'Atlal': Arabic word for ruins has been used as a trope since pre-Islamic poetry

The word is the title of one of the most profound love songs in Arab history

The Arabic word atlal means ruins in English
Powered by automated translation

This week’s Arabic word is interesting for how it expresses the past as it exists in the present and how, throughout history, it has been used as a literary device to reminisce or grieve.

Atlal means the ruins of a physical structure or the ruins of physical things — an ancient city, a castle, a home and its contents. It is what remains or the disintegrated state of what once was.

While atlal can be used to describe the state of a structure, whether destroyed intentionally or neglected, it has stronger connotations with a place’s state of decay, collapse or neglect through the passing of time.

Another meaning for the word, while not commonly used, is a high place, for observing, similar to a balcony, overlooking an area, whether a courtyard or garden. Atlal is the plural of the word talal, a variation of the Arabic word yutill, which means to look upon or to overlook.

The combination of looking, ruins and time passing in what the word atlal means and alludes to, is used as a theme and motif in Arabic poetry, originating during the pre-Islamic, or Jahiliyyah, period.

Some believe the originator of the theme was the sixth-century poet-king Imru’ al Qais, the son of one of the last Kindite kings and who many consider the father of Arabic poetry.

Imru’ al Qais is the source of many tropes and themes in Arabic poetry that were revisited and used by many Arab poets who followed him. One of those was stopping at the ruins of abandoned campsites, remembering his lover and weeping over what once was.

Egyptian poet and author Ibrahim Nagi used this in his most famous poem, Al Atlal (The Ruins), considered by many as one of the most profound Arabic love poems in history. It was published in 1944 in Nagi’s poetry collection Cairo Nights.

It is believed that the inspiration for the poem was Nagi’s own heartbreak over a past love. The story goes that when Nagi was 16, he fell in love with his neighbour but was forced to leave his hometown to study medicine. Upon his return, after his studies, Nagi heard that his beloved had married. Years later, Nagi was called upon by a distraught husband to visit his home because his wife was having a difficult labour. When Nagi arrived at the home of the patient, he discovered that the woman in question was the neighbour with whom he had once been in love.

After successfully delivering her child and making sure she was safe, Nagi returned home, haunted by feelings for his past love and the ruins of their relationship and began writing Al Atlal. It's a poignant tale and one that is widely circulated, but has not been substantiated.

While the poem was critically acclaimed and successful in its own right, 13 years after Nagi’s death, legendary Egyptian songstress Umm Kulthum adapted the stanzas of the poem, combining them with another poem by Nagi, Al Wada’a (The Farewell), into a song entitled Al Atlal, with a melody composed by the renowned Egyptian composer Riad Al Sunbati.

Umm Kulthum’s rendition of the poem in song is one of her most popular and enduring songs and performances.

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: December 09, 2022, 2:02 PM