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Ian Straughn

Islamic Archaeology

Archaeology and Religion

Islamic Landscapes

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Zöe Agoos
March 9, 2007
Pre-Islamic Poetry – Response #3
Desert Tracings by Michael A. Sells

After hearing in the introduction and from other sources about how formulaic the sequence of events and themes are in pre-Islamic poetry, I was surprised (and gratified) to see how different these first three odes were. While clearly Sells chose six examples for their stylistic variety, all six are “classic” poems, indicating that the variation is not necessarily out of the ordinary. It is true though that there has to be an established pattern to be able to play with it or subvert it, and that is clearly the case in the complete corpus of pre-Islamic poetry. We cannot speak of “Shánfara’s rejoicing in the departure of his tribe at the beginning of the poem as an ironic countertype to the lament over the beloved’s departure”, as Sells does in his introduction to “Arabian Ode in ‘L’”, without first expecting to see the lament.

I was also very interested to read about the parallels between the progression of remembrance (nasíb)  journey  boast and the quest progressions in myth and folktales of other unrelated and disconnected cultures. Two years ago I put together a course to study these kinds of cross-cultural comparisons in folktales and fairytales, and it was fascinating to see the striking similarities in theme, basic plotline, and sometimes even in imagery. For example, essentially every culture has some version of the Cinderella story. These sorts of universals beg the question of whether there is some sort of shared human identity or consciousness that pulls out these particular stories as somehow valuable (whether that value is culturally instructive, entertaining, warning, or moralizing can depend on the story or its context).

Of course the majority of the imagery, language, and chosen foci of the pre-Islamic poetry is entirely their own, and can speak volumes about the life of the writers and the cultures they belonged to. The very fact that the poetic formula begins with remembering and grieving for lost love suggests that close personal relationships were valued, but that love perhaps was not the primary criteria for a marriage: Labíd writes in “The Mucállaqa”, “The Múrrite lady/has lodged in Fayd,/then joined up with the Hijázi clans./Who are you to aspire to reach her…” suggesting to me that for some reason the poet has been deemed an unsuitable match. But perhaps I am reading too much into this? In any case, the poems can show culturally acceptable behavior, or culturally disapproved of behavior, as in the second poem, “Arabian Ode in ‘L’” by Shánfara: “men don’t act like that.”

The abundance of animal imagery and description of animal life reflects a people who live in the land they inhabit and with the birds and beasts that share the landscape, and the references to distant places speaks to extensive travel or contact with those who did travel. The impermanence of the camp sites the beloveds have left behind are clear signs of nomadism, and the all-importance of the camel, if we are to believe Bulliet, speaks to the identity of the people as Arabs. Whatever the symbolism and meaning of the odes, the poetry itself is beautiful. Labíd’s “The Mucállaqa” in particular is a wonderful piece of writing.

Akram F. Abed
Reading Response to Desert Tracings

Before beginning to read these poems, I made the assumption that they were for entertainment purposes only. I envisioned them to be works that play on our sense of hearing; the audience entranced by the rhythmic sounding of the old Arabic words as they sat enjoying coffee or tea. (Disclaimer: Thoughts may not conform to historical accuracy.) The words and meaning of the poem would have shared and built upon the common life of those listening to its recitation that they would have easily grasped the intended message. I was pleased to know that these poems were not fully memorized and recited as they had been written. This leads me to believe that the rawis of such poems would continually add on to their work; clarifying the meaning, using local vocabulary in order to allow members of the audience, from a different area, to relate to the work. Most importantly, I believed that the works were presented in such a fashion that fed off of the energy of the crowd. (And perhaps later, the rawis would themselves be fed by the crowd.)

But even believing all that I did about the presentation, in reading the poems, I reacted to them as I would poems of English literature: for the most part rife with metaphor and symbolic objects, to be fully enjoyed only when one contemplated the poem heavily. In reading the poems this way – primarily because I have never been able to follow and read in meter – I came to enjoy “Arabian Ode in ‘L’” the most. I assume it was the connection I made between the subject of the poem and myself that caused a deeper desire to fully understand the poem. (I, however, make no claims of being able to fully understand this great piece.)

From what I have always known, and from readings I have completed for class, I understand that the life of Bedouin members revolve around the tribe. The tribe is not there to aid individual members in their quest to survive; it is there for the survival of the entire group. In deciding to leave the group, the character brings unto himself much hardship. One would expect that he would travel to another group, ask for their care and protection; in essence he would be creating a life for himself. Instead he chooses to do something completely unimaginable, living in the desert on his own, relying on none of the old ways. This is made even more prominent in my mind because of his inability to resort to the old ways of his tribe, even if he strongly desired to. The loss of his “camel mare” and his necessity to continue his trip on foot is strong evidence of a break with tradition, since camels were so highly regarded in the lives of those traversing the desert, made evident in previous readings such as “The Camel and the Wheel”. The author also loses his weapons, the bow and arrows, which seem to have strong ties to tribal ceremonies and practices; he gives these up without question in order to shelter himself from the cold. It is reflective of his choice to survive based only on his actions, unwilling to receive help from others. This, again, is a great shift from the Bedouin way of life. To seek out a new way of life when the one you are expected to lead takes great courage, but it may not always be rewarding.