By Sekka Editorial
2020 was a year of loss, challenges and disruptions for many around the world, but it can be argued that it was a good year for Arabic literature, at least. Before the historic year came to a long awaited end, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) announced the completion of a project that was more than one year in the works, The Muʿallaqat for Millennials. Created in collaboration with Al Qafilah, a cultural magazine by Saudi Aramco, The Muʿallaqat For Millennials is a rich book that presents al- Muʿallaqat —the precious collection of pre-Islamic odes that has, across time, been widely considered to represent the very best of some of the early Arabic poetry, and which provides an unparalleled creative insight into the life and culture of the Arabian Peninsula in the 6th century— in a novel manner to a new generation of readers.
Al-Muʿallaqāt across history
Throughout history, al-Muʿallaqāt have been cloaked in mystery, from their name to the precise number of poems contained in the collection. Frequently said to have been compiled by the Iraq-born literature enthusiast Hammad Al-Rawiyah in the 8th century, one famous tale provides that al- Muʿallaqat derived their name from having been hung (mu‘allaq) by threads on the Holy Kaaba. Another provides that their name was derived from ‘ilq, meaning ‘valuable’ in Arabic, with the poems being perceived as the most valuable poems of their time. The exact number of poems in the collection has also been a point of contention, with scholarly opinions ranging from seven to ten poems that tackle the universal and timeless themes such as love, war and freedom, with some of the most famous of these poems being those composed by the legendary Arab poets Imru’ al-Qays and Antarah Bin Shaddad. More recently, however, there has been a concern about the meanings of the poems becoming mysterious to newer generations of readers, given the richness of the classical Arabic used that is unfamiliar to many today, and the absence of a comprehensive account of the context in which the poems were composed. The Muʿallaqat for Millennials thus comes as a long-awaited answer to this growing concern.
A closer look at the novel book
“Our book is a bilingual volume (written in Arabic and English) and it contains the following for the very first time: the ten Muʿallaqat (or Suspended Odes, which are, the ten most important Arabic poems from the pre-Islamic era and the linguistic foundation of Arabic culture) in a critical and fully vocalized edition; original English translations of the ten poems and new Arabic commentaries on them, both penned by world experts on Arabic poetry. Moreover, the Muʿallaqat for Millennials is rich with critical introductions for each poem. The introductions give a background on each poem and poet, shed light on the historical context in which each poem was composed, and highlight each poem’s distinctive aesthetic features and timeless message” explains Dr. Hatem Alzahrani, a poet, author, academic and a consultant for Saudi’s Ministry of Culture who served as The Muʿallaqat for Millennials’ content and international communication supervisor. Dr. Alzahrani was one of ten experts and academics from around the globe who— in association with team members of Ithra and Al Qafilah— brought the book to life through their investigations, insights, translations and commentaries.
“This project aims to present these immortal Arabic poems anew to the new generations, regardless of their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and regardless of the contexts in which they are reading these poems (whether they are reading them for fun, or for academic and research purposes)” he continues. “It is an invitation for the contemporary reader to enter the world of the Muʿallaqat, to explore their human lessons, celebrate their artistic originality, and listen carefully to what they reveal about the artists who produced them as well as those who witnessed their creation. At the same time, they reveal a great deal about us, the people of the 21st century who belong to a rich variety of cultures and languages.”
The volume also contains a detailed explanation of each of Al- Muʿallaqat, a brief background on the personalities that are featured in the poems, as well as contemporary definitions of some of the words in the poems, all of which are meant to help the reader understand the poems more easily. “In the Arabic Commentary section, each mu‘allaqah is divided into ‘artistic’ parts that are explained and interpreted individually, based on the relative distinction of the themes of the mu‘allaqah. The commentary of each part is organized in such a way as to achieve the two-fold goal of defining obscure words and furnishing the verses with exegesis and interpretation. While the latter part, called ‘Meaning,’ comes right below the verses, the former, called ‘Language,’ appears in an end-note sub-section to the left side of the page. The ‘Language’ part often includes contemporary names for the ancient locations mentioned in the odes (such as ‘ al-dakhūl or ‘hawmal’ in the first verse of the mu‘allaqah, along with some biographical information about the poems’ characters, human and non-human alike” explains Dr. Alzahrani.
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He adds, “The commentaries on each part of the poem vary in length based on what the part requires. They highlight the main theme of each part and explain how the verses contribute to that theme, and connect the different themes of the different parts. Finally, a short conclusion comes in a few sentences at the end to sum up the central theme of the poem and its main features, thus connecting all the parts of the mu‘allaqah together. With this, the commentary of each mu‘allaqah successfully combines depth and clarity, and smoothly takes you on a reading journey from one part of the mu‘allaqah to another, in a way that is as lively and vibrant just like the mu’allaqāt themselves.”
Despite its title, Dr. Alzahrani notes that the book is also a valuable resource for those who do not belong to the millennial generation, as well as those who speak English. “The new commentary on the poems, which is an essential part of our book, comes to meet the needs of the contemporary, non-specialized reader, but it also serves as a scholarly source for specialists” hey says. “Our book resuscitates the tradition of poetry commentary, that is directly engaging with the text in a close reading, after decades of the hegemony of theory over the practice of reading poetry.”
The Muʿallaqat for Millenials is approximately 500 pages long, and the minimally illustrated black and purple Arabic and English pages appear beside each other, with the Arabic poems and their introductions appearing on the right pages and their English equivalents appearing on the left pages, which “gives the poems a global dimension, as it invites a wider readership, while still maintaining the poems’ local character ” explains Dr. Alzahrani.
Presenting Arabic culture in a way
It is noteworthy that al- Muʿallaqat have attracted Western scholarly attention for decades. Despite the interest, however, there has not been a known effort to translate, contextualize and compile all ten poems into one book. “To the best of our knowledge, our book represents the first time that all ten poems were translated and gathered into one volume” notes Dr. Alzahrani, which will no doubt provide a valuable resource for the study of Arabic literature in the Western world, in addition to the Eastern world, of course.
After spending almost a decade (from 2010 to 2019) to both study and teach Arabic literature in the U.S. in Yale University and Georgetown University, Dr. Alzahrani directly felt the need to present Arabic culture in a new way. “In the Arabic poetry classes that I taught, I observed firsthand the need to present Arabic culture to the new global generations in a novel way, one that transcends cultural and linguistic boundaries, in hopes of creating a more nuanced and civilized dialogue between East and West. Thus, the idea for this project opened a window to a dream that I thought would not easily come true” he notes.
Having been raised in a family that is infatuated with Arabic poetry, Dr. Alzahrani’s personal interest in Arabic literature started at a young age. When he ventured into the world of Arabic poetry, the poets of al-Muʿallaqat, like Turfa Bin Abid, quickly became his teachers, “During my college years, my relationship turned to one of critical reading and scholarly exploration, which was encouraged by my majoring in Arabic literature. Moreover, getting my poetry published and participating in poetry reading events also led me to care more and give more attention to timeless Arabic poems. Since then, the muʿallaqah of Imru’ al-Qays has occupied a special place in my heart, not only because of the tragedy, mythical or otherwise, surrounding the life of the protagonist of the poem ( i.e. the poet himself), but also because of the poem’s creative genius”.
The special interest that Dr. Al Zahrani took in the poets of al-Muʿallaqat ultimately helped him reach new levels in both his poetic and academic careers. “The ‘Errant King’ or ‘al-Malik al-Dillīl’ in Arabic (as the sobriquet for Imru’ al-Qays goes) inspired me to write a poem that would later become one of my most famous poems, after I participated in the Prince of Poets competition in the UAE in 2008 and was crowned the ‘Poet of Creativity.’ The poem was called ‘Riyah janubiyyah min shamal al-qalb,’ (Southern Winds from the North of the Heart), and it evokes the tragic story of Imru’ al-Qays” recalls Dr. Alzahrani.
Future literary projects
Through the Muʿallaqat for Millennials project, Dr.Alzahrani and his fellow team members hope to be able to invite readers today to discover the beauty of the Arabic language and culture. “These immortal works were born more than fifteen centuries ago in the Arabian Peninsula, and today from Saudi Arabia, the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, this project unites experts from different places and cultures around the world to celebrate the roots of the identity of this land and the openness of its culture to the linguistic and cultural diversity of the world” he passionately tells us.
“You can say (in a simplified manner), that because of this book, two students in two universities—one in Saudi Arabia and one in the U.S.— would be able to join a virtual class on Arabic poetry without them knowing each other’s languages!” remarks Dr. Alzahrani.
As for future projects, Dr. Alzahrani reveals that he is currently working on a more personal project with Dr. Beatrice Grundler—his former supervisor at Yale University—that involves translating some of the poems of the historical Arabic poet al-Mutannabi that have turned to proverbs that we continue to use everyday.
An electronic version of The Muʿallaqāt for Millennials will soon be available on Ithra.
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