By Adil Babikir
AUGUST 4, 2023 — Sudanese poet Mohammad Taha al-Gaddal, who passed away on this day in 2021, will be remembered for his trailblazing role in taking traditional Bedouin poetry to new levels and establishing it firmly as a medium for addressing the themes of modern life.
The poet, born in 1952, stands out for his ability to seamlessly weave existential themes, such as people’s struggle against tyranny and their aspirations for peace and democracy, into the veins of Bedouin poetry.
One prominent feature of Sudanese Bedouin poetry is the so-called musdar, a long poem that describes the poet’s journey to his beloved. In a typical Bedouin setting, the musdar would describe the poet’s longing for his sweetheart and draw picturesque images of the journey. The prevalent tone of such poems is one of expectation and excitement. In many instances, the poem is punctuated by dialogue between the poet and his camel in an attempt to drive away boredom and manage overexcitement.
Building on this tradition, al-Gaddal created his own contemporary version of the Bedouin musdar. His famous ode, Musdār Abu al-Surra lil Yanki (the Musdār of Abul Surra to the Yankee), triggered by the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, narrates a parade bound for the Statute of Liberty in New York, in which all of the earth’s creatures demonstrate against the United States (the Yankee) for its alleged role of encouraging the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and instigating the massacre.
In this musdar, al-Gaddal creates an atmosphere of rage and tension from the outset:
In the laps of compassionate mothers,
I was cradled and cuddled.
Now in the prime of youth,
in the throes of a paralyzing grief, I’m strained.
Oh skin of mine;
Oh sour grief:
Get out of me.
أُمّاتى القبيل بى حِنَّهِن لجَّـنِّـي
كَـرْفَـه وقَـلْـدَه كيف شوق اللبن رَجَّـنِّـي!!
حزناً جانِـي فى ميع الصبا يلجِـنِّـي
أطلع منِّـي يا جلْدى المنمِّـل جِـنِّي
وأطلع منى ياحزناً بقى مكجِـنِّي
Even in his poems composed in urban vernacular Arabic, al-Gaddal extensively uses Bedouin images, such as the gazelle and green plants. An example of this is the following piece, a symbolic romantic poem where the beloved refers to the homeland.
How adorable is my beloved:
with her thrilling dark skin,
the elegant glance of a gazelle,
and the lush green of a naal tree
nestled at the waist of the Nile.
I can’t stop singing her praise in verse and prose.
A wild flower whose eyes are soaked with longing for the soil,
whose forehead glitters with sweat of the poor,
her mind is occupied with their worries.
She’s always worried about me
but never loses her composure
Thanks to her, I plucked fear from my heart.
This poem was put to music by the late singer Mustapha Sidahmed: سمحة و سمرية | مصطفى سيد أحمد – محمد طه القدال.
سمحة وسمرية محبوبتي ولفتاتا غزاله
خضرة ومسقية جنب النيل مشتولة الناله
دا هواك يا بنية كتبتو قصيد وبقولو مقاله
بتفتحي فيّ معاني غناي تديلا مجالا
زهرة وبرية بشوق الأرض عيونا كُحالا
تَرْيانة نديّة بعرق الناس والناس في بالا
يا خوفا عليّ عقُل وثبات
من فرحي البيَ قلعتَ الخوف وكستني بساله
The same image of the beloved female as an allegory of the long-awaited revolution is seen in the poems of Mohammed el-Hassan Salim Himmaid, a contemporary and close friend of al-Gaddal.
Is Nura with you?
Nura . . .
The hard-working farmer,
who milks the goats,
for the young ones and guests.
When it turns into a blaze,
Nura becomes a breeze;
making the rounds,
offering the starving a bite,
the thirsty a sip;
and on the sleepless,
alone in the darkness,
she does tenderly lean,
soothing their pain,
lending them a smile for tomorrow.
For the bare-skinned
she brings new clothing,
though her own gown is threadbare.
Haven’t you seen her?
You don’t know what you’ve missed!
For us, we surely know what we have missed!
Adil Babikir is a translator and an Arabic content manager at Mubadala Investment Company in Abu Dhabi. He has translated and edited several works, including Modern Sudanese Poetry: An Anthology (Nebraska, 2019) and Mansi: A Rare Man in His Own Way, by Tayeb Salih.