From my diary

I’ve been looking some more at Byzantine science.  My original intention was to write a series of posts on each area of science.  But I’m finding that in fact I don’t know enough about the subjects to do so.  In particular knowledge of Byzantine mathematics and astronomy seems to require more knowledge of the works of Aristotle than I possess.  So I will probably do no more on this.

Yesterday I was looking at an English translation of a poem by al-Akhtal, the court poet of the early Ummayads, whom I wrote about here.  This led me to wonder how to post a poem on WordPress, which is what this blog runs on.  There is no feature in the blogging platform to support the sort of alternately indented lines that a regular poem has.  I found quite a number of posts asking why there is not a plugin to make this possible.

A bit of experimentation, and I developed a basic wordpress plugin with very little difficulty, that added a drop-down to the editor with a set of new and custom styles to apply to the text.  I set up Xampp locally on Windows 10 and installed WordPress inside it.  A short article told me what a simple plugin looked like. Another told me how to use a generator to create one, which I did, although I had to create a GitHub account to use it.  Finally another article advised me on how to do the changes manually; which I did instead inside my plugin, adding the PHP code to the main generated plugin .php file, and sticking a css file in the root.  It all sort of worked, and I pushed it to GitHub.

But … it just did not work to format poetry.  The problem is not the plugin.  The problem is that WordPress strips whitespace in a manner impossible to control.  You can insert stuff in a poetic format.  But the moment you open the post in the visual editor, that format is destroyed.

This is a fundamental problem with poetry in WordPress.  It can’t be fixed, unless or until the main developers address the whitespace handling issue.

The only possible approach is to format it all as <PRE>, which is not much of an answer and looks terrible.

Perhaps it says something about the importance of poetry in our society, that the main blogging platform for writing online makes it impossible to post verse?

I need to return to translating Eutychius of Alexandria.  I have a couple of books to review.

My trip to Rome later this month will not now happen, after my travelling companion became ill.

I read this morning that the publishing industry continues its campaign against the SciHub pirate website, through which alone normal people can access most journal articles.  Apparently a US judge wants to prevent Americans from accessing it.  That should certainly give China an advantage!  The site itself is apparently hosted in Russia, fortunately.

To finish, let me attempt to post the poem by al-Akhtal, in preformatted format, as translated by Suzanne Stetkevych.[1]  I laid it out in Notepad; but my attempt to create a preformatted block and paste it in was a complete failure.  Even preformatted text is not handled well by the visual editor, it seems.  In the end I switched to text view and pasted it in there, with <pre></pre> tags around it.  This gives the following appearance:

How long will it remain formatted, I wonder?  Well, let’s see!

Here is the complete poem, that al-Akhtal delivered before the caliph, while drunk.

Al-Akhtal's Khaffa al-Qatinu: The Nasib

1. Those that dwelt with you have left in haste,
       departing at evening or at dawn,
   Alarmed and driven out by fate's caprice,
       they head for distant lands.
2. And I, on the day fate took them off,
       was like one drunk
   On wine from Hims or Jadar
       that sends shivers down the spine,
3. Poured generously from a brimming wine-jar,
       lined with pitch and dark with age,
   Its clay seal broken
       off its mouth,
4. A wine so strong it strikes
       the vital organs of the reveller,
   His heart, hungover, can barely
       sober up.
5. I was like that, or like a man
       whose joints are racked with pain,
   Or like a man whose heart is struck
       by charms and amulets,
   Out of longing for them and yearning
       on the day I sent my glance after them
   As they journeyed in small bands
       on Kawkab Hill's two slopes.
7. They urged on their mounts,
       turning their backs on us,
   while in veiled howdahs, if you spoke softly to them,
       were maidens lovely as statues.
8. They entice the tribesmen
       until they ensnare them,
   Yet they seem feeble-minded
       when questioned.
9. Forget about union with beautiful women
       when they are sure
   That you are a man whom
       old age's blossom has demeaned!
10. They turned away from me
       when my bow's stringer bent it
   And when my once jet-black locks
       turned white.
11. They do not heed the man who calls them
       to fulfill his need,
   Nor do they set their sights upon
       a white-haired man.
12. They headed east when summer's blast
       had wrung the branches dry,
   And, except where ploughshares run,
       all green had withered.
13. So the eye is troubled by tears
       shed for a now-distant campsite
   Whose folk will find it hard to ever
       meet again.
14. They are cut off, like a rope,
       and the eye follows after them,
   Between al-Shaqiq
       and al-Maqsim Spring,
15. Until they descended to a land
       on the side of a river bed
   Where the tribes of Shayban and Ghubar
       alight,
16. Until when they left behind
       the sandy tamarisk ground
   And had reached high ground, or said,
       "This is the trench [that Khosroes] dug."
17. They alighted in the evening,
       and we turned aside our noble-bred camels:
   For the man in need, the time had come
       to journey.
18. To a man whose gifts do not elude us,
       whom God has made victorious,
   So let him in his victory
       long delight!
19. He who wades into the deep of battle,
       auspicious his augury,
   The Caliph of God
       through whom men pray for rain.
20. When his soul whispers its intention to him
       it sends him resolutely forth,
   His courage and his caution
       like two keen blades.
21. In him the common weal resides,
       and after his assurance
   No peril can seduce him
       from his pledge.
22. Not even the Euphrates when its tributaries
       pour seething into it
   And sweep the giant swallow-wort from its two banks
       into the middle of its rushing stream,
23. And the summer winds churn it
       until its waves
   Form agitated puddles
       on the prows of ships,
24. Racing in a vast and mighty torrent
       from the mountains of Byzance
   Whose foothills shield them from it
       and divert its course,
25. Is ever more generous than he is
       to the supplicant
   Or more dazzling
       to the beholder's eye.
26. They did not desist from their treachery and cunning
       against you
   Until, unknowingly, they portioned out
       the maysir-players' flesh.	 
27. Then whoever witholds his counsel
       from us
   And whose hand is niggardly to those
       beneath us
28. Will be the ransom
       of the Commander of the Faithful,
   When a fierce and glowering battle-day
       bares its teeth.
29. Like a crouching lion, poised to pounce,
       his chest low to the ground,
   For a battle in which there is
       prey for him,
30. [The Caliph] advances with an army
       two-hundred thousand strong,
   The likes of which no man or jinn
       has ever seen.
31. He comes to bridges which he builds
       and then destroys,
   He brands his steeds with battle-scars,
       above him fly banners and battle-dust,
32. Until at al-Taff
       they wreaked carnage,
   And at al-Thawiyyah
       where no bowstring twanged.
33. The tribesmen saw clearly
       the error of their ways,
   And he straightened out the smirk
       upon their faces.
34. Single-handed, he assumed the burdens
       of the people of Iraq,
   Among whom he once had bestowed
       a store of grace and favor.
35. In the mighty nab'-tree of Quraysh
       round which they gather,
   No other tree can top
       its lofty crown.
36. It overtops the high hills,
       and they dwell in its roots and stem;
   They are the people of bounty,
       and, when they boast, of glory,
37. Rallying behind the truth, recoiling from foul speech,
       disdainful,
   In the face of war's calamities
       they stand steadfast.
38. If a darkening cloud casts its pall
       over the horizons,
   They have a refuge from it
       and a haven.
39. God allotted to them the good fortune
       that made them victorious,  
   And after theirs all other lots
       are small, contemptible.
40. They do not exult in it
       since they are its masters;
   Any other tribe, were this their lot,
       would be exultant, vain.
41. Ruthless toward their foe,
       till they submit;
   In victory,
       the most clement of men.
42. Those that harbor rancor toward them
       cannot endure their battle-wrath;
   When their rods are tested
       no flaw is found.
43. It is they who vie with the rain-bearing wind
       to bring sustenance
   When impoverished supplicants
       find scant food.
44. O Banu Umayyah, your munificence
       is like a widespread rain;
   It is perfect,
       unsullied by reproach.
45. O Banu Umayyah, it was I
       who defended you
   From the men of a tribe
       that sheltered and aided [the Prophet].
46. I silenced the Banu Najjir's endless braying
       against you
   With poems that reached the ears
       of every chieftain of Ma'add,
47. Until they submitted,
       smarting from my words-
   For words can often pierce
       where sword-points fail.
48. O Banu Umayyah, I offer you
       sound counsel:
   Don't let Zufar dwell secure
       among you,
49. But take him as an enemy,
       for what you see of him
   And what lies hid within
       is all corruption.
50. For in the end you'll meet
       with ancient rancor:
   Like mange, it lies latent for awhile
       only to break out once more.

The poem grows on you, as you read it.  The caliph was well pleased, as we learned last time.

  1. [1]Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “Umayyad Panegyric and the Poetics of Islamic Hegemony: al-Akhṭal’s “Khaffa al-Qaṭīnu” (“Those That Dwelt with You Have Left in Haste”)“, Journal of Arabic Literature 28 (1997), pp. 89-122.  JSTOR.

Al-Aktal on “halal” food

While reading this post by Nassim Nicholas Taleb yesterday, I encountered the following interesting statement:

.. the 7th Century Christian Arab poet Al-Akhtal made a point to never eat halal meat, in his famous defiant poem boasting his Christianity: “I do not eat sacrificial flesh”

The article is talking about ways in which a minority can impose its values on a culture, and the context is the creeping way in which foodstuffs are made kosher or halal by manufacturers, simply for sales reasons.

But this is not important here. However I can quite imagine the quotation taking on a life of its own, and I’d like to track it down.

We do not tend to think of 7th century Arab poets who were a Christian.  I’d never heard of al-Akhtal.  So who was he?

Via a Google Books preview of an Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, I found this article by G.J.H. Van Gelder:[1]

al-Akhtal (c. 20- C. 92/ c.640-c.710)

Ghiyath ibn Ghawth al-Akhtal was one of the great poets of the Umayyad period. Although he was, like his tribe, Taghlib, a (monophysite) Christian, he was favoured by leading Umayyad statesmen such as Ziyad ibn Abihi and al-Hajjaj. and even became the most important court-poet of the caliph Abd al-Malik. He was probably born in Hira in Iraq. In his youth he was a close companion of caliph Yazid I, with whom he shared a taste for heavy drinking. The many passages on  wine and drinking in his poems make al-Akhtal an important early bacchic poet. His fame as a poet rests mainly on his panegyric and invective, which are often combined in his numerous poems supporting Umayyad policy and attacking its opponents – state politics being, to a large extent, tribal politics. His career is closely associated with that of his contemporaries al-Farazdaq and Jarir; siding with the former against the latter, he produced a series of flytings or naqa’id in which personal and tribal invective mix with politics. In his poetry, which serves as both political propaganda and literary entertainment, he builds on the diction, themes and forms of pre-Islamic poetry. The panegyric ode of al-Akhtal and his contemporaries acquired a classical status: it became a model for subsequent periods. Not yet affected by the characteristics of the ‘modern poets’ or muhdathun, its language and diction were accepted by philologists and critics as sources of ‘pure Arabic.’

Text editions

Naqa’id Jarir wa-al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (ed.), Beirut (1922) (the recension incorrectly attributed to Abu Tammam). [Online here]
Shi’r al-Akhtal, Antun Salihani (Salhani) (ed.), Beirut (1891) [Online here]; with supplement, Beirut (1909); Fakhr al-Din Qabawa (ed.), Beirut, (1979).

Further reading

Abbot, Nabia, Studies in Arabic literary papyri, III: language and literature, Chicago (1972). passim.
Jayyusi, Salma K., ‘Umayyad Poetry’, in CHALUP, 387-413.
Kratchkovsky, L, ‘Der Wein in al-Aktal’s Gedichten’, in Festschrift G. Jacob, Leipzig  (1932), 146-64.
Lammens, H., ‘Le chantre des Omiades. Notes biographiques et litteraires sur le poete arabe chretien Aktal’, Journal Asiatique 9, vol. 4 (1894), 94-176, 193-241, 381-459.  [Online here].
Mattock, J., ‘A ba’iyya of al-Aktal in Praise of al-Walid b. ’Abd al-Malik’, Wagner Festschrift, 120-30.

Other materials can be found about Akhtal online, which repeat anecdotes of his role as a poet at the Damascus court of the Ummayad caliphs.  What I was unable to locate was any sign of English translations.  Nor was I able to find any source for the quotation (although I have tweeted an enquiry to the article author).

Let me end instead with an Academia article here by Suzanne Stetkevych which perhaps might illuminate the context in which Akhtal may have made his remark.[2]  The anecdote is by someone named al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī:

Al-Akhṭal came before ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān who asked him to recite for him. “My throat is dry,” responded the poet, “Order someone to bring me a drink.” “Bring him some water,” ordered the Caliph. “That’s for donkeys,” said al-Akhṭal, “and we have plenty of it.” “Then give him milk.” “I’ve long since been weaned!” “Then give him honey.” “That’s for the sick!” “Well, what do you want?” “Wine, O Commander of the Faithful!” “Have you ever known me to serve wine, you bastard?! If it weren’t for the inviolable bond between us, O what I would do to you!” So al-Akhṭal left and came upon one of ʿAbd al-Malik’s attendants. “Damn you,” he said to him, “the Commander of the Faithful ordered me to recite, but my voice was hoarse. Give me some wine!” So he did. Then al-Akhṭal said, “Match it with another!” So he did. “You have left the two of them fighting in my stomach, better give me a third!” So he did. “Now you’ve left me listing to one side, give me a fourth for balance.” The servant gave it to him, and al-Akhṭal went before ʿAbd al-Malik and recited:

Those that dwelt with you have left in haste
departing at evening or at dawn,
Alarmed and driven out by fate’s caprice
they head for distant lands.

When he finished the poem, ʿAbd al-Malik said to a servant boy, “Take him by the hand, boy, and help him out, heap robes of honor upon him, and reward him generously.” Then he proclaimed, “Every people has its poet, and the poet of the Banū Umayya is al-Akhṭal.”

The poem is in fact much longer than the single verse given, and endorses the Ummayads at length.  The “transgression” above is for asking the Muslim ruler for wine.  Indeed Akhtal was so visibly drunk by the end that he had to be helped out of the room!  But the importance  to an Arab ruler of being endorsed by an established poet was greater than any newly made-up rules about wine.

It is curious to note that there is no real interest in our society in making Arabic literature  accessible to us all.  A proper handbook of Arabic literature, like Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, but readable and brought up to date, would be a benison.  As it stands, who but specialists can even access this literature?

UPDATE: Well, well.  On p.116 of the Journal Asiatique article are the verses we seek.  The caliph Abd-al Malik was hardly very committed to Islam, but still made the effort.

One day, when Akhtal came to recite a brilliant panegyric, the prince asked, “Why don’t you become a Muslim?”

“I will,” said the poet, laughing, “so long as you grant me the use of wine and an exemption from Ramadan.”

Abd-al Malik, whose proposal was serious, took this ribaldry badly.  “Know,” he said, “that once you become a Muslim, if you neglect even one of the obligations of Islam, I’ll have you beheaded.”

Unfazed, Akhtal responded with these verses:

“No! I will never observe the fast of Ramadan, nor eat the flesh of sacrifices.
Never will I drive a young and robust camel towards the valley of Mecca in the time of pilgrimage.
Never will I cry out like a donkey, “Come! To prayer!”
But I will continue to drink the blessed liquor, and to prostrate myself at daybreak.”

“But,” said the Caliph, “what attraction has this wretched drink for you?”

“Sire,” replied Akhtal, “when I drink then I don’t worry about you any more than about the strap of my sandal.”

“Improvise some verses on this thought,” said the Caliph, decidedly in a bad mood, “or I will lift your head off from your shoulders!” The poet had to comply; but luckily in this matter he was not taken off-guard:

If my wish makes me take two goes to empty three cups of a generous vintage, I get up, dragging the folds of my robe as if I was your master, O Master of the Faithful.[3]

The first reference given is “Divan 156 and 154”.  This appears to be a publication “Divan of Akhtal”, published by the Catholic press at Beirut “last year”.  This is probably an Arabic publication of some kind; at any rate, beyond my ability to locate.  Is it perhaps the “Shi’r al-Akhtal” listed above?

Still good news to find even this much.

UPDATE: See the comments for more information.  I have just added a link to the other edition to the post.

UPDATE: A tweet from Dr Taleb advises me that his source was this online collection of Arabic poetry, and this page here.  This gives the verses:

 

ولست بصائم رمضانَ طوعاً ولَسْتُ بِآكِلٍ لحْمَ الأضاحي
ولست بقائم أبداً أنادي كمِثْلِ العَيرِ حيّ عَلى الفَلاحِ
ولكني سأشربها شمولاً وأسْجُدُ عِنْدَ مُنْبَلَجِ الصَّباحِ

 

  1. [1]Edited by Julie Scott Meisami, and Paul Starkey.  1998.  Vol. 1, p.67.  Impossibly expensive to buy, of course.
  2. [2]“Al-Akhtal at the Court of `Abd al-Malik: The Qasida and the Construction of Umayyad Authority”, in: Christians and Others in the Ummayad state, ed. A. Borrut &c., p.133.
  3. [3]Un jour que celui-ci venait de lui réciter un brillant panégyrique : « Pourquoi, lui dit le prince, ne te fais-tu pas musulman ? — J’accepte, répondit le poète en riant, si l’on m’accorde l’usage du vin et la dispense du Ramadan. » ‘Abdalmalik, dont la proposition avait été très sérieuse, prit mal la plaisanterie. «Sache-le bien, répliqua-t-il, une fois musulman , si tu négligeais une seule des obligations de l’islam, je te ferais trancher la tête ! » — Sans se laisser déconcerter, Ahtal répondit par ces vers :
    Non! jamais je n’observerai le jeune du Ramadan, ni ne mangerai la chair des victimes.
    Jamais je ne pousserai vers la vallée de la Mecque an temps du pèlerinage une jeune et robuste chamelle.
    Jamais je n’irai crier comme un âne : Allons ! à la prière !
    Mais je continuerai à boire la bienfaisante liqueur et me prosternerai au lever de l’aurore!
    «Mais, demanda le prince, quel attrait a donc pour toi cette maudite boisson? — Sire, répondit Ahtal, quand j’en ai bu, je ne me soucie pas plus de ta personne que des courroies de ma sandale. — Improvise des vers sur cette pensée, dit le calife décidément de mauvaise humeur, ou je te ferai sauter la tête des épaules! » Le poète dut s’exécuter; heureusement sur cette matière il n’était jamais pris au dépourvu : Si mon commensai me fait à deux reprises vider trois coupes d’un vin généreux, Je me lève, traînant les pans de ma robe, comme si j’étais ton maître, O maître des croyants.