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
by Moris Farhi (London)
via Modern Poetry in Translation
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 untouched.
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 my maid.
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 no compunction:
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 me thrice.
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 finer-than-wine
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 refuge-shade.
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.
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New Series No. 17 - 2001
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