New Series No. 17 - 2001
Classical Poems by Arab Women
A Bilingual Anthology compiled and translated by Abdullah al-Udhari
London: Saqi Books, 1999.
ISBN: hardback: 086356-096-2; paperback: 086356-047-4
It needs to be said immediately that this is a unique anthology. With the only exception of Red Knight: Serbian Women’s Songs (translated by Daniel Weissbort and T Longinovic, published by Menard Press/King's College London, 1992), I cannot think of a collection that exclusively features women who boldly refuse to be voiceless in a world where the male hegemonic psychosis, in various rabid modes, seeks to enslave and usurp them. Indeed, this is a collection wherein women not only declare, freely and proudly, their equality with men, but also provide ample indication that given their experience, compassion and natural pragmatism, humanity would have fared much better under matriarchal governance than in patriarchal societies which have formed so oppressive a force.
Though the past two centuries have seen a blossoming of Arab scholarship, we are yet to have an authoritative study of the history of Arab poetry. This collection, attempting to give a spectrum of the works of women poets – an even more neglected aspect of its development – thus illuminates another unique dimension.
There is yet a third uniqueness. The collection casts its net to the widest possible stretch, to beyond the traditional Arab demesne of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. Consequently, it not only includes poetry from the Jahiliyya period (the period before the advent of Islam which Muslim scholars and historians invariably – and wrongly – dismiss as a period of chaos and ignorance and, therefore, of no historical significance), but also from the seminal periods which established Islam as a vibrant, major religion: the Umayyad, Abbasid and Andalusian periods.
The last, the Andalusian period, is another era that has been neglected by Muslim historians. We have, at best, chronicles that restrict themselves to the Moorish conquest of Spain, but in such general – or cursory – terms that though the conquest encompassed the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, little differentiation is made between Spain and Portugal or their various kingdoms. Yet the Andalusian period is an era which graces history as a golden age of ethics, chivalry and art, which, in addition to having inspired a sibling golden age, that of the Iberian Jews, also kindled the Renaissance and, indeed, diverted mankind’s focus from stale eschatology to humanitarian concerns.
Much of what has survived from the Jahiliyya period depicts, inevitably, the religious struggles of Arabian tribes facing the ascendancy of Allah and Islam. A muzdawaj, a heroic couplet, by Mahd al-Aadiyya warning her people of the doom awaiting them for refusing to worship Allah, is chilling:
I see people riding on shrieking horses
Steering clouds of sparkbelching fires
On their way to flame life out of you
Al-Udhari’s linguistic innovations in capturing the colloquialism of Antiquity in modern idiom is yet another distinction of this collection. Readers familiar with The Arab Creation Myth, al-Udhari’s previous magisterial work, will have been acquainted with his skills in reshaping language into a contemporary mode by combining words and thus creating new phrases and/or new verbs, adjectives and nouns. Applying the same skills to this collection too – note ‘sparkbelching’ and ‘to flame life out’ in the above quotation –, he conjures, for this reviewer at least, a vivid portrait not only of the poet but also of her times and people.
The Islam period – a brief stretch from the Hijra (622) to the reigns of the Prophet Mohammed’s immediate successors, the Caliphs Abu Bakr (d. 634), Umar (d. 644), Uthman (d. 656) and Ali (d. 661) became, not surprisingly, a period of elegies. The Prophet Mohammed – sometimes also known as Ahmad –, the most perfect of men, received this eulogy from his daughter, Fatima:
Those who smell the soil of Ahmad’s grave will have
muskscented breath for the rest of their life.
Yet, even amidst such inconsolable mourning, an anonymous woman poet had the courage to declare:
The mosque has kept my man away from me . . .
. . . as a woman there’s nothing I can thank him for . . .
. . . his piety’s put him off my bed . . .
The Umayyad Caliphate, established in Damascus by Mu’awiya ibn Abu Sufyan (603-680), after prolonged battles with Ali – who had failed to receive the bay’a, the unanimous acceptance of the Faithful – extended the borders of the Arab Empire to China in the east and the Iberian Peninsula in the west. During this period, which lasted until 750, even holy cities like Mecca and Medina became sybaritic haunts.
In such an open society Dahna bint Mas-hal could reprimand her husband with an almost modern directness:
Lay off, you can’t turn me on with a cuddle, a kiss or scent.
Only a thrust rocks out my strains until the ring on my toe falls on
my sleeve . . .
And Bint al-Hubab could admit her adultery defiantly, if not brutally:
Why are you raving mad, husband, just because I love another man?
Go on, whip me, every scar on my body will show the pain I cause you.
The Abbasid period, stretching from 750 to 1258 – with Baghdad as its capital – saw the Arabs reach the peak of their political, economic and cultural grandeur. This epoch, defined by many Arab historians as a Golden Age – one only to be rivalled by the Golden Age in Andalus where the Umayyad remained in power –, created a liberal, but elite, society keen to enjoy Allah’s earthly gifts.
Here is Ulayya bint al-Mahdi (777-825), poet, singer and composer:
Lord, it’s not a crime to long for Raib who stokes my heart with love
and makes me cry . . .
. . . May Allah curse the ungiving even if he fasts and prays . .
And Safiyya al-Baghdadiyya (twelfth century):
I am the wonder of the world, the ravisher of hearts and minds.
Once you’ve seen my stunning looks, you’re a fallen man.
And, naturally, the freedoms of a liberated society urge the mind to seek other freedoms, intangible freedoms. Thus hedonism leads to spiritual exploration and deep mysticism; lust for life demands sanctity for life and the suffrage of all its rights.
Here is Raabi’a al-Adwiyya (714-801), an early and major figure in
the history of Sufism:
I put You in my heart to keep me company and leave my body to
whoever wants to sit with me . . .
. . . I love You passionately and I love You for Yourself . . .
However, it was in Al-Andalus, in the Iberian Peninsula, that Arab
poetry in general and the works of women poets in particular attained the highest level of liberation. Separated from Arabia by the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean and by the particular heritages of both Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms, Andalusia developed its very own dazzling civilization. Before long, the Koran’s paradisal world was translated into everyday life and the Iberian Peninsula transformed into an earthly Eden. The freedoms of the early Umayyad and Abbasid periods were reclaimed. Whilst in the eastern stretches of the Empire women found themselves gradually stripped of their freedom and equality – or, as in the aftermath of the mass rape conducted by Tamerlane’s hordes in Damascus, became chattels to be protected behind veils and walls –, in Andalusia, they lived insouciant of taboos.
By the eleventh century the women poets were reflecting this carefree atmosphere where life’s meaning was invariably found in love and passion.
Here is Hafsa bint Hamdun (tenth century):
I have a lover who thinks the world of himself, and when he sees me off
he cocks up: ‘You couldn’t have had a better man.’
And I throw back: ‘Do you know of a better woman?’
And the Jewish poet, Qasmuna bint Isma’il ibn Yusuf ibn Annaghrila
(eleventh century) said this of herself on reaching sexual maturity:
I see a garden ripe for picking, but no picker’s hand reaching for it.
It’s painful to watch my youth passing me by, leaving the unmentionable
Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (eleventh century), daughter of the Umayyad Caliph Mustakfi and one of the most beautiful women of her time, poured scorn on her man’s infidelity, almost with glee:
If you were faithful to our love you wouldn’t have lost your head over
You dropped a branch in full bloom for a lifeless twig.
You know I am the moon yet you fell for a tiddly star.
And I’timad Arrumaikiyya (eleventh century) implored her lover with
I urge you to come faster than the wind to mount my breast and firmly dig
and plough my body, and don’t let go until you’ve flushed
And here is Hafsa bint al-Hajj Arrakuniyya (twelfth century), possibly the greatest woman poet, freely eulogizing the joys of carnal love:
If I keep you in my eyes until the world blows up I’d still want you more . . .
I know too well those marvellous lips.
By Allah, I’m not lying if I say I love sipping their finerthanwine
delicious dew . . .
When you break at noon you’ll need a drink and you’ll find my mouth
a bubbling spring and my hair a refugeshade.
Needless to say, the collection transcends love and liberation. For those readers who might seek parallels or wish to make comparisons, there is fertile ground. The discerning ear will pick up fragments which attain the lyricism of Sappho, the vulnerable intelligence of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the simmering spirituality of Sor Juana, the poised but impassioned directness of Emily Dickinson.
And the exquisite drawings by Laura Maggi provide yet another
reason to treasure this book.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The