The Seven Hanging Odes of Mecca

Seven ancient Arabic poems are the basis of Arabic language and culture along with the Quran, but they remain unknown outside the region

The Seven Hanging Odes of Mecca
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson/Newlines

I come to Sugar House, a trendy part of Salt Lake City that was once a ragged patch of blacksmith forges plus a towering beet factory, to look at secondhand books. I have it on good authority that the best place to go is Central Book Exchange, a buy-sell-or-trade outfit discreetly sandwiched between two furniture stores on an empty street. You’d drive right past if you weren’t looking.

A rare drizzly weeknight in Utah has me trawling the “world literature” section. I stop at a copy of “The Arabian Nights.” It’s adapted from the 1885 English of Sir Richard Francis Burton, that swashbuckling polyglot who once made his own pilgrimage to the American West. I remember Burton as the leading man in Jorge Luis Borges’s essay about the “Nights” translators, but also that he seemed puny after a colleague’s remark about ancient Greek and Latin: “Translating the Classics has a longer history than some national literary traditions.”

Being a specialist in Islam, I frantically think, what ancient works of Arabic can boast as much? The “Nights,” of course, as well as the Quran. Remember that Rumi, another famous name, wrote in Persian. But one work is still unknown to the West despite having a bedrock status as “Beowulf” does in English: the mu’allaqat or hanging odes. So-called because they were allegedly stitched in gold and draped on the shrine of the Kaaba at Mecca as masterpieces, the odes tell of harsh desert life before Islam — endless warfare, secret lovers’ trysts, stout riding camels, and the sureness of fate. The odes were collected by enthusiasts only centuries later, and their authenticity is still disputed, not least because their first editor, the 8th century linguist Hammad al-Rawiya, was a world-class forger and a known reprobate.

But checkered pasts haven’t kept the odes from gliding across the world. In fact, the contrary, if translation history is any guide. Divorce, addiction, legal battles, and radical politics have all been faithful companions, yet they pale next to the beauty and strangeness of the hanging odes. That untouchable quality is what has usually drawn translators from among maverick aristocrats and cultural elites, people who spent years globetrotting or squinting at old manuscripts before air travel or digital technology. It’s to their genius, wealth, obsession, fondness for strange tongues, and taste for the eccentric that the mu’allaqat owe their standing as world literature.

Just before Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was in turmoil. The “great powers” of Rome and Iran fought for control as Bedouin tribes struggled over territory and resources. Against this noisy backdrop, mounted Arab warriors prized manly virtue, muruwwa, and obsessed over plunder, revenge, honor, and loyalty; “war was effectively a religion,” writes James Montgomery. But love, beauty, and fate also preoccupied them, and the natural world held a prism up to their lives. Generosity was their crown jewel.

This is the picture conveyed by pre-Islamic poetry, “the record of the Arabs,” about which legend holds that an annual contest took place in the market of Ukaz and that winning odes were embroidered in gold and suspended in the Kaaba shrine at Mecca. These are the hanging odes, or mu’allaqat. The best known are seven — or in some versions, 10 — compositions by seven different poets, each capturing the spirit of the age. Later, Arab linguists, realizing their enormous value, grouped them together and commented on them, and the result forms the basis of Arabic language and culture along with the Quran. Children in the Middle East still memorize them in school.

A range of styles and themes mark the mu’allaqat. They typically begin with nostalgia when the poet and his mates pass by a beloved’s old campsite, prompting the bard to plead, “Stop, so we can weep.” Such longing inspires reflection on the journey itself — ferocious battles, drunken soirees, harsh climate, flora, and fauna. Some of the odes depict camels and horses at length, which can be jarring to modern readers but which tallies with Arthurian romance: The mount is an extension of the poet himself, as well as a way to consider his lady’s beauty. By the end, he’s ready to boast of his own prowess or his tribe’s and is resolved to excoriate his enemies.

Certain odes push these themes harder than others. Tarafa brags about his own fortitude and portrays his camel’s stoutness, while Imru’ al-Qays revels in his (allegedly) glorious sexual past. Zuhayr is famous for moral maxims — “Give generously. Speak straight. Lawful glory makes for greatness.” Antara is the classic warrior poet, fixated on weapons and routing his enemies with blood-spattered rage. Labid vaunts his battle prowess but also his extreme generosity, “when the wine was the best, the women the warmest, and I paid my gentlemanly way for the pleasure of song.” Amr ibn Kulthum and Harith speak for warring tribes as they settle a truce. Taken together, the mu’allaqat weave a striking tapestry that many would-be translators found irresistible.

“A good memory and abundant energy belong to the realm of nature rather than nurture.” So declares Peter Burke in “The Polymath,” a cultural history of geniuses that includes the 18th century Welsh linguist, judge, and radical Sir William Jones. The son of a mathematician who died tragically young, Jones was raised by his mother and quickly excelled at languages, of which he eventually commanded 30. His insights about the likeness of Greek to Persian inspired the field of historical linguistics. He was chosen for the Royal Society at 26 and wrote dozens of translations, as well as essays about law, economics, botany, philosophy, and chess. In 1783, he got his life’s wish of a judgeship in Calcutta, only to die young — like his father — before the century’s end.

It was right before his India service that Jones translated the mu’allaqat. He wasn’t the first to do so. While Adam Smith worked on “The Wealth of Nations,” German émigrés to the Netherlands like Levinus Warner and Johann Jakob Reiske were toiling to bring individual mu’allaqat into Latin. It’s these men whom Jones credits with laying the path for his own labor. Appearing in 1782, the “Moallakát, or Seven Arabian Poems” enjoyed instant success. Edward Gibbon, who corresponded with Jones, marveled in his work “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” that “we may read in our own language the seven original poems which were inscribed in letters of gold, and suspended in the temple of Mecca.”

Jones’ prose, redolent of the “Age of Johnson,” feels starchy and lacks rhyme or meter, but its politesse and gusto are charming all the same. Here’s how Jones translates a rainstorm scene by Imru’ al-Qays, “The Wandering King”:

O friend, seest thou the lightning,
whose flashes resemble the quick glance of two hands,
amid clouds raised above clouds?

The fire of it gleams like the lamps of a hermit,
when the oil poured on them shakes the cord
by which they are suspended …

It passes over mount Kenaan,
which it deluges in its course,
and forces the wild goats to descend from every cliff.

On mount Taima it leaves not one trunk of a palm tree,
nor a single edifice, which is not built
with well-cemented stone.

Such tableaux made Jones hope that the odes were simply 6th century desert pastorals. “It were to be wished,” he says of Tarafa’s ode, “that he had said more of his mistress, and less of his camel.” But by all accounts, Jones admired the cultures he studied, a fact that in turn fueled his radical politics. The year after his “Moallakát” went to press, Jones wrote a revolutionary tract called “The Principles of Government” and was summoned by Benjamin Franklin to help draft the new U.S. Constitution (an offer Jones declined). Such anti-imperialism, as much as literary appreciation, spurred him to make the hanging odes known in Britain. “The king of Hira,” he thunders in his translator’s remarks about a pre-Islamic ruler, “like other tyrants, wished to make all men just but himself, and to leave all nations free but his own.” The possible hint at current events wouldn’t have been lost on readers.

Jones’ “Moallakát” quickly spread to the continent, where it found fans in France and Italy but above all in Germany. No less a figure than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe drew the odes beneath his giant shadow. In his 1819 “West-östlicher Divan,” he lists among their themes “the stubbornest allegiance to fellow tribesmen, a craving for honor, valor, an unappeasable thirst for vengeance, softened by the sorrows of love, by benevolence and self-sacrifice, of limitless extent.” Saluting his British muse, Goethe quotes Jones verbatim on the details.

But Goethe wanted to translate the odes himself. In fact, he claims in an 1815 diary entry that he’d brought Jones’ versions into German as early as 1783, and indeed, some verses of Imru’ al-Qays’ mu’allaqat survive in the 1952 Berlin edition of his “Divan.” Here are the first four:

Stop. Let us weep here in the place of memory.
There it was, on the edge of the curved sandy hill,
there her tent stood round the camp.
The traces are not yet fully erased
as much as the north wind and south wind
have woven together the rushing sands.
By my side my companions halted and said
Leave not in despair, be patient!
I called out, Tears are the only solace for me.

Whether he actually finished translating the odes, Goethe’s massive sweep of Arabic and Persian — a token of Romantic German wanderlust — touched off a friendly tug of war among his countrymen. Three in particular followed him and Jones down their rugged path: Anton Theodor Hartmann, whose antisemitism forever stained his reputation as a Bible scholar; popular poet Friedrich Rückert; and Druze studies expert Philip Wolff.

Each put out his own German reworking of all seven odes, Hartmann in 1802, Rückert in 1843, Wolff in 1857. Hartmann’s was a forgettable prose paraphrase, and although Wolff wrote in meter, Rückert’s version is the most tuneful. His voice sparkles with affection for the Middle East, a sparkle that still shone at age 65 when the American poet Bayard Taylor found him tucked away in the groves of Coburg, Bavaria, in 1852. Writing for The Atlantic Monthly, Taylor recounts being “charmed out of all sense of time” while the German Orientalist held forth about Islamic civilization. When it was over, Rückert’s wife leaned in and whispered to Taylor, “I am always glad when my husband has a chance to talk about the Orient: nothing refreshes him so much.”

Three years after Rückert’s death in 1866, Lord Wilfrid Scawen Blunt married Lady Anne Noel, who was the granddaughter of Lord Byron. Out of mutual love for Arab culture, the couple trekked furiously across the Middle East before settling near Cairo to breed horses. Lord Wilfrid was close to Winston Churchill but didn’t share his politics. He was jailed in Dublin for championing Irish independence and banned from Egypt for aiding the Urabi revolt against the British-backed Khedive. Such fortunes reveal an irregular personality. Wilfrid’s many mistresses included artist Dorothy Carleton, whose move into the Blunt family home sparked endless legal battles. Addicted to opium for much of his life, Wilfrid periodically sold off horses to cover debts. He shot four of them just to anger his daughter Judith after she took Lady Anne’s side in disputes over the estate.

Maybe because of his erratic streak as much as in spite of it, Lord Wilfrid along with Lady Anne injected warm lifeblood back into the mu’allaqat. “Sir William Jones’ translation is a prose one,” complains Wilfrid in “The Seven Golden Odes of Pagan Arabia.” He states: “Its English is of the eighteenth century, polite, latinized, and little suggestive of the wild vigour of the original.” In contrast, the Blunts went for an energized biblical style to catch the Arabic. This is how they handle the rainstorm quoted before:

Friend, thou seest the lightning. Mark where it wavereth,
gleaming like fingers twisted, clasped in the cloud-rivers.
Like a lamp new-lighted, so is the flash of it,
trimmed by a hermit nightly pouring oil-sésame …
El Kanáan hath known it, quailed from the lash of it.
Down from their lairs it driveth hot-foot the ibexes.
Known it too hath Téyma; standeth no palm of her
there, nor no house low-founded — none but her rock-buildings.

“Here,” announces Lord Wilfrid of all the mu’allaqat, “we find nothing of the superstitious doubts and conscience-stricken terrors of mediaeval Europe in fear of things beyond the grave … All with them is frankly, inspiritingly, stupendously hedonistic.” This claim feels self-serving when issued by the pen of a dallying laudanum addict. Perhaps he, like his contemporary T.E. Lawrence, saw the desert as nothing more than a dramatic backdrop for his own vanity. But Lord Wilfrid’s excesses do not cheapen the passion that suffuses “The Seven Golden Odes.” It’s that same passion that drove him to defend Arab culture in his writings, just as he defended Arab nations in his politics. That, plus the Blunts’ commitment to a life in the region, confirms the sense that they still loved its people long after they stopped loving each other.

The 20th century saw even more adaptations to the mu’allaqat. The best known to specialists is Arberry’s “The Seven Odes,” partly because it tackles the question of pre-Islamic authenticity. But his literalizing paraphrases don’t stand on their own as verse. For that, one looks to Irish poet Desmond O’Grady, who flouted his parents’ wishes and left for Paris to pursue literature at age 19. With youthful audacity he sent his first odes to Ezra Pound and moved to Italy to see him, launching a 30-year spate of travels that included three marriages with one child apiece, as well as a stint at Harvard to study with Annemarie Schimmel, who was legendary for giving memorized trancelike lectures with her eyes shut. In the 1980s, O’Grady returned to Ireland for the rest of his life.

Among other places, his romps took him to Egypt as part of a visiting professor program founded by Doris Shoukri at the American University of Cairo. “We had an Irish poet,” Shoukri said during an audio interview at AUC in 2006. “Desmond O’Grady, who came back and back and back!” It seems the bold teenager who’d sent his odes unsolicited to Pound was alive and well, but his doggedness paid off in 1990 with “The Golden Odes of Love: Al-Mu’allaqat,” three decades after first visiting the City of a Thousand Minarets. Dedicated to Shoukri and O’Grady’s first wife Olga, “The Golden Odes” is the most readable English version to date, but also the least accurate. Here once again is Imru’ al-Qays’ deluge:

Crowning that stormcloud.
It flashes like a bowman’s hand
flicks arrows from his quiver.
A brilliant blaze of light
like that of the lone hermit when he splashes oil
on the twisted wick of his nightlamp.
The splash and spray of it swept the hills
and swept herds of white goats down the slopes.
Not a single date tree stood standing,
nor a house unless made of stone.

Many details are gone — names like Kenaan and Téyma, “houses” instead of “forts” — but for O’Grady that misses the point. “These renderings do not pretend to be scholarly translations,” he writes. His hope to make freestanding English poetry out of the mu’allaqat sounds a lot like the University of Chicago’s Michael Sells, whose “Desert Tracings” strives for “a natural, idiomatic, and contemporary American verse.” Younger translators more and more share his craving for readability.

But beyond a poet’s ear, O’Grady gives readers his restless, globetrotting self. The fizz and pop of his English is that of a man who can’t sit still. Such a vagabond spirit is something that O’Grady and his mu’allaqat share with Jones, Goethe, Rückert, the Blunts, and anyone else who’s happy to turn over another stone for the treasure underneath. It may be why their translations have endured so well.

Women and men of luxury have often found kinship with long-ago desert riders, since both know that comfort and ease give way to boredom, as we pampered moderns can attest. The weary traveler soon forgets his suffering and, to paraphrase Sinbad the Sailor in “The 1,001 Arabian Nights,” is once more seized by a longing for adventure and peril in strange lands.

I should keep that in mind the next time I have to re-circle the block to find an out-of-the-way bookstore.

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