- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

MUSIC OF A DISTANT DRUM: CLASSICAL ARABIC, PERSIAN AND HEBREW POEMS
Translated and Introduced by Bernard Lewis
Princeton University Press, $23, 222 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY SUREKHA VIJH


Poetry is wine for the heart and soul, balm for the wounded and comfort for the tired. From East to West poets have always been intoxicated by the process of praising their gods, kings, lovers and warring soldiers.
In the Middle East, a tradition of poetry had been established long before Christianity and Islam. Not only were poets placed on a higher pedestal but they were respected by the kings and noblemen of their times. Poets and poetry in particular have been the subject of passionate, one might almost say obsessive, interest from the earliest times to the present day. This respect for poets is especially remarkable if one compares it with the other arts in the Middle East.
"Music of a Distant Drum," an anthology of classical Middle Eastern poetry, edited and translated by Bernard Lewis, is a literary milestone. For the first time in English, poems from four leading literary traditions of the Middle East, representing a wide sweep of medieval history, appear in a volume compiled by a single translator.
Mr. Lewis, a well known scholar of Arabic language and one of the foremost authorities on the region's culture and history, offers a work of startling beauty that leaves no doubt as to why such poets were courted by kings of their day. Like those in the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam," the poems here, as ensured by Mr. Lewis' mastery of all source languages, and his impeccable style and taste, come fully alive in English.
These 132 poems, most of which here make their English-language debut, represent the three major languages of medieval Islam Arabic, Persian and Turkish with the remainder from the Hebrew. They span more than 1,000 years, from the seventh century to the early-18th century, when poetry, like so much else, was shattered and reshaped by the impact of the West. They range from panegyric and satire to religious poetry and lyrics about wine, women and love.
This collection reveals the extensive heritage of Islamic poetry andits Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew "rich and ancient" cultures that "reflect a wide variety of approaches and activities, from the pagan desert to the Muslim city," showing how Islamic culture from the antiquity has been composed of interrelated, "multiracial" groups.
"Arabs developed an elaborate and sophisticated literature analysis and literary history centuries before such studies were conceived, let alone executed, in Europe. Even caliphs and sultans did not disdain to compose and publish poems, on love, on war and other themes," observes Mr. Lewis.
One may wonder, seeing the current political atmosphere in the Middle East, where the Arabic aggressive side is more prominent. Jihad (physical struggle) and hatred for non-Muslims, is a total contrast with Arabs' most refined and lyrical ancient tradition and culture.In classical times, the Arabs prized two arts above all others, and took pride in their mastery of both poetry and eloquence. This book in a way is a tribute to the most charismatic side of that Middle Eastern culture.
Mr. Lewis' erudite introduction discusses the emergence of Arabic languages and the status of poets, and pays tribute to "the love of poetry and respect for poetry characteristic of Arabic culture." He relates the incident of the late King Hussein of Jordan who held a lunch for the chiefs of the loyal tribes. Following the feast a tribal poet appeared with an ode in praise of the king. After a few moments the poet paused the king thought he had finished and began to rise to his feet. The poet said, "Wait a minute, I haven't finished yet." The king obediently resumed his seat and allowed the poet to complete his verse.
Of various ethnicities, 54 predominately male poets (Omar Khayyam and Rumi are the most familiar) living in diverse countries (e.g. Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and Spain) express international cultural awareness centuries before the modern era. Sometimes humorous or mystical, the poems focus on family, love and religion. Including biographies, illustrations, and an appendix of scripts of each source language, this collection is fine historical document in addition to everything else.

In one hand the Qur'an, in the other wineglass,
sometimes keeping the rules, some times breaking them.
Here we are in this world, unripe and raw;
not outright heathens, not quite Muslim Mujir (12th century)


Omar Khayyam was a multifaceted man who lived at around the time the second millennium of the Christian era was beginning.
He was not only a scientist, but also a Sufi mystic and his "Rubaiyat" (book of verse in quatrains) has evoked much interest and endless debate. The best known English translation is that of Edward Fitzgerald:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the bough
A Flask of wine, a book of Verse and thou
Beside me singing in Wilderness
And Wilderness is Paradise now.


Critics saw the work as a glorification of wine, women and song. But by the end of the millennium, an Indian saint, mystic and spiritual leader Paramahansa Yogananda had commented on the "Rubaiyat" in his book, "Wine of the Mystic": "Khayyam according to the saint talks about the divine intoxication and love and joy of God."
This treasure trove of verse is aptly summed up by a quote from the ninth-century Arab author Ibn Qutayba: "Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their wisdom, the muster roll of their history, the repository of their great days, the rampart protecting their heritage, the trench defending their glories, the truthful witness on the day of dispute, the final proof at the time of argument."
The anthology's real strength though, lies in its inclusion of poets rarely translated especially Al-Hallaj, whose Arabic Sufi poems announcing the possibility of unity with God led to his assassination. Although translating from four languages, Mr. Lewis captures the rhythm and cadences of each admirably. Unfortunately, he furnishes little historical or religious context for the poems, which makes much of verse obscure for those lacking knowledge of Islamic and Hebrew history. Still enthusiasts of Rumi, Khayyam and other better known Eastern poets in the West should find several new and intriguing voices here.
Although Mr. Lewis is not so good a translator as he is a scholar, only he could singlehandedly have assembled poems from so many languages and cultures into a coherent anthology. Often, when poetry is translated from one language to another, it loses much of its original idiom. That is not the case here. The poems are surprising and sensuous, disarmingly witty and frank. They provide fascinating and unusual glimpses into Middle Eastern history and are, above all, a pleasure to read.

Surekha Vijh is a poet and journalist in New York.


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