Classical Arabic Literature, A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology
Edited and translated by Geert Jan van Gelder
New York University Press
Apace with music and film, today's literature has gone global, irrespective of its roots. Things are different with pre-modern texts. Ask a well-read person outside the Arab world what early Arabic works they are familiar with, and after mentioning the Quran and One Thousand and One Nights, there will be a vacant stare. The new Library of Arabic Literature, supported by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, aims to change that and to appeal to the serious student as well as to the "general reader".
This first volume by Geert Jan van Gelder, a leading expert in the field and until recently Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford University, combines impeccable scholarly credentials with original approaches and translations. The commentaries and editing are of the highest standard. No doubt it will stand as a class in itself: a monument of state-of-the-art scholarship that makes for an often very entertaining read, sprinkled with subtle humour and passages of surprising candour. All extremes of classical Arab sensibility are represented: from a predilection for intricate puns to invective that would be considered shocking by modern standards of correctness.
The creator of this anthology - for his role goes far beyond the superb translations - does not shy away from this fact. On the contrary, he clearly revels in his task of disabusing us of any assumption that "classical" is confined to expressions of the lofty and high-minded. As he informs us: "I have not shunned four-letter words" if the Arabic original does the same.
This vigorous raw edge does not mean that his book caters to popular taste. Van Gelder's approach is not to produce a bowdlerised Facebook version, but to transport us, "as much as possible and as much as tolerable", to the place and time of the Arabic original.
This inevitably means that the reader will have to expend considerable effort in travelling to that destination under his own steam. There is no free ride. Fortunately, the route has been well prepared and posted with way-marks and explanations.
The anthology progresses chronologically from the pre-Islamic odes to the Arab Middle Ages to around the year 1700 in the Ottoman period. At the outset, before and just after the advent of Islam, life in the desert is lyrically evoked. One learns about winds "wailing like she-camels, calf-bereft", a "drenching deluge sent by the two lucky stars", heartburn at "the tribe's departure" separating the poet from his amour, "protected pastures never grazed before". In this ancient poetry, there is much that resembles 19th- and 20th-century Bedouin poetry. But even without a background in desert lore, the general sense is easy to grasp. And what may appear outside our ken becomes vivid through similes as "the chainmail of their bodies rustled like / the rustling of dry cornfields when the wind is southerly".