ˁAbīd bin Al-Abraṣ: "The Cycle of Death: A Muˁallaqa" (From Arabic)

A discussion of this poet, and the nature of the works attributed to him, may be found at this link in the introduction to the previous work of his that I translated. 
This poem represents my first attempt at translating a muˁallaqa. The muˁallaqāt are a collection of pre-Islamic poems especially esteemed by tradition. The origin of the term muˁallaqa has been much debated. Traditionally it is understood to mean "that which is suspended, hung up" and to refer to poems which were so illustrious as to earn the honor of being hung on the walls of the Kaˁba at Mecca. This explanation, which goes back to the tenth century and is part of common knowledge among educated Arabs even today, has largely been rejected by scholarship as entirely fictitious and based on little more than folk etymology. The most probable explanation for the term is that it was originally the title of the first section of the anthology compiled by Abū Zayd Al-Qurašī entitled Jamharatu Ašˁāri l-ˁArab, with the term al-muˁallaqāt meaning something like "the precious" (other sections have similar titles such as al-muntaqayāt "the chosen.") There was uncertainty for a long time as to precisely which poems were muˁallaqāt. The poem translated here is a muˁallaqa by some reckonings, but not most.  
This poem is an odd and, seemingly, rather disjointed thing, if one reads it against the background of later Arab tradition. But as it stands, and especially in light of the other poems attributed to ˁAbīd, a striking and memorable thematic (though not linear, let alone narrative) coherence emerges. The tragedy that has befallen the speaker's people, at the hands of a stronger party, is chiastically echoed in the final eagle-simile used to characterize the speaker's mount, in which a bird of prey strikes and brutalizes a fox, pillaging his heart to take to her eyrie. Nature does not give a damn about making anybody or anything happy. The poem that began by describing tribal lands depopulated and buddilat ahluhā wuḥūšan "their people replaced with beastly ones", ends with a simile of the strong preying upon the weak, in a circle of death (or "circle of life" for those at the top of the food chain like the eagle, or the monarchic predators we're supposed to root for in The Lion King.) It has happened before, and it will again. Lā badī'un wa-lā ˁajību "it is not unprecedented, and it is no wonder." 
As I mention in my introduction to ˁAbīd's lament, this poem here has a meter that (like the poem by the Unknown Woman) does not fit very easily into the khalīlian prosodic scheme. This is all the more the case if - as the Arab commentators did - one ignores the possibility that the meter is a somewhat loose form of rajaz, or at least related to it. The commentators, apparently unable to accept that so illustrious a poem should have such a low-prestige meter, took it to be in a form of basīṭ instead. The unusual nature of the meter, as well as its apparent derivation from a meter that later tradition held in extremely low esteem, argue for a very early date indeed for this poem's composition.  

The Cycle of Death: A Muˁallaqa 
By ˁAbīd bin Al-Abraṣ
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Barren of its people lies Malḥūb, 
 and Al-Quṭabiyyāt, and Al-Dhanūb.

Barren of its people too lies Rākis 
 and all of Al-Qalīb and Dhāt Firqayn
And ˁArda and Qafā Ḥibirr and Thuˁaylibāt. 
 Nowhere in the land do any of us remain.

The land has taken in the wild and beastly 
 instead of its own people. Things have changed.
A land inherited by death it is. 
 All who once lived there have been raided, razed,
Slain by the blade, or left to die alone, 
 and grey hair is the mark of survivors' shame.

The tears gush from your eyes, as if their ducts 
 were waterskins too hole-filled to retain
A single drop, or as cascades of water 
 down hillside gullies newly washed in rain,
Or as a torrent through a wādī bed 
 flooding the valley floor to a waterway,
Or a slight stream slow under bending palms 
 wending with wet murmur in their shade.

How can you yearn for youth's flings, when your hair 
 warns of a date with death in going gray?
If the land be changed, its folk displaced and scattered, 
 it is no wonder, nor theirs the first such fate,
Though all of that expanse be now deserted 
 though it now houses drought and dearth and plague.
There's no hope so firm life will not belie it, 
 no happiness life will not wrest away.
No camel but is given to heirs in death, 
 no plunderer but is plundered for his take.
All who are gone on journeys may return 
 but all who are gone in death have passed away.

Is a barren womb the equal of the fertile? 
 Is the failed pillager equal to him who gains?
Prosper however you will. Sometimes the weak 
 achieve, and sometimes the skillful are tricked astray.
Men warn not him who will not heed the warnings 
 of Fate. To teach of wisdom is to fail
Without the heart-born gift of disposition. 
 How often has a friend become a hater.

Give aid in any land you find yourself in,
 and say not to yourself "I am a stranger."
You can grow close with people from afar 
 and be cut off from closest of relations.
Man founders in deceit, all the age of his life. 
 Torture for him is a life into old age.

Many a stretch of slime-aged standing water 
 I've reached through deathly, terrifying wastes,
The plumes of pigeon carcasses strewn about. 
 The frenzied heart heaves fearful of the place.
I passed it on my weary way in worry, 
 I and my brawny mount in the morning haze,
My mount: a camel, onager-swift, strong-spined 
 her withers smooth as dunes on windless days,
A nine-year tush has replaced her seven-year tooth, 
 not too young or too old, in the prime of age   
Like a wild ass gone rushing through the reeds, 
 dark-furred with fight-scars round the neck and face.
Or like an oryx in his prime that feeds 
 on bindweed1, the northwind round him wrapped and raging. 

But that was an age ago. I see myself 
 born by a swift, big-bodied mare again
Her frame firm to perfection, and her forelocks 
 cleaving apart in the clearing of her face,
Oil-fluid her every movement, her veins asleep, 
 with a lithely gliding supple healthy shape. 
She seems an eagle ready for the hunt, 
 to fill her nest with hearts plucked from her prey,
Who spends the night perched high upon a rock 
 like an old woman looking for her babies. 

Then there she is in piercing cold at dawn, 
 hoarfrost adrip from her feathers agleam with day.
She sights a meaty fox out in the distance, 
 nothing between them but one barren waste. 
She shakes frost off her feathers, then shakes herself 
 alert, preparing to launch out for the take,
Then launches aloft, swift as a hungry spear,
 aiming in one sharp swipe to fell her prey. 
He hears her wings, and lifts his tail in terror 
 as creatures will do only when afraid.
He spots her swoop, and crouches to a crawl  
 looks up at her and bears his eyes agape.
She takes him, flings him onto the brute rock. 
 Now the prey beneath her lies in crippling pain.
She lifts him up, then dashes him back down. 
 His face is scraped with stones. His body breaks.  
The talons tear into his flank. He squeals. 
 His breast is pierced. His heart her food. No escape. 


1 - The term bindweed is my translation of Arabic ruḵāmā. The word is obscure to the commentators who merely describe it as some sort of white bulbous plant. However, ruḵāmā (or ruḵēmā) in the usage of modern Arabian Bedouins refers to the convolvulus cephalopodus (c.f. James T. Mandaville, Bedouin Ethnobotany: Plant Concepts and Uses in a Desert Pastoral World), a type of bindweed, also known as the desert morning glory.

The Original:

أَقفَرَ مِن أَهلِهِ مَلحوبُ فَالقُطَبِيّاتُ فَالذُّنوبُ
فَراكِسٌ فَثُعَيلِباتٌ فَذاتُ فِرقَينِ فَالقَليبُ
فَعَردَةٌ فَقَفا حِبِرٍّ لَيسَ بِها مِنهُمُ عَريبُ
إِن بُدِّلَت أَهلُها وُحوشاً وَغَيَّرَت حالَها الخُطوبُ
أَرضٌ تَوارَثَها الجُدودُ فَكُلُّ مَن حَلَّها مَحروبُ
إِمّا قَتيلاً وَإِمّا هالِكاً وَالشَيبُ شَينٌ لِمَن يَشيبُ
عَيناكَ دَمعُهُما سَروبُ كَأَنَّ شَأنَيهِما شَعيبُ
واهِيَةٌ أَو مَعينٌ مُمعِنٌ أَو هَضبَةٌ دونَها لُهوبُ
أَو فَلَجٌ ما بِبَطنِ وادٍ لِلماءِ مِن بَينِهِ سُكوبُ
أَو جَدوَلٌ في ظِلالِ نَخلٍ لِلماءِ مِن تَحتِهِ قَسيبُ
تَصبو وَأَنَّى لَكَ التَّصابِي أَنّى وَقَد راعَكَ المَشيبُ
إِن تَكُ حالَت وَحُوِّلَ أَهلُها فَلا بَديءٌ وَلا عَجيبُ
أَو يَكُ أَقفَرَ مِنها جَوُّها وَعادَها المَحلُ وَالجُدوبُ
فَكُلُّ ذي نِعمَةٍ مَخلوسٌ وَكُلُّ ذي أَمَلٍ مَكذوبُ
وَكُلُّ ذي إِبِلٍ مَوروثٌ وَكُلُّ ذي سَلَبٍ مَسلوبُ
وَكُلُّ ذي غَيبَةٍ يَؤوبُ وَغائِبُ المَوتِ لا يَؤوبُ
أَعاقِرٌ مِثلُ ذاتِ رِحمٍ أَم غَانِمٌ مِثلُ مَن يَخيبُ
أَفلِحْ بِمَا شِئتَ قَد يُبلَغُ بالضَّعفِ وَقَد يُخدَعُ الأَرِيبُ
لاَ يَعِظُ النَّاسُ مَن لاَ يَعِظِ الدَّهرُ وَلا يَنفَعُ التَلبيبُ
إِلّا سَجِيّاتِ ما القُلوبِ وَكَم يَصيرَنَّ شانِئاً حَبيبُ
سَاعِد بِأَرضٍ تَكُونُ فِيهَا وَلا تَقُل إِنَّنِي غَريبُ
قَد يوصَلُ النازِحُ النائي وَقَد يُقطَعُ ذو السُهمَةِ القَريبُ
وَالمَرءُ مَا عَاشَ فِي تَكذِيبٍ طولُ الحَياةِ لَهُ تَعذيبُ
بَل رُبَّ ماءٍ وَرَدتُ آجِنٍ سَبيلُهُ خائِفٌ جَديبُ
ريشُ الحَمامِ عَلى أَرجائِهِ لِلقَلبِ مِن خَوفِهِ وَجيبُ
قَطَعتُهُ غُدوَةً مُشيحاً وَصاحِبي بادِنٌ خَبوبُ
عَيرانَةٌ مُؤجَدٌ فَقارُها كَأَنَّ حارِكَها كَثيبُ
أَخلَفَ ما بازِلاً سَديسُها لا حِقَّةٌ هِي وَلا نَيوبُ
كَأَنَّها مِن حَميرِ غابٍ جَونٌ بِصَفحَتِهِ نُدوبُ
أَو شَبَبٌ يَحفِرُ الرُخامى تَلُفُّهُ شَمأَلٌ هُبوبُ
فَذاكَ عَصرٌ وَقَد أَراني تَحمِلُني نَهدَةٌ سُرحوبُ
مُضَبَّرٌ خَلقُها تَضبيراً يَنشَقُّ عَن وَجهِها السَبيبُ
زَيتِيَّةٌ ناعِمٌ عُروقُها وَلَيِّنٌ أَسرُها رَطيبُ
كَأَنَّها لِقوَةٌ طَلوبُ تُخزَنُ في وَكرِها القُلوبُ
باتَت عَلى إِرَمٍ عَذوباً كَأَنَّها شَيخَةٌ رَقوبُ
فَأَصبَحَت في غَداةِ قِرَّةٍ يَسقُطُ عَن ريشِها الضَريبُ
فَأَبصَرَت ثَعلَباً مِن ساعَةٍ وَدونَهُ سَبسَبٌ جَديبُ
فَنَفَضَت ريشَها وَاِنتَفَضَت وَهيَ مِن نَهضَةٍ قَريبُ
يَدِبُّ مِن حِسِّها دَبيباً وَالعَينُ حِملاقُها مَقلوبُ
فَنَهَضَت نَحوَهُ حَثيثَةً وَحَرَدَت حَردَةً تَسيبُ
فَاِشتالَ وَاِرتاعَ مِن حَسيسِها وَفِعلَهُ يَفعَلُ المَذؤوبُ
فَأَدرَكَتهُ فَطَرَّحَتهُ وَالصَيدُ مِن تَحتِها مَكروبُ
فَجَدَّلَتهُ فَطَرَّحَتهُ فَكَدَّحَت وَجهَهُ الجَبوبُ
يَضغو وَمِخلَبُها في دَفِّهِ لا بُدَّ حَيزومُهُ مَنقوبُ

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