Marcel Kurpershoek on the Beauties of Nabati Poetry
Conversation with a renowned Dutch Arabist specialized in Arabian poetry
Dear Faithful Subscribers,
I disappeared over the holidays and in addition to spending precious time with family I’ve been preoccupied with finishing up Ph.D. applications for a doctorate in Arabic/Comparative Literature. On an exciting personal update, I’m now working full time for two months on a freelance contract for the Associated Press in Beirut in addition to finishing my thesis on the English-language translation history and aesthetics of several of the famous pre-Islamic odes (Mu’allaqat) from the 18th century to present. My feet are in both worlds – academic and journalistic — but my heart is always with literature!
After a brief absence from the “Untranslatable” series, today I’ll be sharing a conversation with a renowned Dutch Arabist specialized in Bedouin poetry, Marcel Kurpershoek. Marcel is also an NYU Abu Dhabi Senior Humanities Fellow, where he continues his work collecting, registering, glossing, and translating Bedouin poetry.
Prior to becoming a fellow, Marcel worked many years as a diplomat for the Netherlands, serving as an ambassador in many countries, lastly as a special envoy for Syria.
In the 1980s, during the early days of his service in Saudi Arabia, he received special permission from King Fahd to embark on month-long explorations in the desert to interview Bedouins. Taking his tape recorder, he found many poets who still composed poetry in the way he learned about at the University in Leiden.
In a prior interview, he said: “There is no contradiction between not being able to read and write and being very cultured. I connect the ancient poetry with contemporary Bedouin culture which can teach as much about the old as the old can teach about the present.”
This interview with Marcel has been slightly condensed and modified, with selections from this video interview.
AJN: You are known as one of the leading scholars of what is referred to as Nabati poetry, or as you prefer to call it: Arabian poetry. How do we define Nabati poetry? Where does it come from? What about the name?
MK: There is speculation about the word, and we don’t have a definitive answer. Some think it has to do with the Nabataeans. Research has shown that is quite unlikely. Others also think of al-Nabat in Iraq, and that it shows foreign influence on Arabic poetry. Sometimes in a poem you find the word yanbit, in the sense of intelligent. But all this is not conclusive.
The earliest [nabati] poetry we have is generally assumed to be what is included by the historian Ibn Khaldun, dated from the 14th century. We also have some other poets in manuscripts from the 13th century. What is for sure is that, in the 17th century, this poetry flourished. There is a lot of Nabati poetry in manuscripts and exchanges between the Sharifs of Mecca, for instance.
It is important to mention that this poetry employs a spoken Arabic still used to communicate today. There are many articles by Saudi anthropologist Saad Sowayan, who has argued all his life that if you show any official attention to Nabati (spoken) poetry, orthodoxy will claim that you will be undermining the official Arabic, the Arabic of the Qur’an, that should be learned in school. On the other hand, the Emirates have taken a leading role in promoting Nabati poetry, since they see it as having a good status.
AJN: I want to ask you about the famous saying ‘poetry is the diwan of Arabs.’
MK: It’s a very old saying of course, already from the early days of classical Arabic poetry. Whatever significant events happen in the lives of individuals or communities, rulers or tribes, it is crystallized somewhere as a line of poetry, which was placed somewhere as a memento.
In the desert, you have the ‘alamat, the signposts. Sometimes the roads are not very visible because of blowing sand and the rocky terrain. The Arab peninsula is a very large area and people travel a lot. But how could you know where to go? You have these mementos, these mental lines in the minds of people, like ruins, leftovers, or rusum, such as in atlal scene of the ancient poet where they have become an abandoned campsite and they still see the cooking pots, stones and dark spots left by the fire and the trench they had dug around the tent. That kind of poetry might not have been the complete poem as it was originally composed. It might have been some lines from a poem, and there are several poems that have been transmitted integrally.
A lot of the ancient poets were Bedouins, tribal people, moving around, fighting, loving—and so their poetry was oral. That is very crucial.
Some of the poetry’s origin stories might have been fictitious, coming from the philologists from Kufa and Basra who started to collect and write it down. No matter what, however, I think the oral feature is very important in the diwan al-Arab. That concept embedded in the words diwan al-Arab. In lieu of keeping official chronicles, which are often activities connected with royal courts or religious institutions like in the West for monasteries for instance, (monks wrote a lot of manuscripts), these communities passed their poetry down orally.
AJN: This brings me beautifully into my next point. Was Nabati poetry also considered the diwan of al-Arab?
MK: Yes, we can say Bedouin (or Nabati) poetry was the diwan al-Arab of that time.
It would be different in towns of the Yamama area (the oasis towns), of which Riyadh is one in the south and extending out to al-Qassim. The court of the Rashidi princes was the culmination of Nabati culture at the time, because they were culturally more open and easy-going than the Wahhabis in the south. The sedentary people could read and write. And they would collect. The basis of my materials, the manuscripts, were written by hadari people in settled communities.
I give some examples of this in the forthcoming translation for LAL of a work by al-Mayidi ibn Zahir, a 17th century poet considered the literary father of the Emirates. This is all Nabati poetry. But I think those sedentary people were more interested in including hadari poets than Bedouin in the manuscripts. This is maybe because of some bias. There was a lot of prejudice of the townspeople against the Bedouin. But it is quite common to find a predominance of poetry composed by people in settled communities who may have been also partially Bedouin and still would compose poetry in the Nabati style. A lot of this poetry has to do with tribal pride and lineage.
AJN: Walter Ong perhaps famously argued that verbal expression in oral culture is mnemonic, meaning that to retain the carefully articulated thought, rhymed patterns were used. So we know that they preserved this poetry over centuries orally, and how rhyme helps with memorizing … but that doesn’t answer why this poetry was deemed so important and therefore preserved.
MK: In the Bedouin tribal context, there was a huge incentive to preserve oral poetry because of pride in one’s local history and ancestors and ultimately one’s own position in society.
There are many other reasons. The earliest Nabati poetry had to do with court connections of dynasties in the Arabian peninsula, like the Jabrids, who have Bedouin roots. They were the most powerful rulers in the Arabian peninsula in the 16th century. Their basis was in the Eastern province, and they were defeated by the Portuguese when they entered the Gulf.
They liked poetry, and they liked their praises being sung in poetry. It is all Nabati poetry. Also the Sharifs in Mecca were part of that tradition as well as other dynasties.
AJN: What are the challenges — methodological or otherwise — of translating a poetry that is performance-based and ultimately meant to be recited orally?
MK: Honestly, I don’t think there is any translation methodology. Of course when translating, you have to understand what the original text is saying and put it into English. And you can’t do it with a machine. I don’t think they will ever find artificial intelligence that will be able to do this. There needs to be fed into the machine a lot of information that is still not available or questionable to draw the right conclusions for translation.
AJN: ArabLit has already run interviews on the first two volumes that you published in the LAL, the one by Cynic or Satirist: Hmedan al-Shwe’ir and the other is the Arabian Romantic by Ibn Sbayyil. Now you’re on your third volume. Given how little has been known about this poetry and the general bias of ‘classical Arabic poetry’ over Nabati or Bedouin poetry, I imagine that receiving the sponsorship of NYU Abu Dhabi was monumental. What was the significance of the Library of Arabic Literature including this poetry?
MK: You’re right! This was a new departure in two respects. For a long time, Nabati poetry wasn’t considered as being on par with classical poetry, which corresponds with the prejudice in a country like Saudi Arabia itself, especially in religious circles. In their view, this poetry is just another reminder or phenomenon of backwardness, people who do not know the correct Arabic. A similar kind of idea was very widespread among Arabists and Orientalist scholars. There is an unholy alliance between the two. It is easy to understand why earlier Arabists had this corresponding idea that the Nabati poetry was of a lower status, less literary quality from this poetry. My point would be that this poetry is not less, it is all interesting and beautiful.
And the fact that it is now included in a series devoted to Arabic literature means it received a stamp of approval that it is also part of Arabic literature. This had never happened before. Another implication for the field is that you can include Nabati poetry but also study it in a scholarly way based on manuscripts, research, meter, and rhyme.
I was very fortunate to get their support and I didn’t hear any real criticism. Maybe the time was ripe for such a step, but still someone must be the first to take such a step.
AJN: Why do you think there was this idea so fixed in scholars’ minds about the unworthiness of Nabati poetry? How do you understand this view?
MK: In Europe, scholars described Arabic literature in cycles. The literature became greater and greater and more and more beautiful and clever and then there was a gradual decline known as al-Inhitat, and then you had again the Arab renaissance or nahda in the 1800s. So this is a very fixed idea of literary history in the head of all these scholars and reinforced from one generation to the next. How to get out of this mode?
It is very hard to get out of it, just like it is difficult to emerge from the belief that the cosmos didn’t start with the big bang. But people start theorizing about the cosmos and claiming the big bang wasn’t the start. Still, this has dominated thinking for so many generations.
I would say of course literature runs in all kinds of directions. The fact is that Bedouin and court poetry in Arabia in the 16th century is Nabati poetry, and that was the poetry they liked and used and was feasible to use in occasions like the majlis of the prince or whatever. Renate Jacobi is a great scholar whom I admire, but without a second thought she would call this poetry archaic. Archaic vocabulary and thinking: leftovers. This is like the Saudi religious clerics saying the poetry is jahiliyya, or barbaric (meaning what existed before the coming of Islam).
They made poetry based on their experience in life. It so happened that a lot of the life—fixing on camels, getting water out of wells, sheep and goats, palm trees—remained very similar. But poetry developed, the language developed. So you cannot say it is archaic. It is vibrant, it’s alive, it is more alive than a lot of the poetry in classical Arabic which people don’t like and don’t know how to recite in a natural, fluent way.
As you can see, I have a lot of quarrels with this view that Nabati poetry is inherently of a less refined literary quality than classical Arabic poetry.
AJN: On the other hand, in the Emirates, there is a lot of support for Nabati poetry in addition to classical Arabic literature. This translates into media and television as well. There is a television series on ibn Zahhir’s life. There is also the Million’s Poet competition. What are your thoughts on this show? What are the stakes of such an attempt? Who is included and excluded from this show and what does it say about representation of tradition in the present?
MK: They have two competitions, one is called Shaer al-Million, Million’s Poet, and the other is Emir al-Shu’ara, the Prince of Poets.
The latter is in classical Arabic. It is in alternating years. For the classical competition, which I was invited to, you get poets from all over the region because theoretically they all speak the same language, which is classical Arabic. So people come from Yemen, from Mauritania, from Burkina Faso. Emir al-Shu’ara, the Prince of Poets, is more formal. Everyone there speaks a language which is basically not his or her language, a learned language which has some connections to what they use daily.
That is fundamentally different from Million’s Poet, which is Nabati poetry.
AJN: How much does culture influence translation? I’ve mainly been interviewing American and British translators, but I talked to a Belgian (Francophone) translator Xavier Luffin who told me that his style varied drastically from American colleagues. For him, removing a word or sentence from the original is blasphemy. How does your Dutch background affect your translation aesthetics, if at all?
MK: None of the people I’ve translated–or am translating—have past translations, so that makes my life easier. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone. I recognize the point about the French approach. Beyond that, first of all, I have to adapt to the style of LAL. I can’t start a completely different approach from what they are trying to do. I think it is a balancing act, because you can’t have it all. As I understand it, what they are trying to do is to present literature to a public which may include scholars but ideally should include a general audience. That is why they also publish these paperback translations without Arabic text. Then you have these volumes which include an Arabic text, and which may be off-putting for a general public. It is a noble objective and I support it.
They tell me it should not be a Brill translation. They saw my previous volumes which were perceived as being purely scholarly, and not for a general public. I started to try and find out what they meant by that, and now I have a pretty good idea. Is that a huge sacrifice for me? No.
AJN: Right, it’s not a huge sacrifice. But you seem to imply that it is still a sacrifice. What is lost from this approach?
MK: I’ll give you an example. Michael Cooperson was teaching in his class in California Arabian Satire, and he mentioned that his students tried to understand some of the phrases in Arabic and of course they encountered problems. In the Brill book, these would have been explained in the footnotes.
I think I found a solution with this new volume. I published three documents online for LAL. One is the linguistics part about the Emirati language and language of the manuscripts, and the oral parts. The second one is basically line-by-line lexical explanations of words and terms. The third one is a glossary of style, themes and motifs.
AJN: You don’t rhyme the poetry as it is in the original. Obviously rhyme in English is more difficult to produce and draws a lot of attention to itself. Tell me about this choice.
MK: In a way, rhyme is easier when it has to do with abstract things like feelings, or soul, or love, or philosophy, this kind of stuff. But once you get to the physical world it becomes difficult. Poems intimately connected to life in the Arabian desert. And you have so many words for so many different things. You can say this is a camel, but you have hundreds of words for camel and they are all nuanced.
For instance, camel dung—droppings. One word is for dry droppings used for fire, and the other is for still wet, fresh. All that gets lost in spite of my best efforts.
I do not translate with a formal English meter in my mind, but I feel something, even though I am not a native English speaker. The line runs, they say, and for me if the line runs, I think it’s fine. I don’t strive for perfection. Even a compromise is just something you can live with.
AJ Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator pursuing a MA degree at the American University of Beirut on Arabic literature & Near Eastern Studies.