What is the oldest Arabic literature

PhiN 88/2019: 83

Zouheir Soukah (Düsseldorf)

Al-Maaly, Khalid (ed.) (2017): The wings of my heavy heart. Poetry by Arab female poets from the 5th century to the present day. Zurich: Manesse Verlag.

There is no doubt that Arabic poetry enjoys a very special position not only in the history of Arabic literature, but also in Arabic cultural memory. Therein this literary genre was and is considered the most important, if not the most popular, of all literary genres. It is also considered to be the oldest literary genre, which the Arabs valued so highly even in pre-Islamic times that they wrote it down in anthologies. Among the most important of these anthologies are the seven Mu'allakat, which represent the poems of the most important Arab poets of the pre-Islamic period. Still, poetry was not entirely a man's business. Already in the pre-Islamic period there were numerous Arab female poets who, however, left behind few poems and many poem fragments, which were only later collected in various and scattered anthologies. These are mostly "poems that [...] have only been passed down orally over generations and centuries, so that their authenticity is not always guaranteed" (173). For all these reasons, it is not surprising that Arab as well as international anthologies about Arab women poets and their poetry, especially before the Second World War, are rarities. These include, among other things Classical Poems by Arab Women (1999), Diván de poetisas árabes contemporáneas (2016) as well as the bilingual anthology The wings of my heavy heart, which contains selected lyrical texts by some Arab female poets from the 5th century to the present day and their German translation.


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It was first published in 2008 and was expanded in 2017 in a new edition with further poems by contemporary young poets from the Arab region, as they "poetically reflect the events of the last few years in the Middle East and North Africa and deal primarily with the themes of war, flight and Expose Destruction "(178), says Khalid Al-Maaly, who edited and translated the texts of this anthology together with Heribert Becker.

The anthology is structured chronologically, which is why it begins with poems by some Arab female poets from the pre-Islamic era, i.e. up to the 7th century, such as Laiyla Al-Afifa (d. 438), then Ashraka Al-Muharibiya and Al-Khansa (d. 646), the most famous female poet in Arabic literature. These are simple and direct poems, the subject of which is above all "Mourning and Lament for the Dead" (173) as well as love. "These poems" were only "fixed in writing" in the middle of the 9th century "(ibid.), But" scattered in literary encyclopaedias "(174).

The poems written in the early Islamic and Umayyad epochs by, for example, Laila Al Amiriyya, the lover of the famous poet Qais bin Muad (Majnun Laila), as well as Layla al-Akhyaliyya (d. 709) and Rabia al-Adawiyya (d. 801 ). This is followed by other texts from the Abbasid period such as those by Arib Al-Mamunia (d. 890-91), Aa'isha bint al-Mu'tasim, and Safiyya al-Baghdadiyya as well as texts by some famous Andalusian poets such as Aisha al-Qurtubiyya, Hafsa bint Hamdun, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (d. 1091) and Hafsa Al-Rukuniyya (d. 1190/91). In terms of content, it is no longer about the old themes from the earlier era of Arab female poetry such as mourning and mortuary lamentation and hymns of praise to the tribe, but about various themes such as love laments and texts that include "incitement to military struggle" and "lullabies "and" Price poems on well-known rulers "(176), love poems and even verses of mockery and abuse" against the man, against envious and slanderers "(ibid.). This accurately reflects the important position of Arab women at that time. In this regard, for example, the Abbasin poet Arib Al-Mamunia wrote:

And you are human, deception is a fixed quality
Of you, you have many faces and ten tongues. (49)


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In addition, the Arab poets at the time longed for their hometowns and their original rural life. Maisun Bint Bahdal Al-Kalbia, the wife of Muawiya I, the founder of the Ummayden dynasty, wrote:

The hardship of my being as a Bedouin
I prefer the easy life -
I don't want to be anywhere but home
that is enough for me as a noble home. (29).

The theme of love poetry has also continued to develop. Texts emerged that reflect platonic, physical and mystical love (176) such as the poem by the famous Laila Al-'Amariya, the lover of Al-Majnun:

The Madjnun was in no condition
in which I was not myself,
but he revealed the secret of his passion,
while I melted away from hiding. (27)


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The Andalusian period was also, among other things, the heyday of Arabic literature and, in particular, of female poetry. Back then even Ghazel- Poems written by Andalusian female poets, a genre currently commonly addressed by male poets to female lovers. This fact alone can say a lot about the important social position of the Arab poet of that time - she "took part in intellectual and artistic life" (175). The following poem fragment by the Andalusian poet Hafsa Al-Rukunia (d. 1191) clearly shows the extent to which the Arab poet was free in her poetic debate:

I'm jealous of my guardian's eyes
on you, on your time and the place where you are,
and even if I tell you until the last day
hide in my eyes
so that can't be enough for me. (77)

The Andalusian poet also had - according to Al-Maaly - "a correspondingly increased sense of self" in view of her high position and the social freedom that she possessed. With this in mind, Aisha Al-Qurtubia wrote:

I am a lioness, but I am not satisfied
with being someone's resting place all my life.
And should I ever decide on one, I will
not picking a dog after not even hearing lions. (59)

Apart from a small fragment by Shamsa Al-Moselia, a poet from the 13th century, there is no other text in this anthology, especially after the conquest of Baghdad by the Mongols (1258). Al-Maaly justifies this gap, which lasts until the 20th century, by pointing out that "[t] he literary quality of the lyric poetry written by women in this long period of time [...] varies greatly" (176) . The selection of this anthology continues with the two important representatives of modern Arabic poetry: Fadwa Tuqan (1917–2003) and Nazik Al-Mala'ika (1923–2007). The texts of the two poets explain the new situation of women in the Arab countries during and after the Western European colonialism of the Arab region. The Iraqi Nazik Al-Mala'ika describes the problem of female identity in Arab societies as follows:


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And the self asks who I am
I'm at a loss like it and stare into the dark
nothing gives me peace.
I keep asking questions, and always
a mirage hides the answer. (87)

The Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan also deals with the torn "perplexity" of the Arab woman in relation to the tradition and modernity of the Arab world:

I am at a loss! Two love me
both like flowers of April
both sweeter than sugar. When do I love more?
O my palm, which of them is more beautiful?
Tell my heart, I don't know what to do (83).

The two poets are among the pioneers of free Arabic poetry and had an enormous influence on numerous Arab female poets, the number of whom rose significantly after the decolonization of most of the Arab countries, mainly due to the easier access to education. These include Saniya Salih and Aisha Arna'ut (Syria), Sabah Al-Kharrat-Zwein (Lebanon), Wafa 'Al-Amrani (Morocco), Sa'adiya Mufarrih (Kuwait) and Hamda Khamis (Bahrain) and Huda Ablan (Yemen).

The second edition of the anthology also contains ten other texts by younger Arab female poets such as Kholoud Elfallah (Libya), Rana Al-Tonsi (Egypt), Widad Nabi and Bassma Shikho (Syria) as well as Mona Karim and Mariam Al-Attar (Iraq) .

The Arab Spring and its contradictions are reflected in most of the texts of the younger Arab poets. Issues such as civil war, flight, but also freedom and democracy prevail here, which have now been fixed in the memory of Arabic poetry when Khaloud Elfallah writes about the current situation in her country, Libya, for example:

The day begins
With normal things
The window panes tremble from the detonating ones
Bombs
For a moment the heart stops beating
then the throbbing continues
And the crying stays in the throats of women
stuck. (141)


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Meanwhile, Mariam Al-Attar from Iraq addresses the issue of displacement in her country as follows:

I am the daughter of that skull
Found at the border
I am that little girl's mother
Who has to sell his body in the refugee camps. (165)

And last but not least, the Syrian poet Bassma Shaikho describes her city Damascus in view of the current Syrian civil war:

What am I still doing here?
Alone in this city
I ring the bells of their churches on Sundays
And call down to prayer from every minaret
I call for the missing
And pray for all who have left
I go around the markets
I am buyer and seller (155).

Despite the importance of these issues, numerous current trends in modern Arabic poetry, as well as other younger female poets, have been disregarded here. However, this can be justified by the fact that the limited scope of the anthology does not allow it to be taken into account. Al-Maalyi relies on this justification for his decision not to provide any texts or text fragments from the period between the 13th and the 20th century. For this reason, I advocate that the coming third edition should contain more lyrical texts that close this huge temporal gap. Even Al-Maaliy admits that during that period "there were definitely noteworthy female poets". (176) The German translation is in need of improvement here, as it looks very modest, especially stylistically, compared to the original texts. A German reader who does not have any knowledge of Arabic can hardly recognize the stylistic and poetic differences between the various types of Arabic poetry, such as pre-Islamic, classical or modern free poetry, based on the uniform translation, to name just a few examples mention. Nevertheless, the priority aim of this type of simplified translation seems to be to give the German reader a good overview of Arabic female poetry and to reproduce its linguistic, stylistic and poetic development more precisely through complex translation. It is remarkable that the bilingual anthology itself is a poetic appreciation of this almost forgotten Arabic genre, female poetry, not only in Arabic but also in Western cultures. This confirms the important role that literary translation can play as a medium of transcultural memory.