Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Abu Nawas

Future travelers to the planet Mercury, especially hedonists and perhaps the occasional LGBT historian in search of milestones,  will no doubt want to locate the crater there named after the Arab/Persian poet Abu Nawas.  Those who don’t want to wait that long may wait till the current troubles are over in Iraq and Baghdad is returned to normal.  They will then be able to stroll along the banks of the River Tigris, on one of the city’s major boulevards, which also bears the name of Abu Nawas.

And not just bisexual readers, of course.  The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies Abu Nawas as an “important poet of the early ‘Abbāsid period (750–835).”  The Abbāsid caliphate is sometimes referred to as the beginning of the "Islamic Golden Age," when "the ink of a scholar (was) more holy than the blood of a martyr."  Arabic-speakers know him as one of the greatest of Arab poets.  He is said to have spent a year living with the Bedouins to acquire the original purity of the Arabic language.  That experience would seem, however, to have lasted him a lifetime, because when he was done, he returned to write of the joys of living in the city, chiefly for the access it provided to wine and pederasty, and apparently never looked back.

His was given the full name at birth of Abū Nuwās Al-hasan Ibn Hāni’ Al-hakamī .  At some point, his Persian mother sold him to a grocer.  He never knew his father.  The experience only made him stronger, apparently, and he shows up as a character in the Thousand and One Nights, and is known to have influenced the Persian poet Omar Khayyam.  He’s also known as the first Arab poet to write about masturbation.  And how women can be complete sluts.  Which, he says, is probably a good thing.  Especially when they are not fat.

A girl who is slender, not clumsy and flabby, will show you how to rub and grind.

I mention Abu Nuwas because I’ve come across his name repeatedly in recent weeks as I’ve been reading about Islam and trying to decide whether there is any substance to the claim that of the three Abrahamic religions it’s the most violent and restrictive and puritanical.  I’m leaning at present toward the view that religion is not what its scriptures tell you God wants for you to believe so much as it is about how it spreads out through the cultures which take it in and make it their own, filtering it and molding it over time, to suit local interests and fit local expectations of how the world should be run.

One of the most interesting claims made by Hamed Abdel-Samad, which I have now found repeated in a number of places, is that the great heyday of the Muslim world was a time of great creativity and intellectual imagination not because of Islam, but despite Islam.  That if you look at the places where Islam held sway – Mecca and Medina, chiefly – you find the most stifling lack of imagination and creativity.  Only in places characterized by a multitude of cultures do you find the gold in the label, The Golden Age of Islam.  And when people speak of this gold, the name Abu Nuwas often pops us.  Not sure everybody shares the view that Nuwas is a golden contribution to Islamic culture, but how does one reach these conclusions anyway?

O the joy of sodomy!  So now be sodomites, you Arabs.
Turn not away from it – therein is wondrous pleasure.
Take some coy lad with kiss-curls twisting on his
temple and ride him as he stands like some gazelle
standing to her mate
Make for smooth-faced boys and do your very best to
mount them, for women are the mounts of devils!

I cannot be sure how much has been lost in translation.  How much better it sounds in the Arabic of 1100 years ago, where I presume there is better rhyming and perhaps alliteration and perhaps other rhetorical delights.  I doubt he achieved his reputation for world’s best Arabic poet (or one of them) for his choice of topics.

The question is, “Is it golden?”

And, of course, “Is it Islamic?”

source of Abu Nawas’ poetry: Shaykh Nefzawi’s Perfumed Garden, p. 24 and 37-39, cited in Ibn Warraq, Why I Am Not a Muslim

picture credit: Collected works of Abu Nawas (in Indonesian)

No comments: