One of literature’s undeniable life lessons is that hedonists make fantastic poets. Horace – one of ancient Rome’s most prized lyricists – once dedicated a whole ode to his nearby wine-filled amphora, declaring on what was likely to have been a fun night: “We shall not deign to go to bed,/But we shall paint creation red.” Similarly, the English bon vivant Lord Byron displayed his Epicureanism with the lines “Better to hold the sparkling grape,/Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood.”
But what if I told you that poetry’s biggest hedonist wasn’t from the Bacchanalian ancient world, or even Britain’s heady Romantic movement – but was a half-Arab, half-Persian scholar from the early age of Islam?
For the first time ever, the khamriyyat – ‘wine songs’ – of Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas will be available in English as complete rhymes; animating the works of one of the Islamic world’s most controversial poets. In the words of the poems’ translator, Alex Rowell, Nuwas’s rhapsodies on drinking, partying and fornicating with both sexes are “as edgy and subversive today as they must have been at the time.”
Lebanese poet and artist Khalil Gibran sketched an image of Abu Nuwas in 1916. (Credit: Alamy)
Born in Saudi Arabia and raised in the United Arab Emirates, Alex Rowell is a British journalist and translator who originally started tackling Abu Nuwas’s wine poems as a hobby to practice his Arabic. Unlike other poets from the Middle East – such as Omar Khayyam or Khalil Gibran – Abu Nuwas is almost totally unknown in the West; despite being a household name in the Arabic-speaking world, his poems have suffered in translation, often arriving into English as archaic, stilted tomes reserved for Arabists. But Rowell’s impressive rhyming translations have attracted the notice of publishers and his book Vintage Humour: The Islamic Wine Poetry of Abu Nuwas is out next month.
“I think and hope that people will recognise a lot of themselves in the poems,” says Rowell from his home in Beirut. “I see them not as solely Iraqi or Middle Eastern or Arabic poems, although they’re all those things…they’re a part of humanist literary heritage. You do very much get the impression that these are contemporary poems as much as they are 1200-year old poems.”
Abu Nuwas was notorious for mucking in with the theological debates of the time – the early age of Islam – and spent most of his khamriyyat rebutting the reprehension from conservative Muslims that viewed his behaviour as haram (forbidden). When asked to go on the Hajj in his poem The Pleasures of Baghdad, he’s quick to remind the listener that the pilgrimage to Mecca is littered with his regular haunts and he quips:
The Pleasures of Baghdad extract (Credit: Javier Hirschfield/Hurst Publishers)
In another poem – We Have, In This Life, Heaven’s Wine, he rebukes someone’s attempts to persuade Abu Nuwas to give up wine, pointing out:
We Have, In This Life, Heaven’s Wine extract (Credit: Javier Hirschfield/Hurst Publishers)
Such a robust denial to take part in the Hajj, the mandatory pilgrimage that’s one of the five pillars of Islam, combined with the debauchery that some will think is total blasphemy, will inevitably prompt many readers to wonder why Rowell has called the collection ‘Islamic’ wine poems, rather than simply Arabic ones. Philip Kennedy is considered to be the world’s leading expert on Abu Nuwas and has challenged Rowell’s choice of title.
“It puts too much emphasis on the Islamic,” he says. “This corpus developed within Islamic society, addressing Islamic themes of course but also Christian, Zoroastrian and Jewish themes. Jewish and Christian taverns and their outlying haunts were the common venues where wine poems are fictitiously and actually set.
“On the whole, the poems are a glory of the Arabic language. Later poets used wine as a metaphor to express the mystical path and experience; these I wouldn’t have a problem with calling Islamic.”
One such poet is Omar Khayyam, whose Persian quatrains called the Rubáiyát have been long adored by Europe’s orientalists. So why aren’t Abu Nuwas’ poems viewed in the same vein; as metaphors for a pious, spiritual path rather than godless glorifications of alcohol?
The answer lies in the hubbub of Islamic schools of thought that existed in Abu Nuwas’s lifetime. “It was only a couple of centuries on after his death, really – about the 10th Century – that you have this settlement of Sunni orthodoxy,” says Rowell, referring to the branch of Islam we are more familiar with today. As well as the conservative Islamic schools that criticized Abu Nuwas’s behaviour, there were the Murji'ites who believed you could sin and still be a Muslim; the Hanafi school even believed that the consumption of weaker wine – nabidh – was permitted. However, “Abu Nuwas made a point of saying that he drinks khamr,” adds Rowell, referring to the Arabic word for stronger wine.
“We know the hijaz region in which Islam was born was already steeped in wine – we know this from the poetry that precedes Islam,” he explains. “The Qur’an gives very mixed messages – there’s one verse that says wine has benefits for people. And even when it does take a harder stance the strongest it ever goes to say is ‘avoid it’. So, you have this debate for centuries after the advent of Islam amongst theologians – does this count as tahrim? Is it full forbiddance or not?”
Abu Nuwas is a household name in the Middle East - here's a statue dedicated to him in Baghdad. (Credit: Getty Images)
Despite his thoughts on the book’s title, Philip Kennedy thinks that Rowell’s translations couldn’t come at a better time. “I think it is useful these days to show – when extremists call for a re-establishment of the caliphate – that in the glory days of the Abbasid caliphate Islamic society tolerated voices such as the libertine chants of Abu Nuwas and his cohort.”
“It’s important that the Anglophone world know[s] that the glory of all drinking songs – celebrating wine in exquisite descriptive and narrative detail – comes from the Arab world. I quite like [Abu Nuwas’s] following couplet that describes the myth of an aged wine,” he adds, providing his own translation:
So antique is the wine that were she to have
The gift of an eloquent tongue
She would sit like an elder among the people, upright,
And regale them with tales of ancient nations.”
To deny Abu Nuwas’s position in the realms of Islamic literature is, perhaps, then, unfair. Kennedy admits, “Yes, there are elements in Arab culture that wince at the existence of Abu Nuwas and his like – there always have been – but on the whole his verse is accepted as part of the heyday of the Abbasid tradition. Not to accept that is to ignore the quite stunning imagination of the poet and his unsurpassed mastery of Arabic.”
When the poet died – around 814 AD – it was recorded that the reigning caliph of the time, Al-Ma’mun announced, ‘The charm of our time has departed. God’s curse on anyone who has insulted him.’
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