In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and ArabLit editor M. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. In this first part of their discussion, Kurpershoek touches on the relationship between this poetry and pre-Islamic works; how it illuminates life in the eighteenth-century Najd; what we know about Hmedan’s life; and how his poems live on in contemporary Central Arabia.
This interview also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature website.
Can you talk a bit about that moment in 1987 when you first came across Hmedan’s work? What first struck you about it? How has your relationship with Hmedan and his poetry changed over the intervening decades?
Marcel Kurpershoek: I was a working as a diplomat then in Riyadh. I got interested in this kind of poetry because I was looking for ways to reach beyond the normal diplomatic life, which is a bit superficial. You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all.
I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy.
These poems were tantalizing. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not?
Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently.
And when you first came across Hmedan’s work?
MK: People told me that he was a great poet, and this collection was available—there were not too many books of Nabati poetry. I started reading the collection, and there was a classical Arabic introduction that I could read without difficulty. Then I sat with Saad Sowayan, who is the greatest authority on Nabati poetry, and with Abdalah al-Fawzan who had just published his PhD and an edition of Hmedan’s poetry: he is from the same town as Hmedan, al-Qasab.
Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period.
In your introduction, you note that Hmedan’s voice and words are “immediately recognizable to a large audience of cognoscenti in Riyadh and beyond.” Where is the beyond? Where is his work known?
MK: Basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia. I have asked people here, in the Emirates, and very few know him.
What about elsewhere in Saudi Arabia?
MK: Not very much. Even in the Hijaz they might not know them. It’s mostly central Arabia. But for all the people who know poetry in Riyadh and the rest of Central Arabia, the province of Najd, —and there are a lot of them—he is very important. He is maybe the No. 1 poet. He’s quite famous.
From there—what inspired you to want to translate the poems?
MK: This idea has been around for a long time, because this poetry has not been very much translated in a scholarly way. We discussed it—Saad Sowayan, Philip Kennedy, and I—at a conference here on Nabati poetry at NYUAD.
LAL has so far only published works that are in classical Arabic, and not this kind of poetry—you cannot really say it’s dialect, but it’s a mixture of Najdi colloquial and very old Arabic. So let’s call it Nabati. They have not done any translations from that heritage. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate.
Hmedan was an obvious choice, because he’s always been regarded as one of the foremost, and the other one I’m preparing now, for executive review, is a nineteenth century poet, Ibn Sbayyil.
It’s a big step for the Library of Arabic Literature to move beyond the classical canon into this kind of field, and I think it pays off. It’s not only the first work published outside the literature in classical Arabic, but it’s also the only source we have for what people thought in that part of the world before the Wahhabi reform movement. We have no other sources. We have only the chronicles, and they are very dry. They say there was a drought, or there was a flood, or it rained, or there was a war, and that tribe marched from here to there.
But nothing at all about how people lived, how they interacted, what they thought.
Who do you imagine reading it, beyond historians? Those who enjoy good literature?
MK: I sent it to some friends in Holland, who are interested in literature, and one of them told me, “It still smells like fresh bread.”
The collection is very old, but it’s a voice that’s immediately very striking. Immediately, you start to imagine a certain kind of person—who likes to rail, and who likes to unmask hypocrisy, who has a very sharp critical mind.
And what sort of scholars?
MK: This is something new—in an unknown field, an unknown area. And it’s not just any area. It’s the exact area where the Arabic language started.
If you look at the oldest pre-Islamic Arabic poets, they’re all from there. So this is interesting from a scholarly perspective. There was an uninterrupted tradition of poetry there, that continued even in the centuries that disappear from view.
The center of gravity moved out of that area—to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Spain. That area remained behind, and was kind of forgotten. But apparently the people kept the tradition alive, and it emerged almost as it was when it disappeared. You have a dinosaur, and you thought it was extinct, and then suddenly you find some of that species somewhere.
But you didn’t start translating this collection straight after you read it, in the 1980s or 1990s.
MK: I started by doing my own fieldwork. I had a tape recorder, and I went out into the desert to meet real, live poets. At that time, you still had great Bedouin poets, and I thought this was the priority: These people were still alive, I could record their work. So I traveled all through the country with my tape recorder, and I published a lot of them in the five Brill volumes.
That was the sort of work Arabic collectors were doing in the eighth and ninth centuries. They used to go into the desert and collect the poetry. That’s the classical poetry we have now—the work of those collectors at that time. I thought this had absolute priority, because if they die, it’s gone. Maybe some others will still know their verses, but the best authority is always the poet himself.
I spent a lot of time on that. And now, finally, I can finish what I started with.
Which of his poems were most well-known?
MK: The poems that are forbidden are always the most well-known.
The most extreme things are what he’s still famous for. He’s famous for this poem when he returns from Iraq and he ridicules every town he comes back to, on his way. And he’s famous for this poem where he ridicules his own son. And especially for the lurid sex scenes with his son’s luxury-loving wife.
It doesn’t necessarily mean he had a son like that. We don’t know. Maybe this is all art of a theatrical set of characters. But this is what he’s known best for—these two poems.
They’re also recognizable for their meter, which creates a mocking tone. People like that, it’s fun.
You note in your introduction that this is not one of the usual classical meters. You call it a more “deadpan” meter.
MK: Most of his really sarcastic poems are in that meter. It’s funny to see how meter and content are connected—there’s not too much written about that.
No, it’s not classical. The language requirements are not there in classical, because short vowels are elided in Najdi. So these meters are adapted from classical meters, but in accordance with the development of the vernacular.
I have been trying to get my head around a biographical sketch: Hmedan was born in al-Qasab around 1680 as part of the al-Sayyari clan. Before he flourished as a poet (1705-1740?) he worked as an agricultural laborer in Iraq (1702-1703?), and perhaps he cultivated a grove of date palms in al-Qasab after his return? Then, around the middle of his productive decades, he disputed with his kinsmen and sought refuge in Uthafiyah (around 1725?) after other towns perhaps declined his request for asylum. He later instigated Uthafiyah to rise up against Tharmada’? Do we have an idea of his biography?
MK: Everything we know is in the book.
Basically, we know his poetry, and that’s the only source we have. He is mentioned in the chronicles, but these chronicles quote his poetry. Sometimes, with oral literature, there is tendency to take poetry as proof of story. So often, the story itself has derived from poetry, which makes it a circle.
Many of these poets have become legendary figures. For instance, there’s a poet called Nimr ibn Adwan in what’s now Jordan. He has a famous love story in which his wife died young, of cholera, and it became a fairy tale or legend. So you see Hmedan in all kinds of folktales. They say they know exactly how he looked—that he was a very small guy, and he walked with a bent gait, he had a long white beard, and when he spoke everyone else is silent. But all these things are derived from his poetry.
And it’s the same in classical poetry, I’m sure. There are certain poems and people who readers and listeners start to fantasize about, and make stories about. And these stories are related from one generation to the next. It’s part of the oral culture performance context.
But there are some things we can guess about his life.
MK: Basically, we have to make deductions. For instance, he has a famous poem of apologies to a very powerful ruler in his time, ‘Abd Allah ibn Mu’ammar, whom he seems to have insulted, which put his life in peril. This has been compared to a very famous poem of apologies by a pre-Islamic poet, al-Nabigha al-Dhubyani. There are indeed parallels.
We know when the ruler dies (1725-26), because this is in the chronicles. And of course he wouldn’t have sent the poem after the ruler died.
He also speaks about when he came back from Iraq, and he connects it with a famine. This clearly has something to do with what you read in the chronicles about severe drought in certain years. You can look up in the chronicles the dates of droughts.
Also, this is not a poem of an old person. He speaks of hardship, and he speaks in a defiant, mocking voice. It’s a very daring piece. And so you can choose between this drought (1702-03) and that drought (1715-18).
It’s like archaeology, you find a lot of shards, and you try to piece them together.
Some of the works attributed to Hmedan you haven’t included in your collection.
MK: Of course, some of the poems are of doubtful authenticity.
Some people doubt the authenticity of these very rough poems with the sex scenes, in which his son appears, or his daughter-in-law, or himself in a not very flattering way. Some people ask: How could he write something like this about himself?
Some say: The first part of the poem, before the sex scene starts, maybe he composed that one. But the other part was added by his enemies.
We don’t know! The only thing we know is that all his manuscripts have these poems. If it’s in more than one manuscript, there’s no reason to take it out. We try to give as complete a picture of his work as possible.
In any case, the picture that emerges is very much of a real person. That’s the amazing thing.
I think that there really must be an authentic core there—because the work hangs together. Ideas that turn up in one poem, you see it in another. The images, the tone. It matches, let’s say.
How does he relate to other poets?
MK: He mentions another poet who praised this ruler, but he says, I will do better.
I think he was also competing with other poets, because he clearly says, My renown shot beyond the stars. Of course this is normal. All the great poets, they used to compete.
But he didn’t compose poems for money?
MK: No, I don’t believe that he earned money by his trade.
Of course he had supporters.
When I started doing research for this publication, I went to Hmedan’s town, and also to the town where he sought asylum. People still know him there, and they could still point out his grove of palm trees.
I think when he came there, he was honored. They had a famous person in their hometown. And they could use him—how he composed poetry, how he ridiculed their enemies. It’s having like a television station in your country, like Al-Jazeera in Qatar or Al-Arabiya in Dubai.
So he didn’t get paid for his poetry, but it enhanced his status as a person. It had many advantages, even without being paid.
In the introduction to Arabian Satire, you note that you used 10 manuscripts. Does that represent what is currently available? Do we have any idea of how might have been purposefully destroyed by the Ikhwan of the Wahhabi movement?
MK: As far as I know, ten is what’s currently available. If I had known about more, I would also have used them.
There could be more. A lot of these kinds of manuscripts are held in private collection, even by princes of the Saud dynasty, but you don’t know if they’re there. They’re not publicly accessible.
On the other hand, some of these manuscripts are accessible on the internet. You have the website, for instance, of Saad Sowayan: www.saadsowayan.com.
Are there stories behind any of these manuscripts?
MK: The oldest manuscript—I discovered it.
Where did you find it?
MK: It was in France, in Strasbourg. One of the Arabian travelers, he brought it from a trip to Arabia in 1880.
It created a sensation in Saudi Arabia when they found out about it, so I got a copy from France for Leiden University in Holland, and they allowed me to take a microfilm copy to Saad Sowayan.
I also gave a copy to the owner of the bookstore, Qays Library, a learned man, Muhammad Hamdan, who helped me a lot with getting the books and copies I needed, and who also published a diwan of Hmedan’s poetry. In the introduction, he mentions how he got a copy of the French manuscript from me and used it. It is called the Huber manuscript, after the French traveler Charles Huber who bought in in the 1880’s. Huber was murdered in the desert by his guide, and people still mention it with shame. Hamdan was from a town that bordered the one Hmedan insulted, and he did not like that and said the poem was not authentic. But he took me to Hmedan’s town and the town of his asylum. He didn’t blame Hmedan for the poem, but instead the people who smuggled in these nasty verses – it always goes like that.
Among the printed copies, you note in your introduction, some of the sections of Hmedan’s poetry have been redacted. Yet this is not true of the manuscripts. Was it something about the shift to print, rather than a shift in time, that made compilers and editors remove parts of Hmedan’s work and replace them with ellipses?
MK: That shows you how current these poems are. If you publish something in America which is 300 years old, people wouldn’t care. But here they care, because all these towns are still there, and with many of the same families.
In the published edition, there are many ellipses in the poem which is, in the LAL book, on page 47.
This is when he returned from Iraq, and he talks about all these towns. Most of the families he mentions in the poem are still there, because these are old families, and you have this tremendous continuity. So even if you were to publish this poem today—which says that half of the people in this town are sissies, and the others of them are pansies—they would feel terribly insulted. Even though everyone knows that these words are in the manuscripts, and everyone knows these verses.
If you publish it, it’s different. It’s like it’s being said about them with the permission of the government. Because nothing is published there without the permission of the government. So, if it’s published, it kind of means that the government agrees this is true.
What about the poem that’s No. 19 in your collection, that begins: “Our plowmen labored in the fields / while he was distracted by little Sarah”? The one that describes sex between his son and daughter-in-law?
MK: The sexual scenes are considered less sensitive than what they say about families and tribes and towns, because he’s basically just talking about himself and his family.
The sexual as such is not as sensitive. There, it’s more what it means for people’s honor and status in society. If someone likes to make a fool of himself, they don’t care.
There are some ellipses in that poem, but much less than in the poem about the characterization of various towns and families.
I’d like to talk about his wide, varied, and vivid focus on anthropomorphized animal lives. Was it common to Najdi poetry or was it something of Hmedan’s own innovation? What does it tell us about the people and animals of the time?
MK: These poems are all emblematic, and they symbolize certain traits in men. Animals are taken as images of men, and we have a range from despicable birds that peck in the gutter to falcons. Or from a cow, which was a despised animal, to a camel, a symbol of all the important things in life.
What I like best is the poem about the spiny-tailed lizard, called a dabb. He tells it as an animal parable, because this is an animal that’s admired for its toughness. It’s very hard to kill it. Even if you put it in a cooking pot, it keeps on swimming in the boiling water. It’s very hard to stop its heart beating. And it lives in a burrow, which is a metaphor for the Najdi towns, where people can ensconce themselves against the enemy.
This poem-parable was about how to coax the dabb out of his burrow. As long as he’s in the burrow, you can’t get him. And it’s done by telling him: There is so much to eat, in this case swarms of locusts on the ground, as that’s what the dabb considers a delicacy.
This is all a moral tale. It points to how people are defeated by their greed.
So animals are used as a moral tale. But the poems also tell you something, nevertheless, about the animals, and how they are seen, and their lives. They play quite a role there.
In the history of Nabati poetry, from thirteenth c. to now, what sort of period did Hmedan compose in? Was it a golden age of Nabati poetry? Did Nabati have a “golden age”?
MK: We can speak about classical Nabati poetry, because I’m not talking about what you have today, the Millions Poets competition.
My research into this poetry still includes the first age of cars and airplanes. In the classical tradition, they would just replace the camel rider and messenger with someone driving a car or in an airplane. But there must be still something of the desert environment in it. My research stops somewhere around the year 2000 or so.
If you look at that period, I would say the time of Hmedan was part of a Golden Age. But when the Wahhabi movement started, it became less so, because they were against this kind of secular poetry, and against smoking, and against singing.
At first, the Wahhabis were not that strong, and then they were destroyed by the Egyptian army of Muhammad Ali. Then they continued, but much weaker. They only came back in 1902, when the father of the present king re-conquered Riyadh, and then he started to rebuild the Saudi-Wahhabi state.
At that time, you had the Ikhwan, and I heard so many stories of families whose manuscripts they burned, or the families burned the manuscripts themselves because in many families at least some joined the movement. I even met people who had seen it. At the time I was there, thirty years ago, I met people who were 90 years old, and they had seen it happen.
That was a clear sign that the tradition was in danger, and had to go underground. The man I’m translating now, Ibn Sbayyil, he died in 1933. I think the last decades of his life, he practically did not compose any poetry. At least none we know of.
I think all of the nineteenth century, but especially the time of the Ibn Rashid court in Ha’il, was a lively time for poetry. Ibn Rashid was very much like the kings of old, who surrounded themselves with these poets for a purpose. You can see from the travelers’ accounts that Ibn Rashid was Wahhabi in theory, and to some extent in practice, but he definitely used tribes and poets as part of his politics and image-building.
So the 19th century is really the Golden Age for me.
What were some of the main translation challenges as you brought Hmedan’s diwan into English? Did you consider, at any point, end rhyme?
MK: My English is not good enough for that, I think, and I never considered doing rhyme. Also, I’m afraid I would’ve had to sacrifice too much of the content and precision. A lot of these things are not well-known in our culture, so you need a few more words to explain what it’s about.
In Nabati poetry, rhyme is an intrinsic feature, but I don’t think that means we have to emulate that. I think the idea is more to find ways to get the man and his poetry across.
Were there particular difficulties or challenges in translating these 34 poems?
MK: There are always obscurities in this old poetry. You do the reading you can, and still things remain obscure. So then you ask people who still live in the environment for information. Then you narrow it down to a few issues. After all this, a few points have remained obscure.
In the longer poems, and the more political poems, most of the problems arise through the process of transmission. At some point, these poems were written down, but we don’t know when. The manuscripts we have were copied from earlier manuscripts. Maybe with some oral input, we don’t know.
But we don’t know anything about the transmission process—up to the time when we got the first manuscript.
And if they are long and complicated poems about events that are obscure even 100 years later, then things can get mixed up. Poems with the same meter and rhyme can be easily confused. Parts of one poem migrate to another poem. Another thing is the order of verses, especially in the case of long poems.
I had to compare the 10 manuscripts. And then you just have to make your choices.
For instance, there is one poem that mentions two people who could not have possibly lived in the same time. He couldn’t have possibly meant Abdallah in this poem. There is one manuscript that gives the name Muhammad. I chose this manuscript, because that made more sense in the chronology. If nine manuscripts have it one way, that doesn’t mean the tenth is wrong. You have to compare it to the chronicles.
Abdallah might have been added because he was more well-known than Muhammad.
This also happened to poets. If one poet is more famous than the others, sometimes poems from the less-famous poet are ascribed to a more-famous poet. We can never forget that the classical poetry we have now is the same, and it originated in the same way. Some of these poems were written down for the first time 200 years after they were composed.
These are the sorts of things we can learn by working on more recent poems.
My favorite character is Sarah, who he also calls Sweera. She takes on such a key part in this diwan. Are there other such vivid female characters in Nabati poetry?
MK: I don’t know if you could call her a character, it’s more of a caricature. Through this diwan, he gives all kinds of messages about how to behave. I call his diwan a survival manual. Because he says, about Sarah or Sweera, that the way she behaves doesn’t contribute to the life of the community. She’s a drag on others, she’s egoistical, she’s not baking bread at night. She’s a luxury doll.
His poetry represents something we can hardly imagine now with Saudi’s oil wells and billions, and that’s a very austere, a very frugal society. Early Wahhabism doesn’t come from there for nothing. At any moment, you can have a drought that kills eighty percent of the population.
It’s very poor. And the life is very hard. So they have this kind of tough, sarcastic, no-nonsense mentality, where they’re suspicious of other people’s motives, and there’s constant war. It was a Hobbesian environment, and he tells people how to survive in that environment.
And yet it’s not black or white—it reflects life in a way people still recognize today.