[“This is my father`s crime against me, which I myself committed against none” (hādha janāhu abī ʿalayya wa-mā janaytu ʿalā aḥadin). So declares the tomb in Maʿarrat al-Nuʿmān, Syria, of pre-modern poet and iconoclast Abuʾl-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 1058 AD). The implication is as somber as the plaque it adorns: al-Maʿarrī`s very birth was a tragedy, and his own childlessness a service to humanity. Such pessimism about mortality pervades al-Maʿarrī`s vast and difficult writings, which brim with condemnation of this world, “Mother of Stench” (umm dafr) as al-Maʿarrī so often calls it. The Syrian poet had ample reason for resentment: blind from childhood, al-Maʿarrī suffered physical infirmity and emotional turmoil throughout his eighty plus years on earth, electing at age 36 to live in self-imposed seclusion until death. As the epitaph shows, al-Maʿarrī`s bitterness touches the poet`s being itself and the parents who gave it, his father a starting point for existential rumination on life`s cruelty. Yet how different is this disregard, abstract and philosophical in tone, from the more immediate, palpable affection in one of al-Maʿarrī`s best-known poems: a moving elegy written shortly after the death of the poet`s father, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaymān al-Tanūkhī, in 1005 AD when al-Maʿarrī was only 32 years old. In that elegy, from al-Maʿarrī`s early poetry collection Saqṭ al-zand (The First Tinder Spark) and translated below, the rancor directed at al-Maʿarrī`s father in the epitaph is in fact marshaled with striking tenderness on his behalf. Al-Maʿarrī deploys a suite of compelling images — rain clouds, Judgment Day, astrology, prophets — to voice grief and filial affection, demanding that due homage be paid his father. The tension between such affection in the poem and the brooding of the epitaph is the product of two different stances taken by the poet, one personal and heartbroken, the other detached and reflective. Such tension mirrors the intellectual search for meaning in a trauma that human reason ultimately fails to explain; despite all his musings, al-Maʿarrī must still endure the personal sorrow of his father`s loss for no other reason than that death comes to us all. Faced with such an inexplicable and apparently pointless tragedy, al-Maʿarrī`s final oath — “Let my heart have no joy without you!” — echoes through the ages as a lament on the tragedy of human life itself.]
I scorn delight, even the flashy grin of a pale storm-cloud –
Let hazy skies rain only a sneer!
Now my mouth, bared wide in a smile,
Is the wide mouth of a red wound, untoothed,
And my teeth like full-bodied girls — mentioned
Fondly in speech but kept hidden, protected.
Father — night passed her sentence on him,
fate`s lance always piercing.
He who lived pure body and soul, even asleep! And sleepless
In doing good, pockets empty of cheap hopes, garments unsoiled.
His resolve — is it eroded on Judgment Day,
When Mount Uḥud caves into tufts of dyed wool?
Does he drink at Paradise, basin brimming? Or rush
With massing throngs? Or shun the crowd, unsure?
Reason increased him in grace and valor,
While others it calls to greed and cowardice.
The wrath of God sits on this world — Mother of Stench!
She, most fit to betray and corrupt;
Voluptuous, locks of night and face of day,
Sun rising to caress it in beauty.
Adam, son of clay, saw her already timeworn
By the rain-soaked Seven, the Two Pillars, the Balance of Suhayl,
When she buried alive her daughter Eve –
And how many after Eve were entombed!
As though her babes were born bastards,
So she feared the shame of letting them live.
We do not know, though wanting, what awaits us –
That knowledge is God`s, the Generous.
When man passes the veil, his story ends
And no thought counts his worth,
And in trying, minds strong as Persian horsemen
Go off course, firm views dip into folly;
Even the desert lords of language, any beauty
They saw, they reckoned the work of jinn.
No hour of life yokes us that fails to ruin
More fully than a foe in battle;
We find the world`s sorrow sweet, as if the
Sadness we reap were the harvest of bees,
So the dusty-hued grouse fears death, though
It walks five days waterless to swig murky drops,
Fleeing the hawk day and night,
Meeting evil at crooked claws;
Nor do wild cows hold off, though spooked, limp
Like supple spears from all night walking,
But four whole days drive their hoof-sides
Through the waste to a dried-up pond.
Fear of death pushed Seven Sleepers into a cave,
Made Noah and his son build a ship;
Nor did Moses and Adam think it pleasant to die
Though they were promised paradise.
Oh father, lord of rhyme! How you bend it to your will –
Next to you, eloquence will stammer and lurch.
Welcome to your new home, laying
You gently down in ease and relief,
In a neighborhood far from the tribal grounds,
Watering both the new home and the old.
I ask Juhayna for sure news of the dead,
But Juhayna, all you give me is rumor,
And though promised the truth, I still ask —
The truth is left wanting, and no less will do;
What bitter deceit if, in the final balance,
Virtue does not outweigh vice.
I pass a land once your home, and this in your honor,
As if passing the Kaʿaba wall and pillar,
Though praise for your home is in vain;
A shattered sword leaves only dust on the sheath.
Your loss made my heart a bird
That swore off all nests,
Days spent soaring and plunging, its wings
Swift against the turns of fate.
Death calls you by name; like a snake bite it tears
Me in half, spitting poison in my ear.
You wail. I am bound to crumble by it,
As I am bound to leave my bed, though too
Tired to face the day, as night passes like
Lamplight fading in the darkness before dawn.
If only praise from the many who laud
Your virtue could turn away death.
Your surety heralds the Most High God`s gladness
In you; your firmness wards against endless torment.
In mercy and awe, the witnessing angel bears you
No blame; if asked, your mouth doesn`t indict,
But tells with musk-wafting words, and deeds
Like ever-fresh waters of heavenly gardens,
A hand fashioning favor, drawn breaths
Led by faith, tongue without slander.
If only my eyelids enfolded you soundly,
Far from the grave of my guts and ribs.
I`d refuse if they bored your tomb
In a pearl, to keep you from being buried,
Or laid you in the sky, for fear of changing weather;
This miser would only grow in envy for you.
Oh grave! Curse your dust soft against
Him and your stones rough and coarse.
You cover him like an oyster shell, so
Guard the glorious pearl deserving a trove.
When I call to your grave, do you hear the cry
Of your heartbroken son, devoted servant?
I weep along with doves that coo gaily,
Though our message is not the same.
To my ear, a song-girl sounding a liquid
Tune is a sorrowing funeral mourner.
Alive I bear sadness in you, but in death
When we meet, I stray from all paths leading to grief.
Let my heart have no joy without you!
And in breaking this oath, let joy give it no pleasure.
[Translated from the Arabic by Kevin Blankinship. You can read the original Arabic here.]