Al-Muhalhil: Vengeance at Dawn (From Arabic)

This post's guest of honor is ˁAdī bin Rabīˁa of Taghlib, commonly known as Al-Muhalhil "The Verse-weaver." Born presumably at the very end of the 5th century, he is among the earliest Pre-Islamic Arabian poets to whom any surviving verse of substantive length is attributed. He is chiefly known for poems dealing with the Basūs War, in which a 40-year feud between the tribes of Taghlib and Bakr was supposedly ignited when his brother Kulayb was killed for slaughtering another tribe's stray camel.

While pre-Islamic tribal poetry might be crudely summarized as a literature of love, loss, pride and war, the social order it appears to suggest is dominated by feuding, ancient grudges and warfare in defense of honor, a world in which existence itself was a dangerous game, where stoicism and hardiness were the only refuge from the callous Fates and inevitable heartbreak. I might leave it at that, as many do. But since I have yet to set forth my most recent views on this matter, and since the social world of pre-Islamic corpus is often wrongly taken at face value by scholars who rightly take the poetry as basically genuine material, my concern for reality compels me to say a bit more.

Even apart from the fact that there are some poets who at least some of the time hint at a more sedate reality, there is another seldom examined resource which can provide a contextual background for the social order suggested by the pre-Islamic poems. There are other tribal nomad-pastoralist desert societies whose climactic, structural and economic conditions have much in common with pre-Islamic bedu, and who maintained their way of being well into the 20th century, long enough that anthropologists and ethnographers were able to give accounts of them, or interview individuals old enough to remember pre-sedentary life. Examples include the Rwala of the northern Najd, the Tuareg of the central western Sahara, and the Ogadēn nomads of the southern Somali highlands. Jonathan A.C. Brown's comparative work on the Muˁallaqāt, informed by accounts of some of these more recent societies (though he does not consider the Tuareg) offers a welcome splash of reality, one which becomes all the more instructive in light of what is known of relations between settled Arab kingdoms (largely client-states of Persia and Byzantium) and nomadic Arabs in the 6th century.

It would appear that, though such societies often perceive and portray themselves as a "people of war and honor" characterized by perpetual conflict, this is often more self-image than reality. Accounts of legendary bloodbaths in the past serve to rationalize current disputes and divisions among related lineage groups, but pragmatic reality often means that cooperation - even at the expense of honor - is far more essential and therefore the norm, and feuding is avoided when possible. Combat when it occurs can be far more ritualized, and less lethal, than that of empires that maintain a standing army. Excessive and protracted large-scale bloodshed which endangers delicate social institutions and threatens access to shared resources is rare. If anything, the worst and bloodiest episodes appear to be conflicts with encroaching sedentary peoples, and centralized polities (such as the Ghassanid and Lakhmid dynasties of old or, more recently, the Saudi State) attempting to subdue them.

In the case of pre-Islamic Arabia, the exaggerated self-perception evident in the poems drawn from oral lore, likely for the edification of the Umayyad ruling class at first, ended up being coopted (and almost certainly at least somewhat sanitized) in the Islamic period by Muslim scholars all too willing to see pre-Islamic nomadic Arabians as a society of brave and and honorable, but impetuous and ignorant, pagans, as Noble Savages (to twist a phrase) who needed the true faith to civilize and unite them, a people you'd be proud not to be, yet also proud to be descended from.

Following my now-standard practice in translating classical poetry from Arabic and related literatures, I have substituted assonance for monorhyme. I render each line of the Arabic with a five-beat roughly iambic distich in English. I did not repeat the irregular quatraining I used in my translation of Labīd's lament. Julie Scott Meisami, in discussing Suzanne Stetkevych's translations, pointed out that such verse-chopping "destroys the sonority of the poetic line and obscures its internal, and external, connections." To me, at least, such internal connections and line cohesion seem far more important in this intense, impassioned and vengeful dirge than they were in Labīd's more contemplative poem.

Vengeance at Dawn
By Al-Muhalhil of Taghlib
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Long was my night of wake at Anˁamayn  
 While sleepless at the ceaseless stars I gazed
How can I age in life while a slain man  
 Of Taghlib still calls for a man to slay
Chide the eyes for tears shed over ruins 
 In the breast a wound is torn over Kulayb
In the breast there is a need unsatisfied   
 So long as a dove among the branches wails
How can he ever weep over ruined things 
 Who is pledged to war with men in every age?
How can I forget you Kulayb when I've not quelled 
 The sorrow whelming me The bloodparched rage
My heart today make good your bloodwit vow 
 When they ride out at dawn — retaliate
They fetch their bows and we flash lightning bolts 
  As stallions threatening their stallion prey
We steel ourselves beneath their flashing steel 
 Till they fall pounded by our long hard blades
And can keep up no more We keep attacking  
 For the man who keeps the field is war's true mate 

Audio of me reading this poem in Arabic

The Original:

باتَ لَيلي بالأَنْعَمَين طَويلا  أَرْقُبُ النَجْمَ ساهِراً لَنْ يَزولا
كَيف أٌمدي ولَا يزالُ قتيلٌ مِن بَني وائلٍ يُنادي قتيلا
أُزْجُرِ الْعَينَ أَنْ تُبَكِّي الطُلولا إِنَّ في الصَدْرِ مِنْ كُلَيبٍ فَليلا
إِنَّ في الصَدْرِ حاجةً لَنْ تُقَضَّى ما دَعا في الغُصونِ داعٍ هَديلا
كَيفَ يَبْكي الطُلولَ مَن هو رَهْنٌ بِطِعانِ الأنامِ جيلا فَجِيلا
كَيف أَنساكَ يا كلَيبُ  ولمّا أقضِ حُزناً ينوبُني وغَليلا
أيُّها القَلبُ أَنْجِزِ اليومَ نَحْباً مِن بني الحِصْنِ إذ غَدوا وذُحولا
انتَضَوا مَعْجِسَ القِسي وأَبْرَقْـنا كَما تُوعِد الفُحولُ الفُحولا
وصَبَرْنا تَحتَ البوارِقِ حتَّى دَكْدَكَتْ فيهِمِ السُيوفُ طَويلا
لم يُطيقوا أنْ يَنْزِلوا ونَزَلْنا وَأَخو الحَربِ مَن أَطاقَ النُزولا 


Bāta laylī bi-l-'Anˁamayni ṭawīlā arqubu l-najma sāhiran lan yazūlā
Kayfa umdī wa-lā yazālu qatīlun min Banī Wā'ilin yunādī qatīlā
Uzjuri l-ˁayna an tubakkī l-ṭulūlā inna fī l-ṣadri min Kulaybin falīlā
Inna fī l-ṣadri ḥājatan lan tuqaḍḍā mā daˁā fī l-ġuṣūni dāˁin hadīlā
Kayfa yabkī l-ṭulūla man huwa rahnun bi-ṭiˁāni l-'anāmi jīlan fa-jīlā
Kayfa ansāka yā Kulaybu wa-lammā aqḍi ḥuznan yanūbunī wa-ġalīlā
Ayyuhā l-qalbu anjizi l-yawma naḥban min Banī l-Ḥiṣni iḏ ġadaw wa-ḏuḥūlā
Intaḍaw maˁjisa l-qisiyyi wa-'abraqnā kamā tūˁidu l-fuḥūlu l-fuḥūlā
Wa-ṣabarnā taḥta l-bawāriqi ḥattā dakdakat fīhimi l-suyūfu ṭawīlā
Lam yuṭīqū an yanzilū wa-nazalnā wa-'aḫū l-ḥarbi man aṭāqa l-nuzūlā

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