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Volume 31, Number 2March/April 1980

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The Fair at Ukaz

Written by Jon Mandaville
Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale

Empires come and go. Governments topple, dynasties pass; but through it all, year in, year out, the fair came out to the edge of town.

All around the Peninsula every settlement had its market day once a week; larger towns had theirs every month. Families came in from the smallest outlying hamlets, their donkeys and camels loaded with grain and baskets, homespun cloth and woven rugs, products from the farm to trade for finer woven textiles brought from outside, perhaps from India, by town merchants, for farming equipment from the town blacksmiths, for fired and glazed dishes from the town potters. There were toys for the children, jewelry and cosmetics for the ladies, a chance to talk and gossip with neighbors, hear a wandering minstrel. Far-away imperial wars were interesting, but this was really important.

Each market was an American county fair in small. The largest of all were held once a year, and there on the edge between settled land and pastoral they drew in crowds of desert people, tribes with friends and relations in the towns of the region.

Fair day was filled with dust rising from the hooves of nervously milling animals, the noise of roaring camels and lowing cattle, of arguing traders. In the evening, with the major deals completed, the wives returned from a long day of shopping with the children scarcely awake, exhausted by the games and excitement; the men gathered on blankets before a fire, talking late into the night of animals and men, weather and politics, land and hunting. No one packed for the long trip home on the morrow. The business of the fair was over, perhaps, but the best was yet to come. The following day brought the races.

Everyone was up early on race day for the best seat along the straight, roughly laid out course. Horses were run, then camels. They ran family against family, town against town, tribe against tribe. Honor was at stake for the year; bragging and betting went on continuously among the crowds lining the track. It was good-natured competition for some, the settling - and making - of grudges for others. It was the culmination of the fair. Of all the fairs, that is, save one.

In that one, a single competition remained for the evening which drew competitors not only regionally but from all over the Peninsula as well. To win it was the ultimate in honors. The competition was in poetry; the location, the Ukaz Fair.

Some have alleged that this national poetry competition never took place, that it is the fairy-tale production of ninth-century Arab literary figures. Perhaps; but Ukaz the place exists. A few miles toward the desert from Taif, on the high plateau east of Mecca, the jumbled piles of hewn rocks have been known far back into history as Ukaz, and are earmarked for excavation by the new historians. Bits of pottery, glass, and metal are scattered about between the rocks and under the thorny acacia trees. You might scratch your head; but after all, what does a fairground look like when the crowds go home?

The poetic form set for the competition was the qasidah, an ode. Control of this form demands tremendous technical craftsmanship. Beyond the line-end rhyme, there are rigid internal patterns to follow, with complex rules governing variations on patterns. By the sixth century even the general theme was dictated: happening upon a deserted campsite and the memories this evoked of past loves, past battles, a lyric description praising one's tribe and homeland.

No one questions the central place of poetry in the lives of the pre-Islamic Peninsular people. It was their song, their painting; it was their main instrument of cultural creation. Like the Welsh eisteddfod, the Ukaz poetry tourney was entirely in keeping with the people and the land.

Though the tents of Ukaz are gone, the events of the competition come back easily with a little imagination. The crowd, sitting, standing, murmurs quietly in anticipation as a figure makes his way forward. The evening star is out and the rest will follow quickly. The contestant stands a moment while the whispers trail into silence. Then he lifts his head and slowly, deliberately, staring unseeing at the dark line of the hills before him, recites the first line.

The tension among the people eases a little; the pattern of the ode is right, and the variation is interesting. The next line follows, and the next; tension once again rises as the end line is recognized as difficult and the imagery complex. By the halfway mark one can know that he is very good, as the rhythm takes hold and the picture unfolds line upon line. Yet even the slightest break, the slightest misalignment, will bring the whole poetic edifice down. Can he sustain it to the end?

Now each line is met with an "Ah!" of appreciation. When the last line is finished and the tension released, a great roar goes up from the hundreds of listeners. A new poet laureate is born.

Who were these great poets of Ukaz? We know some of them and their poetry from the sixth century. Later literary critics agreed (to the extent that critics can) on seven, at least, whose odes they put together in one collection. They were called the "Golden" or "Suspended" Odes. The name comes from stories which were told of each victorious ode having the honor of being painted in gold on fine linen and hung on the building of the holy shrine in Mecca.

'Antar, the Black Knight, was one: no one better at describing the excitement and terror of the battlefield. Tarafa was another, from the lands around al-Hasa; he went to Hira around A.D. 564 to seek his fortune, antagonized the ruler there with a satirical line and was poisoned for his pains. There is Zuhayr the Moralist from northern Najd, who dwelt on the iniquities of war rather than its glories. His sisters wrote poetry also; his son Ka'b, upon his conversion to Islam, wrote a famous ode entitled "The Cloak," about the Prophet. Imr al-Qays, the Himyarite prince, found patronage for both his politics and his poetry in Damascus, while al-Harith, reputedly a leper, found his at Hira. Hira also attracted 'Amr ibn Kulthum, long-lived leader of the Taghlib tribe and Labid, the Man with the Crooked Staff.

With Labid ends the seven, and rightly so. Labid's life spanned the birth and death of the Prophet. He died in 662, a weary old man of 140. (On his 120th birthday he wrote, "I have grown tired of life, of the length of my days dragging on, and of men forever asking, 'How is Labid today?'") At about 102, he converted to Islam, whereupon he swore never to write pagan poetry again. A new time had begun for the Peninsula.

Not long ago it was common in the West to speak of Islam as emerging from "the desert." It is becoming clear, as the work of the new historians progresses, that the reality is enormously more complicated than that. The Prophet, as quoted in the Hadiths, condemned the days before Islam as "Days of Ignorance ."But not ignorance of civilization; rather, ignorance of God and His way; not the ignorance of primitive, isolated peoples, but the ignorance of paganism, the paganism of Dilmun and Babylon, Greece and Rome and Persia.

All of these great world civilizations, pagan though they were, formed, with others, part of the heritage of the Arabs of the Peninsula on the eve of Islam. Like Labid's poetry, Islam took this heritage and molded it; and with the guidance of a man of God led the Arabs out to take their turn in the shaping of our modern world.

This article appeared on pages 36-40 of the March/April 1980 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1980 images.