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Cease your reproach

by Abu Nuwas, translated from the Arabic by Alex Rowell

Cease your reproach, for reproach is only temptation

And cure me with the very cause of my debilitation

Saffron-coloured, no sorrow possible from it

Even in stone would it inspire elation

Poured from the palm of a girl dressed as boy

An intrigue for one of any orientation

She lifts the carafe against the black night

Her face lit with brilliant radiation

Sending from the jug’s lip a stream so bright

That eyes, in its glare, close as in sedation

Wine so fine, so pure and delicate

To add water would be contamination

With light alone may it be mixed

Giving off dazzling illumination

Passed between boys whom time itself worships

To whom no harm comes save by their invitation

For this do I weep, not for a campsite

At which Hind and Asma once did station1)Hind and Asma are among the stock names of female lovers in classical Arabic poetry. The line “For this do I weep, not for a campsite” is a satire on the tradition of commencing poetry with a tearful tribute to a vanished desert dwelling (e.g. Imru’ al-Qays’ famous “Stop, let us weep in memory of a resting place and a lover”). Abu Nuwas delighted in mocking what he saw as the tedium and backwardness of this ritual.

To think that wine was drunk in tents

Amid camels’ and sheep’s fragrant emanation

Say, then, to whom affects learning in philosophy

Knowing one thing doesn’t comprise an education

Don’t forbid others what you choose to eschew

For prohibition is, in religion, desecration2)This final line, and indeed the entire poem, is intended as a rejoinder to an eminent cleric of the time, Ibrahim al-Natham, who had rebuked Abu Nuwas for his extravagant drinking, open bisexuality, and apparent want of piety in general. The line is often interpreted as an expression of a then-current theological doctrine called al-Murji’a, whose adherents held that moral judgment of man was reserved for God alone, who would pardon the sins of true believers on Judgment Day. By this logic, al-Natham was in fact “desecrating” Islam by deeming himself fit to reproach the poet.

دَعْ عَنْكَ لَوْمِي فَإنَّ اللَّوْمَ إغْرَاءُ

            وَدَاوِنِي بِالَّتِي كَانَتْ هِيَ الدَّاءُ

صَفْرَاءُ لا تَنْزَلُ الأحْزَانُ سَاحَتَهَا

            لَوْ مَسَّهَا حَجَرٌ مَسَّتْهُ سَرَّاءُ

مِنْ كَفِّ ذَاتِ حِرٍّ في زِيِّ ذي ذَكَرٍ

لَهَا مُحِبَّانِ لوطيٌّ وَزَنَّاءُ

قَامَتْ بِإبْرِيقِهَا والَّيْلُ مُعْتَكِرٌ

فَلَاحَ مِنْ وَجْهِهَا في البَيْتِ لَألَاءُ

فَأرْسَلَتْ مِنْ فَمِ الإبْرِيقِ صَافِيَةً

كَأنَّمَا أَخْذُهَا بِالعَيْنِ إغْفَاءُ

رَقَّتْ عَنْ المَاءِ حَتَّى ما يُلَائِمُهَا

            لَطَافَةً وَجَفَا عَنْ شَكْلِهَا المَاءُ

فَلَوْ مَزَجْتَ بِهَا نُوْرَاً لمَازَجَهَا

            حَتَّى تَوَلَّدُ أنْوَارٌ وَأضْوَاءُ

دَارَتْ عَلى فِتْيَةٍ دَانَ الزَّمَانُ لَهُمْ

فَمَا يُصِيبُهُمْ إلَّا بِمَا شَاؤُوا

لِتِلْكَ أبْكِي وَلا أبْكِي لِمَنْزِلَةٍ

            كَانَتْ تَحُلُّ بِهَا هِنْدٌ وَأسْمَاءُ

حَاشَا لِدُرَّةٍ أنْ تُبْنَى الخِيامُ لَهَا

            وَأنْ تَرُوحَ عَليهَا الإبْلُ وَالشَّاءُ

فَقُلْ لِمَنْ يَدَّعِي في العِلمِ فَلسَفَةً

            حَفِظْتَ شَيْئَاً وَغَابَتْ عَنْكَ أشْيَاءُ

لا تَحْظُرْ العَفْوَ إنْ كُنْتَ امْرَأً حَرِجَاً

            فَإنَّ حَظَرْكَهُ في الدِّينِ إزْرَاءُ

Contributor
Alex Rowell

Alex Rowell is a Beirut-based reporter on political and cultural affairs for NOW Lebanon. His writing has also been published in outlets including BBC, the Economist, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Left Foot Forward, and the UK National Secular Society. He has spoken on HuffPost Live TV and BBC World Service and Monocle 24 radio. He is completing a book-length rhyming translation of the khamriyyat, or wine poetry, of Abu Nuwas. He tweets at @disgraceofgod.

Footnotes:   [ + ]

1. Hind and Asma are among the stock names of female lovers in classical Arabic poetry. The line “For this do I weep, not for a campsite” is a satire on the tradition of commencing poetry with a tearful tribute to a vanished desert dwelling (e.g. Imru’ al-Qays’ famous “Stop, let us weep in memory of a resting place and a lover”). Abu Nuwas delighted in mocking what he saw as the tedium and backwardness of this ritual.
2. This final line, and indeed the entire poem, is intended as a rejoinder to an eminent cleric of the time, Ibrahim al-Natham, who had rebuked Abu Nuwas for his extravagant drinking, open bisexuality, and apparent want of piety in general. The line is often interpreted as an expression of a then-current theological doctrine called al-Murji’a, whose adherents held that moral judgment of man was reserved for God alone, who would pardon the sins of true believers on Judgment Day. By this logic, al-Natham was in fact “desecrating” Islam by deeming himself fit to reproach the poet.
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