Translating Nabati Poetry.

Arabic Literature (in English) recently featured Marcel Kurpershoek on Translating 18th-century Nabati Poetry That Still ‘Smells Like Fresh Bread’ — M. Lynx Qualey interviews the editor-translator of Hmedan al-Shweʿir’s Arabian Satire: Poetry from 18th Century Najd. I was holding off on posting it because at the end it says “Part two of this interview will appear next week, on December 13,” but it’s now a week later and I’m officially giving up on part two. Kurpershoek was a diplomat in Riyadh in the 1980s:

I got interested in this kind of poetry because I was looking for ways to reach beyond the normal diplomatic life, which is a bit superficial. You only have formal contacts with society, and most of the expats stick together. I was an Arabist, and I wanted to know more about the Bedouin and their life in the desert. I knew classical poetry, but not what they had there, and I didn’t understand it at all.

I saw some Nabati poems published in newspapers, and as an Arabist diplomat I had to read the newspapers for the embassy.

These poems were tantalizing. I felt I should be able to understand them, but I didn’t, not quite, and why not?

Many of the words, I discovered, are very old. You have to go back to pre-Islamic poetry and early Islamic poetry. There you find a lot of the vocabulary, and after that, you have to take Najdi seriously as a language. The meter and rhyme is very much like ancient poetry, but it works a bit differently.

He says Hmedan’s work is known “basically in the Najd, in Central Arabia,” and he got a chance to study it with Saad Sowayan, “who is the greatest authority on Nabati poetry, and with Abdalah al-Fawzan who had just published his PhD and an edition of Hmedan’s poetry: he is from the same town as Hmedan, al-Qasab. Of course I asked Fawzan a lot of questions about Hmedan’s diwan, but even he doesn’t know everything. You cannot rely on an authority like this alone. I had to rely on manuscripts, and go into the chronicles of that period.” He discusses the Library of Arabic Literature, which is publishing it:

LAL has so far only published works that are in classical Arabic, and not this kind of poetry—you cannot really say it’s dialect, but it’s a mixture of Najdi colloquial and very old Arabic. So let’s call it Nabati. They have not done any translations from that heritage. The idea came up that we should choose two poets to translate.

Hmedan was an obvious choice, because he’s always been regarded as one of the foremost, and the other one I’m preparing now, for executive review, is a nineteenth century poet, Ibn Sbayyil.

It’s a big step for the Library of Arabic Literature to move beyond the classical canon into this kind of field, and I think it pays off. It’s not only the first work published outside the literature in classical Arabic, but it’s also the only source we have for what people thought in that part of the world before the Wahhabi reform movement.

And he says “I sent it to some friends in Holland, who are interested in literature, and one of them told me, ‘It still smells like fresh bread.'” The description of the poetry, and Hmedan’s life, is fascinating; thanks, Trevor!


  1. Didn’t know that Nabateans survived till 18th century

  2. Greg Pandatshang says

    And in Najd of all places. Not quite the Nabataean heartland, ne c’est pas? What’s more, Wikipedia claims Nabati is spoken on the Persian gulf, a third location.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Is nabati a generic term like e.g. French patois or German Platt that’s become the specific name of the local language in random places?

  4. Trond Engen says

    I can’t find the claim that Nabati is a language spoken on the Persian Gulf. Wkipedia’s article on Nabati says (as of now) that it’s the vernacular poetry of the UAE, hailing from a Bedouin poetic tradition going back to the Pre-Islamic era. Finding Bedouin traditions in Najd is no surprise. Why Bedouin traditions came to be held in such high regard in the Gulf region is another matter, but I imagine that in what used to be a sparsely populated region, the relationship between the nomads and the settled oasis farmers, fishermen and pearl fishers has been strong and mutually fruitful, if tense. The third question is why it was named for the Nabatean civilization. I don’t know anything, but it seems to me that a reference to the court poetry of the Arabic rulers Nabatea . That, or Nabati may originally be a name for the Arabic Bedouins, and the kingdom of Nabatea got its name from its rulers.

  5. Part two is up now. Maybe this post gave it some impetus.

  6. Where is it? I don’t see it at the site.

  7. Greg Pandatshang says

    Sorry, yes, spoken on the Persian Gulf is not what it says. All I had in mind was that its location is on the Persian Gulf.

  8. Thanks! Some great exchanges in there, like:

    Are there stories behind any of these manuscripts?

    MK: The oldest manuscript—I discovered it.


    Among the printed copies, you note in your introduction, some of the sections of Hmedan’s poetry have been redacted. Yet this is not true of the manuscripts. Was it something about the shift to print, rather than a shift in time, that made compilers and editors remove parts of Hmedan’s work and replace them with ellipses?

    MK: That shows you how current these poems are. If you publish something in America which is 300 years old, people wouldn’t care. But here they care, because all these towns are still there, and with many of the same families.

    In the published edition, there are many ellipses in the poem which is, in the LAL book, on page 47.

    This is when he returned from Iraq, and he talks about all these towns. Most of the families he mentions in the poem are still there, because these are old families, and you have this tremendous continuity. So even if you were to publish this poem today—which says that half of the people in this town are sissies, and the others of them are pansies—they would feel terribly insulted. Even though everyone knows that these words are in the manuscripts, and everyone knows these verses.

    If you publish it, it’s different. It’s like it’s being said about them with the permission of the government. Because nothing is published there without the permission of the government. So, if it’s published, it kind of means that the government agrees this is true.

  9. Trond Engen says

    Greg: All I had in mind was that its location is on the Persian Gulf.

    That would have been obvious, had I just taken the time to think it through. And I went on to make another badly edited post. Tough times for thoroughness.

    And I can’t beleive I overlooked the obvious cognacy with Nahuatl.


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