March 24, 2011

On the earthquake that struck Syria on the ides
of Sha'bān 744/January 2, 1344

In God we seek refuge from the harm of what runs deep inside the earth and what comes out from it, and we beg Him for success in describing it and escaping from it. We beg for God's help and seek His protection from what has poisoned the current year, it being the 44th [of the eighth century of Islam], in which an earthquake struck Syria, scattering its men and horses and erecting the earth's agency over all that drag a tail across it. May there be no return of earthquakes! They hamper the intellect and halt it, and drive people out to the deserts and the wastes, where they exhaust themselves with constant prayer.

         Time is a deceiver of man.
                  It enfeebles and abases him and does him harm.
         When the Earthquake strikes, how much is left
                  of Ornament that captivated formerly?

Sixty days have passed, and one family is warned by another's example. When I was asked how the wall [of a certain house] could remain standing for two consecutive months, I said: "It is seeking atonement." For on a day of Ramadan it collapsed onto its people.

         In the Merciful we seek refuge from its like:
                  the earthquake which routs all hope of sleep.
         It sprang violently upon the unresistant
                  and condemned the chaste to death by stoning.
         It was the sentence of the Almighty, Powerful and Triumphant,
                  Whose kindliness is unconditional and eternal.

In fear we eyed the shaking stones as they separated from each other. "Some there are that split apart... and some fall down in fear of God" and fly to pieces. How many houses did the carpenter and plasterer enter whose hard stones were freshly spattered, "wherein they found a wall about to collapse"! How many high places brought low, never to be raised! and how many buildings reduced in height, to await the Day of Judgment! How many nights we stayed awake - as on nights of travel - and called on God, praised be He, that there be "peace, until the rising of the dawn"! We ask God for recompense without affliction, and we seek refuge in God from affliction without recompense.
         The refugees avoid the valleys and remain out of doors in January, hobbled by the cold:

         Fear of the heaving earthquake
                  hurled us "onto the open shore"
         of the empty desert, where nothing can land on us
                  but rain from the sky.

The natural philosopher said: "This was caused by vapors of the pent-up wind." The astrologer said: "It was in emulation of the movement of a star." Whereupon the legal scholar declaimed:

         In the agency of God I am the first believer,
                  and the first to disbelieve that this was star-ordained.
         The philosopher is without grace or warrant,
                  as are the star-struck, who have nothing to back them up.

The scholars have a clearer perspective, for God's law is more on point.
         Aleppo prevailed over the disaster. Cracks appeared in its mosque, and its minaret waved and fell to leaning. and had the call been stronger it would have been apocopated. Thanks to God, however, the mosque remained intact and its minaret was spared emasculation, in order that God's word might still resound. But tears for [the neighborhood of] al-'Aqaba flow like water from the sky. "What will make you know what is al-'Aqaba?" Men's and women's quarters were thrown together inside the moving buildings, whose walls came together in a farewell embrace, and many necks were broken and rib cages intermixed, inspiring this couplet:

         The earthquake took a special delight
         in the flesh of the neckbone of the 'Aqabite.

Downcast by the whole catastrophe, Aleppo's provincial deputy left the city. His grief and remorse were evident, as he walked with a copy of the Qur'ān shielding his head.

         I guarantee that if you saw him
                  promenading beneath that Qur'ān
         you would have thought him the very picture of Joseph
                  bearing with him Sūrat Yūsuf.

And if you had seen the citadels and fortresses, when all their guardhouses were brought down:

         The earthquake flew at the Citadel of citadels
                  fearing neither bowman nor hunter.
         When the fortress learned who was the Aimer of the blow
                  it left its foundation and went to its knees before Him.
         Those who escaped the ruin to live on in dread
                  of the joint extinction of novelty and antiquity know that
         the matter belongs to God. And many a speculator
                  does not err until he acts.

The people were reduced to camping next to the sites vacated by their houses when the earthen tide swept them away.
         But if you had seen Manbij, birthplace of streams and source of the early morning's blowing breeze, - Manbij, in the obliterating force's grip, "as if it had not flourished yesterday," and the gloom of the sun and full moon on its rubble!

         Their deaths in the rubble did not fall short
                  of His decree, and they entered the company of martyrs.
         The Creator's might is blameless
                  and there is no disgrace in His creation brought low.

Alas for Manbij, the splendid city! It became a ruin such as it wearies the tongue to describe, enveloped in dust and shadow and ridden by a dark black wind.

         They and their houses perished in an instant
                  as if on schedule.
         May there be a disinterment of their bright faces
                  like swords taken out from their sheaths.

It was told to me that the stones of its minaret flew into the sky like missiles:

         Drunk on the earthquake's wine, it danced
                  like a sportive camel under a hasty rider.
         Its libation set my tears to pouring out
                  for what befell its house and the people in it.

When they heard the horrible sound, "they left their homes by the thousands, fearing death." But their fear was no protection, nor were the tears they shed, nor the porticoes of their kings when their kings lay dead.

         With the walls around our young maids fallen,
                  what can I say to Him? "Be Thou our wall"?

The feebleness of my descriptive powers is too great, and my own greatness is too feeble, and with these verses I conclude:

         The people of Manbij were like silkworms,
                  whose homes turn into graves.
         Blessed were they, whose mulberry tree
                  was a garden paved with silk.

The Epistle of the Earthquake by Zayn al-Din 'Umar ibn al-Muzaffar ibn al-Wardi (d. 749/1349)

March 11, 2011

Allegory of the Violet

Heaving the deep sigh of a distant lover, the violet said: "For those who end a happy life with a martyr's death I pour out my fragrance until I am reduced to ash by cruel fortune. Clad in the garment of emaciation, I am wasted away by the passing days, which admit no stay and dictate my corruption, leaving me no protective wrapper nor withstanding power. How brief a floruit was appointed me! And how long must I go on cut and dried! All the days of my existence I am battered up and down, cut from my roots and prevented from fruiting. The strong take advantage of my weakness, and my delicacy, grace and elegance are no protection against ill use. To enter my presence is to be blessed! and to see me is to marvel at me. But no more than a day or part of a day goes by until I am sold for a pittance, and a minute later I am found blameworthy. By nightfall you see me torn and tousled by the hands of happenstance, a husk hopeless of recovering its bloom.

"I am prized by pharmacists and those who attend to hidden wisdom, for by me are swelling cysts reduced, and violent pains made easier to bear, and recalcitrant bowels made pliant, and pernicious illnesses repulsed. Dried or fresh, I am a source of blessings to the people, who are ignorant of the magnitude of my oration, and the wisdom deposited in me by my Lord. To those who contemplate me attentively I am an exhortation, and an admonition to the mindful. Within me is an oracular indication for those who are attuned, and 'consummate wisdom - but warnings avail not.' " And I exclaimed:

        "I marveled at the violet, when it burst
                  into narration through its petals set on branching stems:
         an army bearing emerald spears, tipped with
                  ruby gems held aloft
         as if confronting an enemy host
                  tall as the tops of high palms."

From Revelation of the Secret Wisdom of the Birds and Flowers by 'Izz al-Din ibn Ghanim al-Maqdisi (d. 678/1279)

March 3, 2011

At 'Ayn Wabār

Abu Hatim said: One of our most dependable elders told of a man of Yemen who saw a camel like a beautiful white star, frisking amid his she-camels until all were mounted. When they had conceived, the he-camel went away and stayed away for one year’s time. It was after the man had delivered his camels of their offspring live and kicking that again he saw the he-camel, which stayed among the she-camels until they were fecundated anew. When the camel went away again, its offspring followed it, the man following them whither he knew not until he came to 'Ayn Wabār. (This is a spring of water belonging to the jinn, and its location is no longer known.) Among the wild camels, asses, gazelles and wild cows he found his flock under palms whose dates reached to their shoulders, such as no man had ever cultivated nor had any knowledge of.

He said: One of the jinn came up to the man and said: "What caused you to alight here?" "I followed these, my camels," the man said. The jinn said: "Finding you here on any day before today, I would have killed you. But go [with your life] and do not return. This he-camel is one of our herd." The jinn rounded up the camel’s offspring and drove them out along with the man. From this stock it is claimed that the noble Mahri camels are descended.

On his return, the man told one of the kings of Kinda about 'Ayn Wabār. The king wore himself out with long seeking but was never able to find it, and from that time up til now its location has remained unknown. And that is 'Ayn Wabār.

Similar expressions are mentioned by Abu Zayd and others: "I left him in a country that was tongue-tied," "I left him at the wild cow-licks," "I left him by the fox-ford," "I left him at the pond of last resort," and "I left him in a wasteland that was tongue-tied" are all said as one says "I left him at 'Ayn Wabār." All are places of which no one has any experience or knowledge.

From The Book of the Palm by Abu Hatim al-Sijistani (d. 869/255)