Summer Reads: ‘The Song of the Banu Sasan’

This summer, we will run select pieces from summer issues of ArabLit Quarterly. This excerpt from a tenth-century poem by Abu Dulaf, translated by Brad Fox, ran in the summer 2020 CRIME issue of the magazine, available as PDF, e-pub, and in print.

By Abu Dulaf

Translated by Brad Fox

The Banu Sasan was a name associated with bands of thieves, beggars, and other outcasts beginning in the eighth century. Stories and legends surround them, and many poems were ascribed to them. What follows is one such poem, extracted from a text written down by the tenth-century Iraqi traveler and writer Abu Dulaf. It’s written in slang, and Abu Dulaf’s version includes lengthy notes, which can be read as satirical, pedantic, or simply interesting. Clifford Edmund Bosworth published a faithful but not very accessible English translation, including Abu Dulaf’s notes and adding his own, in 1976. I’ve integrated some material from those several layers, while striving for a taste of the original qasida—a poem essentially unrecoverable, but still somehow recognizable.

From ALQ’s Summer 2020 CRIME issue

Eyelids wet from exile and scorn

and heart charred to embers from pain

I’ve tasted passion’s twins—both sweet and bitter

and roamed in freedom, so can only stand the free

…..even more after decades as an outcast

I’m stripped bare—a black branch among green leaves

I’ve seen marvels and all the colors of doom

and now I’m pleased to the core whether fasting or feasting 

I’m the heir and defender of that legendary dynasty 

I’m the scion of the Banu Sasan

We wander the world, seek nothing but glory

and our separateness is our distinction

we’ve been tossed around and turned inside out 

and shaped like desert sands in the wind

but we savor our days both in lean times and luxury

we’re drunk nonstop and always enflamed

we taste the sweetness of life in sex and in souse

We’re the best of the best on land or at sea

our stallions pound the ground worldwide 

we exact our tax everywhere, from China to Egypt

in Muslim lands or anywhere else

the whole world is ours and everything in it

and if it’s bad in one place we move on

we summer where it’s cool and winter under date palms

we respect no authority so no one doubts our supremacy 

and we come in all colors

…..whoever you ask has stories

We claim everyone hot for ass and pussy

…..every pleasurer of great swollen cocks— 

……….or use your own two hands 

……………and you’ll need no seducer, no virgin

……………… moaning about celibacy or raising a dowry

…………………….no menstrual stains or labor pains 

…………………………or babies at the doorstep

We are every madman and madwoman with charms at their throats

with dangling earrings and leather-brass cuffs 

all the scammers and hucksters and ranters passing hats

all the plate-lickers and scrap-scroungers crying Help me I’m cold

who sneak a taste at the market or beg at the bank or set off at dawn

with egg-yolk pus blisters and bandaged heads

with sesame-oil bruises and razor cuts

…..crying The Bedu! The Kurds! It was the jinn who mugged me!

and all those fake borderzone refugees—the evil Greeks cut my tongue out! 

and those jihad pleaders who embezzle donations

and all who sprinkle rosewater, burn incense 

…..or sell perfume by the side of the road

and every quack dentist who yanks a maggot from your mouth 

and all the escape artists writhing out of chains 

and the pickpocket magicians who relieve you of your jewelry 

…..with the aid of a fine silk thread

and whoever harangues you with tales of the Israelites

or goes around dressed like a monk or a pilgrim

…..then shares out the take with his crew

all those Ramadan hunger artists scarfing liver in secret 

and the bloodsucking divines in their hairshirts

and we are those skilled equestrian beggars who dodge and lunge 

and the Roman refugees waving locks of hair

… if their brother’s been ransomed in Byzantium

And we are every beggar with a bent spine

and every beggar who pretends to be deaf 

and all the mutilated beggars with their hacked-off hands

and the roadside gangs—those lords of dust

and all those Bible-reading zealots who pretend to convert

and whoever hands out water claiming descent from Muhammad 

or flubs their tongue like a Bedu or tricks pilgrims or fakes blindness

or babbles all through afternoon prayers

whoever lies around with their ass oozing oatmeal enemas

…..tossing piss-soaked rocks and farting up the mosque

……….until the congregation is so discommoded

……………that they pay him to go away

And we’re the ones who tie their necks with towels so their faces turn red

and we’re those evening bread beggars with their lamentations

and the bookish scolds against wine and vice

and the furnace-lovers covered in ash  

and the fortune-telling scammers who hand coins to their marks

…..then lead them like lambs to slaughter

and those who say their father was Christian and their mother a Jew 

…..but the prophet came to them in a dream

and whoever claims they escaped from a street gang

or dyes their face and hands with ochre 

…..and spouts suras right there in the market

And we are everyone who smears his beard with red dye like a Shi’a

…..and counterfeits Karbala relics

and all the invisible ink readers with their copper-water and flames

and anyone who can con the Kaisan 

or rhapsodize about Hussein until the crowds weep

and we’re that pair who stake out each end of the market

…..then whip the crowd into a frenzy 

……….for ‘Ali on one side and Abu Bakr on the other

And we’re the streetside hadith-tellers with their trunks full of books

and all the whore-spawn beard-shavers blaspheming the crowds

And we’re the heartbroken bawlers with oil-dabbed eyes—those elegant beggars

and the punk who won’t move out of your way  

…..until you lose your patience and shove him 

……….at which point he says: Fuck off, cum-sack! I’ll wipe my ass with your beard!

…..……….What’s a cum-sacks’s head but a sack for my cum!— 

and he won’t stop blocking you till you cough up a coin

And we’re everyone who hires children to go around looking miserable

or who throws down prayer beads, candies, and salt

or hustles prefab amulets—This one made just for you!

or pretends to be deaf or yanks molars or sells cures for the blind

or scribbles down charms and spells from an old grimoire

or starts fires with a mirror or cures madmen and cripples 

… dousing them with smoke or spraying them with spittle

And we’re the door-to-door panhandlers—those excellent beggars

and whoever pretends to fast then sneaks a drink from the river

and whoever gloms onto hajj caravans promising paradise to the pilgrims

…..brokering dirt-cheap plots in Ridwan’s garden

and the guy who dyes his hands like a Sufi and shaves his upper lip 

…..until it’s smooth as a washbowl or a freshly waxed vulva

and we’re those Persian and Nabataean beggars who never learn Arabic 

and whoever interprets dreams like Ibn Sirin

or sells arsenic or stones to tell iron from gold

…..or passes off beads as if they’re tears of David

and all the boys in blackened rags leading a blind man like a father

and whoever teaches beggar kids to unfasten their clothes

And we’re the astrologers with their omens and signs

who read astrolabes and furnace flames and shout The end is nigh!

and we’re that kid doubled over with a scrapheap on his back

and the other boiling broth where beggars squat

and we are every fearless snake-charmer without a care in the world 

…..unfazed by the sight of a viper—

……….who grab the slit-eyed snake and yank its venomous fangs

……………so it’s ready for shows and competitions

………………..where the angel of death is just an arm’s length away

…………………….and some keep safe while others get bit

We do the damndest things to earn our bread

And we are that quack doctor with his bag of hooks and lancets

and the gambler staking cash and clothes

…..cursing God when his luck caves in

and we’re the conniving blind—those elevated beggars

and we’re the trainers of fierce lions and tigers

and the dirt-smeared kids leading bears and monkeys

and those pliers of fatteners or toothache narcotics

…..who slip in powders that cure farts 

……….or urinary tract infections or constipation

……………then say It was this magic charm—I’ve got more right here

and those model citizens and straight-laced tenants

…..who bolt on the rent in the night

and whoever grazes in the square like a camel

And we are every poet in the world—desert tramps and city prowlers

And we are the scattered Medinans and spoiled Meccans

and we are that renowned Baghdad khalif 

…..who asked to pay in installments 

……….for bread begged from his own emir 

and all the strongmen grinding date-pits with their teeth 

…..and breaking iron with their hands 

and whoever gums up their skin with dragon’s blood 

and we are the beggar boys—those beardless youths

…..dressed in white and acting like idiots

and we’re the lech who leads one of them off

… hungry he’ll eat drug-spiked stew

……….coming to on a mat in a bone-bare house

……………where there nothing’s in store for him but lies and abuse

………………..and his captor’s booze that knocks him out

…………………….and his captor’s cock that fucks him senseless

And we’re that boy who shakes and gnashes his teeth

…..claiming the jinn are at him for smacking a cat

and whoever goes around with a bowl and a strainer and a dozen brooms

…..scouring market halls and gutters and threshing floors and furnaces

and whoever can recite the Qur’an like Abu ‘Amr

and all those subtle theologians

…..who preach depravity before devotion

and we are that donkey-woman whose husband won’t beg

… she ties up her fist and claims her fingers are cut off

……….or flops them like they’re limp and dead

……………or bandages up an eye like she’s half blind

And we are the pot-jugglers of Kabul

and all the tightrope walkers and pulley-rope climbers

and we’re the black-skinned bandits of the Zanj and the Zutt

…..but not the brown-skinned bandits like the Kabbaja

and we’re the illustrious day drinkers—spat on all over town 

and we’re that pious and submissive scholar

…..seen sobbing salty tears in the square 

……….who then shits behind the minaret and wipes his ass on the mihrab

……………and if he fasts—I swear he breaks it by noon

and we are the bald beggars, panther-black with furnace soot and bare assed in the market 

…..crying Strike blind this grocer, O Lord! 

…..…..Our boss—may he shit himself! 

…..……….and may the butcher go stiff with paralysis, O Lord! 

…..……………and the fabric-seller—may he never recover!  

……………and if you try to stop him he blesses you 

………………..with the pungent fruits of his anus

And we’re those strutting studs who giggle and flirt through Friday prayers

and every saucy beggar queen prancing like a thoroughbred while her husband looks on

and all the throbbing hard-ons at Eid

And we are everyone who hopes only to scavenge the land

or hide behind humility on a sad stone bench

and every naked waif cowering in the mosque

and all the patient poor in their quilted scraps and rags

who roll up their prayer rugs and tramp around nonstop

and the rag-pickers, always ripping and sewing  

…..with their mats home to great nests of lice

and everyone sleeping in the snow and mud 

…..without so much as a ragged old coat

……….whose every glance is a glower and every look is a leer

……………and who won’t let up till they’ve fleeced all donors

And we’re those filthy boys in bathhouse stoke rooms

branded with poverty and restless as demons

crumb-collectors and ration-snatchers 

piling dried up crusts like freshly winnowed wheat

to share out among themselves 

and who tip the bathhouse stoker like good-hearted souls

with a couple of nuts and half a radish

O God—make it rain on the Banu Sasan! 

See them bare and buff and puffed up and proud

strong-backed and shackle-scarred

their muscles rippling like Numrud bin Kan’an

and they never make ablutions or even wipe their ass

they take pride in heresy and apostasy and thievery

…..and whoever doesn’t like it 

……….can roll their scorn inside their prayer mat 

……………and kindly fuck off

Woe to whoever chases satisfaction 

it’s never like you thought

raven-black or parrot-bright or moon-colored like a dove

as for me—I’ve milked fortune’s tits one pair after another

I’ve circled the earth as many times as al-Khidr

and for the free—roaming’s like fire to gold

so if you’ve got a problem with my wandering—hear this:

didn’t the sayyids wander with all their prayers and vows—  

…..those saintly descendants of the prophet?

you see their graves from Kufa and Karbala to Baghdad and Samarra 

… Tus where the camels kneel and Bukhara by the Shakri Canal

Salman and ‘Ammar were wanderers—so was Abu Dharr

…..their holy tombs dot the world like shining stars

If I could squelch my desires—quench this thirst in my heart

I’d call this place my home and start issuing decrees

I’d fly my flag of glory high in victory

or I might never make good 

…..maybe no one can help me

then I’ll never give up my search

but if one day I roll up, all rich and famous

…..I’ll eat crushed reeds and lote-tree leaves

……….in just a shirt and a towel and be content

Brad Fox is a writer and translator. His new book The Bathysphere Book was released by Pushkin Press/Astra House this May. His first article on Arabic dream narratives, trickster tales, and encyclopedism appeared in World Art in February 2020. Earlier work has appeared in The New Yorker, Guernica, and in the Whitney Biennial. Find him at

WATCH: An interview between Brad and ArabLit Quarterly editor-in-chief M Lynx Qualey where they discuss the charlatanism (both real and invented) of the poem, the Banu Sasan, and his translation.