’ ul-Qays line’s true author and turned up many riwāyāt (versions) that he brought together:

Imru’ al-Qays said… no, Ibrahim ibn Imran said… (Didn’t Salama ibn Jandal say that?) No, no, no… it was Imran ibn Ibrahim who said…

The eye gazing (no, sparking — or maybe hollow)
The hand-hoof floating (no, the leg thrusting)
The ears inclining as if to listen (no, the leg goes here, and it’s racing)
The face (no, the color, no the back) jet-black (no, sleek)

Some, in order to convey the luscious blackness of ghirbīb, went the gustatory route.

A submission from Jāhil:

1 Eyes that encompass the horizon.

Graceful palms without blemish.

Her legs touch not the lowly earth.

Midnight skin radiant like sweet liquorice.

2 Amazing are God’s touches.

The earth in a verdant jacket,

adorned with white and black beads

yearning for the eager palate.

And one from Joe Bradford:

‘Abdallāh al-Ghāmidī’:

Amazing vines from God’s trellis

Sweet, Cotton-candy & black licorice

Imru’ ul-Qays:

piercing eyes with hoof in flow

legs a’ striking, face black of coal

Several folks used the now rare construction of a’ + present participle to convey the movement and action of Imru’ ul-Qays’ verse. From Mariam Aboelezz:

Eyes ravenous and fronts a-waving

Hinds raven black, the earth a-shaving

Such God fashions all hues to impress

The light and the dark of vines to press

Mariam’s submission also answers an ancillary question of how to merge these lines which, though they occur together in several exegetical texts due to a shared lexicon, are of different meters and by different authors. Alexander Key answered this in yet another way, establishing continuity through psalm- or ode-like titling and a ringed structure in which one line ends with an evocation of grapes, where the next begins, all culminating in a unifying reference to “delicate black:”

To a Horse

Eyes up

hands glide

legs burn

face – black grape.

To the Glory of God’s Creation

Vines crawl low across the earth

Juice crushed out from plump white grapes and

delicate black.

Theresa Reaper, meanwhile, bracketed the two lines off from each other with quotations, as if to put them in dialogue. She also beautifully renders the color terms in al-Ghāmidī’s line as evoking not hue but depth of flavor:

“Eyes distant,

Hoof reached,

Leg arced,

Face darkened.”

“Among wonders

God created,

a wild vine,

and press from them,

the light and

the rich”

Others played with black and white beyond the realm of taste, playing with other aspects of the material world. By Bint Abī Mansūr:

by Imru’ al-Qays:

Eyes a’ turning,

Hoofs ascending,

Feet abrading,

Face a’ storming!


by ‘Abdullāh al-Ghāmidī:

O the wonders of God’s


He wrote in vines of chalk

and ink to repose in!

And a second version of the latter by her:


To God’s marvels we give our due –

Pressed grapes, rich beige and black in hue,

Inducing Eden-déjà vu!

Others still gave us stone and mineral metaphors, one of which pushed the very limits of where the borderline lies between melanin-brown-black and dark, cobalty blue. From Hamid Ouyachi:

Eyes, horizon hungry,

forelegs folding the air

Her hooves, flinting;

Face, bitumen blue

A wonder!

From God’s hand,

this draping vine;

Into the vintner’s:

both, grapes melanated, and fair.

User Taras Press brought to mind similarities between Imru’ ul-Qays’ steed and that other rockstar of floating and stinging, Muhammad Ali, proving that all that is old is new again with his pithy and eloquent submission:

eyes squinting

feet floating

legs burning

face soot.

Ash, soot, and now some charring, brought to you by Matthew Chovanec:

an eye scanning / a hoof plunging / a leg searing / a face charred

And, last but not least (and apologies to anyone who didn’t make it in—please do submit again! Though space is constrained, our appreciation for you is not!), Eva Kahan left us with an array of words with which to signal darkness, as well as parting food for thought:

Her gaze is distant – though she’s near
her foot in water’d be amphibian
her limbs, if striking flint, would sear
her face is craft of deep obsidian.

’Tis God’s good vines
our world entwines
o’erlapping sunned &
ashen lines
[yet all be wines.]

In the latter, last line is optional – I was more excited to use a wine-descriptor (velvety? smoky? full-bodied? I tried a few) in the ghrabiiib replacement. Lastly, I was wondering if anyone has theories on/ submitted thoughts about غربيب etymology? I’m really interested in weird/etymologically unique Quranic usage, and also captivated by the potential layman’s theories  – is it really Western/Weird (غربّ – غربيب؟) or somehow related to غيهب/غياهب ?

To which I simply say, Prof. van Putten, we await your results:


Rachel Schine is a scholar of pre-modern Arabic literature and a postdoctoral associate at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research interests include storytelling practices, kinship structures, gender/sexuality, and race/racialization in pre-modern works of poetry and prose. Her dissertation, “On Blackness in Arabic Popular Literature: The Black Heroes of the Siyar Sha‘biyya, their Conception, Contests, and Contexts,” examines the literary, socio-historical, and ethical functions of black heroes in the popular sīrahs, a body of medieval chivalric literature that features a diverse range of protagonists.