A posting to newsgroups soc.culture.arabic from: Michael Sells on Fri, 28 May 93 13:12:36 GMT. (See complete header at the end of this file.)

An now for something a little different . . .

I present a translation of the great poem of Mukhabbal from the
collection of ancient Arabian poetry known as the Mufaddaliyat.  This is
a short ode or Qasida, with--in my view--an astonishingly powerful three
movments of remembrance of the beloved, journey, and boast (fakhr). 

I translate each Arabic line (bayt) into an English stanza.  The
intricate Arabic meter and rhyme cannot be duplicated in English without
a sense of artificiality.  The cadence of the Arabic is due to the play
of meter against the syntax.  I have tried to recreate a parallel cadence
through a play of syntax against line breaks.

This translation is from the new book:  Mustansir Mir, editor, The
Literary Heritage of Classical Islam (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1992).  In
that volume, there is also an analysis of the symbolism and poetics of
Mukhabbal's poem.  But for the Net, I just wanted to offer a taste of
what has been rightfully called "the cascading magnificence" of early
Arabic poetry. 

It is my view that one of the reasons Middle Eastern Islamic Cultures are
so poorly understood in the West is that the intricate and sophisticate
poetic traditions, that are so important to Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and
Urdu cultures, are very poorly known in Western Society.  The nuance,
beauty, suppleness, dissent, surprise, and multi-dimensionality of the
culture is grounded in the poetry, and when the poetry is lost, the
picture of the culture is flattened and turns toward stereotype. 

!He Remembered Rab!b!


"The Shades of Death Would Track Me Down"

By Al-Mukh!bbal of the Sa`d ibn Zayd-Manat of Tamim (6-7th century C.E.
Translated by Michael A. Sells

[A Qasida in pre-Islamic style consisting of three sections: (1) the
remembrance of the lost beloved, Rabab, appearance of her phantom
(khayal), and the evocation of the traces of her abandoned campsite
(atlal); (2) the journey, with the naqa (camel mare) tableau; and (3) the
boast (fakhr), with the criticisms of the blamer (`adhila) and the poet!s

[The remembrance of the beloved and a depiction of the lost beloved that
shades, symolically, into an evocation of the lost garden]

			He remembered Rab!b.
				Memory of her was sickness.
			He was young again.
				He didn!t know.

					When her phantom came round
				my eye stung
					along the tear lines
				and began to water,

			from a necklace
				poorly strung.

					I make out a dwelling there,
					amid the pools of Sidan,
				traces unfaded,

			Ashes, cold,
				banked and sheltered 
			from the winds
				by blackened hearthstones,

					Ruins of a flood-break,
				stone walls 
					broken in
				and broken down,

			As if what the side winds
				and rains had left
			there on the empty yards
				were a tattoo,

					Where doe-oryx pasture,
				following along toward water,
				on brown-backs mingled, 
			With oryx fawns
				and gazelle fawns,
			around her tracings,
				like kids and lambs.		
					Rab!b might have alighted,
				with an advance guard, 
				to ward off enemies,

			There where the torrent beds	
				are unfaded,		
			at Lost Place, 
				Bend of the Trail, and Zukhm.

					Graceful as a rush of papyrus,
				beauty comes to her
					before others,
				and she grows into it early.

			She reveals to you 
				a delicate face 									
			paper smooth,			

					Like the pearl of pearls
				distant Persians use
					to light up the throne-hall 
				of a sultan,					

			Purchased at great price,
				retrieved by a diver,
				like an arrow.
					His chest smeared with oil,
				he brings it out
					from the billow-waved deep
				of the swordfish.

			Or an egg of the dunes,
				set into the earth,
			smooth to the touch,
				and perfectly curved,

					The first-lain of the nest,
				warmed by a clump-wing 		
					feathers matted
				like a heap of rags.

			He draws it in 
				beneath his wings, 
			black outer feathers
				encompassing it.
					Maids lose their combs
				in the thickness of her curls,
					thick as the curls of the grape
				along the trellis.

			Why not find consolation
				for yearning,
			for a bond of union,

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  

[The journey or quest--rahil--the poet's journey alone, across the
desert, by camel-mare (naqa) which symbolizes both the self of the poet
and the community].

					How many a worn track,
				a rough ride, rutted,
					like the net of a weaver,
				through a terrain of rounded hills,
			With hollows
				of the water-bound sand grouse
			along the side of the trail
				appearing like a mottled cloak,

					Have I driven across
				in the darkening dusk
					on an obedient night-rider
				fresh as a stallion from the stable.

			She scatters the rocks,
				shattered, as she gales forth,
			the hill rises running together
				along the edge of mirage,

					Barreling down the track
				and shaking
					like a squeaking water wheel
				around a pivot post,

			Backquarters built up
				and interlocked
			along the vertebrae,
				withers huge,

					Forelegs slanted
				like the columns of a temple,
					the muscle packed on
				above the knees.

			When you brandish the whip
				above her, 
			a sharp pulsing beneath her ribs
				drives her on.

					She blocks the gap
				between her hind legs
					with a bristling tail 
				that barrenness has made luxuriant,

			Hooves like the hammers 
				of a smith,
			not fleshy,
				or padded with tufts of hair.
					At rest at midday
				she stands in the tent's shade
					like a white antelope at dusk
				in a glen of wild lote trees,

			Like a stone washed up				
				and stranded
			at the edge of the flood,
				boulders thrown down beneath it.

					I wore her down
				to the marrow of the bones,
					the flesh along the joints
				shrunken back.

*  *  *  *  *  *  * 

[The boast or self-justification of the poet in the face of blame and

			My blamer said--
				and what does she know
			of tomorrow
				and what will come after?

				resides in possessions.
					 Lack them
				and your day will grieve."
			By your father!s father!s life!
				I find no life eternal,
			not in a hundred camels,
				 thick-furred, dark-hued,
					Even if you built me
				the palace of Mush!qqar
					on a stony hill
				dwarfing a herd of white-foot ibex,

			The shades of death
				would track me downe--
			there's no decree
				like that of God.
Michael Sells, Department of Religion, Haverford College
Haverford, Pa 19041-1392


Usenet header:

From: Michael Sells 
Newsgroups: soc.culture.arabic
Subject: A great poem by Mukhabbal ("the crack-brained") as-Sa`di
Date: 28 May 1993 18:29:44 GMT
Organization: Haverford College
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Distribution: world
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X-XXDate: Fri, 28 May 93 13:12:36 GMT