Book review: The new Library of Arabic Literature is a monument of state-of-the-art scholarship

All shades of classical Arab sensibilities are represented in Geert Jan van Gelder¿s superb anthology, the first volume for the Library of Arabic Literature, a venture supported by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, writes Marcel Kurpershoek

Classical Arabic Literature, A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology
Edited and translated by Geert Jan van Gelder
New York University Press

Apace with music and film, today's literature has gone global, irrespective of its roots. Things are different with pre-modern texts. Ask a well-read person outside the Arab world what early Arabic works they are familiar with, and after mentioning the Quran and One Thousand and One Nights, there will be a vacant stare. The new Library of Arabic Literature, supported by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, aims to change that and to appeal to the serious student as well as to the "general reader".

This first volume by Geert Jan van Gelder, a leading expert in the field and until recently Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford University, combines impeccable scholarly credentials with original approaches and translations. The commentaries and editing are of the highest standard. No doubt it will stand as a class in itself: a monument of state-of-the-art scholarship that makes for an often very entertaining read, sprinkled with subtle humour and passages of surprising candour. All extremes of classical Arab sensibility are represented: from a predilection for intricate puns to invective that would be considered shocking by modern standards of correctness.

The creator of this anthology - for his role goes far beyond the superb translations - does not shy away from this fact. On the contrary, he clearly revels in his task of disabusing us of any assumption that "classical" is confined to expressions of the lofty and high-minded. As he informs us: "I have not shunned four-letter words" if the Arabic original does the same.

This vigorous raw edge does not mean that his book caters to popular taste. Van Gelder's approach is not to produce a bowdlerised Facebook version, but to transport us, "as much as possible and as much as tolerable", to the place and time of the Arabic original.

This inevitably means that the reader will have to expend considerable effort in travelling to that destination under his own steam. There is no free ride. Fortunately, the route has been well prepared and posted with way-marks and explanations.

The anthology progresses chronologically from the pre-Islamic odes to the Arab Middle Ages to around the year 1700 in the Ottoman period. At the outset, before and just after the advent of Islam, life in the desert is lyrically evoked. One learns about winds "wailing like she-camels, calf-bereft", a "drenching deluge sent by the two lucky stars", heartburn at "the tribe's departure" separating the poet from his amour, "protected pastures never grazed before". In this ancient poetry, there is much that resembles 19th- and 20th-century Bedouin poetry. But even without a background in desert lore, the general sense is easy to grasp. And what may appear outside our ken becomes vivid through similes as "the chainmail of their bodies rustled like / the rustling of dry cornfields when the wind is southerly".

In the later poems, the desert fades away. The traces of the campsite, on which the poet sheds his tears as he recalls his departed love, turn into literary dust. A poet in Baghdad at the time of the Abbasid caliph Harun Al Rashid is content merely to smell a handful of dust fetched from the house of the lady who keeps him enthralled: "Then it will be as if I sip her sweet / saliva, touch her hennaed fingers fine. / I wish I were her toothbrush, in her hand, / that I could smell the sweetness of her teeth." A 14th-century poet in Egypt adds a note of disdain and mocking disapproval: "No visits to the countryside, / But with choice wine always abide. / Don't stupidly lament the traces / Left at your love's deserted places." And he ridicules the vaunted generosity of the desert-dwellers: "Stale proverb! Just an empty word, / Like most of them wholly absurd, / Made current by the Bedouin, / Those starving beggars and their kin."

Van Gelder explains that the texts are a mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar (presumably, for those in the know). In fact, they are nicely balanced in more than one sense. In the verse and the (much longer) prose sections, not only the highbrow but also the much less known lowbrow end of the literary register is explored. One of many must-reads is a very funny 17th-century burlesque story that pits a Persian religious scholar against an illiterate Egyptian peasant who has been dressed up as one of their own by theologians of the Azhar mosque in Cairo. In their words, "We'll treat the Persian the way he deserves to be treated; we'll set the dog on the swine." And indeed, in the contest refereed by the vizier, the "dog" confounds his opponent and comes out victorious through a series of grandiose misunderstandings.

Just as the desert is contrasted with the sown, the Egyptian peasant is seen as being in proximity of, and incompatible with, the Bedouin. Both lend themselves to being placed in opposition to "the Persian": in jocular fashion, as louts who outwit self-styled refined representatives of a higher civilisation. For confirmation of how ingrained national prejudice can be, take a 10th-century piece from Baghdad "on the superiority of the Arabs" by Al Tawhidi. Besides characterising Chinese, Turks, Indians and Africans in stereotypes that are still recognisable, he counterattacks those who revile the Arabs.

Amusingly, he rebuts the slur that Arabs, disparagingly equated with Bedouins, "eat jerboas, lizards, rats, and snakes". From there he veers to the other extreme. He maintains that the harsh Arabian interior brings out the best in man and is a domain of unparalleled nobility. And while the "libido and excitability (of the Bedouin Arabs) is greater than those of others", again they excel because of "their noble souls that restrain them". Two centuries earlier, the pro-Iranian poet Bashar ibn Burd poured scorn on this Arab presumption: "He (the Persian emperor Chosroes) did not drink diluted milk / from goatskin poured in mugs."

In much of the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf, these stereotypes still hold sway. Few will be aware that they date back a thousand years or more. And there are more surprises to disabuse one from the notion that today's debates are new. Above all, this book makes us aware of the astonishing richness and range of Islam as a civilisation that encompasses tolerant and humanist understandings of man and society. Whereas the media focus on radicalism, violence and hardliners, this anthology brings us face to face with Islam as a cultural universe: an ocean with an almost limitless diversity of species.

Van Gelder does so by adding emphasis to the unconventional, the unique and original. His choice of texts is idiosyncratic with a purpose. Apart from his personal predilections, a desire to lean back against the weight of ubiquitous bias may have had some part in this. Al Mutanabbi, often upheld as the greatest of the classic poets, receives relatively short shrift with one poem, whereas Abu Nuwas commands almost twice as much space. While certainly great, among the prim in the Arab world Abu Nuwas stands out for his notoriety rather than for his fame. One of the samples, as Van Gelder informs us, "is a combination of Bacchic and homoerotic love poem". For good measure, it also rails against religious hypocrisy. Imbibing fermented juice of grapes presumably removed any compunction Abu Nuwas might have felt about confessing, "No good in being outrageous without impudence, / nor in licentiousness not followed up with unbelief." As the notes inform us, a Cairo edition of the diwan (collected poetry), expurgated quite a few lines, including this one. Indeed, parts of the classic heritage are strong stuff - too strong for some modern arbiters of taste.

Nothing prevents libertinism and the outrageous from evolving into conventional motifs in their turn. But mainstream images of female beauty and eroticism have been part of the classical repertoire over huge distances in time and space. An intricate muwashah poem from 11th-century Spain sings, "A pretty girl appears, / just like a rising moon, / swaying with the weight of her breasts / on a laurel branch," and continues as she invites her lover, "and raise my anklets / to my earrings". As the notes explain, the latter image is already found in the verse of Jarir (7th century) and Abu Nuwas (8th century). And, I may add, the 17th-century Arabian vernacular poet Humaydan Al Shuway'ir. The ideal female shape of "a full moon (the face) on a twig (wasp waist) on a sand hill (the posterior)" is even older. One prose text included under the heading of erotica comes without such proud pedigree. Van Gelder thinks the author merely wishes to titillate. As he puts it, the girl's "breathless monologue … is a far cry from Molly Bloom". Yet he does a good job in narrowing the distance between this X-rated tale and the final part of James Joyce's Ulysses, ending in Molly's feverish "yes I said yes I will yes".

As for quirky humour, no one in my opinion rivals Abu l-Ala al-Ma'arri, an eccentric vegan, whose Epistle of Forgiveness features a philologist visiting heaven and hell. The hero of the story employs his skill in composing eulogies in order to gain admission to Paradise, only to find his fellows there engrossed in grammatical hairsplitting, "having a blissful time".

The translations of this volume are a marvel, and often a tour de force - precise, highly readable and evocative, with the benefit of well-honed use of iambic and other rhythmic devices. Though Van Gelder reminds us that he is not a native English speaker, his English strikes me as no less superlative than, say, Nabokov's mastery of the language.

Ÿ Philip Kennedy, general editor, and Chip Rossetti, managing editor, will be speaking about the Library of Arabic Literature at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair on Wednesday, April 24 at 5.30pm.

Marcel Kurpershoek is the author of Arabia of the Bedouins (in Arabic translation: al-Badawi Al-Akhir) and Studies on the Oral Poetry of Central Arabia. He is currently the Dutch ambassador in Warsaw.