Marcel Kurpershoek on Translating 18th-century Nabati Poetry That Still ‘Smells Like Fresh Bread’

Some of the works attributed to Hmedan you haven’t included in your collection. Some people ask: How could he write something like this about himself? Part two of this interview will appear next week, on December 13. They used to go into the desert and collect the poetry. Do we have an idea of his biography? For instance, there’s a poet called Nimr ibn Adwan in what’s now Jordan. That’s the amazing thing. That’s the classical poetry we have now—the work of those collectors at that time. Also:   ArabLit’s contributors are, like Hmedan, unpaid. This clearly has something to do with what you read in the chronicles about severe drought in certain years. MK: This is something new—in an unknown field, an unknown area. 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. These poems were tantalizing. He’s famous for this poem when he returns from Iraq and he ridicules every town he comes back to, on his way. 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. But all these things are derived from his poetry. Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. What first struck you about it? The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently. I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy. But nothing at all about how people lived, how they interacted, what they thought. So I traveled all through the country with my tape recorder, and I published a lot of them in the five Brill volumes. And what sort of scholars? How has your relationship with Hmedan and his poetry changed over the intervening decades? Many of these poets have become legendary figures. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. We try to give as complete a picture of his work as possible. Lynx Qualey discussed the critical importance of this little-translated poetry. We have only the chronicles, and they are very dry. 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. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. Of course this is normal. If you look at the oldest pre-Islamic Arabic poets, they’re all from there. I started reading the collection, and there was a classical Arabic introduction that I could read without difficulty. MK: Most of his really sarcastic poems are in that meter. I think that there really must be an authentic core there—because the work hangs together. He speaks of hardship, and he speaks in a defiant, mocking voice. I had a tape recorder, and I went out into the desert to meet real, live poets. But he didn’t compose poems for money? And they could use him—how he composed poetry, how he ridiculed their enemies. MK: Of course, some of the poems are of doubtful authenticity. From there—what inspired you to want to translate the poems? In any case, the picture that emerges is very much of a real person. No, it’s not classical. Kurpershoek, currently a senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a specialist in the oral traditions and poetry of Arabia and has written the five-volume Oral Poetry and Narratives from Central Arabia (1994-2005). It’s the exact area where the Arabic language started. And these stories are related from one generation to the next. We don’t know. 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. MK: The poems that are forbidden are always the most well-known. Marcel Kurpershoek: I was a working as a diplomat then in Riyadh. 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. I think when he came there, he was honored. 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. It’s having like a television station in your country, like Al-Jazeera in Qatar or Al-Arabiya in Dubai. But the other part was added by his enemies. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. There are certain poems and people who readers and listeners start to fantasize about, and make stories about. But this is what he’s known best for—these two poems. 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? You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. So these meters are adapted from classical meters, but in accordance with the development of the vernacular. And he’s famous for this poem where he ridicules his own son. MK: Everything we know is in the book. I spent a lot of time on that. The images, the tone. But there are some things we can guess about his life. We know when the ruler dies (1725-26), because this is in the chronicles. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. Those who enjoy good literature? 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. So often, the story itself has derived from poetry, which makes it a circle. This has been compared to a very famous poem of apologies by a pre-Islamic poet, al-Nabigha al-Dhubyani. 1 poet. 1 poet” in the Nabati tradition. You can look up in the chronicles the dates of droughts. It matches, let’s say. They’re also recognizable for their meter, which creates a mocking tone. And it’s not just any area. MK: Basically, we have to make deductions. MK: No, I don’t believe that he earned money by his trade. MK: This idea has been around for a long time, because this poetry has not been very much translated in a scholarly way. And when you first came across Hmedan’s work? It’s funny to see how meter and content are connected—there’s not too much written about that. He’s quite famous. When I started doing research for this publication, I went to Hmedan’s town, and also to the town where he sought asylum. He later instigated Uthafiyah to rise up against Tharmada’? It doesn’t necessarily mean he had a son like that. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate. 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. I have asked people here, in the Emirates, and very few know him. They have not done any translations from that heritage. It’s mostly central Arabia. Can you talk a bit about that moment in 1987 when you first came across Hmedan’s work? 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. If it’s in more than one manuscript, there’s no reason to take it out. 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. So this is interesting from a scholarly perspective. Marcel Kurpershoek, editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd, first became acquainted with Nabati poetry in the 1980s, while working as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia, and soon was drawn to the diwan of Hmedan, “maybe the No. We don’t know! Maybe this is all art of a theatrical set of characters. The only thing we know is that all his manuscripts have these poems. He is maybe the No. It’s a very daring piece. So you see Hmedan in all kinds of folktales. So let’s call it Nabati. MK: He mentions another poet who praised this ruler, but he says, I will do better. But apparently the people kept the tradition alive, and it emerged almost as it was when it disappeared. MK: Basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not? If you use this website, consider supporting ArabLit. 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. We have no other sources. But you didn’t start translating this collection straight after you read it, in the 1980s or 1990s. Who do you imagine reading it, beyond historians? What about elsewhere in Saudi Arabia? We discussed it—Saad Sowayan, Philip Kennedy, and I—at a conference here on Nabati poetry at NYUAD. That was the sort of work Arabic collectors were doing in the eighth and ninth centuries. In a talk over Skype, Kurpershoek and ArabLit editor M. 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. People still know him there, and they could still point out his grove of palm trees. 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? That area remained behind, and was kind of forgotten. MK: I started by doing my own fieldwork. I thought this had absolute priority, because if they die, it’s gone. How does he relate to other poets? Maybe some others will still know their verses, but the best authority is always the poet himself. The language requirements are not there in classical, because short vowels are elided in Najdi. He has a famous love story in which his wife died young, of cholera, and it became a fairy tale or legend. You have a dinosaur, and you thought it was extinct, and then suddenly you find some of that species somewhere. This interview also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature website. And especially for the lurid sex scenes with his son’s luxury-loving wife. And of course he wouldn’t have sent the poem after the ruler died. 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. And it’s the same in classical poetry, I’m sure. All the great poets, they used to compete. 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. There was an uninterrupted tradition of poetry there, that continued even in the centuries that disappear from view. And now, finally, I can finish what I started with. Where is his work known? 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. Of course he had supporters. They had a famous person in their hometown. MK: People told me that he was a great poet, and this collection was available—there were not too many books of Nabati poetry. Even in the Hijaz they might not know them. There are indeed parallels. 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. Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. 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. It’s part of the oral culture performance context. Basically, we know his poetry, and that’s the only source we have. Sometimes, with oral literature, there is tendency to take poetry as proof of story. You call it a more “deadpan” meter. He is mentioned in the chronicles, but these chronicles quote his poetry. Ideas that turn up in one poem, you see it in another. It’s like archaeology, you find a lot of shards, and you try to piece them together. I think he was also competing with other poets, because he clearly says, My renown shot beyond the stars. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all. 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. MK: Not very much. You note in your introduction that this is not one of the usual classical meters. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading…‹ Sunday Submissions: Apply for a PEN Translates Grant Before December 8Categories: Library of Arabic Literature, Saudi Also, this is not a poem of an old person. And so you can choose between this drought (1702-03) and that drought (1715-18). The most extreme things are what he’s still famous for. The center of gravity moved out of that area—to Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Morocco, Spain. People like that, it’s fun. Some say: The first part of the poem, before the sex scene starts, maybe he composed that one. He also speaks about when he came back from Iraq, and he connects it with a famine. Which of his poems were most well-known?