Remembering a Lover Stop, and let us weep, remembering a lover and a campsite where the sands twist between Dakhoul and Hawmal. The whipping winds from north and south have yet to efface Toudih or Mikrat, and you can see the scat of antelopes strewn like peppercorns all across the sands. When the time comes to set out again, my friends start loading up their steeds by the tribe’s acacias, but I feel like I’m splitting bitter colocynth. “Hold firm,” my companions say, “don’t give in to sorrow.” My cure: a river of tears. But no place brings solace now that every trace of her is gone. And before her I shed such tears for Umm al-Huwayrith and for Umm al-Huwayrith’s neighbor, Umm al-Ribab, in Ma’sal: whenever those two women rose to leave me, musk filled my nostrils like an easterly breeze that bears the scent of cloves. The tears run down my neck, soaking my scabbard with an ardent love. The Virgins I’ve spent so many sacred days in women’s sacred company, especially that one day at the spring of Darat Juljul, and that other day when I slaughtered my steed —a she-camel— for the virgins. They flung its meat on the flames as I gave them the marvels it once bore as burdens on its back.… Its fat burned like fringes of twisted silk. The Litter of Unayza And then there was the day I climbed into the litter— the litter of Unayza. “Shame on you,” she said as it swayed with the weight of our bodies. “You’ll make me dismount, Imru al-Qays. You’re too much for my camel—get off.” “Keep on going,” I replied, “and give the reins some slack. Don’t withhold your lavish fruit. You’re not the first pregnant woman I’ve visited at night, and I’ve diverted the attention of countless nursing mothers from their amuleted infants. I remember one of them: When the child cried behind her, she turned her upper half and gave her breasts to him; but her lower half—that she did not shift away from me.” Fatima And there was the day Fatima, on the back of a dune, drew away from me, swearing an oath so strong no one should ever break it. Gently, Fatima, stop being so harsh. If you have resolved to break with me, do it with grace. If some way of mine has irked you just pull my garments out from yours and you’ll be rid of me. Are you proud my love is killing me? Are you proud that whatever you order, I must obey? Your angry tears are arrows in my ravaged heart. Fatima, I’ve dallied with countless women who wore the veil, enjoyed no end of cloistered fair-skinned virgins. I’ve slipped past guards and past whole tribes who, in secret, hoped to have me killed. When the Seven Sisters appeared in the sky like a sash adorned with jewels, I came to Fatima again, found her by the entrance to her tent. Already undressed for sleep, she wore nothing save a single undergarment. “By God you’re hopeless,” she scolded. “You’ll never stop with your sinful ways.” But still I led her out, and as we walked she trailed her robe of embroidered silk, erasing our traces in the sand. We left her tribe behind, came to the heart of a valley: it was hidden from sight by a circle of dunes. There I held her hair at the temples and drew her toward me. Her waist was slender, her ankles graceful. Nimble and fair, this willowy woman with gleaming breasts—a chest like a mirror— turned away, revealing a tender cheek; shielded herself with a cervine eye that seemed to come from the fertile lands of Wajara. She craned and looked skyward, betrayed a neck adorned, gazelle-like in its grace. Her hair: blackened coals against her back, as dark and dense as dates clustered on the frond; some strands strained toward the heavens, the knots hidden, each lock lost between curling up and falling free. Again her waist: a thin and graceful girdle. Her legs: stems seeking sources in the desert sun. In the morning, grains of musk are always scattered on her bed: and always she sleeps till noon, next to naked, not clothed for labor. And when she stretches her smooth and supple fingers, they seem like sandworms from Dhabi, or tooth-sticks from the Is’hal tree. She lights up the dark with her beauty like the lamp of an eremite withdrawn from the world. Even the most reserved of men gaze on her with passions blazing: her proportions flawless, she’s not too young, not too old; and like the egg of an ostrich nourished on sweet unsullied water, white and yellow mix to dye her skin. The blind passions of men are fleeting things but my heart is no molting feather: it will never fall from its love for you. I fought off countless rivals: though they came relentlessly still I held my ground. Night Night casts its veils on me time and again like waves of the sea— a host of cares to try me. As it stretches its spine, as it straightens its hind legs to rise like a camel, I cry out: “Endless night, won’t you clear off with the coming dawn?” But dawn brings no respite. What a night you are—relentless, as if the stars were pegged to Mount Yathbul with the strongest of ropes. As if cords of flax bound the Seven Sisters to lofty stables of solid stone. The Wolf How many times have I set forth with a bent back and a waterskin slung on my shoulder? How many valleys have I crossed— lands barren as an ass’s belly where the wolf howls in its dire need? Once when I heard that howl I offered a reply: “We’re hard up, you and I, brothers in destitution. Whatever we lay hold of we soon let slip away: Times are always lean for those who sow like us.” The Horse Often I’ve risen at first light —the birds still in their nests— with my horse, his hair trim, his massive body ready to hunt the wild game. How quickly he moves, charging forward and drawing back as in a single motion, poised to rush down from on high like a torrent of stones. His hue: the dark of wine. His back: so slick the saddle-felt slips from it like raindrops off rock. He’s fierce, though lean, and the sound he makes when he sets off is like a seething cauldron. Quick and smooth as flowing water, his hooves barely touch the earth while the other steeds stumble and kick up dust. The light young rider slips from his back; the robes of the heavyset rider who hangs on hard are flung to the wind— he’s that quick, like the spinning top that children whirl with sturdy thread. He’s got the lithesome flanks of a gazelle, the forceful legs of an ostrich, the wolf’s potent stride, the sudden spring of a fleet-footed fox. And when he leaves you in his wake, you’ll see his flawless tail, so thick it fills the space between his legs, so long it almost touches earth. And when he stands by the tent, his back is as smooth as the pounding stone for a bride’s perfume, as strong as the stone for pungent colocynth. On his mane, the blood of the swiftest game —the foremost of the herd— looks like henna’s dark juice on a head of clean white hair. A herd appears. Like those virgin women with trailing robes who circle the idol of Dawar, the cows drag their tails behind them. Turning to flee, they look like the white shells and dark jewels strung together on the neck of a boy with noble kinsmen— kinsmen respected by the tribe. My steed brings us swiftly to the leaders, while far behind him the straggling cattle, not scattering, huddle together. Bringing down both bull and cow in a single movement, he never breaks a sweat. Soon the busy cooks will tend the meat: they’ll roast some slowly, over open flames; they’ll quickly boil the rest. When we come back to the grateful tribe, the people stare, awestruck by his beauty. He spends the night with bit and saddle still firmly on. No willful roaming here: loyal, disciplined, he never strays too far from me. The Storm Friend, do you see the lightning there, forking, forming ten glistening fingers against the vast dark clouds? It lights up the sky like the lamp of a monk pouring oil over twisted wicks. My companions beside me, I sit between Darij and Uthayb and watch it unfold from afar: to the right, the storm floods the hills of Katan; to the left, it rains down on Mount Sitar and Mount Yathbul. It unleashes its torrents all around Kutayfa, flipping the massive palm trees on their beards, then passes over Kanan, hurtling herds of wild goats off every flank of the mountain. It leaves nothing standing on all of Mount Taima— not a single tree, no structures either, save those built with solid stone. And Mount Thabeer stands there in the middle of the onslaught: a venerable leader wrapped in gray-streaked robes. When it’s over, rubble covers Mujaymir’s highest peak— tattered wool on a spindle’s tip. And like some Yemeni merchant alighting with a wealth of goods, the storm left its load all across the desert of al-Ghabeet. In the morning, the birds of the valley sing with such spirit you’d think they’d drunk a draft of the strongest peppered wine. And in the evening, the drowned beasts float far and wide, uprooted like wild onions.
Translated from Classical Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.
The translator would like to dedicate this translation to the late Egyptian poet Farouk Shousha (1936-2016), who encouraged him to translate all of the Hanging Poems into English.