Al-Mutanabbi: On the Recapture of Al-Ḥadath (From Arabic)

A draft of this translation has been on my "unfinished" pile for over ten years. I now have managed to finish it. That draft was my first attempt at translating Classical Arabic verse, and at some point in the process I came up with a new verse-form that seemed fit for purpose, combining assonance with a four-beat alliterative meter (loosely based on Old English verse, though with many restrictions relaxed). I've never used that form since, and I don't know if I ever will.

The year is 954 A.D. Al-Ḥadath Al-Ḥamrā is a strategically important town on the Arab-Byzantine border, between Marˁaš and Malaṭiya, which depended for protection on a fortress built on nearby Mount Uḥaydib. After being captured and demilitarized in 950 by the Byzantines, it was retaken in October of 954 by Sayfu l-Dawla Abū Ḥasan Bin Ḥamdān, the Emir of Aleppo (whom I have seen fit to anglicize as Lord Ali the Realmsword) who set about refortifying it, only to be interrupted by the appearance of Byzantine forces under the command of Bardas Phocas. Before the end of the month, a decisive battle was fought around Mount Uhaydib. After a day of heavy fighting, Lord Realmsword with a small company of hardened men broke through the Byzantine line. Bardas' forces retreated, leaving members of his own family as prisoners. Lord Realmsword was then able to finish up the fortification of Al-Hadath, whereupon he had the pleasure of hearing his court poet Abū Ṭayyib Al-Mutanabbī recite the poem translated here in celebration of the occasion.

Audio of me reciting the text in Arabic

In Praise of Lord Realmsword on the Recapture of Al-Hadath
By Al-Mutanabbī
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
This translation is dedicated to Tahera Qutbuddin, in whose wonderful seminar I had the pleasure of reading this and other poems by Al-Mutanabbī and got some idea of how to translate him. 
Men of stature set high standards
 as noble men reach noble aims.
Resolutions measure the resolve of men
 who show what they're made of with what they make.
Great feats are small in great men's eyes
 though small men call their smallness great.(1)

Behold our commander Ali bin Hamdan,
 and see in him our Sword of State.
He wills that his forces
 show the force of his will
 though the task puts lance-honed legions to shame,
He expects of his men
 no more than himself
 but more than land-ruling lions can claim.
The long-lived vultures
 of  the vast drylands
 would pledge their lives to protect his blades.
They'd meet no harm though made with no talons
 since his sturdy arms of steel were made.

Does that Red City
 still realize her color,(2)
 whether cloudbursts brought her the blood or the rain?
Where first she drank of flashing stormclouds
 she drank of skulls the day he came.
While blade beat blade he built and braced her
 where she shook from the force of the Fates' brute waves.
She lay mad in the hold
 of an unholy spell
 that dead bodies broke at break of day.

Though Fate displaced her
 to a foreign creed,
 the strike of your swords restored her Faith.
What nights yield to you
 is yours forever.
 What they steal from you they soon must repay.
Plans you pass are verbs
 in the present now 
 having moved to past before men can negate them.
How could Greeks and Russmen
(3)  raze a stronghold
 raised with pikethrusts  for pillars and base.
No wronged man died nor wrongdoer lived
 when they called her to justice. The Judge was Fate.

They moved on you hauling such a mass of steel
 their coursers seemed legless crossing the plain.
When they flashed, their blades  all blended in
 with steel headgear and garments aglint with day,
An army crawling from east and west
 clamoring till the ears of Orion(4) ached,
A horde of tangled tongues and peoples
 with translators for every order relayed. 

Then that molten time melted fake mettle 
 till only war's metal and men remained
Every sword shattered that failed to shatter
 the bulwark of bloodwood and bucklers and mail
Every man who turned gutless in fear of gutting
 fled from the ranks of fighters that day. 
Where standing meant death you stood your ground
 as if on the sleeping eyelids of bane.
While wounded, fright-fouled warriors ran past you
 you fought with a smile and a shining face
and went beyond bounds of bravery and reason
 till they said you knew the Numen's ways.

I know how hawks  will hold birds down
 in a grip to gut  their grounded game.(5)
You squeezed the foe's wings on a squirming heart
 and dealt hard death to your downed prey
and skivered their skulls when you still hadn't won
 then their vitals and throats as victory came. 
You detested lances  and tossed them aside
 as the sword went spitting on the spear at close range. 

Let any who look for the light of conquest
 see it in the luster of lightweight blades.
You strewed them hard over Uháydib like dirhams
 strewn over a woman on her wedding day.  
You and your horses trampled hilltop nests
 where fodder galore before them lay.
The baby eaglets  thought you'd brought their mothers back
 not the sturdy wingfoot  steeds that raced
till they slipped and you had them slide on their bellies 
 across the earth like crawling snakes. 

Will the Domesticus(6) advance every day against you
 with coward neck fighting  his advancing face? 
Does he not sense the lion's  scent till he tastes it?
 Wildbeasts can sense a lion on the way. 
Our leader's brute sorties struck him hard 
 when his son, his wife's brother  and his son were slain.
He scampered as his troops helped him escape the swords
 which were busy hacking  their heads away. 
He got the message  of Mashrafi(7) steel
 to his men, though told  in the tongue of strangers. 
He was glad to surrender not in stupidity
 but after his losses even life was a gain. 
You are no mere king who conquers his peer(8)
     but the thrust of one God felling three-god pagans,
You have ennobled  all of Adnan(9),
  Pride of the Outlands(10) and all creation. 
The praise is yours for my pearls of verse:
 I just string them.  You set their shape.   
Your gifts(111) gallop with me through the grind of war
 so you bear no regrets and I no blame
Riding a steed whose feet  fly to battle
 as soon as it hears the howling fray.

Oh Realmsword forever  unsheathed and ready,
 held in no doubt nor held at bay.
Joy to skull-strikers, to stout men's deeds,
 to them that love you and Islam: you are safe. 
And why wouldn't God still guard your edge
 to behead his foes with you for a blade?


1 — The opening verses of this poem are proverbial and famous in Arabic as any line from Hamlet is in English. I have given a somewhat free paraphrase. A literal translation would be :

ˁalā qadri ahli l-ˁazmi ta'tī l-ˁazā'imu
wata'tī ˁalā qadri l-kirāmi l-makārimu
wataˁẓumu fī ˁayni l-ṣaġīri ṣiġāruhā
wataṣġuru fī ˁayni l-ˁaẓīmi l-ˁaẓā'imu

"Resolutions come in proportion to the worth of the resolute, and noble deeds/traits come in proportion to the worth of the noble. The small (deeds/traits) are great in the eye of the small, and great things small in the eye of the great."

2 — Hali l-ḥadaṯu l-ḥamrā'u taˁrifu lawnahā? (Literally: "Does Red Al-Hadath know her color?")

"Red" was a term that could be used for non-Arabs, especially Persians, Greeks or "Franks" (Western Europeans) who were seen as being of lighter complexion. E.g. Atānī kullu aswada minhum wa'aḥmar "Every one of them, Arab and not, came to me". A saying attributed to Muhammad has it that buˁiṯtu ilā l-'aḥmari wa-l-aswad "I was sent to the red and the black" of which the most straightforward interpretation is "to all mankind, Arab and not." The term Al-Ḥamrā' as a collective adjective may also be used to refer generically to foreigners, or to emancipated slaves.

Al-Hadaṯ Al-Ḥamrā' "Red Hadath" is the traditional appellation of the city. The color is — I think — being played on at multiple levels. She (the city is morphosyntactically feminine) is in the most obvious sense "red" after being soaked with blood. But she was also a "red" (foreign, Greek) city when under Byzantine rule, which she no longer is. She is now "red" (emancipated from bondage) now that Lord Realmsword has relieved her of foreign control. Despite her traditional appellation, she may not even know that she is now red in one sense, and was red in the other, so completely has she now been redeemed to her proper place under Islamdom.

3 — "Russmen." The original text uses the word Rūs which in Modern Arabic simply means "Russians." Anglophone commenters on this poem have usually translated it thus, and Arabic commentaries often leave the word unglossed as though its meaning were transparent. But the Arabic word Rūs, at this time, actually referred to Norsemen (specifically the Byzantine Varangian guard is probably what is meant.) Since English "Rus" is far too scholarly, and "Vikings" would be a bit misleading, I have used the term Russmen as a compromise. (I considered calquing off of Old Norse Garðmaðr and rendering the phrase as "Greeks and Garthmen" or the like. But somehow it felt a bit silly to go to such an extreme.)

4 — The original actually refers to Gemini, a different constellation. But makes for a more transparent image of an anthropomorphized stellar figure.

5 — This verse, like some others in my translation, does not have an exact counterpart in the original. But it served in English to make the image clearer. Al-Mutanabbī's description evokes the way a hawk pounces on larger types of prey. The predator holds its prey to the ground, delivering blows to the skull to dispatch it fully before slashing into the throat.

6 — Domesticus (or, rather δομέστικος) was Bardas' Byzantine military title, loaned into Arabic as dumustuq, which is the word Al-Mutanabbī uses.

7 — In poetry, good swords are often said to be "Mashrafi" after an obscure place called Mashraf. Nobody quite knows why, though everybody likes to guess.

8 — Literally "You are monotheism defeating polytheism (širk)". That Christians have in some sense diluted the principle of monotheism by worshipping a trinity was — as it still is — a commonplace of anti-Christian Muslim polemic.

9 — Adnan: the Northern Arabs are supposedly descendants of ˁAdnān.

10 — "Outlands" is my rendering of ˁawāṣim. The word has often been misread as meaning "capitals" which is its sense in Modern Arabic. The term ˁawāṣim here refers to a part of the frontier zone between the Byzantine Empire and the Empire of the Caliphs. The forward strongholds of this zone were called ṯuġūr "mouths", while those further rearward were called the ˁawāṣim "guardianesses". 

11 — Lord Realmsword had gifted the poet with some horses.

The Original:

عَلى قَدْرِ أهْلِ العَزْم تأتي العَزائِمُ   وَتأتي علَى قَدْرِ الكِرامِ المَكارمُ
وَتَعْظُمُ في عَينِ الصّغيرِ صغارُها وَتَصْغُرُ في عَين العَظيمِ العَظائِمُ
يُكَلّفُ سيفُ الدّوْلَةِ الجيشَ هَمّهُ وَقد عَجِزَتْ عنهُ الجيوشُ الخضارمُ
وَيَطلُبُ عندَ النّاسِ ما عندَ نفسِه وَذلكَ ما لا تَدّعيهِ الضّرَاغِمُ
يُفَدّي أتَمُّ الطّيرِ عُمْراً سِلاحَهُ نُسُورُ الفَلا أحداثُها وَالقَشاعِمُ
وَما ضَرّها خَلْقٌ بغَيرِ مَخالِبٍ وَقَدْ خُلِقَتْ أسيافُهُ وَالقَوائِمُ
هَلِ الحَدَثُ الحَمراءُ تَعرِفُ لوْنَها وَتَعْلَمُ أيُّ السّاقِيَيْنِ الغَمَائِمُ
سَقَتْها الغَمَامُ الغُرُّ قَبْلَ نُزُولِهِ فَلَمّا دَنَا مِنها سَقَتها الجَماجِمُ
بَنَاهَا فأعْلى وَالقَنَا يَقْرَعُ القَنَا وَمَوْجُ المَنَايَا حَوْلَها مُتَلاطِمُ
وَكانَ بهَا مثْلُ الجُنُونِ فأصْبَحَتْ وَمِنْ جُثَثِ القَتْلى عَلَيْها تَمائِمُ
طَريدَةُ دَهْرٍ ساقَها فَرَدَدْتَهَا على  الدّينِ بالخَطّيّ وَالدّهْرُ رَاغِمُ
تُفيتُ کللّيالي كُلَّ شيءٍ أخَذْتَهُ وَهُنّ لِمَا يأخُذْنَ منكَ غَوَارِمُ
إذا كانَ ما تَنْوِيهِ فِعْلاً مُضارِعاً مَضَى قبلَ أنْ تُلقى علَيهِ الجَوازِمُ
وكيفَ تُرَجّي الرّومُ والرّوسُ هدمَها وَذا الطّعْنُ آساسٌ لهَا وَدَعائِمُ
وَقَد حاكَمُوهَا وَالمَنَايَا حَوَاكِمٌ فَما ماتَ مَظلُومٌ وَلا عاشَ ظالِمُ
أتَوْكَ يَجُرّونَ الحَديدَ كَأنّمَا سَرَوْا إليك بِجِيَادٍ ما لَهُنّ قَوَائِمُ
إذا بَرَقُوا لم تُعْرَفِ البِيضُ منهُمُ ثِيابُهُمُ من مِثْلِها وَالعَمَائِمُ
خميسٌ بشرْقِ الأرْضِ وَالغرْبِ زَحْفُهُ وَفي أُذُنِ الجَوْزَاءِ منهُ زَمَازِمُ
تَجَمّعَ فيهِ كلُّ لِسْنٍ وَأُمّةٍ فَمَا يُفْهِمُ الحُدّاثَ إلاّ الترَاجِمُ
فَلِلّهِ وَقْتٌ ذَوّبَ الغِشَّ نَارُهُ فَلَمْ يَبْقَ إلاّ صَارِمٌ أوْ ضُبارِمُ
تَقَطّعَ ما لا يَقْطَعُ الدّرْعَ وَالقَنَا وَفَرّ منَ الفُرْسانِ مَنْ لا يُصادِمُ
وَقَفْتَ وَما في المَوْتِ شكٌّ لوَاقِفٍ كأنّكَ في جَفنِ الرّدَى وهْوَ نائِمُ
تَمُرّ بكَ الأبطالُ كَلْمَى هَزيمَةً وَوَجْهُكَ وَضّاحٌ وَثَغْرُكَ باسِمُ
تجاوَزْتَ مِقدارَ الشّجاعَةِ والنُّهَى إلى قَوْلِ قَوْمٍ أنتَ بالغَيْبِ عالِمُ
ضَمَمْتَ جَناحَيهِمْ على القلبِ ضَمّةً تَمُوتُ الخَوَافي تحتَها وَالقَوَادِمُ
بضَرْبٍ أتَى الهاماتِ وَالنّصرُ غَائِبٌ وَصَارَ إلى اللّبّاتِ وَالنّصرُ قَادِمُ
حَقَرْتَ الرُّدَيْنِيّاتِ حتى طَرَحتَها وَحتى كأنّ السّيفَ للرّمحِ شاتِمُ
وَمَنْ طَلَبَ الفَتْحَ الجَليلَ فإنّمَا مَفاتِيحُهُ البِيضُ الخِفافُ الصّوَارِمُ
نَثَرْتَهُمُ فَوْقَ الأُحَيْدِبِ كُلّهِ كمَا نُثِرَتْ فَوْقَ العَرُوسِ الدّراهمُ
تدوسُ بكَ الخيلُ الوكورَ على الذُّرَى وَقد كثرَتْ حَوْلَ الوُكورِ المَطاعِمُ
تَظُنّ فِراخُ الفُتْخِ أنّكَ زُرْتَهَا بأُمّاتِها وَهْيَ العِتاقُ الصّلادِمُ
إذا زَلِقَتْ مَشّيْتَها ببُطونِهَا كمَا تَتَمَشّى في الصّعيدِ الأراقِمُ
أفي كُلّ يَوْمٍ ذا الدُّمُسْتُقُ مُقدِمٌ قَفَاهُ على الإقْدامِ للوَجْهِ لائِمُ
أيُنكِرُ رِيحَ اللّيثِ حتى يَذُوقَهُ وَقد عَرَفتْ ريحَ اللّيوثِ البَهَائِمُ
وَقد فَجَعَتْهُ بابْنِهِ وَابنِ صِهْرِهِ وَبالصّهْرِ حَمْلاتُ الأميرِ الغَوَاشِمُ
مضَى يَشكُرُ الأصْحَابَ في فوْته الظُّبَى لِمَا شَغَلَتْهَا هامُهُمْ وَالمَعاصِمُ
وَيَفْهَمُ صَوْتَ المَشرَفِيّةِ فيهِمِ على أنّ أصْواتَ السّيوفِ أعَاجِمُ
يُسَرّ بمَا أعْطاكَ لا عَنْ جَهَالَةٍ وَلكِنّ مَغْنُوماً نَجَا منكَ غانِمُ
وَلَسْتَ مَليكاً هازِماً لِنَظِيرِهِ وَلَكِنّكَ التّوْحيدُ للشّرْكِ هَازِمُ
تَشَرّفُ عَدْنانٌ بهِ لا رَبيعَةٌ وَتَفْتَخِرُ الدّنْيا بهِ لا العَوَاصِمُ
لَكَ الحَمدُ في الدُّرّ الذي ليَ لَفظُهُ فإنّكَ مُعْطيهِ وَإنّيَ نَاظِمُ
وَإنّي لَتَعْدو بي عَطَايَاكَ في الوَغَى فَلا أنَا مَذْمُومٌ وَلا أنْتَ نَادِمُ
عَلى كُلّ طَيّارٍ إلَيْهَا برِجْلِهِ إذا وَقَعَتْ في مِسْمَعَيْهِ الغَمَاغِمُ
ألا أيّها السّيفُ الذي لَيسَ مُغمَداً وَلا فيهِ مُرْتابٌ وَلا منْهُ عَاصِمُ
هَنيئاً لضَرْبِ الهَامِ وَالمَجْدِ وَالعُلَى وَرَاجِيكَ وَالإسْلامِ أنّكَ سالِمُ
وَلِمْ لا يَقي الرّحم?نُ حدّيك ما وَقى وَتَفْليقُهُ هَامَ العِدَى بكَ دائِمُ

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