Arabic literary treasures given new life
Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology
Selected and translated by Geert Jan van Gelder
Library of Arabic Literature
"To Mayyah's two abodes, a greeting to you both; though far, a far-off friend wishes you well.
Arcturus and the Pleiades may send upon you both a downpour and a spreading steady rain,
Even though you have aroused, again, the passion of a yearning one, whose eyes are ever shedding
Yes! tears, that nearly would have killed, if not released, when recognising an abode as Mayyah's.
And this when I was nearing thirty, all my friends turned sober, sense outweighing, nearly, stupid folly.
If distance changes lovers, I at least have not, at Mayyah's mention, found that love has lost its touch.
And nearness brings no boredom to my longing, nor does the love for her leave me when she has left."
The anguish, the wit, the depth, the irony and the treasures found in Arab literature, such as this excerpt of an early Islamic love poem for a woman named Mayyah by one of the last great desert poets, Abu l-Harith Ghaylan Ibn Uqbah - commonly known as Dhu l-Rummah (the one with the frayed rope) - are being brought back to life through a collective effort of scholars and translators.
An anthology, described as a kind of hors d'oeuvre, or mezze, of classic Arabic literature, is the first book published by New York University Abu Dhabi's Library of Arabic Literature, a new series that will combine Arabic editions and English translations of key classical and premodern Arabic literature, anthologies and thematic readers.
"Our aim is to revive and reintroduce classic Arabic literature to a whole new generation of Arabs and non-Arabs, and make it more accessible and readable to everyone," said Philip Kennedy, the general editor of the project and associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies and comparative literature at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Put together by the Arabist and scholar Geert Jan van Gelder, the anthology includes pieces by greats such as Al Mutanabbi (the would-be prophet), who is considered the greatest Arabic poet in Islamic times; Ibn Sina or Avicenna, who is known for his medical and philosophical works in Arabic prose; and Abu Nuwas, a master in several contemporary genres of Arabic poetry and one of the finest cultivators of ghazal in the early Abbasid period.
"This work is an important foretaste of what is to come from the Library of Arabic Literature," said Kennedy, who is fluent in Arabic. "It's a significant work from one of the most respected scholars in the field, and it provides a great variety of selections that may surprise people who have only a smattering of knowledge of Arabic literature."
Texts ranging from the early sixth (pre-Islamic or Jahiliyaah) to the first half of the 18th century, the 496-page book provides a rare chance for readers to travel back through time and discover great works by masters as well as those by women like Umm Khalid and princess Ulayyah bint Al-Mahdi (half sister of the famous Abbasid Caliph Harun Al Rashid), and an impressive collection of prose like the "unhappy love story of Qays and Lubna". The anthology also introduces lesser-known pieces of literary heritage, making them available for the first time to English-language audiences.
"You can't help but get mesmerised and entertained by the range and feeling in each of the works," said Kennedy.
From Umar Ibn Abi Rabi'ah: fervent pieces on his love affairs with women who visited Mecca as pilgrims; an Arabian fairy tale about a prince who plays Goldilocks with 40 girls, eating from their plates and sleeping in their beds; and poems by Ibn Khafajah, who beautifully humanised nature.
From Ibn Khafajah's epigram entitled River:
"Ah God, what a river! It flows in the valley, a watering place lovelier than a girl's crimson lips,
As it bends like a bracelet, flanked by flowers it resembles the Milky Way."
Besides the actual literary pieces, the book includes short biographies of the people behind the words, interesting footnotes at the back, as well as descriptions of the different structures and meters used in poems.
Supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, and established in partnership with NYU Press, this anthology is just the beginning.
The books in the Library of Arabic Literature are being edited and translated by distinguished Arabic and Islamic scholars from across the world, and are published in parallel-text format with Arabic and English on facing pages. In addition to poetry and prose, there will be books on Arabic fiction, religion, philosophy, law, science, history and historiography.
The amount of effort and time spent producing proper translations of the classics was illustrated during a workshop held earlier this month at NYUAD, where two editors at the Library of Arabic Literature discussed a 13th-century work on the wives and concubines of caliphs and sultans.
"The women were like geisha - highly cultivated, elegant and splendid figures of fashion," said Julia Bray, Laudian professorial fellow in Arabic at St John's College, University of Oxford. "But they were not just famous for their physical beauty, they were important cultural figures known for their wit and knowledge."
In the small book titled Nisa' al-Khulafa', scholars find a rare insight into women's history, like one famous poetess named Inan.
"She was very famous. Harun Al Rashid was initially interested in her, but didn't buy her as she was too expensive. She was from Yamama, central Arabia. A place where slaves were brought to be trained to work in royal courts. She was bought by a Baghdad slave trader who was cruel to her," said Bray.
Professor Bray and others in a translation "collective" are translating lines of poems written by Inan and another poet in which the poetess would write a line, and the poet would write a line and so on it went.
"It is a great challenge. But instead of just one person trying to translate it, we decided to turn it into a group effort," she said. "It is like a puzzle that we have to put together."
Like many classic Arabic names, the name Inan was invented for the slave, believed to mean "hands off", implying her virtuousness.
"You would find that dark sense of humour in many of the old texts. Like a dark person would be called 'Melh' (salt)," said Bray.
However, the scholars insist it is difficult to make generalisations about a particular era from the texts that survived.
"It was a cosmopolitan time," said Shawkat M Toorawa, an associate professor of Arabic literature and Islamic studies at Cornell University. "There is evidence that the concubines had property rights, they were patrons of others, and had money. The more pieces we translate on the women from the past, the more insight we can get into a world we don't know much about."
At the same time, the team of experts are aware that many people these days don't read classics.
"It is not just the Arabs, most people these days don't read the classics. Perhaps they don't feel a connection to this part of their heritage, or they think it is difficult to understand," said Toorawa.
"But they should give this new series a chance. It provides access to the treasures of a tradition, and it is done in a more convenient and comfortable format," he said.
Titles due out in the spring of 2013 are: al-Shafi'i's The Epistle on Legal Theory, edited and translated by Joseph E Lowry from the University of Pennsylvania, and A Treasury of Virtues: Sayings, Sermons and Teachings of Ali by al-Qadi al-Quda'i, translated by University of Chicago professor Tahera Qutbuddin.
Ÿ Geert Jan van Gelder's Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology will be available to readers in the UAE at Magrudy's bookstores and is available for purchase online at Amazon.co.uk Cost £16.99 (Dh101).
Rym Ghazal is a senior feature writer and columnist for The National.