Translation of Emilio García Gómez’, Evolution of Oriental Poetry


Emilio Garcia Gomez
The evolution of Oriental Poetry:

Unless the prompts of historical analysis calls them to the scene, Arabs having been ignored, have remained hidden in a corner, concealed from the planet. They were fine and swift as arrows but of short scope: they were depleted of strength in the dunes of their native desert. Only Mohammed certain Sagittarius, knew how to clean the sand off of these darts and shoot them throughout the world. The Muslims call the pre-Islamic epoch Jahiliyyah, in other words “Days of Ignorance”. Effectively, nothing was perfected in them, except two things: poetry and love. Whomever reads, The Mu‘allaqāt [المعلقات], el Kitab al-Agani [كتاب الأغاني](“The book of Songs”) or Abu-l-farach [أبو الفرج الأصفهاني], or any other collection of ancient poems, stays in suspense. The immense sea-all white foam-of the desert, planted with mended tents, stitched by rows of camels, blurred by oasis and palm trees, is a marvelous universe of authentic poetry. And in those times Antara [pans flute] asked:

Have the poets left anything to mend?

Only this initial perfection can explain the later evolution of Arabic poetry. When the political heart of Islam is displaced—first from Arabia and later from Damascus. So close still from the desert, then to be profoundly buried in the bosom of mesopotamian Bagdad, while getting infected with Orientalism. When the Caliphate is exchanged from the hands of the Umayyad [بنو أمية,] in love with the nomadic life, bedouin aristocrats of the old school, to that of the Abbasid’s [العبّاسيّون], despots of the ancient orient, enclosed in authoritative towers, traditional poetry loses its reason to exist.

Drowned in their throats is their hoarse and rough pastoral voices. The poet no longer knows how to count the camels vertebrae, nor how to describe the aromatic shrubs of the dunes, or the bloody conflicts, nor the barbarian banquets, or the crystalline freedom so infinite of misery and of famine. It is no longer the political oracle of the tribe, that celebrates victory, insults the enemy or incites revenge, but rather a salaried panegyrist or the insidious lampoonist. His lover in no longer the liberated bedouin of magnificent beauty, in spite of her filthiness and her ragged attire, because she has shut her self off with a lute and the heavy atmosphere of a gynoecium.

(Emilio Garcia Gomez, Arabic Andalusian Poems p. 19-20 translated by Samuel de Lemos)
Translation Notes

Note: The Sagittarius is really a centaur — the lower half is horse, the upper half is a man. The man is holding a bow with an arrow aimed upwards toward the sky. This symbolizes the Sagittarius’ drive to overcome basic animal instincts by aiming his thoughts into the divine realms of the heavens. In other words, Sagittarius is hunting for ideas and experiences that draw you into greater awareness. As such, Sagittarius tend to love adventure, travel and philosophy — all ways of extending beyond your immediate surroundings. Sagittarius tend to aim their arrows of thought upward, being the incurable optimists

Note: When a person embraced Islam during the time of the Prophet, he would immediately cut himself off from Jahiliyyah. When he stepped into the circle of Islam, he would start a new life, separating himself completely from his past life under ignorance of the Divine Law. He would look upon the deeds during his life of ignorance with mistrust and fear, with a feeling that these were impure and could not be tolerated in Islam! With this feeling, he would turn toward Islam for new guidance; and if at any time temptations overpowered him, or the old habits attracted him, or if he became lax in carrying out the injunctions of Islam, he would become restless with a sense of guilt and would feel the need to purify himself of what had happened, and would turn to the Qur’an to mold himself according to its guidance. —Sayyid Qutb

With the period before the coming of Islam being defined as the time of “Jahiliyyah”, pre-Islamic poetry is commonly referred to in Arabic as “الشعر الجاهلي” or Jahili poetry – literally “the ignorant poetry”. Although so named, however, what survives of this poetry is well regarded as the finest of Arabic poetry to date.

Translators note: I found this passage in Dr. Gomez’ book to be quite moving, poignant and unfortunately still true. Arabic poetry is still concealed in many ways from any form of mainstream recognition. The fact that Andalusian poetry help to mold lyrical poetry such as; Shakespearean or rock music in the West and has not had its due recognition is incredibly unfair. More should be done to highlight and emphasize the incredible beauty and lyrical vitality of this important poetic genre.

The second paragraph is obviously a soliloquy mourning the exchange of Umayyad dynasty for that of the Abbasid, with this exchange, the poetic paradigm shifts from a more earthy, Arabic authentic desert culture to a more strict, insulated caricature of the former. Metaphorically, Dr. Gomez vivid description of this Arabic poetic transition from Umayyads to Abbasid’s, is a picture of losing the resonance of desert life that once gave meaning to Arabic poetry. Desert nomadic poetry was “cast out” along with the Umayyad change in the caliphate.

The gynoecium is [ancient Greek meaning women’s apartment] also the reproductive organs of a flower. This metaphor is obviously loaded with images of pregnancy. The fact that she is enclosed (shut off from the rest of the world) with lute and pregnant means that, authentic Arabic poetry during this transition is not being really heard and is in a stage of incubation. In Hebrew a similar term is called Niddah. Literally the feminine noun niddah means moved (i.e. separated), and generally refers to separation due to ritual impurity. Medieval Biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra writes that the word niddah is related to the term menadechem (מנדיכם), meaning those that cast you out.