Poetry was the theme of a special program, “Love Songs from the Middle East: A Valentine’s Day Extravaganza with Poems from the Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish,” held in the African and Middle Eastern Division Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Through dramatic readings, the division’s very own area specialists journeyed with their audience from the 7th century through modern times on the wings of love poems written by well-known poets from the Middle East and Spain. These poets included Qays ibn al-Mulawwah of 7th century Arabia, Judah Halevi (ca. 1075-1141) of Muslim Spain, Persian poet Hafiz (ca. 1325-1389), and Leyla Hanim (d. 1848) of Istanbul.
“Poetry is one of the strongest elements uniting the various lands and cultures of the Middle East,” said program originator Ann Brener, Hebraic Area Specialist in her presentation. She described how the birth of Arabic poetry may be traced to the pre-Islamic era in the deserts of Arabia, and how the expansion of Islam in the 7th century “soon swept Arabic poetry into the castles and courtyards of caliphs, princes, and kings ranging from Persia to Muslim Spain, [and] from the Ottoman Empire to India.” Centuries later, the adoption and adaption of Arabic poetry paved the way for the blossoming of ghazal (odes, a poetic form often associated with the theme of love) and Sufi mystic poetry in 12th- and 13th-century Persian and Turkish literature. The selection of poets and their poems in the program reflected this historical evolution.
Love has never been an easy matter regardless of people, time or location, noted program host Levon Avdoyan, Armenian and Georgian Specialist, in his opening remarks, which he prefaced with a short Latin poem.
I hate and I love. Why do I do this you might ask?
I do not know, but I sense that it is happening and I am greatly tormented.
(Translation by Levon Avdoyan)
Tormented love was at the center of a famous poetic tragedy, “Majnun Layla” (Layla’s Madman), written at the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) by Qays ibn al-Mulawwah:
Did you not promise me, O Heart
That if I forswore the love of Layla, you would, too
I have kept my vow, so why is it that whenever she is mentioned, you melt
And why do you long for Layla after you swore to that path you would never return
Indeed you have returned to her, my heart
And lo, tears are shed profusely pouring forward for telling that ash is fire ignited
And beneath fire’s ambers the heart melts
(Translation by Muhannad Salhi)
In a vivid performance, Arab World Specialist Muhannad Salhi told the audience that Qays’s lover was Layla, whose name repeatedly appears in all his poems and because of whom he became Majnun (madman). Started at a young age, but plagued by vehement objections from Layla’s family and tribe, Majnun and Layla’s love story is filled with drama, ranging from Layla’s forced marriage to another man, to Majnun’s madness and his escape into the wilderness, and culminating in the tragic deaths of both lovers. The purity of their love later acquired a more mystical nature once the story was adopted into Persian literature. “Love for the beloved became a vehicle for love for the divine. So by completely losing oneself in a love for the beloved, this became a stepping stone for losing oneself in the divine, in other words, the Beloved with the capital B. So this was a mystical exercise,” Salhi commented.
Ann Brener, with two guest stars — Sharon Horowitz, Senior Reference Librarian, and Joseph Englesberg, Hebraic Section Volunteer — read a more light-hearted love poem by Judah Halevi structured along the lines of a genre of Arabic poetry called the muwashah (girdle poem) found only in Muslim Spain. Just like a medieval girdle belt studded with jewels, muwashahat are ornamented with “an intricate set of rhymes that weave in and out of the poem, holding it all together,” Brener explained. They are composed mainly in classical Arabic but end with two lines in colloquial Arabic mixed with Spanish – flirtatious love is a frequent theme. Brener said that biblical references, such as manna (“the dazzling white substance that the Israelites hoarded in the desert,” Exodus 16: 15, 26) and “Rose of Sharon” (Song of Songs 2:1) in Halevi’s poem below, make these poems distinctly Hebrew.
Following is a translation of the first and last stanza by Brener, who was able to completely reproduce the intricate rhyme-scheme of the original.
O sun behind your curtained hair / reveal your light to me
And let – I thee implore! - / a love-sick slave go free.
Time thought to hoard your manna and thereby do me wrong
So take a seat here in my heart – you’ll see it’s firm and strong
5 What can Time do then, if you to me belong?
If I forget thy face so fair / then God, may I forget Thee!
‘Tis you, O sun, I most adore: / What’s Time to do with me?…
… You’re beauty incarnate – why deck yourself in gold?
It only makes it harder, for me to kiss and hold!
25 The Rose of Sharon then replied and sang out clear and bold:
I don’t want to wear a necklace, O Mama / the dress’s enough for me
My lord will see a neck that’s white and pure: / he won’t want jewelry!
Following on the subject of love for the divine or Sufi (mystical) in poetry, Hirad Dinavari, Iranian World Specialist, recited a poem, “A Mysterious Love,” written by one of the greatest Persian poets, Hafiz (Khwāja Shams al-Dīn Muhammad Hāfiz-i Shīrāzī, ca. 1320–1390), and translated into English by John Hindley in 1900. Slight modifications were made to adapt to contemporary English.
I have born the anguish of love, which ask me not to describe
I have tasted the poison of absence, which ask me not to relate
Far through the world have I roved, and the length I have chosen
A sweet creature (a ravish of hearts), whose names ask me not to disclose
The flowing of my tears bedews her footsteps
In such a manner as ask me not to utter…
Absent from thee, a beggar and a sole tenant of my heart
I have endured such tortures, as ask me not to enumerate
Thus am I, Hafiz, arrived at extremity in the ways of love,
Which, alas! Ask me not to explain
(“1000 Wild Tulips,” Mahin Ghavamian, Bloomington: Author House, 2013, pp. 128-9.)
Very little is known about poetry in pre-Islamic Persia. Centuries after the invasion of Islam in the 7th century various forms of Persian classical poetry developed with the influence of the Arabic poetic tradition. Dinavari stated that before popular poetic forms like ghazal emerged in the 12th century, poems mainly were composed to praise kings, as evidenced by “Shahnameh,” an epic poem first conceived in 977 about the history of pre-Islamic Persia. The subsequent prominence of ghazal could be attributed to Hafiz, who perfected this particular form. Today, the complexity and depth of his love poems continue to attract a large global audience.
The final segment of the program brought the audience to the court of Dolmabahçe Palace in the 19th century Istanbul. Joan Weeks, Head of the Near East Section and Turkish Specialist, commented that “Ottoman poetry is highly developed and built upon a shared knowledge of earlier themes and motives. Sexuality and spirituality merge and evoke an intense passion for love.” She introduced the work of Leyla Hanim (Hanim means “Lady” in Turkish), one of the best known female Turkish poets of the 19th century. Here is a taste of a poem by Leyla Hanim:
The lovelock of my darling put its fetters on my heart
I am still hopelessly in love—let them say what they will…
On Judgment Day this disgraced, dark face of mine might turn white;
Come what may in this world today-let them say what they will.
What on earth does it matter to me if I get praised or blamed?
So long as friends are alive and well, let them say what they will.
Leyla, offer your devotion to that fairy-faced darling.
Kneel, fall at your beloved’s feet—let them say what they will.
(“Nightingales & pleasure gardens: Turkish love poems,” editor and translator Talat S. Halman; associate editor Jayne L. Warner. 1st ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005, p.40.)
Weeks explained that Leyla Hanim was raised in a noble family during the reign of Sultans Mahmut and Abdulmecid, and thus had a close relationship with the palace women. “She was well known in her expression of women’s feelings, as well as quick wit for satire.” Leyla Hanim was aware of her gender role and skillfully “used it to her advantage. In today’s world we would say she has an attitude.” Indeed, an attitude that could be translated into unabashed love.
The program concluded with a traditional Armenian wedding toast: “May you grow old together, on the same pillow!”
A recording of this program will be available in the coming months on the African and Middle Eastern Division homepage. So stay tuned. To explore more about the poets and their works, you are welcome to consult the Library’s collections, accessible in the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room.