The Classical Gems of the Arabic Literature
By: Pamela Dimitrova/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic literature has always been a hidden gem in the world’s culture, kee
The Golden Ode of Imru’ al-Qais
Imru’ al-Qais is considered the finest Arab poet of all time. He lived in Najd in the century before the arrival of Islam. His ‘Golden Ode’ is considered the most brilliant example of the vibrant oral poetry of the desert Arabs – the Arabic at that time unadulterated by outside influence.
Imru’ al-Qais is a master of description, creating beautiful, precise accounts of the wildlife, mountains, clouds, and dark starry nights. He is a master of the technique by which the poet likens the characteristics of one animal to those of another. His horse has ‘the loins of a gazelle, the thighs of an ostrich, he gallops like a wolf, canters like a young fox’. He was the first to compare the eyes of his beloved to those of a gazelle.
His ode is also famously romantic. There is a long section devoted to the women he has loved and from whom he has been separated by the nomadic lifestyle and whom he longs to rejoin.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
This work is written in English but it is actually Arabic literature. Gibran, who came from a poor Lebanese-Christian family, moved to the United States in the 19th century. He and his contemporaries formed what became known as the Exile School, and wrote their works in both English and Arabic.
‘The Prophet’ is made up of 26 essays on the human condition, spoken by a mystical figure who is about to depart on a journey. A crowd gathers around him on the quayside and asks for insights into the human condition: on love, money, children, work, clothes. His answers form a spiritual, philosophical view of living that has enchanted readers around the world ever since it was first published in 1923. ‘Your children are not your children, they are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself’, the Prophet says, and though the words are English the idiom is undeniably Arabic.
These beautiful, gentle, but powerful musings transcend cultural boundaries. The Prophet has been translated into 40 languages and is one of the bestselling works of all time.
Theologus Autodidactus by Ibn al-Naf
Theologus Autodidactus, written by the 13th Century Damascene physician Ibn al-Nafis, is considered to be one of the very first Arabic novels, and one of the earliest sci-fi stories.
The novel tells the tale of a man who is spontaneously generated in a cave on a remote desert island and how he reasons out conclusions about the world around him. He’s then picked up by another ship and taken to civilization where he continues his conclusions. He deduces most of the major points of ‘aqeedah and Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) history and mission (without the aid of Scripture), and then goes on to deduce future events that had not yet happened, including some of the major signs of the Day of Judgement (explaining them from a purely rational/scientific standpoint). He also covers some events of the time in which Ibn al-Nafis lived (the attack by the Mongols and the Mamelukes’ defense).
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz
Naguib Mahfouz is the Arab world’s only Nobel Laureate for literature to date, and the books of his Cairo Triolgy, Palace Walk (1956), Palace of Desire (1957), and Sugar Street (1957) influenced a generation of Arab authors
The novels of The Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Palace Walk introduces us to his gentle, oppressed wife, Amina, his cloistered daughters, Aisha and Khadija, and his three sons–the tragic and idealistic Fahmy, the dissolute hedonist Yasin, and the soul-searching intellectual Kamal. Al-Sayyid Ahmad’s rebellious children struggle to move beyond his domination in the Palace of Desire, as the world around them opens to the currents of modernity and political and domestic turmoil brought by the 1920s. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician.
Throughout the trilogy, the family’s trials mirror those of their turbulent country during the years spanning the two World Wars, as change comes to a society that has resisted it for centuries. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, The Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.
The Chronicles of Majnun Layla by Qassim Haddad
Widely acknowledged as the greatest living Gulf poet, Qassim Haddad did not finish secondary school. Born in Bahrain in 1948, he left formal education early to contribute to his family’s income. Like Sonallah Ibrahim, he is a revolutionary as well as a writer and was jailed for his political beliefs in the 1950s
Majnun Layla is a legendary figure in Arabic literature and one who is also celebrated in the literature of Persia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The name means ‘the man who has gone mad because he loves Layla so much’. The Majnun Layla narrative, with its themes of ill-fated lovers and feuding tribes, has been an essential theme in Arab literature and performance art since the 9th century. It became a favorite theme of the Sufi poets, who saw Majnun’s all-absorbing love for Layla and Layla’s unreachableness as symbolic of the devotee’s quest for the divine. And it influenced Eric Clapton to write a song.
Qassim’s version revives this ancient tale and reworks it free from its tribal context and puritanical background. In his version, the two lovers consummate their longing for one another uncompromised by social constraint or moral code. There is much thrashing of limbs and consuming passion, and both lovers laud the joy of physical uninhibited love to their peers. The text is beautifully written in exquisite classical Arabic and abides by the traditional convention of rhyming prose. Yet at the same time, its themes are unmistakably modern and subversive.
Cities of Salt by Abd al-Rahman Munif
Abd al-Rahman Munif (1933-2004), a Saudi novelist, is one of the great Arab authors of recent times.
The book tells of the discovery of oil on the Arabian peninsula and how it disrupted the land and the people, altered the socio-political climate of the country, and threw the Middle East into a constant state of unrest. The action of the book takes place in the fictional cities of Harran and Muran, which could represent any village in Saudi Arabia that grew into a metropolis after the discovery of oil. Munif shows how the vast beauty of the untouched desert was corrupted and transformed by American oil engineers. He also conveys the discontent of the indigenous Bedouin people as the Americans drilled for oil, built modern houses, and transformed their kingdom into something similar to an American city.
Contemporary authors like Hisham Matar cite Munif as a key influence, and his moral courage in tackling the social malaises of the Arab world landed him in hot water with his Saudi compatriots (he was stripped of his nationality because of his activism and writing).
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