Arabic Treasures: Why Al Muaallaqat is one of the most-cherished literary treasures of the Arab world

In the first of a new four-part series on classic works of Arabic literature, The National looks at Al Muaallaqat, a revered collection of seven timeless poems from the pre-Islamic age.

Seven Golden Odes of Arabia: The Muaallaqat translated by Paul Smith. Courtesy New Humanity Books
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It is said that some time in the 8th century, a wise man called Hammad Al Rawiya (“The Transmitter” or “Rhapsodist”) took it upon himself to collect the “best of the best” of Arabic poetry.

His mission was the preservation of the Arabic art form, after noticing a declining interest from the public.

He titled the collection he assembled Al Muaallaqat, which means "suspended odes" or "hanging poems". Written by seven poets, it remains one of the Arab world's most-cherished literary treasures.

The compilation was so revered, it is believed the poems were reproduced on curtains with golden threads and hung on the Kaaba in Mecca.

"If you were to imagine Arabic literature as a house, the Muaallaqat would be the first room you would enter," says Kamal Abdel-Malek, professor of Arabic and translation at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah.

“It would strike you with its extraordinary features: an interior customised with seductive metaphors, a finishing with elegant diction, a tiling with splendid ceramic-like similes, a wallpaper full of images of sand dunes, deserted camps of lost loves, rising camels, rampaging steeds, and antelopes gazing at you with charming, kohl-coloured eyes.”

Abdel-Malek, author of 2011's From Muaallaqat to the Facebook, compares these "hung" odes to modern-day social-media messages, tweets and blogs.

He says the topics discussed then and now are similar.

“In both the ancient and the modern cases there lies the human need to communicate, to broadcast, to express ideas and thoughts,” he says.

“Several of the themes treated in the classical texts are the selfsame themes in modern Arabic literature – love, views on the other, travel and wanderlust, tradition and nonconformity, exile and nostalgia, and so on.”

Comprising around 571 abyat (lines), the Muaallaqat were composed by accomplished authors of the pre-Islamic era, including: Imru' Al Qays, the wandering king; Tarafa, a pleasure-seeking youth; Zuhayr, a moralist; Antara, a black knight and Heathcliff-like romantic hero; the centenarian Labid; grief-stricken knight Amr ibn Kulthum, a regicide who laments over loss and grief; and Al Harith Ibn Hillizah, a leper who offers a tribal commentary.

Together, they offer insight into a colourful and forgotten time.

"So apart from their aesthetic beauty and the joy of reading them, the Muaallaqat are our main source on the worldview and the language of the pre-Islamic Arabs," says Abdel-Malek. "Without them we would find a great deal of difficulty in making sense of much of the early Islamic literature."

While each of the odes has its charms, it is perhaps the one by Imru’ Al Qays – considered by many the father of Arabic poetry – that remains the most famous.

The first line is one of the most famous in Arab poetry: “Stop, friends! Let us stay and weep at the thought of my love / she lived here on the desert’s edge between Al Dakhooli and Howmali / Tudiha and Mirkat! the campsite has not been erased / even as the south and north winds cross weave across the sands.” As a result, Qifa Nabki (let us stop and weep) has become part of modern Arab parlance.

Emirati poet and publisher Ali Al Shaali chose as the motto of his Al Hudhud Publishing house a line from Muaallaqat's second poem, by Tarafa: "And something new or news will come to you from strangers/unknown travellers."

“I liked the deep meaning behind Tarafa’s line, how new ideas and new stories can come to you from the most unlikely places,” says the 38-year-old, who was the Young Author winner in the 2016 Sheikh Zayed Book Awards.

"We studied the Muaallaqat in school. Then, it was just something I had to memorise. But now, I have rediscovered them again as an adult and truly appreciate the beauty of the old, pure Arabic language, their deep multiple meanings, and the drive for excellence in describing feelings and everything around them."

While admitting that some of the text is dense and hard for some to understand, Al Shaali, from Dubai, says careful reading reveals many gems.

“There is so much heart in it,” he says. “Even the stones and the sands have been humanised through beautifully-woven words. Honour, love, courage, betrayal and the search for meaning and belonging, even love for a horse – all of these very personal elements of life were told to us through the purest of Arabic.

“The description of the desert, the camels, everything is so eloquent and detailed that it truly blows you away.”

A major reason for Muaallaqat's eloquence, Al Shaali says, is the storytelling behind the poetry, which touches upon many common aspects of life, including heartache, bravery, grief and overcoming personal and physical challenges.

"The Muaallaqat are our version of the philosophical Greek mythologies," he says. "We were raised on the values and themes embodying them."

In 2014, Marlé Hammond, a senior lecturer in Arabic popular literature and culture with the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, published Arabic Poems, a bilingual (English and Arabic) anthology of works from the 6th century to the present, which includes three of the odes.

She describes Muaallaqat as the "very core of the Arabic poetic canon".

“They have been scrutinised for their lexical significance and celebrated for their beauty ever since,” says Hammond. “They have also shaped our understanding of various structural models of the pre-Islamic ode.

"The Muaallaqat are very difficult to read, even for native speakers, as much of the vocabulary is now obscure. This, of course, is one reason why today's generation may be less familiar with them, but I think it is probably also due to teaching practices."

Despite the difficult language, Hammond says she is glad she studied the text and cites the poem by Imru’ Al Qays as her favourite.

“This is due to the simple fact that one of my Arabic teachers made me memorise it, so I internalised its rhythms and its imagery,” she says.

“My familiarity with the poem has also enabled me to appreciate the many references to it that are to be found in modern literature. Memorising that poem was well worth it.”

Ultimately, says Al Shaali, the Muaallaqat is a proud reminder of the Arab world's rich literary heritage. "Arabs were wordsmiths. What makes Arab literature special is that it is an art of the language itself," he says.

"For even if you may not understand the Muaallaqat fully, if it inspires you, it has done its work."

Next week on Arabic Treasures, we take a look at the enduring works of 7th-century Arabic poet Al Khansa