January 18, 2019

An actor to the end

 O Death, whom love of jest escapes - you who know nothing
     of indulgence or happiness - what have I to do with you,
 when these are what brought me my prestige, my world-wide renown,
     my income and my roomy house?
 Ever was I full of cheer. If cheer give way
     to mundane vagary and deception, what's the use?
 When I was on the scene, the irate ceased their raging.
     The acutely pained would laugh when I showed up.
 Nagging cares were of no concern, and mischances
      of fortune lost their power to disappoint.
 The grip of every fear was broken by my presence,
     and all times spent with me passed blessedly.
 To see and hear me at work, even in a tragic role,
     was a thrilling and consoling pleasure in more ways than one.
 I put on my characters' faces, their manners and their words,
     such that many seemed to speak out of one mouth.
 Any man whose likeness I replicated for all to see
     would shudder at himself magnified in my face.
 And how many times did a woman behold my mimicry of her
     gestures, and turn bright red, slain by shock!
 However many the appearances my body was seen to take on,
     so many are disappeared with me by an evil day.
 Whereby with somber mien I am stirred to beg you now
     that you read aloud my inscription in pious tones,
 saying through your grief: "Happy as you were, O Vitalis,
     may you be no less happy at this moment."

Epitaph of Vitalis, a mime of the fifth century
San Sebastiano fuori le mura, Rome

December 30, 2018

Gomhoreya Street, 2011

November 24, 2018

A‘shā's pearl

 Sleep is for the untroubled. I lie awake all night, unable to sleep
     nor rise, shepherding the stars, my elbow for a pillow,
 my eyes propped open by anxiety, the malady that cancels slumber.
     She went off with my heart and won't set it free.
 If I don't see her then I won't get better. What healing
     is there for the lovesick if she won't come near?
 She ensnared my heart with the eyes of a doe that heeds
     the squeak of her helpless newborn on the ground,
 and the cool of her teeth in their orderly rows—as if
     twice rinsed with camphor is their flavor—
 and the untwitching neck of a white gazelle as it nibbles
     leaves and berries from the arāk-tree,
 and a haunch like a mound of sand, steep and curving.
     No slim-hipped, girdled thing is she [whom I describe].
 She's like the fair-hued pearl disembedded by a diver
     who braves the depths of Dārīn where it lay.
 From year to year he’s craved it, ever since his moustache sprouted.
     Yearning agitates the diver in old age.
 The desire of his soul is unremitting. He burns for what he wants
     and when he spots it, he flings [care for] his life aside.
 The pearl is guarded by a jinn—a burly one who sets men amaze.
     His eyes are open and he is on it.
 Always mindful of the pearl, he circles it,
     vigilant for thieves who prowl the deep,
 coveting it. The pearl might yet surrender its enclosure
     to the diver who risks drowning to obtain it!
 Who craves the pearl in the whirl of the unfathomable is parted
     from his life, and perishes beneath its heaving surface.
 Who gains it gains eternity without end.
     His satisfaction is complete, and he is blessed and happy.
 That’s how she is. Your soul inflames your hope for her,
     and you are burnt, and ruin is all you get.

By al-A‘shā Maymūn ibn Qays

September 8, 2018

Glass over gold

In one of his epistles, Sahl ibn Harun spoke in praise of glass to the detriment of gold:
          Glass is a transparent substance that shares in light. It is better to drink from than any mineral or metal. It is not heavy in the hand, and does not conceal the drinker's face from his companions. Its price is nothing to haggle over.
          Gold is a transient possession whose mere mention is a bad omen. One of its blameworthy properties is the speed with which it accrues to blameworthy people. It misleads all who keep it, and guards for them its venom. It is furthermore one of the Devil's snares, which is why they say: "Two red things are the ruin of men."*
          Glass does not absorb grease, and grime does not stick to it. The only thing needed to wash it clean as new is water. Glass is of all things the most similar to water. As marvelous as are its properties, its manufacture is a marvel greater still.

From A Shade Tree for the Eyes: A Commentary on the Comic Epistle of Ibn Zaydun by Ibn Nubata

*Gold and saffron. (Bywords for lucre and luxury, as in the saying of
  Abu Bakr al-Siddiq.)

August 29, 2018

Two personal announcements

My article "Meaning and Captivity in Classical Arabic Philology" is soon to appear on pages 177-228 of the Journal of Abbasid Studies 5:1/2 (2018). This article is Open Access, and will be available by clicking on the cover below.
Image result for journal of abbasid studies

My translation of Ibn Khalawayh's Names of the Lion has received the 2018 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. To the Academy of American Poets, and judge Ammiel Alcalay, thanks!

June 14, 2018

When the saints go marching out

By Abu Madyan Shu'ayb al-Ghawth (meter: ṭawīl):

To you I surrendered my reason, my gaze, my hearing,
    my spirit, my insides, and all of me altogether.
By astonishment at your beauty I was waylaid
    and, at sea in love's distraction, I knew not my place.
When you put me under orders to keep your secret hid,
    it came to light through the outpouring of my tears.
My endurance gave out. My resilience grew small.
    Sleep and I parted ways, and my couch was barred to me.
Then I came before the Judge of Love and said: My [fellow] lovers
    are harsh with me. "In love you are a vain pretender,"
        is what they say.
But I have witnesses! To my ardor and my sorrow they will attest,
    and you will hear the truth of what I pretend:
my sleeplessness, my suffering, my passion and dejection,
    my wasting away, my longing, my jaundiced pallor
        and my tears.
It is a wonder and a marvel how I pine for their company.
    Even in their company, my longing for them flares.
My eye weeps for them when they are at its black center,
    and my heart bewails their estrangement, even as they
        lodge between my ribs.
Whoever gives in to love's distraction and seeks me out
    will find me among the poor, with nothing on me.
And whoever clamps me in jail, indulging their harshness,
    will have me [nonetheless] for their intercessor.

Alternately attributed to Malik ibn al-Murahhal

March 22, 2018

Thirty Questions to the Moon

In times past, the Arabs couched their knowledge of the moon in the form of questions and answers about how each night of the month might be reckoned from its light, as well as other matters, saying:

       The moon was asked: "O son of one night, what are you?"
"Milk suckled by a lamb whose folk have camped in an arid quarter," said the moon. [A singsong reply that rhymes in Arabic with the asker's question, as do all the moon's replies up to night thirteen.]
      "And on the second night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Talk between two domestics [of different households], full of slander and untruth," said the moon.
      "And on the third night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Talk amongst a group of girls brought together from distant quarters," said the moon, and "of short duration" is added [to the moon's reply].
      "And on the fourth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"The lapse of time a camel's calf goes between nursings," said the moon.
      "And on the fifth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Talk amongst intimates," said the moon.
      "And on the sixth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
The moon said, "[I heed the command to] 'Roam and stay.'"

       The moon was asked, "On night seven, what are you?"
"The fattening of two calves," said the moon. "The hyena's ramble" is also said [to be the moon's reply].
      "And on the eighth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"The lovers' moon," said the moon. "A loaf divided among brothers" is also said [to be the moon's reply].
      "And on the ninth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"By my light, an onyx can be found," said the moon.
      "And on the tenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"I uphold the testimony of dawn," said the moon.
      "And on the eleventh night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"By night and in the morning I am visible." said the moon.
      "And on the twelfth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"A guarantor of night-travel," said the moon, "for townsfolk and nomads alike."

       The moon was asked, "On night thirteen, what are you?"
"A brilliant disk, dazzling to the viewer's eye," said the moon.
      "And on the fourteenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"My youth in full bloom, I shine through the clouds," said the moon.
      "And on the fifteenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"I am at my fullest, and my days dwindle," said the moon.
      "And on the sixteenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Diminished in form, from east to west," said the moon.
      "And on the seventeenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"I am penury, the poor man's mount," said the moon.
      "And on the eighteenth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Evanescent," said the moon, "and fast to pass away."

       The moon was asked, "On night nineteen, what are you?"
"From humility, I am slow to rise" said the moon.
      "And on the twentieth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"I rise at dawn, and am visible when the day is young," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-first night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"My night-journey goes no further than my visibility."
      "And on the twenty-second night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"The smudge of battle and the lion of war," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-third night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"In dark of night, I am lifted to a torch's height," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-fourth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"A mere fraction," said the moon, "whose rising leaves the darkness undispelled."

       The moon was asked, "On night twenty-five, what are you?"
"On nights like this, I'm neither disk nor crescent," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-sixth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"All hopes cut off, my end is due," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-seventh night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"I hug the earth, but shed no glow upon it," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-eighth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"An early riser. By midday I'm invisible," said the moon.
      "And on the twenty-ninth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"Just ahead of the sun's rays, my stay is fleeting." said the moon.
      "And on the thirtieth night, what are you?" the moon was asked.
"A crescent," said the moon, "for whom the way forward is the way down."

From the Meadows of Gold of al-Mas‘ūdī;
cf. the Book of Days and Nights and Months of al-Farrā’,
and Uncommon Vocabulary of Prophetic Narration by Ibn Qutayba

March 6, 2018

Now available from Ugly Duckling Presse

At how many UDP parties have I lined up for drinks? And now there's a UDP broadside of Abu ‘Amir's famous cat poem, with sick finials by LRSN. Available on their website

Thank you, Ugly Duckling! Thank you, Rebekah!

February 8, 2018

Names of the Sun II

We are informed by Tha‘lab that Ibn al-A‘rābī said: "Shams, Ashmus, and Shumūs are all said for the sun, as in the rajaz verse:

    It was a day of solar oppression by Shumūs.

A similar instance [of the sun's name without the definite article] is in the verse by Abu 'l-Shīṣ (meter: ramal):

    Just when the shade of night is at its most pleasant,
        Shams comes up and the shade dissolves."

We are informed by Tha‘lab, on the authority of Salama ibn ‘Āṣim, that
al-Farrā’ said: "The sun is called Dhukā’ ('Flammifera') and Bint Dhukā’ ('Daughter of Flammifera'). This name is indeclinable. It comes from dhakā yadhkū, a verb used of flames burning high. And Ibn Dhukā’ ('Son of Flammifera') is a byname of the dawn." And he quoted the verse (meter: kāmil):

    [The ostriches] return to thinking of their their egg-deposit
        when Dhukā’ 's right hand reaches for the [night's] covering."

[....] We are informed by Tha‘lab that Ibn al-A‘rābī said: "The sun is called al-Jawna ('The Glowing Disk'), as in the rajaz verses:

    Serve no milk, neither sour nor fresh,
    that was not given in abundance,
    [enough] to leave a spreading pool for the clay to drink.
    Where al-Jawna hastens its evaporation,
    traces of the milk should last til nightfall.

Or the half-verse (meter: sarī‘):

    ...like a crafty [wolf] watching al-Jawna [go down].

"[The color]  jawn is white and black," he went on to say. "In the dialect of Quḍā‘a it is white, but for neighboring tribes it's black. Also jawn is red."
    [....] Tha‘lab said: "Al-Ulāha ('The Mighty Goddess') is the hot sun." And he reported that Ibn al-A‘rābī said: "Al-Ulāha, al-Ilāha  and al-Alāha are names of the sun, and so is al-Hāla ('The Corona'), as in the verse (meter: ṭawīl):

    Quick to startle [is my stallion! Head held high],
    like a child of Hāla,
        [my horse] lives not by steady equanimity of mind.

"Al-Ḑiḥḥ ('The Glare') also is the sun," he went on to say. "Sahām are filaments of 'devil's mucus' [cobwebs encrusted with dust] that catch the sun. The iyāh of the sun is its brilliance, as are its iya’ and ayā’. And the iya’ of herbage is its lushness." And he recited the half-verse (meter: basīṭ):

    The iya’ [of lush grass] met the iya’ of the sun, and together
        the two were shining.

We are informed by Tha‘lab on the authority of the son of Abū ‘Āmir al-Shaybānī that his father said: "The 'tapering' [taṭarruf] of the sun comes just before it sinks below the horizon, as in the rajaz verse:

    At the tapering of al-Shams's horn, he said his prayer."

Someone other than Tha‘lab points out that the sun is called al-Ghazāla ('The Gazelle') [perhaps explaining why the sun is said to have "horns"]. Others say that the sun's brightness and its spreading rays are called ‘ab’ or ‘ab. "The sun is pounding with its ṣalā’a," is said by another [to mean "The sun shines brightly"]: the ṣalā’a is a chemist's grindstone, used in the preparation of perfumes.
    We are informed by Tha‘lab, on the authority of Salama ibn ‘Āṣim, that al-Farrā’ said: "A hot day is said to be shāmis and mashmūs ('sunny' and 'besunned'). The sun's uwār is its heat. The verbs zabba, zabbaba and azabba ('to hide beneath hair') are said of the sun's setting, as are ḍarra‘a and aḍra‘a ('to inch along') and karaba ('to succumb to fatigue')."
    We are informed by Tha‘lab, on the authority of ‘Alī the son of Ṣāliḥ whose office it was to preserve the Prophet's prayer-mat, that al-Kisā’ī said: "Al-Ghazāla is said for the bright disk of the sun. 'Al-Ghazāla's horn is coming up,' one says [at sunrise]." And we are informed by Tha‘lab, on the authority of Ibn Najda, that Abū Zayd al-Anṣārī said: "The 'gazelles of forenoon' is an expression for the day's rising," and that he recited the rajaz verses:

   "Who loves night travel in the frigid season?"
    asks the tribe. "Is there a young hero on whom we can call,
    one whose strength is neither faint nor ragged,
    to set the tribe moving with the gazelles of forenoon?"

    We are informed by Tha‘lab on the authority of Ibn al-A‘rābī that the circle that sometimes forms around the sun is called al-ihrāt. As for al-falak, it is an 'orbit' around the heavens' axis. God, be He exalted, says [in Sūrat al-Anbiyā’ 21:33]: 'All are in a falak swimming.'" According to another authority cited by Tha‘lab, where sunlight strikes trees and the ground it is called maḍḥāh and ḍāḥiya, and where it does not strike them it is called maqnāh and maqnuwa. And he recited the verse (meter: ṭawīl):

    We came upon him in the sunless maqnuwa, where
        a teak-grove cast its decorous veil over al-shams.

Another authority attests the verse (meter: ṭawīl):

    Herbage grows thin on one side of the mountain. On the other side,
        it is lush. The light of the overcast day lands on both sides.

From The Book of Day and Night in Language by Abū ‘Umar
    Muḥammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wāḥid al-Zāhid al-Muṭarriz,
        better known as Ghulām Tha‘lab

December 29, 2017

Palmette IV

Palmette IV sm
From a terracotta stamnos (ca. 470-60 BCE) attributed to the
Deepdene Painter, Metropolitan Museum of Art (41.162.20a, b).

November 10, 2017

Over a dead highwayman II

By Malik ibn al-Rayb (meter: kāmil):

  O you who whip your mount under cover of the dark
      and pretend to a knight's hauteur: You were no contender
  when I knelt before the beast of the interlacing teeth
      that sought my company in the dark, for a fight spoiling.
  Great with muscled shoulders unbearded by a mane,
      [calamity, like a lioness,] does not upset
  the chameleon on his branch, knuckles bare like bladed swords,
      nor the chameleon of a house abandoned by women.
  Unknown is the shade of thick-walled upper rooms,
      to him who rides a palm of the nodding grove.
  If hearts are prone to panic, his heart is just awake
      when report contorts the face of the startle-ready.
  Where darkness blots perception in obscurity of gloom,
      rearing up like the deceiving wolf,
  you'll find him brave and constant on the inside of himself,
      as he mounts the dire weaving of affairs.
  Then you're greeted with a cut from a white-as-lightning
      [sword], the bright bisector of my beaten foe,
  and face-first down you go, before there lands a second blow
      to stain the upraised victor's [blade] and dye the ground.

From the Book of Songs 

October 24, 2017

So that's where it comes from

The heretic Basilides came out after [Simon Magus and the gnostic teachers Menander and Saturninus], saying that the high god - the creator of Mind (Greek nous), whenceforth the Word - was called ABRAXAS. In him [said Basilides] do providence, virtue and knowledge have their origin, out of which the principalities and powers and angels were made - infinite processions of angels, who streamed forth and set up the world and its 365 heavens in honor of ABRAXAS (this number being contained in the alphanumeric computation of the name). Among the last of these angels, now made makers of the world, he ranked the god of the Jews (God, that is, of the Law and the Prophets) as a latecomer, saying he was no god at all but an angel who was dealt the seed of Abraham as his portion, and spirited the children of Israel to Canaan out of Egypt land. This angel [Basilides said] was of a more violent temper than the others, and frequently engaged in stirring up wars and rebellions, even spilling human blood. Albeit a creator of the world, he was not the engenderer of Christ, who was sent by ABRAXAS in the form of a phantom without carnal substance. [Phantom Jesus] underwent no passion before the Jews, but Simon [of Cyrene] was crucified in his place. There was therefore to be no religious belief in a crucified figure, lest that belief be placed in Simon. Martyrdom was a disqualifying circumstance. The doctrine of resurrection of the flesh he rejected in the gravest terms, denying that salvation was ever promised to corpses.

Pseudo-Tertullian, Against all heresies I.5