Poetry in Translation: The 13th Century ‘My Religion—My Wine’

By Nasir, the Hebrew & Arabic Litterateur

Edited and translated by Alan Elbaum

Translator’s note:

The author of the text translated here — one of the two poems by Nasir that appeared in the FOLK issue of ArabLit Quarterly — is a Jewish poet and popular entertainer named Nasir, who enjoyed local acclaim in Mamluk-era Cairo around the year 1300 CE. After his death, he was forgotten. Many of his papers, fortunately, wound up in the trove known as the Cairo Geniza, the heap of ~400,000 scraps of medieval trash preserved in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo). Last year, I began noticing manuscripts in his distinctive handwriting, and I’ve now assembled approximately 40 fragments containing his previously unknown poetry and rhymed prose. About two-thirds of the material is written in Judaeo-Arabic (i.e., Arabic language in Hebrew script), and the other third is in Hebrew.

Nasir composed solemn dirges and festive songs, liturgical poetry, erotic odes, lampoons of stingy hosts and tactless guests, retellings of biblical tales, a jingle about basketmakers and fava-bean vendors (“if you pop these beans in your mouth, you’ll be perfumed with fragrance and freshness”), and a great deal of love and wine poetry. 

“My Wine—My Religion,” is Nasir’s take on the folk genre of the debate poem. The narrator, an evangelist for wine and an enemy of hashish, offers one of the only known depictions of the pothead (al-mastul) in medieval Arabic or Jewish poetry. It is found in a pocket notebook of 14 pages, currently located at the National Library of Austria (PER H 134). The text contains numerous lacunae and uncertain readings.

My Religion—My Wine

1

Hashish has a way of scrambling the brain.

You aim for Qalyub, and you land in Banha.

2

That dude over there, stoned out of his mind,

He’s like a ghoul, eating all in his path.

3

Hearken and heed me, consider and judge. 

Eating hashish will wreck you—try it and see. 

4

As a man of taste, I never eat hashish.

I swear to God, I don’t touch the stuff.

5

It’s wine that I love, so, friend, pour me some bubbly.

How delicious, how sweet! Let us never be parted.

6

My wine sells for cash, paid to the penny. 

As for hashish, it can’t even be sold on credit.

7

Swallow some grass, you’ll be high in two bites.

You’ll hardly see straight in that delirious mess.

11

Make merry in your cups, and shun hashish.

Like a scorpion, its sting is rancorous.

12

It’s bound your legs and shackled your arms.

Hashish is no kohl—it’s set your eyes aflame.

14

Your problem is worsening, you’d better quit.

Weed fells lions—you have no chance against it.

15

It’s bankrupted you, taken the shirt off your back.

Your fortune has flipped, but all’s not lost—yet.

17

Your mind is spinning, you’re slacking at work.

Before it kills you, rise up and kill it.

18

For all these faults, I’ve cast it far from my heart. 

Pour me some wine, and I’ll sing you its praises.

19

It froths in its cup, banishing misfortunes. 

All exclaim, How lovely in the cup!

20

The vine’s daughter enraptures whenever she comes.

Nothing’s more lovely, more exquisite in the mouth. 

21

Hashish saddens, wine gladdens.

Even my praises fall woefully short.

22

O cupbearer, pass me the daughter of the jugs.

She banishes my cares and summons my joys.

….

24

O friend, rise! Quickly, make our cups froth over. 

When evening falls, bring candles and light them.

25

Wake up in the morning, and lounge on the grass,

And bring us the mats and arrange them.

26

The vine’s daughter’s a maiden, winsome and shy. 

You want to drink? The dower’s a hundred dinars.

27

How I’ve wandered the climes for the princess of liquors,

How I’ve searched the abbeys for a monk who would sell her.

28

Hey, monk! I said, I’ve been looking for you,

And you for me—I’ve brought your girl’s suitor.

29

He turned and said, Ahlan, a hundred welcomes. 

You can take her if you show me the dower. 

30

I forked over the money without further ado. 

Content as could be, I carried my wine off.

31

And now, I can barely keep her admirers at bay.

All demand her aroma, all submit to her charm. 

32

Friend, you’ve pained me—where have you gone?

Pass my love back, yes, put her there between us.

33

I’m Nasir the Jew, and I revel while my wine lasts.

These are my boasts, these verses I publish.

35

My religion—my wine—I’ll never abandon.

Dissuasion is futile, so fill my cup anew.

*

Alan Elbaum is the senior research assistant at the Princeton Geniza Project, where he studies the Cairo Geniza, the trove of approximately 400,000 scraps of medieval trash found in a synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo). His particular focus is the study of Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic, and Hebrew private letters preserving firsthand accounts of experiences of illness. Originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, he lived for two years in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. He is also a 4th-year medical student in San Francisco, soon to start a residency in psychiatry, and aiming for a career that combines the humanities and medicine.

*

The image is from the other poem published in the FOLK issue in Elbaum’s translation, “Love’s Cure.” Thanks to the Syndics of Cambridge University Library for permission to reproduce the image of T-S 12.537, which contains the beginning and the end of the text.

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