Moorish Songs of Wine and Love: the Poetry of Muslim Spain

Under the banner of their new faith, the Arab armies that had swept through the lands of the Byzantines and Persians invaded what is now Spain and Portugal in 711 AD.  Where there had been a somewhat dysfunctional Christian polity cobbled together by the Visigoths on the ruins of Roman Hispania, the Iberian Peninsula within three generations became an Arabic-speaking, majority Muslim state from the Mediterranean to the foothills of the Pyrenees.  Scholars argue about exactly how fast the formerly Christian majority went over to Islam, and even more about why they did so: but by the mid-ninth century, the transformation was so complete that a prominent Christian citizen of Córdoba (Paulus Alvarus) could complain that the young men of his shrunken diocese could hardly write Latin, but spent their time composing all-too-secular odes in Classical Arabic.

The earliest poetry in this anthology was written before anyone in post-Roman Europe thought of writing in his own language, well before Beowulf or the equally rustic epic poems of the Franks, centuries before the graceful lyrics of the troubadours’ first stylised love songs in the langue d’oc.  By the year 1000 AD, Arabic poetry in Iberia was rivalling or surpassing anything written in Baghdad.  When the Mongols destroyed that capital and with it, Eastern Arab civilization, al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Iberia, derived from Vandal) carried the torch of the language, philosophy, science (especially medical), and arts of the Arabs, for the brief time remaining before their own civilisation was to be destroyed.  It shone brightly in all these fields, but in poetry it reached the stars, and fortunately some of that poetry survived the new conquerors’ destructive fervour.

Hispano-Arabic, or more mellifluously,  Moorish poetry was neither indigenous, nor, at first, particularly innovative.  The early lyrics have a provincial flavour, soon lessened by the arrival of accomplished singers and arbiters of fashion from Baghdad, like the famous Ziryab.  By the second century after the conquest, poetry from al-Andalus was being imitated in the East and the Diwans (collected works) of its poets were copied and distributed, their poems recited and sung from Marrakesh to Palestine to Baghdad.  New genres like the strophic muwashshaha (“girdled” one) arose, and a variant, the zajal or “ditty”, was written in the colloquial Arabic of the streets and the markets and taverns of Córdoba and Seville, with liberal spicing of local colour in the form of Romance words and refrains.

Poets in medieval al-Andalus followed their Eastern counterparts in their choice of poetic genre from the canonic menu, from madh (panygyric) to invective/satire (hija’), elegy (ritha’) to songs of wine and drunkenness (khamriyyat).  The Iberians excelled in the love-poem (ghazal) and one genre they  perfected, the flower-poem (nawriyyat), so appropriate for the gardens and orchards and verdant river-valleys of Spain.  In all these genres, the basic formal and thematic structure of the qasida or ode was a given; mediocre poets compiled their verses from stock formulas, stringing together clichés like the image of the wind rippling the surface of water into chain-mail (which might strike the foreigner as original, the first dozen or so times he finds it…).  This is not so different from what has been termed “generic composition” in Classical Greek and Roman literature, or “formulaic composition” in connection with epics, especially those thought to be orally composed.  But in Muslim Spain as in the Classical world, a few great poets used the canon of genres,  formulaic images and rhetorical devices as a discipline within which, subtly, through nuance rather than Romantic exuberance, they provided a delicate mirror of the world, of the human heart, of their own suffering and joy.  And almost incidentally, of the momentous times they lived in.

Some of their personal stories are told in their verses: the brief love affair of Princess Wallada and the commoner Ibn Zaidun (slightly earlier than Abélard and Héloise), so movingly captured in his long ode Nuniyya, so devastatingly mocked in her short satires; or Al-Mu’tamid of Seville’s lost throne and poignant poems from exile in the arid Atlas.  There were a number of women who wrote poetry so good it won the grudging respect of the men who compiled the anthologies, and thus a few fragments of their poetry survive: I have collected several in the penultimate section of this book.  Otherwise the order is neither chronological, nor geographical, nor thematic.

I have chosen for the most part poems inspired by love of one kind or another: tender, platonic love (Ibn Hazm), unabashed debauchery (Ibn Quzman), mystical love (Ibn ‘Arabi and Shushtari), or the love of a father for his two sons, the love of a poet for a poetess cleverer than him by more than half, love for a lost paradise in Spain as the Reconquista bulldozed inexorably southwards.  An elegiac flavour still informs the Arabs’ image of al-Andalus: a Paradise on Earth, briefly found and enjoyed, only to be irretrievably lost. The spirit of place, the memory of lost splendour are preserved in their poetry, from its tentative beginnings to its heyday to its brilliant dying flourish: as more than one of their poets cribbed from the Quran, “musky at the end”.  I can only hope that a little bit of that splendour survives distortion in what must be the crude mirror of translation.

Eland Books, London, 2007 (Buy Now from the Publisher)

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