At opposite poles are the worlds of commerce and poetry, the one ruled by realists, the other by dreamers. Yet there was a time when the two worlds were one, meeting and mingling in the fabled Arabian market town of 'Ukaz, and in the minds of the merchant-poets who foregathered there. The town is gone now, its disappearance perhaps symbolic of the impossibility of these two types of human endeavor—each so essential to man's well-being—to coexist at such close quarters. But before it went it left a deep mark in the history of Arab letters; indeed, to some the history of Arab letters begins at 'Ukaz.
The pressure of centuries has laminated fact and legend about 'Ukaz into a thin layer of tradition, pressed like a dry leaf between the pages of memory. Situated on a plain among the high arid hills halfway from Taif to Mecca, 'Ukaz was the last of the market towns before the holy site of the Black Stone, the goal of pilgrims from all Arabia. Mecca was a spiritual journey's end and at 'Ukaz, therefore, they had one last opportunity to indulge in the worldly pleasures of good conversation, the display of fine camels and hard bargaining. Its informal trade in time evolved into an annual fair preceding the pilgrimage season, and no man who wanted to know what his distant allies and enemies had been doing during the previous year—as who did not?—could afford to miss the fair. For there, in the perfect safety of the four months of "holy truce," men laid aside their weapons, listened to petitions, redeemed prisoners, heard poems in their praise (in return for silver and golden rewards in exact proportion to the ingenuity of the poet), and resolved feuds which in another place, another time, would have left brave men dead upon the ground.
Heralds of powerful men would go through the dusty streets, proclaiming their readiness to help their fellow pilgrims. "Whosoever be in need of food—I will feed him," one could cry. "Whosoever be afraid—I shall protect him," shouted another, and a third, "Whosoever be without means to go to Mecca—my camels will bear him." The luxuries of desert life were few, and the shaikhs could think of no better expenditure of their money and effort than the acquisition of a reputation for generosity among their fellowmen. Then, even as in recent times, men worked hard and took enormous risks to become rich, only to pauperize themselves in magnificent entertainments and banquets open to all who could fight their way to the board. At 'Ukaz during the season of the "holy truce," many a reputation was created for open-handedness which outlived by generations the benefactor himself.
But there was yet another way to become celebrated, available to the most humble man, guaranteeing a fame at once painless and permanent. This was the creation of a poem of such vigor, beauty and irrepressible rhythm that the hearers would absorb it as it stood, wear it like a rich robe, carry it to the far horizons of Arabia, and pass it down from father to son as part of their own legacy. Prose invention, primarily in the form of stories instructive or martial, underwent a constant metamorphosis, improving with each telling or dying in the process. Poetry was immutable. Either it survived in its original form or it died stillborn. Its rhythms and its rhymes made possible committing it to memory—an important consideration, since writing generally was still centuries in the future. And the incentive to remember was there, for poetry was the transportable substitute for painting, architecture, sculpture, music, history, moral instruction and the daily newspaper—all wrapped into one.
Tradition says that the first Arabic poetry was nudged into being by the rhythmic tread of the camel's uneven gait, imitated in words by a rider either bored, inspired, or perhaps only interested in keeping his companions awake and amused. If so, the tradition would explain the synonymity of shadi (singer) and saa'iq (cameleer). From a structural standpoint, however, it is probably that rhymed prose used by sages and traveling poets was the prototype of Arabian poetry. The budas' of the camel driver was quite possibly the next development, as custom maintains, derivative of the camel's tread. Rajaz, the metrical interval of greatest antiquity, with four or six feet to the line, developed from rhymed prose. "It was the first-born child of poetry," according to Arab definition, "with rhymed prose for a father and song for a mother."
These poetic forms found ample expression in recording the dynastic struggles that beset the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic days. Often they are our only source of information about the events of the time, and many of them were first voiced in 'Ukaz. Lending itself especially to that era of the individualist was the qasiidah (ode) which memorialized the deeds of desert heroes. "Appearing with Homeric suddenness," historian Philip K. Hitti writes, "the qasiidah surpasses even the Iliad and the Odyssey in metrical complexity and elaborateness. Rich in animated passion, expressed in forceful and compact language," the qasiidah dominated the recitations at 'Ukaz. But poetry had softer and less martial uses too, as is illustrated by the well-remembered story of the poet al-A'sha.
Once al-A'sha, on his travels, was entertained by one al-Muhalliq who had many lovely but—alas!—single daughters, to whom he hoped al-A'sha's compliments would attract hosts of suitors. The father slaughtered his only camel for a feast, displayed his beautiful daughters in their finery, and hopefully awaited the compliments which never came. Al-Muhalliq was deeply disappointed when his guest left, uttering not a single syllable in their praise.
A few months later, however, al-A'sha appeared at 'Ukaz to take part in a great poetry competition, and for his offering he recited a long ode to—not the beauty of his daughters—but the generosity of al-Muhalliq himself, concluding with these lines:
I cannot sleep, but not because of heartbreak or sickness;
That beacon-light so distant keeps calling me, just
As all humankind, lured by its tender warmth, must
Toward it turn, where in the soft night's stillness
The princely form of al-Muhalliq by his fire for all to see
Awaits us impatiently, attended by his son Hospitality.
Since tradition had it that especially hospitable Arabs would light a bonfire to guide strangers to their tents, that they might partake of the host's liberality, the moral of the poem was not lost on al-A'sha's listeners. Visitors were soon flocking to al-Muhalliq's fireside, and to his immense relief he soon became the father-in-law of many rich and powerful men.
Not only in the development of poetry, but in the evolution of the Arabic language itself, 'Ukaz played a significant role. Limited by custom to nonviolent argument, the merchant-poets engaged in friendly controversy over the relative merits of the many regional dialects they spoke. The result was an informal, Arabic version of the Academie Francaise, in which many of the individual dialectical distinctions disappeared by common consent, replaced by terminology everybody could agree on. The fair at 'Ukaz thus gave a powerful impetus to the unification of the Arabic language, a process carried to its logical fulfillment by Muhammad in the revelation of the Koran.
It is still remembered with affection by everyone who recalls that the ancient attributes of the perfect Arab were articulation together with proficiency in archery and horsemanship, and that "the beauty of man lies in the eloquence of his tongue."
Saif ad-Din Ashoor is a former editor of Kafilat al-Zait (Oil Caravan), a monthly magazine published in Arabic by the Arabian American Oil Company.