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Volume 14, Number 8October 1963

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Seven Golden Odes

...reflect the adventurous spirit of old-time life in desertlands...


A sound flew gently through the quiet, desert air of early evening. A rawiya (reciter) sang in moving cadence the desert songs of Tarafa. The business of the day seemed gone forever in the outstretched Bakri tribal camp in the Tigris River foothills.

With new-found pride and honor the Bakris had followed the banner of Islam throughout the Persian campaigns. But sadness mingled with a much more ancient pride as the descriptive odes of Tarafa reminded them of their former homes on the great Arabian plain.

Caught in the same emotion was Hammad ar-Rawiya, a thinly built young Persian scholar with sharp features. Hammad visited often with the Bakris and had long since learned the dignity of the ancient Arab poetry. Far more than mere tribal amusement, he saw and heard timeless images and feelings of men intensely involved with life, and he determined that he would collect the finest of these poems and preserve them for all time.

For the better part of a hundred years, the energetic surge of the Arabs under the impetus of Islam had consumed the total energies of the people. By the time the Omayyad dynasty of caliphs (661-749) had set their capital in Damascus and organized a new empire out of old Egypt, Syria, and Persia, the pre-Islamic culture of the Arab desert had suddenly become ancient history.

The earliest disciples of Muhammad had called into question the pagan way of life reflected in some of the desert poetry. But as the Koran spread further and further from the home in which it was born, many of the words and phrases culled from tribal life became obscure in meaning, and often the misunderstanding of a crucial metaphor altered the sense of an entire discourse.

Arabic grammar and lexicography were born when the Muslim teachers first turned to the ancient poets for help in understanding obscure texts in the Koran. Soon, the verses themselves demanded explanation so they in turn might shed a brighter light on the teachings of the Sacred Volume. By the start of the eighth century, many scholars recognized that the poetry had a beauty and a grandeur of its own.

Hammad ar-Rawiya (713-772), known as the Rhapsodist, lived during the peak of this enthusiasm and was himself perhaps its most important advocate. No one thirsted more than he to hear the traditional lore. His quest for the stories, poems, and reports of great battles in old Arabia inspired him to visit the scattered tribes in every corner of the empire.

He once boasted he knew a hundred lengthy odes for every letter of the alphabet, with rhymes for each letter. The Caliph himself challenged the truth of such a boast and brought Hammad to Damascus for a test. After 2900 poems had been recited, the weary Caliph stood convinced and presented him a gift of 100,000 dirhems. Surely no one was better qualified than Hammad to select the first and most famous anthology of Arab poetry.

Hammad's collection, the Mo'allaqat (the suspended), was long thought to have been "suspended" high along the walls of the Ka'bah in the Holy City of Mecca. One tradition said the "Seven Golden Odes" had been written in golden letters on pieces of fine Egyptian linen for display in Mecca. But it was their sheer richness of language and accurate portrayal of the desert experience which thrust these poems high into their exalted position, "suspended" in honor above the rest.

The first poem is the kasidah (ode) of love by Imr al-Qais, thought by many scholars to be the greatest of the ancient poets. Next comes Tarafa, the rebellious youth whose cutting satire cost him his life. Then follows Zuhair, the pagan moralist. Labid, who gave up poetry to follow Islam and lived to be a hundred and fifty. Antara, the legendary Arab-Negro knight. Amr, the Bedouin chief who avenged Tarafa's death. And finally, al-Harith, the Bakr chief whose thrilling battle songs made men forget he was a leper. Each one, during the course of the sixth century, created a classic example of the kasidah, the first and favorite form of poetic expression among the Arabs.

The kasidah develops with an intricate rhythm and rhyme scheme which produces an overpowering emotional effect at public readings. Excitement builds as, line after line, the poet produces precisely the right word with the right sound, so completely interwoven with the thought that it seems inevitable.

The subject matter of the kasidah is unabashedly autobiographical but follows a set, conventional pattern. To soften the hearts of his hearers, the poet starts by telling of the gracious childhood sweetheart he searches for. He finds only deserted remains where her tribe has tarried, and his heart is broken in sorrow. No friend can console him, and in his despair he continues on his journey, singing praises to the sturdy camel which carries him.

The valor and stamina of his camel reminds him of his own, and he remembers the hair-raising battles he has fought, all for the honor of the tribe or in pursuit of vengeance for some mighty crime against his kin. His courage opens outward to all good men: he sings of boundless generosity and extravagant revelry. At last, he speaks a eulogy of his host or patron or hurls invectives against those who have wronged him.

Few areas have accorded their poets greater esteem than did the ancient Arabs. Some excerpts from the poems illustrate how clearly the poet identified his own longings with those of his people. His virtues were their virtues; his victories, their victories. Hear as Tarafa tells of his camel:

Ah, but when grief assails me, straightway I ride it off mounted on my swift, lean-flanked camel, night and day racing, sure-footed, like the planks of a litter; I urge her on down the bright highway, that back of a striped mantle; her long neck is very erect when she lifts it up calling to mind the rudder of a Tigris-bound vessel. Her skull is most like an anvil, the junction of its two halves meeting together as it might be on the edge of a file. Her cheek is smooth as Syrian parchment, her split lip a tanned hide of Yemen, its slit not bent crooked; her eyes are a pair of mirrors, sheltering in the caves of her brow-bones, the rock of a pool's hollow. Her trepid heart pulses strongly, quick, yet firm as a pounding-rock set in the midst of a solid boulder. Such is the beast I ride. . . .

Labid extols the ways of the community:

When the assemblies meet together, we never fail to supply a match for the gravest issue, strong to shoulder it, a partitioner, bestowing on all the tribe their due, granting to some their rights, denying the claims of some for the general good, generous, assisting liberality, gentlemanly, winning and plundering precious prize, sprung of a stock whose feathers laid down a code for them, and every folk has its code of laws and its high ideal.

Zuhair searches for the meaning of war:

War is nothing else hut what you've known and yourselves tasted, it is not a tale told at random, a vague conjecture; when you stir it up, it's a hatefid thing you've stirred up; ravenous it is, once you whet its appetite; it bursts aflame, then it grinds you as a millstone grinds on its cushion; yearly it conceives, birth upon birth, and with twins for issuevery ill-omened are the boys it hears you. . .

Through the centuries the Mo'allaqat has continued to hold its place of prominence in Arabic poetry. Many scholars consider it the major classic of secular Arabic verse, and for many secondary schools in the Middle East it is required reading. The songs of Imr al-Qais and Tarafa still echo the ancient tribal life on the Arabian desert.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the October 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for October 1963 images.