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By Philip Kennedy

A readable survey of this celebrated ninth century Arab poet.

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Abu Nuwas (Makers of the Muslim World)

A readable survey of this celebrated ninth century Arab poet.

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045 19/02/2005 11:33 AM Page 19 “DANGLING LOCKS AND BABEL EYES” 19 the palm of the hand. ” (D. iv, 141–2) Al-Jahiz ascribed the same practice, and the same underlying causes, to “Masjidites” (men who spent time discussing religion and theology in the mosques) and the men and adolescent boys of the secretariat. Al-Isfahani peddles these sociological opinions of al-Jahiz (and his own) without any reference to the literary aspect of the poems he is introducing. Rather he tries, unconvincingly, to suggest that Abu Nuwas had been “respectable” and restrained when he wrote under the aegis of Harun al-Rashid but then allowed his sexual profligacy to come to the fore under the license and mutual influence of al-Rashid’s licentious son and successor, al-Amin (d.

D. iv, 242) The poet constructs a special place for himself with his darling, importuning him for a monopoly on his scorn. Only in this sardonic way does he feel a cut above the rest while yet a plaything to his princely sweetheart. 045 19/02/2005 11:37 AM Page 39 “LOVE, WINE, SODOMY ... AND THE LASH” 39 wa-Stakbiran, ‘abbaSa, al-naSa, raSa, khuSS-ani, bi-ma Shi’tahu wa-Saqqini hajraka anfaSa). Such sustained use of onomatopoeia, in which sound and semantics coalesce, is a characteristic effect of the poet.

Why are we wretched While our spirits experience rapture? Kind to me in sleep, if you wished You could complete the kindness when awake; We are two lovers who enjoy narcotic bliss Yet who are always angry come morning! Dreams are deceptive in this way ... But they do sometimes tell the truth. (D. iv, 347) There is a discreet change in tone, a twist even, in the final hemistich: a possible turn (away from suffering) is implied that poetic code; Abu Nuwas’s originality within this repertoire could be surreal, at once intense and amusing: “My friend, I saw the sun walking about on Friday night // People stirred in wave after wave thinking this marked the Apocalypse; // For the sun to be seen at night!

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