A Prisoner of My Abandonment



Image: Gianni Dagli Orti.

This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract: 


Some Amorous and Erotic Poetry

This is a very broad subject. The poets have devoted a great 
deal of verse to this subject, with a variety of styles and tropes. 
Were we to explore it thoroughly, this book would be greatly 
lengthened. There are extensive books and large volumes on 
this subject, and we have extracted from them a few valuable 
pearls and precious things. 

The poets have produced diverse forms of amorous poetry. 
They have rhapsodized about the beloved, mentioning them by 
name or by euphemism or metaphor. They would describe the 
beloved’s body parts and compare them to all kinds of things. For example, they might compare their eyes to the narcissus, and 
the effects of their gaze to wine or arrows. They’d compare the 
eyebrows to longbows, and the forehead to the morning and the 
hair to the evening, and sideburns to silkworm chrysalises and 
scorpions. The face they’d compare to the sun and the moon, 
while the cheeks have been likened to roses and apples, and the 
front teeth to chrysanthemums. Dark lips are wine-colored, 
saliva tastes like the sweetest honey, lips are like agate, teeth like 
pearls, breasts are like pomegranates, torsos are supple branches, 
buttocks are sand dunes, and so on and so forth. All of this has 
already been presented in detail in its proper place, in the chapter preceding this one. 

In this chapter I’ve presented some of what has been written 
about the male beloved, the female beloved, flights of fancy, 
replies to the blamer, the retreat of the blamer, the reunion of 
lovers, separation and division, bidding the lover farewell, on 
rejecting a lover, on visiting the lovesick former lover, emaciation as the result of love, on the lover’s excuses, and so on.


Love Poetry About Men

A poet said:

The radiance of his face beneath his locks was like
A moon rising on a dark night
While the scorpion on his temples halted at his cheeks
Afraid of their fire and water
A moon, I beseeched time to bring him back to me
One day, but he spurned my pleas*

*The sideburns of the male beloved were often compared to scorpions. The “fire and water” of the cheeks refers to their ruddiness and their tears, respectively.

And Abu Nuwas said:

His face like a full moon
With a gazelle’s eyes
The body of a boy

And the coquetry of a girl
In public, a man

In private, a woman
Exciting me with his curls
And ringlets
Above a smooth cheek
Lighting up the gloom

Fadl al-Raqashi said:

That sly and brilliant one

Who grows girlish in his impudence
He appears manly at first

But after a drink is suddenly a woman
When you tell him: “Baby, say Moses,”
He lisps moistly: “Motheth”
He embraces me until morning
Trading stories with me in the dark.

Ibn Munir al-Tarabulusi said:

If the full moon were asked, as it glittered: “Whom, on the earth, do you envy?”
It would say: “That certain so-and-so … 
He rises over me in his virtues,
Beautiful in voice and appearance,”

The haughtiness of Persia and the tenderness of Syria
The elegance of the Iraqi and the eloquence of the Hijazi
And what heartwarming wine is more intoxicating than
The fluency of the Bedouin in the words of a Turk?


Love Poetry About Women

Sayf al-Dın al-Mushidd said:

By my life! Were she to appear to the sun
From behind her veil
The sun would have hidden the beauties of its own face
In shame, taking refuge behind a cloud

ʿAlı ibn ʿAbd al-Rahman ibn al-Munajjim said:

I compared her to the full moon and she laughed aloud,
Meeting my phrase with rejection
Declaring it insipid, she replied:

Just when did I become so ugly as the moon?
The moon does not gaze intently as I do, nor does it smile so sweetly.
Does it shrug off a shawl from its swelling breasts
Or clasp a necklace around its throat?
He who would measure my qualities against the moon,
Must remain a prisoner of my abandonment.


From The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri; edited and translated by Elias Muhanna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Translation, abridgement, introduction, and notes copyright © 2016 by Elias Muhanna.

Translated from the Arabic by Elias Muhanna.