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The story, according to Córdoba-born historian Ibn Hayy-
an, is that when the
of Al-Andalus, ‘Abd al-Rahman
assigned his court poet and trusted ambassador to a
mission to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, the
poet tried his best to refuse.
Independent, insubordinate, even impudent: Such moments
were almost trademarks of Yahya ibn Hakam al-Ghazal,
whose surname meant “the gazelle,” a name given for his
extraordinary good looks and fleet wit. He was known for
satirical verse and sharp epigrams that not infrequently land-
ed him in trouble. Yet it was precisely this kind of trouble
that precipitated his travels, which later included also the far-
thest and earliest Arab journey to the Norsemen, or Vikings,
a journey that, if true, outshines even the more famous (and
better documented) voyage a century later of Ahmad Ibn Fad-
lan up the Volga River.
Because Al-Ghazal himself is not known to have ever
put his own pen to parchment—at least to any that survives
today—we rely on Arab chroniclers of following centuries.
Although some eminent Western historians of Al-Andalus,
including the Frenchman Evariste Lévi-Provençal and the
Spaniard Ambrosio Huici Miranda, are skeptical of their
accuracy, modern historians of the Vikings take the truth of
Al-Ghazal’s story as a given. Ibn Hayyan wrote his 10-vol-
ume history of Al-Andalus in the 11th century, fully 200
years after Al-Ghazal lived, and it is the most complete
record we have of his biography and
, or suite, of
poems, many written and, often, composed orally and recit-
ed on the spot, thanks to his lightning wit. Thus we know
that although he tried to beg off the assignment to Constan-
tinople, protesting that he was too old and the journey too
dangerous, Al-Ghazal eventually acceded, begrudgingly:
Some say that Al-Ghazal is so clever
That after due consideration, he was the one selected.
Yet that was not the reason. Rather it is that I was
The easiest one to be rid of.
So yes I will go, but those who cause me harm
Stand before the whims of fortune;
I only wish it to be God’s plan that I return
Whether they like it or not.
l-Ghazal was born in Jaén, on the Iberian Peninsula,
. This was during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rah-
who had fled for his life from the Umayyad court
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