Nomad Odes: "Ostrich eggs nearly split in the blaze"

an introduction to "the suspended ones"
by Edmund Hardy

Atlal, the abandoned campsite out in the desert: traces in the sand, tent-peg holes in the rock. This is the well-spring of the pre-Islamic Arabic ode (qasida meaning ode; the related verb qasada, to journey towards, to aim). Returning to the site where his beloved's tribe once lived, the poet is cast, by loss, into re-membering. Stop, says the poet, and hear this ode. The oldest recorded qasida, the Mu'allaqa of Imru' al-Qays, begins:

Halt, friends both! Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging
by the rim of the twisted sands between Ed-Dakhool and Haumal,
Toodih and el-ikrat, whose trace is not yet effaced
for all the spinning of the south winds and the northern blasts

(trans. A. J. Arberry)
This style of opening-up into a poem world is transmitted into Tennyson:

Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet 'tis early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn

(from 'Locksley Hall')
The poems were orally transmitted within and between the tribes of the Arabian peninsular (and the area which is now southern Iraq) in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. before being recorded by Islamic scholars in the seventh century.

The qasida is a poem of roughly 120 lines, usually with a single end-rhyme throughout (in Persian, the form developed to be unrhymed). The pre-Islamic qasida is often feverish in its mnemonic desire to preserve, celebrate, mourn and get drunk: until the ode overflows the world.


What life for the beloved, whose love is always lost, whose body is hallucinated through displaced and abundant simile which outshines and - with the gazelles, antelopes and horses - outruns any human one. The mood and intensity of the qasida is established by the opening attitude to the beloved. There are satirical moods, as here from Al-A'sha (my translation):

She braces herself to get up
for otherwise voluptous languor
would throw her back to bed
& she'd never visit the neighbours
We must brace ourselves too. Dissembling simile, eyes white as the whitest oryx, mouth compared to wine as fresh as a cold stream, chains of similes, brief meadows, desert animal birthing, there is no transferable descriptive point: Look again, and there are only the blackened hearthstones, torrent-beds worn deeper every year, the black wing of the crow, the stations (maqamát) of the beloved's departure, the women of her tribe in their embroidered camel litters.


The ninth century writer Ibn Qutayba outlines the formal model of the qasida in Kitab al-Shi'r wa-l-Shu'ara (Book of Poetry and Poets), "I have heard from a man of learning that the composer of Odes began by mentioning the deserted dwelling-places and the relics and traces of habitation. Then he wept and complained and addressed the desolate encampment, and begged his companion to make a halt, in order that he might have occasion to speak of those who once lived there." Then follows the amatory prelude, the nasib; then the desert journey of the rihla, which may include the náqa sacrifice, the slaughter of the poet's mount and the distribution of the meat by a ritual lottery of arrow-shafts (sometimes the nasib and náqa combine, and it is the poet's heart which is shot through and divided communally, eaten up by the nomadic life, see the Mu'allaqa of Labid); then, the final part, the madih, sometimes a thunder-storm, most often a boast or panegyric to the excellence of the tribe which may include a selection of proverbs, a wine-song, an account of a battle, a satire or the taunting of other tribes.


There is a famous collection of pre-Islamic odes, and that is the Mu'allaqát, meaning "suspended ones". These were the seven odes to win in the annual compettion at 'Ukaz, near Mecca. These odes were embroidered in gold on Egyptian cloth and hung from the Ka'ba, the ancient shrine. Michael A. Sells suggests: "The image of the seven odes suspended from Arabia's most sacred shrine, a shrine that has since become the ritual center of Arabic culture and of the multiculutral world of Islam, mirrors the generative role within the Arabic-speaking world of the Mu'allaqát and a large number of equally great poems."

Written in a language soon to be fixed in place, the sensibility and structures of the qasida were partly integrated into a Qur'anic literary culture but were also held at a tension to the new supremacy of Scripture. Muslim scholars collected and preserved the oral tradition, memorized and transmitted by ráwis, the authorship of each qasida a model. Sells continues: "The Qur'an apprpriated many of the central values of pre-Islamic poetry. The role of the karim (the generous one) in the qasida, for example, is reflected by its similarly central role in the Qur'an" though the creative tension with the pre-Islamic culture, named the "Jahiliyya", time of moral ignorance, is everywhere expressed. "Upon arrival at the Ka'ba, the pilgrim finds the walls hung with tapestries of rare Egyptian cloth inscribed in gold", pasages from the Qur'an. Subsequent Arabic poets of court and market would write or sing of the abandoned campsite, the owl-calls of the desert, the stream-runnels and gazelles, when they were living increasingly urban lives. Jaroslav Stetkevych considers a spiritual nostalgia to be present in such figures of Arabo-Islamic poetry which is not dissimilar to the Arcadia of haymaking and nymphs in groves somewhat disconnected from the mountain district of the Peloponnese.

One poet who continued to write qasa'id in the bedouin style, though he fused the tripartite structure with a more modern feeling for love, desire and the stories of famous lovers such as Ghaylan and Mayya, was Dhu al-Rumma, a poet of the Umayyad Caliphate. His name means "he-wih-a-cord-of-rope", perhaps in reference to his ability to tie the elements of life together using the rope of meter, and produce from these exquisite verbal knots.


The sand grouse drink what I leave behind.
    They approach the water hole
after a night journey,
    their sides rumbling.

I resolved. They did.
    We raced. Their wings fell limp
while I stood in front at ease
    with my robe tucked up.

I turned away.
    They tumbled to the rim,
crops and gullets
    squeezing and pulsing.

As if their clatter
    on both sides of the water hole
were groups of men from caravans,
    letting themselves down,

Congregating from all sides
    and taken in
like droves of camels
    at a wayside pool.

They gulped swiftly and passed on
    at dawn
like panic-stricken riders
    from Uháza.

(from Shánfara's "Arabian Ode in L" trans. by Michael A. Sells)
Shánfara's poem (also called the Lamiyyat) is one qasida which breaks all the rules, and Shánfara is known as the "brigand-poet". The scene of the sand-grouse is an interlude between a fight with wolves, and a flight from the law.


Of the various English translators of this poetry, Sir Charles Lyall (1845-1920) stands out for his attempts to imitate the various pre-Islamic Arabic meters (the most common of these is the tawíl, variations on the feet ˘ ˉˉ ˘ ). Lyall's Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry is excellent; as are Michael A. Sells' Desert Tracings (the best contemporary translation, in print from Wesleyan), Desmond O'Grady's The Seven Arab Odes, and Alan Jones' Early Arabic Poetry in two volumes.


The qasida teems with specific metaphors that require a little research. One may burst with the desire to sing of one's beloved "like a colocynth", a kind of gourd which is known to suddenly explode.


"Barbarian" is a Greek-derived word, barbarikos, the "foreign babbling ones." In the qasida, this is mirrored, as foreigners appear as "Greek-speaking babblers in their forts".


If you wander from the straight path you may, in the desert, see the tayf, the beloved's night apparition, or you may, less happily, meet a Ghul, a female species of jinn, shifting and reconfiguring like the desert itself. The Taj al-Arus, a medieval dictionary, defines the Ghul as "terrible in appearance, having tusks or fangs, seen by the Arabs, and known by them; and killed by Ta'ahbbata Sharran", a reference to a pre-Islamic poet who wrote a ghost poem, 'How I Met the Ghul' (trans. S. P. Stetkevych):

Behold! Two eyes set in a hideous head,
like the head of a cat, split-tongued,
Legs like a deformed fetus, the back of a dog,
clothes of haircloth or worn-out skins!

The gazelle, always "fleet of foot", seen here in the drinking-song section of a qasida by 'Alqama, "Flagon like a gazelle / high on the cliff face," the linen sieve (to seal neck and spout) of the flagon evidently reminding the poet of a gazelle caught in the sun which "flashes white". The camel is often "journey-worn" or "the night-courser" while humans can be "camel-bellied" or else weary as "a stumbling camel". The ostrich, "red-legged clump-wing", the oryx, "sheen-of-udder", "wide of eyes", "wild one", "flat-nosed one", oryx-bull, "tuck-bellied brindle-leg", epithets without nouns (in English, a horse may be "a bay" or a "chestnut").


As Arabic literary culture was re-invigorated by the arrival of printing presses, the development of new political and social forms, and the introduction of mass educational methods in post-1801 Egypt, poets looked to the vigour and style of classical literature where qasa'id seemed to provide the forceful public template of speaking necessary for a new generation. Later, the Egyptian Ahmad Shawqi would begin a poem about food shortages after the First World War by weeping over the abandoned campsite of a beloved; and Hafiz Ibrahim commemorated the opening of an orphanage by first recalling a long night journey (by train not camel-mare).


The picture above is of 'Antara, whose Mu'allaqa (trans. Michael A. Sells) includes this drinking song:

I am known
    when the hot hours calm
to be drinking wine,
    laying down a minted coin,

A tawny luster
    from a goblet of banded glass
near a gleaming pitcher
    stoppered on the windward side.

When drinking, all I own
    I spend away,
though what I am
    is undiminished.
And this account of first meeting the beloved:

I fell for her by chance,
    killing her kinsmen,
coveting, by your father's life,
    what is not to be.


Robert Irwin, 'Night & Horses & The Desert', Penguin, 1999

Alan Jones, 'Early Arabic Poetry' (two volumes), Ithaca Press, 1996

Pierre Joris, 'A Nomad Poetics', Wesleyan, 2003

Charles James Lyall, 'Translations of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic, With an Introduction and Notes', Hyperion, 1980

Desmond O'Grady, 'The Seven Arab Odes', Agenda, 1990

Wen-chin Ouyang, 'Literary Criticism in Medieval Arabic-Islamic Culture: The Making of a Tradition', Edinburgh, 1997

Michael A. Sells, 'Desert Tracings: Six Classic Arabian Odes', Wesleyan, 1989

Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, 'The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual', Cornell, 1993

---- 'The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode', Indiana, 2003

Jaroslav Stetkevych, 'The Zephyrs of Najd', Chicago, 1993

Charles Greville Tuetey, 'Classical Arabic Poetry: 162 Poems from Imrulkais to Ma'arri', Kegan Paul, 1985

i'm looking for a complete translation of 'arabian ode in L' online. is there anywhere i can find an online compilation of works?
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