Marcel Kurpershoek on the Beauties of Nabati Poetry

Of course when translating, you have to understand what the original text is saying and put it into English. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone. What is for sure is that, in the 17th century, this poetry flourished. But poetry developed, the language developed. Taking his tape recorder, he found many poets who still composed poetry in the way he learned about at the University in Leiden. MK: In the Bedouin tribal context, there was a huge incentive to preserve oral poetry because of pride in one’s local history and ancestors and ultimately one’s own position in society.  There are many other reasons. So people come from Yemen, from Mauritania, from Burkina Faso. Emir al-Shu’ara, the Prince of Poets, is more formal. It is a noble objective and I support it.   They tell me it should not be a Brill translation. There is also the Million’s Poet competition. I connect the ancient poetry with contemporary Bedouin culture which can teach as much about the old as the old can teach about the present.” This interview with Marcel has been slightly condensed and modified, with selections from this video   interview. A lot of people also think of al-Nabat in Iraq, and that it shows foreign influence on Arabic poetry. Where does it come from?   AJN: You are known as one of the leading scholars of what is referred to as Nabati poetry, or as you prefer to call it: Arabian poetry. But you seem to imply that it is still a sacrifice. That is very crucial. Was Nabati poetry also considered the diwan of al-Arab?  MK: Yes, we can say Bedouin (or Nabati) poetry was the diwan al-Arab of that time.  It would be different in towns of the Yamama area (the oasis towns), of which Riyadh is one in the south and extending out to al-Qassim. The third one is the glossary.   AJN: You don’t rhyme the poetry as it is in the original. The literature became greater and greater and more and more beautiful and clever and then there was a gradual decline known as al-Inhitat, and then you had again the Arab renaissance or nahda in the 1800s. MK: There is a lot of speculation about the word, and we don’t have a definitive answer. There are many articles by Saudi anthropologist Saad Sowayan, who has argued all his life that if you show any official attention to Nabati (spoken) poetry, orthodoxy will claim that you will be undermining the official Arabic, the Arabic of the Qur’an, that should be learned in school. But it is quite common to find a predominance of poetry composed by people in settled communities who may have been also partially Bedouin and still would compose poetry in the Nabati style. Tell me about this choice. For the classical competition, which I was invited to actually, you get poets from all over the region because theoretically they all speak the same language, which is classical Arabic. They have a country of poets to celebrate them and their feats. It is easy to understand why earlier Arabists had this corresponding idea that the Nabati poetry was of a lower status, less literary quality from this poetry. They saw my previous volumes which were perceived as being purely scholarly, and not for a general public. I published three documents online for LAL. One is the linguistics part about the Emirati language and language of the manuscripts, and the oral parts. That kind of poetry might not have been the complete poem as it was originally composed. AJN: Walter Ong perhaps famously argued that verbal expression in oral culture is mnemonic, meaning that to retain the carefully articulated thought, rhymed patterns were used. As I understand it, what they are trying to do is to present literature to a public which may include scholars but ideally should include a general audience. This is like the Saudi religious clerics saying the poetry is jahiliyya, or barbaric (meaning what existed before the coming of Islam).  They made poetry based on their experience in life. Archaic vocabulary and thinking: leftovers. Research has shown that is quite unlikely. How do we define Nabati poetry? MK: You’re right! But how could you know where to go? They were the most powerful rulers in the Arabian peninsula in the 16th century. It might have been some lines from a poem, and there are several poems that have been transmitted integrally.  A lot of the ancient poets were Bedouins, tribal people, moving around, fighting, loving—and so their poetry was oral. What are your thoughts on this show? The Arab peninsula is a very large area and people travel a lot. Some of the poetry’s origin stories might have been fictitious, coming from the philologists from Kufa and Basra who started to collect and write it down. Maybe the time was ripe for such a step, but still someone must be the first to take such a step.  AJN: Why do you think there was this idea so fixed in scholars’ minds about the unworthiness of Nabati poetry? It is all Nabati poetry. A lot of this poetry has to do with tribal pride and lineage. The latter is in classical Arabic. This was a new departure in two respects. A lot of people think it has to do with the Nabataeans. MK: They have two competitions, one is called Shaer al-Million, Million’s Poet, and the other is Emir al-Shu’ara, the Prince of Poets. I started to try and find out what they meant by that, and now I have a pretty good idea. But all this is not conclusive. But people start theorizing about the cosmos and claiming the big bang wasn’t the start. Prior to becoming a fellow, Marcel worked many years as a diplomat for the Netherlands, serving as an ambassador in many countries, lastly as a special envoy for Syria.  In the 1980s, during the early days of his service in Saudi Arabia, he received special permission from King Fahd to embark on month-long explorations in the desert to interview Bedouins. Sometimes the roads are not very visible because of blowing sand and the rocky terrain. And you can’t do it with a machine. In a prior interview, he said: “There is no contradiction between not being able to read and write and being very cultured. Everyone there speaks a language which is basically not his or her language, a learned language which has some connections to what they use daily.  That is fundamentally different from Million’s Poet, which is Nabati poetry.  AJN: How much does culture influence translation? This translates into media and television as well. Sometimes if you add a rhyme, it gives you the important clue for something that otherwise will be missed.   For instance, camel dung—droppings. All that gets lost in spite of my best efforts. Another implication for the field is that you can include Nabati poetry but also study it in a scholarly way based on manuscripts, research, meter, and rhyme.  I was very fortunate to get their support and I didn’t hear any real criticism. There is an unholy alliance between the two. A similar kind of idea was very widespread among Arabists and Orientalist scholars. Whatever significant events happen in the lives of individuals or communities, rulers or tribes, it is crystallized somewhere as a line of poetry, which was placed somewhere as a memento. Still, this has dominated thinking for so many generations. So you cannot say it is archaic. No matter what, however, I think the oral feature is very important in the diwan al-Arab. That concept embedded in the words diwan al-Arab. AJN: ArabLit has already run interviews on the first two volumes that you published in the LAL, the one by Cynic or Satirist: Hmedan al-Shwe’ir  and the other is the Arabian Romantic by Ibn Sbayyil. It was the culmination of Nabati culture at the time, because they weren’t under the influence of the Wahhabis in the south. Marcel is also an NYU Abu Dhabi Senior Humanities Fellow, where he continues his work collecting, registering, glossing, and translating Bedouin poetry. On the other hand, the Emirates have taken a leading role in promoting Nabati poetry, since they see it as having a good status.  AJN: I want to ask you about the famous saying ‘poetry is the diwan of Arabs.’  MK: It’s a very old saying of course, already from the early days of classical Arabic poetry. The earliest [nabati] poetry we have is generally assumed to be what is included by the historian Ibn Khaldun, dated from the 14th century. What is lost from this approach? It is vibrant, it’s alive, it is more alive than a lot of the poetry in classical Arabic which people don’t like and don’t know how to recite in a natural, fluent way.  As you can see, I have a lot of quarrels with this view that Nabati poetry is inherently of a less refined literary quality than classical Arabic poetry. I would say of course literature runs in all kinds of directions. That is why they also publish these paperback translations without Arabic text. I recognize the point about the French approach. In their view, this poetry is just another reminder or phenomenon of backwardness, people who do not know the correct Arabic. For a long time, Nabati poetry wasn’t considered as being on par with classical poetry, which corresponds with the prejudice in a country like Saudi Arabia itself, especially in religious circles. How to get out of this mode?  It is very hard to get out of it, just like it is difficult to emerge from the belief that the cosmos didn’t start with the big bang. There is a lot of Nabati poetry in manuscripts and exchanges between the Sharifs of Mecca, for instance.  It is important to mention that this poetry employs a spoken Arabic still used to communicate today. In the Brill book, these would have been explained in the footnotes.   I think I found a solution with this new volume. I give some examples of this in the forthcoming translation for LAL of a work by al-Mayidi ibn Zahir, a 17th century poet considered the literary father of the Emirates. You have these mementos, these mental lines in the minds of people, like ruins, leftovers, or rusum, such as in atlal scene of the ancient poet where they have become an abandoned campsite and they still see the cooking pots, stones and dark spots left by the fire and the trench they had dug around the tent. How do you understand this view?  MK: In Europe, scholars described Arabic literature in cycles. It so happened that a lot of the life—fixing on camels, getting water out of wells, sheep and goats, palm trees—remained very similar. The fact is that Bedouin and court poetry in Arabia in the 16th century is Nabati poetry, and that was the poetry they liked and used and was feasible to use in occasions like the majlas of the prince or whatever. In lieu of keeping official chronicles, which are often activities connected with royal courts or religious institutions like in the West for monasteries for instance, (monks wrote a lot of manuscripts), these communities passed their poetry down orally. One word is for dry droppings used for fire, and the other is for still wet, fresh. I don’t think they will ever find artificial intelligence that will be able to do this. We also have some other poets in manuscripts from the 13th century. My point would be that this poetry is not less, it is all interesting and beautiful.  And the fact that it is now included in a series devoted to Arabic literature means it received a stamp of approval that it is also part of Arabic literature. I’ve mainly been interviewing American and British translators, but I talked to a Belgian (Francophone) translator Xavier Luffin who told me that his style varied drastically from American colleagues. This had never happened before. By AJ Naddaff After a brief absence from the “Untranslatable” series, today I’ll be sharing a conversation with a renowned Dutch Arabist specialized in Bedouin poetry, Marcel Kurpershoek. The earliest Nabati poetry had to do with court connections of dynasties in the Arabian peninsula, like the Jabrids, who have Bedouin roots. It is in alternating years. And you have so many words for so many different things. And they would collect. What about the name? The second one is basically line-by-line lexical explanations of words and terms. But I think those sedentary people were more interested in including hadari poets than Bedouin in the manuscripts. MK: I’ll give you an example. No.  AJN: Right, it’s not a huge sacrifice. MK: In a way, rhyme is easier when it has to do with abstract things like feelings, or soul, or love, or philosophy, this kind of stuff. Michael Cooperson was teaching in his class in California Arabian Satire, and he mentioned that his students tried to understand some of the phrases in Arabic and of course they encountered problems. This is maybe because of some bias. Their basis was in the Eastern province, and they were defeated by the Portuguese when they entered the Gulf.  They liked poetry, and they liked their praises being sung in poetry. What are the stakes of such an attempt? There is a television series on ibn Zahhir’s life. Now you’re on your third volume. Given how little has been known about this poetry and the general bias of ‘classical Arabic poetry’ over Nabati or Bedouin poetry, I imagine that receiving the sponsorship of NYU Abu Dhabi was monumental.  What was the significance of the Library of Arabic Literature including this poetry? In the desert, you have the ‘alamat, the signposts. Marcel Kurpershoek on the Beauties of Nabati Poetry February 7, 2022February 7, 2022 by mlynxqualey Today, we resume journalist and translator AJ Naddaff’s series of talks with translators of premodern Arabic literature, which he tongue-in-cheek calls “Untranslatable”: The series will appear here and at his substack, where you can subscribe. Beyond that, first of all, I have to adapt to the style of LAL. I can’t start a completely different approach from what they are trying to do. But once you get to the physical world it becomes difficult. You can say this is a camel, but you have hundreds of words for camel and they are all nuanced. I think it is a balancing act, because you can’t have it all. The sedentary people could read and write. I don’t strive for perfection. How does your Dutch background affect your translation aesthetics, if at all?    MK: None of the people I’ve translated–or am translating—have past translations, so that makes my life easier. There needs to be fed into the machine a lot of information that is still not available or questionable to draw the right conclusions for translation. You have this intimate being connected to life in the Arabian desert. They inherited the court of the Rashidi princes. There was a lot of prejudice of the townspeople against the Bedouin. The basis of my materials, the manuscripts, were written by hadiri people in settled communities. Even a compromise is just something you can live with. AJN: On the other hand, in the Emirates, there is a lot of support for Nabati poetry in addition to classical Arabic literature. AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies.  * Previously in this series:  Rebuilding that Old Tower of Babel, A Talk with Michael Cooperson Editing and Translating al-Hamadhānī, Who’s Always ‘Just One or Two Steps Ahead of You’ Huda Fakhreddine: A Translator Must Have Something To Say About the Text Alexander Key: On Domesticating Al-Jurjani 110% Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditTumblrWhatsAppPinterestTelegramPocketSkypeLike this:Like Loading… This is all Nabati poetry. So this is a very fixed idea of literary history in the head of all these scholars and reinforced from one generation to the next. Then you have these volumes which include an Arabic text, and which may be off-putting for a general public. Sometimes in a poem you find the word yanbit, in the sense of intelligent. AJN: This brings me beautifully into my next point. Obviously rhyme in English is more difficult to produce and draws a lot of attention to itself. Who is included and excluded from this show and what does it say about representation of tradition in the present? For him, removing a word or sentence from the original is blasphemy. So we know that they preserved this poetry over centuries orally, and how rhyme helps with memorizing … but that doesn’t answer why this poetry was deemed so important and therefore preserved. Renate Jacobi is a great scholar whom I admire, but without a second thought she would call this poetry archaic. Is that a huge sacrifice for me? The line runs, they say, and for me if the line runs, I think it’s fine. Also the Sharifs in Mecca were part of that tradition as well as other dynasties.  AJN: What are the challenges — methodological or otherwise — of translating a poetry that is performance-based and ultimately meant to be recited orally?  MK: Honestly, I don’t think there is any translation methodology. I do not translate with a formal English meter in my mind, but I feel something, even though I am not a native English speaker.

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