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xiii Introduction Many ancient Arabic Bedouin or quasi-Bedouin poems begin with the exclamation khalīlayya, “My two friends!” According to a literary convention, never fully explained,1 the poet, who is supposed to be traveling in the desert when he spots a place that reminds him of past pleasures, asks two companions to sympathize with his feelings of loss, or at least to wait for him until he has poured out his elegiac verse. The poet, or rather his persona, does not keep his private feelings to himself, silently or soliloquizing: he must have an audience. Whether the feelings are real or imagined, whether the two companions are real or fictional (their names are never given), all this does not matter. The poem must be heard, and its emotions understood and recognized, not only by the anonymous friends but by everyone. The past love affair is the theme of the beginning of the poem only, which moves on to other things, present or future: the description of the poet’s trusty camel, the desert, tribal matters, feuds and loyalties, patrons or enemies, or anything else that is on the poet’s mind. In this anthology there is, as it happens, no poem that begins with khalīlayya, but the motif occurs several times. The desert poem is only one of the many forms and genres found in the long history of Arabic literature. Arabic poetry and prose: just as the desert poems they must be heard, or read, preferably in their original language; but in a time when the growing interest in the Arab world is matched only by ignorance of its literary heritage, translations can be informative, entertaining , and perhaps even enjoyable not only as curiosities but as examples of genuine works of literary art. In the western world the two Arabic books that are best known are, inevitably, the Thousand and One Nights and the Qur’an; but neither is typical or representative of Arabic literature, the one being partly a product of European literature, at least in the form that has become world literature, and the other a unique text in more ways than one (and one that should not be read by the uninitiated without some guidance). This book aims at filling some of the large gaps. “Literature” is difficult to define even in modern Western culture. In a premodern Arabic context the problem is no less daunting. For the purposes of the present anthology it is taken not in the general sense of everything written but xiv Introduction in the narrower sense of texts, whether oral or written, that do more, and are intended to do more, than instruct and inform, by being “literary,” being cast in wording and style that are meant to please, entertain, or evoke admiration. A key term and concept is adab, which means “literature” as well as “good manners” in modern Arabic and which in the pre-modern period also meant “erudition” and “knowledge of the Arabic language and the important works composed in it.” The term adab is often applied to literary output that is entertaining and edifying at the same time, based on the notion that ethics and aesthetics should go together— though not all classical literature is edifying by any means. Another key concept is balāghah, “eloquence”: if its language and style are eloquent, a text may be said to be literary. Much of Arabic poetry—most, in fact—was produced for a special occasion , when the poet responded to a specific event or to the needs of a particular person. The poems were preserved, however, by later generations, who enjoyed them for qualities that could be called “literary,” being worthy of admiration and emulation. This anthology grew from a much smaller selection made for Oxford undergraduates studying Arabic, to acquaint them with a wider range of genres than the “set texts” allow. There is something very unsatisfactory about being expected (as in Oxford) to write essays and answer examination questions about the history of Arabic literature basing oneself almost exclusively on secondary sources, because reading the original texts is so time-consuming and, often, difficult. This book, with its translations and notes, is intended to serve as a kind of introduction to classical Arabic literature by showing rather than telling. It is my hope, however, that this anthology will also be used and appreciated by a general readership interested in a relatively unknown literature, and part of the annotation is written with them in...


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