Elegies to a Slavegirl: Love and Exile in the Poetry of Ibn Hamdis
scholar, humanitarian, and dear friend
‘Abd al-Jabbar Ibn Hamdis (d. 1132) is best known in Arabic literature for his “Sicilian” poems in which he articulates the painful experience of witnessing the loss of his homeland at the hands of the Norman conquest and poeticizes his remembrance of Sicily as both youthful paradise and proverbial sacred ground of Arab-Islamic glory. In 1091, he experienced a second exile when the Almoravid forces of North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula and put an end to the principality of Seville and its flourishing worldly court culture. With the forced banishment of its poet-prince, al-Mu‘tamid Ibn ‘Abbad, Ibn Hamdis himself departed from the comfort and prosperity of his thirteen-year refuge in Spain and embarked on a journey to an unknown future. Compounding the agony of yet another defeat, the ship following his own sank at sea, taking down with it his beloved and faithful slavegirl, Jawhara. His diwan (anthology) contains two elegies he composed to her memory.
This essay offers an introduction to the poems followed by a translation. They vary in length, meter, lyric, and temperament. I read the first, shorter, poem as most likely having been composed upon (or shortly after) the news of Jawhara’s drowning and suggest that it was a spontaneous and highly emotional response to her demise. In contrast, I read the second, longer, poem as a composition that followed a long period of bereavement and reflection. The meter is longer, the mood more stoic, and the sentiment is as much philosophical as it is emotional.
I also read them within two broader contexts; first, how do these poems reflect the standards and prescriptions of elegy (al-ritha’) set forth by medieval Arabic literary theorists; and second, how do these poems mirror medieval Muslim society’s views of slavegirls.
The elegy in classical Arabic literature comprises the lamenting of a loved one and a celebration of her/his traits. Eulogizing a male was more often than not read as a collective loss (for the tribe, community, or society), while eulogizing a female was a private, personal loss. In the guise of consolation, the inevitability of death becomes a leitmotif for elegy. In the post-Islamic period, the elegiac poem (marthiya) substitutes the pre-Islamic (Jahili) call for vengeance with promises of eternal reward. In the context of the classical conventional ode (qasida), the amatory preface (nasib) is replaced with a gnomic introduction on death and a plea for patience; and the journey segment (rahil) is replaced with an account of the subject’s death. More significantly, literary critics emphasized sincerity of emotion (sidq al-‘awatif) and expression of personal anguish (tafajju‘) as prerequisites to a successful elegy.
In his treatise on slavegirls, “Epistle on Singing Girls” (Risalat al-qiyan), the 9th century Baghdadi prose writer and literary scholar Abu ‘Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz (d. 868) takes a parodic view of popular notions of slavegirls and suggests a more benign role for them in medieval Muslim society. He creates a social binary between a man of breeding and taste and a boorish, uncultivated man through the prism of possessing slavegirls. Of particularly social and literary interest is al-Jahiz’ classification of these woman according to their different social functions: (i) raqiq (generic slave: non-free status); (ii) ama (household maid: perhaps a nanny, or nurse); (iii) wasifa (a servant girl, or domestic); (iv) jariya (a consort or concubine); (v) qayna (a skilled singer, musician, artiste).
Al-Jahiz accepts the legality or social acceptance of slavegirls and stresses that the female is man’s natural soulmate, created for consolation, love, and sympathy. He also argues that slavegirls have been in existence since ancient times; and music and singing, often associated with both jariya and qayna in medieval Arabic poetics, are not anathema to Islamic law or values. He discusses variations of love (hubb) and passion (‘ishq), and advises that while passion can destroy a man, love does not unless it ends in loss. He cautions his (male) readers that passion assumes all our emotions, and passion for singing girls is dangerous. He describes singing girls, but not all slavegirls, as insincere, deceitful, manipulative, and disloyal.
In both of Ibn Hamdis’ elegies we see all the standard elegiac themes as well as a sympathetic view of the slavegirl. Especially at a time when Muslim societies on the northern shores of the Mediterranean were coming apart as much by acts of treason perpetrated by Muslim themselves as by the Christian conquests, it is particularly striking to see Ibn Hamdis refer to Jawhara as a loyal companion. But it is in the personal anguish he suffers at her loss, an anguish that resonates so strongly with the many verses he composed as he watched his beloved Sicily fall to the Normans, where his achieves his poetic excellence.
The two poems may be parsed as followed:
i- gnomic introduction (muqaddima hikamiyya)
ii- personal anguish (tafajju‘)
iii- the eulogy proper: the sea as hunter; traits of the deceased
iv- a prayer (du‘a’) to God to give him consolation and the patience to endure
i- the hunter sea as jealous rival
ii- death as one more journey: one of forced exile
iii- the recollection of her youth (cast all in past tense)
iv- the phantom of separation
v- the poet’s guilt for leaving her (as he did Sicily); his own exile precipitated her exile
vi- description of her physical features
vii- (al-Jahiz): the emotional and monetary value to him, her ability to give him consolation, pleasure, sympathy, and love
viii- her death induces the painful prolongation of his life.
Elegy to Jawhara I
1- The builder of life destroys its abodes;
is there anything in this world that rests eternal?
2- If nations have come and gone before us,
then they are no more than spirits borrowed and returned.
3- You view life as though it were a forest,
where lions, like our fates, roam in our midsts.
4- If our days make peace, then life’s days do not,
while fate’s nights wage war on us.
5- Both have afflicted upon us the agony of longing for a sweet companion;
the very mention of her kills me, but keeps her alive.
6- I utter her name and tears race down my cheeks,
as though I could only keep pace with anguish.
7- O sea, so callously have you made cheap
the one so dear to me, and not merely through purchase.
8- Jawhara [my jewel], my heart was a shell for her,
which kept her close [to me] and well protected.
9- You summoned her to drown deep within you,
while I spent the night on shore sobbing her loss.
10- The scent of a sweet fragrance perfumes her hair,
and the tint of kohl laces her eyes.
11- The waves embraced her and then took her away
from a warm embrace in which her soul has departed.
12- May God protect me from the water and earth,
and from the laws of the two elements that condemned her to die.
13- The one made her perish and the other transformed her;
so how can I ransom her from these forces of nature?
Elegy to a Slavegirl [Jawhara] Who Drowned at Sea II
1- O graceful branch of a willow tree, what has snapped you?
O perfectly strung necklace, who has scattered your gems?*
2- O tear-ducts, my state of being is in utter misery;
disperse the rubies of my tears and withhold your pearls.**
3- I never imagined my heart to be so tattered by agony,
like the wing of a sandgrouse caught in a trap.
4- Separation from you is more than I can bear, and how otherwise can that be,
since the wave that engulfed you took you away from me.
5- Could it be that the garden of your beauty rests verdant in full bloom,
but no eye could see your blossom wilting away?
6- The raging sea killed you in a fit of jealousy,
when the pearls from its depths spotted your mouth in envy.
7- I fell into a flood of tears when you were drowned at sea;
that which inundated you nearly inundated me.
8- Which of the three do I cry most the tears of blood for its loss:
your pure nature, your youth, or what you have meant to me?
9- Where is the shame in my agonizing over you?
as the beauty in every art walks in your shadow.
10- You were the essence of youth, and when it passed away, there was no recompense,
even if the one who lost you gained the world.
11- I was not long in my travels out of love for you;
but in death you have embarked upon your longest journey.
12- Is my only link to you the phantom of a deceased,
that gives movement to my eye from that silence?
13- I longingly embrace the grave that embraces you;
if only I were inside knowing what has happened to you.
14- O light of my eye, I wish my sight had protected you
from the rocks and soil that cling to your skin.
15- I [would] say to the sea if we faced each other eye to eye:
only her drinking your brackish waters has soiled my life.
16- Why didn’t you hold back your bitter stinging waters from the mouth of a dark-lipped beauty?
Were it not for her weakness, she would have captivated you.
17- Why didn’t you look into her enchanting eyes?
I wonder how they could not have bewitched you.
18- O face of Jawhara, now blocked from my view,
who protects you from an eclipse as your full moon rises?
19- O body of Jawhara, how do I find relief from the ardor of my sorrow,
while you are deplete of the spirit which gave you life?
20- O night, who has prolonged your sorrows, one after another?
Is it the same who cut short from you all earthly delights?
21- How is the one in a grave lying in repose unaware
of the torments of one who has spent many a sleepless night with you.
22- O link to my world, you have disappeared from my sight;
my heart reads your tender companionship on the pages of misery.
23- Had I found you not so distant from me,
the Master of my soul would see it as a reflection of you.
24- If he was compelled to submit to a fate that delivered you to [the sea],
he did not do so out of betrayal or deceit.
25- Was he not [like you] drowning with one hand raised?
Whoever ordered your death deprived [me] of the same cup to drink.
26- Have mercy on me and the deluge of my tears,
for what remembering makes forget ( … )
27- If only death prevented you from visiting it!
How could it be so desirous of you and yet wait so long?
28- If the tears appear trickling down my cheeks,
then it is only a sorrowful mourning of your modesty.
29- My soul has not been spared of longing for you;
however, my life has been prolonged by the brevity of yours.
*The beauty of this second hemistich is that it may be read as:
“O perfectly composed poem, who has spoiled your rhyme (and turned you into prose)?”
** The pairing of rubies and pearls conjures the image of contrasting red tears (tears of blood) as being more painful with white tears.