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The Golden Age of Andalusian Arabic Poetry

by P. G. R. Nair Bookmark and Share

Having spent 15 years in an Arab land, I was curious  to know the poetic  heritage  of ancient moors settled in Spanish Andalusia. The quality stamp of the translator Cola Franzen gave me the hunch that the money spent on the book , "The poems of Arab Andalusia" won't be in vain. After reading it, I can endorse that this book is a gem worthy to stand on its own as an outstanding collection of ancient Arabic poetry in translation. These outstanding poems of Muslims settled in 10th century in Spain are distinctively different from the Arabs of the Orient in its innovative  form, structure and themes and stunning imageries. 

The discovery of the treasure of ancient Andalusian Arab poetry itself is a story of chance encounter. It was made by a great Spanish Arabist and historian named Emilio García Gómez in the year 1928 in a shop in Cairo. He acquired an ancient Arab book marked as the codex of lbn Sa’id dated 1243 containing poems from 10th- through 13th-century civilization of Arabs in Andalusia. The book bearing the title Al-Mubarazzin wa Ghayat al-mumayyizin (meaning 'The Banners of the Champions and the Standards of the Select Ones') was till then unedited. unpublished, and completely unknown to the world . Excited by his chance discovery, Gomez translated it into Spanish and published it. In his prologue, Garcia Gómez’s only claim for his translations was that that they “allow us to see, even if from afar, what Arab-Adalusian poetry was like in the tenth, eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Enough, however, if the ancient saying is true, that a few verses can reveal the soul of a people better than long pages of history". 

As we shall see, GarcIa Gómez was far too modest about the publication of this little book that changed the entire landscape of Spanish poetry. It not only inspired and enchanted readers and but great Spanish poets like Rafael Alberti and Federico Garcia Lorca who belonged to the famous 'Generation of 27'. The new taste of the soul of divine Andalusia through the surprisingly fresh metaphors and images contained in their poems revolutionized the entire Spanish poetry.

The book significantly influenced the works of Federico Garcia Lorca. Federico wrote a book of qasidas, El Divan del Tarnarit, and other similar poems that would not have been possible if it were not for Garcia Gómez’s book. Most critics who have looked carefully at the 'Divan' agree that Lorca did not attempt to copy the Arab-Andalusian poets, but to immerse himself in their poetry in order to reveal the soul, the essence, and recast it in his own manner. But he did explore how close he could come in Spanish to some formal aspects of classical Arabic poetry. The present English version by Cola Franzen is drawn from the Spanish translation made by Emilio García Gómez that book opened our eyes to Andalusian past.

The appeal and enduring beauty of these poems whose glow still reaches us even after being dismantled and refashioned in other languages cannot be explained but merely marveled at. lbn Sa’d, the original compiler of the anthology of these poems from 10th century, was a poet as well as historian and he has said in it that he wished to include only those few fragments of poems “whose idea is more subtle than the West Wind, and whose language is more beautiful than a pretty face.” And GarcIa Gómez tells us that indeed except for some complete diwans and a few celebrated qasidas, the large part of Arab-Andalusian poetry has come down to us “in fragments, shattered, although in iridescent diamond dust.” 

Who were the fabricators of those verbal jewels? They were kings, viziers, princes, caliphs, doctors and rulers of all sorts and others known simply as poets, some great ones, like Ibn Zaydun and Ibn Haazm, both of Córdoba. After going through a lengthy list, Garcia Gómez concludes: “They were all poets!” It was said that in Silves, part of the kingdom of Sevilla, any laborer driving his ox cart would be capable of improvising a poem on any theme suggested to him. High officials including Kings, Viziers and Ambassadors wrote their invitations, excuses, insults and even informal communiqués in poetry!

Seldom has so much love been lavished on a land called Al-Andaluz. Like a man wooing a woman, the Arabs courted, cosseted, adored and adorned Spain with orchards, gardens, fountains and pools, cities and palaces, arid century after century sang her praises in unforgettable verses. The sang about pleasures and sorrows of their days, their love, friendship, revelry, flora and fauna, beautiful women, horses and war and last but not least about water. 

I must say that Cola Franzen’s vibrant, delicious and faithful renderings of these ancient poems are, to quote from a poet in her marvelous compilation, '"shooting stars that leap agile as acrobats.”

Here are samplers to whet your appetite

White Skin
by Ibn 'Abd Rabbihi (860-940) 

I have never seen
nor heard of such a thing

her modesty turns
pearl into carnelian.

Her face is so clear
that when you gaze

on its perfections
you see your own face

The imagery of turning pearl into carnelian gemstone by the blush of her modesty is refreshingly original and striking.

by Ibn Jakh

On the morning they left
we said goodbye
filled with sadness
for the absence to come.

Inside the palanquins
on the camels' backs
I saw their faces beautiful as moons
behind veils of gold cloth.

Beneath the veils
tears crept like scorpions
over the fragrant roses
of their cheeks.

These scorpions do not harm
the cheek they mark.
They save their sting
for the heart of the sorrowful lover.

Reflections of Wine
by Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Hisn (11th Century)

Light passing through wine
reflects on the fingers
of the cupbearer
dyeing them red
as juniper stains
the muzzle of the antelope

by Ibn Faraj (10th Century)

Although she was ready to give
herself to me, I abstained
and did not accept
the temptation Satan offered.

She came unveiled in the night.
illuminated by her face,
night put aside its shadowy
veils as well.

Each one of her glances
could cause hearts to turn over.

But I clung to the divine precept
that condemns lust and reined in
the capricious horses of my passion
so that my instinct
would not rebel against chastity.

And so I passed the night with her
like a thirsty little camel
whose muzzle keeps it from nursing.

by Ibrahim ibn Uthman
(12th Century) (Córdoba)

Don't cross me off as fickle
because a singing voice
has captured my heart.

One must be serious sometimes
and lighthearted at other times:

like wood from which come
both the singer's lute
and the warrior's bow.

by Ibn Iyad (12th Century)

Look at the ripe wheat
bending before the wind

like squadrons of horsemen
fleeing in defeat, bleeding
from the wounds of poppies.

The Goblets
by Idris Ibn Al-Yamani (11th Century)

The goblets were heavy
when they were brought to us

but filled with fine wine
they became so light

they were on the point of flying away
with all their contents

just as our bodies are lightened
by the spirits.

Serene Evening
by Mohammad Ibn Ghalib al-Rusafi (d.1177) Ruzafa, Valencia

A serene evening.
We spend it drinking wine.

The sun, going down,
lays its cheek against the earth
to rest.

The breeze lifts
the coattails of the hills.
The skin of the sky
is as smooth as the pelt
of the river.

How lucky we are to find
this spot for our sojourn
with doves cooing
for our greater delight.

Birds sing,
Branches sigh
And darkness drinks up
The red wine of sunset

The above poems amply illustrative the minds of sensitive creative  artists who lived in an era when poetry hadn't discovered its canons  and yet the outpourings of their hearts rival the poetry of many succeeding  generations. The discovery of Poetic heritage of ancient Muslims in Spain is a topic that would invite serious study as the stunning rhetorical devices and figures of speech effortlessly used by these poets became the flash point for a revolution in Spanish poetry of 20th Century.

Ref: Poems of Arab Andalusia.  Cola Franzen (Translator) .
Publisher: City Lights Publishers (January 1, 2001)  
More by : P. G. R. Nair
Views: 9299      Comments: 4

Comments on this Poem Article

Comment Thank you for these poems and for the good choice you have to make us share
some beautiful images coming from the middle ages.A heritage that we cherish most and which impact is still resonating uptil now.

30-Nov-2015 00:00 AM

Comment no doubt its an awsum analysis of Andalusian Poetry you did and a wonderful book you introduced to me.
keep it up.

Rohma Imran
22-Apr-2015 00:00 AM

Comment Thank you Pili..So glad to receive a feedback from someone who is steeped in Spanish poetry. It was interesting to know that your mother knew well the great Rafael Alberti. I was surprised to see that you are already an author here in Boloji. Will see your works. Perhaps, you may be interested in poetry of Pedro Salinas as well (see My Voice because of you)

31-Jul-2013 00:00 AM

Comment As a woman born in Spain, daughter of Spanish writer Elvira Martin a close friend of Rafael Alberti that you mention in your article (both refugees after Spanish Civil war in Argentina) your article attracted my attention, I am so glad I read it ! You open a treasure chest of the Golden Age in Spain that I was not to familiar with. Love reading the astounding article and poetry and will research the subject further. Thank you so very much P.G.R. Nair.

Pili Pubul
30-Jul-2013 00:00 AM


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