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May/June 2015


in Damascus. Not much is known about Al-Ghazal’s early

years, but his family must have been socially prominent,

because as a young man, he was free to move to Córdoba,

and there, he began flirting with power.

To put it that way is apt because, besides his handsome

looks that helped him engage in conversations with women,

Ibn Hayyan also wrote that “together with his education, he

had varied and abundant wisdom; he was able to play the

knowing fool when speaking, and he was funny, intense and

always at ease in his expression.”

It is perhaps to Al-Ghazal’s fortune that he was still too

young to practice his satire during the reign

of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor, Hisham



who is known to have cut out the eyes

and snipped off the ears of a poet who

rubbed him the wrong way. Nev-

ertheless, all that we know of

Al-Ghazal tells us that once he

opened his mouth, he some-

times could not close it in time.

In 832, by then well posi-

tioned in Córdoba and in

his early 50s, al-Ghazal

wrote a scathing verse

about the popular Per-

sian poet and musician

Abul Hasan Ali ibn Nafi,

known also as Ziryab,

who had been invited to

court by ‘Abd al-Rahman


expressly to educate the

amir’s own court poets in

the arts of the Arab East,

which were much admired.

For this Al-Ghazal was sent

briefly into exile—ironically

to Iraq, seat of power of the

rival Abbasids, which also hap-

pened to place him near the feet

of none other than Abu Nuwas,

the greatest Arab poet of all time.

Perhaps Al-Ghazal never fully recov-

ered from this misstep, because even though

he returned from Baghdad a better poet, he was

unable to turn down the ambassadorship to Constan-

tinople. But he tried his best, as Ibn Hayyan recorded his verses

beseeching ‘Abd al-Rahman


to reconsider:

What they give me for being absent, I will consider,

Although being too much, is miserable.

I see death stealing life from the most elusive deer

And, like birds, catching them despite their flight.

He left for Constantinople in 834 as a guest of the Byzan-

tine emissary who had come to Córdoba to forge an alliance

against the Abbasids. But en route, Al-Ghazal apparent-

ly did not care for the Greek’s hospitality, which he found

meager, nor his provisions, which he found light, as he com-

plained in an epigram: “I would like to know how much it

would have cost you to do me the smallest of favors, in case

you had chosen to do even one.”


nce in Constantinople, Al-Ghazal put loyalty first, but

wit was not far behind. Ibn Hayyan wrote that when the

time came for Al-Ghazal’s audience with Emperor Theophi-

lus, the emperor laid a trick to disconcert his Arab visitor:

a doorway so low that nobody could pass through with-

out kneeling, an act which, however inadvertent or forced,

would express submission to the emperor. But Al-Ghazal’s

wit got the better of the moment when he turned

backward and propelled himself through

the tiny door rump first. Once inside, he

turned and stood properly to greet

Emperor Theophilus with due

respect. It seemed that every-

one, Theophilus included, was

impressed, and the meeting

went well.

Theophilus and his

wife, Empress Theodo-

ra, seemed captivated

by the manners of this

experienced court-

ier. According to Ibn

Hayyan, the first time

the poet saw Theo-

dora “wearing jewels

and dressed like a ris-

ing sun,” he was so

impressed that he could

not lower his eyes. When

Theophilus expressed his

annoyance, Al-Ghazal

replied, “I am so dazzled

by the beauty of this queen

and her extraordinary form

that I am unaware of the

reason you have called me here—

and this is fair, for I have never

seen a more beautiful image.”

Once back in Al-Andalus, he was

denounced—unfairly—by the vizier. It con-

cerned a trifling matter of jewelry he was given

abroad and allegedly illegal grain sales he made at home.

Unfair or not, he again faced the displeasure of his amir. Al-

Ghazal took aim at the vizier and all court hypocrites with a

barbed poem:

A judge asked for my opinion

About a man who seemed fair

And thus was to be appointed governor.

“What do you think he will do then?”

And I responded:

What do bumblebees do to bees?

They break into their hives, eat their honey

And leave the left-overs to the flies!