The Prairie Rubaiyat
By: Habeeb Salloum, Arab America Contributing Writer
INTRODUCTION TO THE PRAIRIE RUBAlYAT
From my early youth when I first read the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, I have been enthralled by the verses of that world-renowned Persian poet and his type of poetry. Of course, it was not the poet himself but rather Edward Fitzgerald who first translated his stanzas into English thus making this mathematician-astronomer poet a famous literary figure in the English-speaking world. Although Fitzgerald added to and altered- many of Omar Khayyam’s lines, he nevertheless brought to this world a taste for the philosophy of the exotic and mysterious lands where Islam held sway.
Since the translation by that English gentleman, who was a poet in his own right, a series of other translations have been made, many of which more accurately relate to the verses of Omar Khayyam. Although these later translations are more accurate, their impact has been far less than the poetic-embellished translation of Fitzgerald. If one is to be precise, the Rubaiyat is the poetry of Fitzgerald built on the ideas and format of Omar Khayyam.
The Rubaiyat, an Arabic word meaning four, is a form of verse which follows an Arabic form of poetry. In this type of poetry, each verse is a separate entity and carries its own message. Arabic, in Omar Khayyam’s day, was the universal language of the Muslim world which in that era was the civilized and pace-setting portion of mankind.
In the same fashion as an intellectual from the Indian sub-continent or Africa, in our day, writes in both his own language and English, many of the literary figures in the medieval world of Islam wrote not only in their own vernacular tongues but also in Arabic. Omar Khayyam, as did many of his countrymen, knew the language and literature of the Arabs and wrote, not only his native Persian tongue but also in Arabic, the language of Islam.
Many in the West, unacquainted and unfamiliar with the Arabic language and Arabic literature, think that Omar Khayyam is the father of the rubaiyat type of poetry. This is not the case. Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri, a renowned Syrian Arab poet, born in 973 A.D., 44 years before Omar Khayyam, is believed to be the poet who was the pathfinder for the well known Rubaiyat made famous by Fitzgerald.
Abu ‘Ala’ was a blind poet who in his poetry expounded unconventionality, pessimism, and cynicism about the revealed religions and the questioning of life – all of which one finds in the verses of Omar Khayyam. There were other poets who wrote this type of poetry before Omar Khayyam, in both their native tongues and Arabic, but in my opinion, no one influenced Omar Khayyam more than this blind Syrian poet.
In my youth, I read and enjoyed the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but as time passed and I became proficient in Arabic, the language of my ancestors, I found a larger world of enjoyable rubaiyat. In later years when I would reminisce about the harsh depression era in southern Saskatchewan, I would think of these poets from long ago and relate their verses to these years of despair. Perhaps, it was my Arab background that made me think of the Rubaiyat with its messages at the times that I would remember the harshness of my youthful years. There is no doubt the flowery poetry of the Arabs, especially the rubaiyat form, had a great influence on my literary thinking.
Although the depression years left a mark which was to scar me for life, there were glimpses of beauty in these barren years. In the same fashion as the Arab-Islamic poets who wrote in the rubaiyat form, I would write stanzas to explain or reminisce about a problem, enjoyable moment, or situation. Abu ‘Ala’ al-Ma’arri and Omar Khayyam were my two important guides. When I finished writing my Prairie Rubaiyat I was amazed how my verses carried the same messages as was to be found in the poetry of these famous literary men.
In the rubaiyats of Abu ‘Ala’, Omar and myself one finds both pessimism and the inevitability of fate. Discussing how all things fade away, never to return, Abu ‘Ala’ through the translation by Henry Baerlein says:
The rolling, ever-rolling years of time
Are as a diwan of Arabian Song;
The poet, headstrong and supremely strong,
Refuses to repeat a single rhyme.
In the same vein, Omar Khayyam through Fitzgerald ponders:
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: Nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
In my Prairie Rubaiyat, I reminisce about life and write:
The caravan of our allotted time rolls on and on.
Halt it awhile and the robe of merriment don.
Enjoy the moments and from their pleasures sup,
Pour out the wine, our lives are almost gone.
The Middle East was the cradle of civilization and in this cradle, many of man’s ideas and ways of life had their beginnings. From the onset, when man began to clothe and feed himself, he knew there were other forces which affected his life. Searching for these forces he found religion and ever since it has been the mainstay of his life. In this area of human civilization, the religions of today’s western world sprouted and began to flourish.
These religions, nourished in the Arabian Peninsula and its environs, were all built on a belief that an Unknown Hand guided human destiny and thus controlled his fate. The vast majority of Arab-Islamic poets who wrote in the rubaiyat form came to an identical conclusion They were of the opinion that this unknown hand manages the affairs of man. Abu ‘Ala’ thought of life as only a passing phenomenon controlled by some Unknown Manipulator, thus he muses:
I think our world is not a place to rest,
But where a man may take his little ease,
Until the landlord whom he never sees
Gives that apartment to another guest.
In the Graves-Shah translation of the Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam also reflects:
In agitation, I was brought to birth
And learned nothing from life but wonder at it;
Reluctantly we leave, still uninformed
Why in the world we came, or went, or were.
In my Prairie Rubaiyat I too meditate about life and its mysteries:
How can we mortals our allotted lives rearrange
Or another world for this world exchange?
When our lives have been plotted in that book
Kept by Him who knows there can be no change.
There is no doubt that from the early days when religions were first established, they have been the cause of much fanaticism and dissension. Instead of the love for mankind expounded by all religions, hate and wars were more often than not practiced by their followers. There are not many who will dispute the fact that all religions arose in man love and passion, but also envy and hate. They unify and at the same time divide. Abu ‘Ala’ thinking about the revealed religions ponders:
Lo! there are many ways and many traps
And many guides and which of them is the lord?
For verily Muhammad has the sword
And he may have the truth-perhaps! perhaps!
In Fitzgerald’s translation, Omar Khayyam reflects:
Oh.’ Thou, who Man of baser Earth did’st make
And who with Eden did’st devise the Snake;
For all the Sin, wherewith the Face of Man
Is blacken’d, Man’s Forgiveness give-and-take!
Along the same lines, I also question the ways of religion when I muse:
In a Western church, a voice of a preacher cries
And in an Eastern mosque, a muezzin’s voice replies.
For man struggling on earth since the dawn of time
Is hypnotized, and on that unknown world relies.
Poets, perhaps because of their interest in both the joys and tribulations of life, usually do not seek to control the fate of other men. They look on power as something not worth the struggle since it is only a transitory phenomenon which is with us a while, then quickly passes away. Writing of how all power and glory end in oblivion, Abu ‘Ala’ meditates:
There is a palace and a ruined wall
Divides the sand, a very home of tears,
And where love whispered of a thousand years
The silken-footed caterpillars crawl.
In the same vein, Omar Khayyam through Fitzgerald ruminates:
They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The Courts where Jamshýd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahrám, that great Hunter-the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep.
I do not disagree with them when I write:
Where are the Pharaohs and their cherished gods?
Where are the Conquistadors and their killer squads?
The wheels of history turn and grind. Today them
Tomorrow unknown others will get the nods.
A subject on which most bards agree, especially the rubaiyat poets, is love and beauty. No one will question the fact that these versifiers add much to the enjoyment of life with both their down-to-earth and metaphoric description of nature’s beauty or the charms of women. In the Rubaiyat, since each stanza is an entity by itself and carries its own message, it forms a separate image. These images become a series of colorful pictures, easily absorbed and remembered by the reader. Abu ‘Ala’ metaphorically compares a maid’s laughter to a waterfall in a verse uniting nature and beauty. He counsels:
Run! follow, follow happiness, the maid
Whose laughter is the laughing waterfall;
Run! call to her-but if no maiden call,
‘Tis something to have loved the flying shade.
The image conjured in Fitzgerald’s Omar Khayyam does not differ appreciably from that of Abu ‘Ala’’s when he contemplates:
I sometimes think that never blows so red
The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;
That every Hyacinth the Garden wears
Drop in its Lap from some once lovely Head.
In my Prairie Rubaiyat, I sketch an illustration encompassing both the beauty of nature and women when I muse:
Look! As she waters the blooming roses red,
A fresh tender blossom crossing the flower bed.
This beauty and the roses with perfumed flowers,
From the same soil, were they both not bred?
To be enjoyed, poetry, in my opinion, has to be simple, and even if in metaphoric form, easily understood by the reader. Unlike many of the Eastern rubaiyat poets, I have written mine in a simple fashion. To Western readers who are not familiar with Arabic or Islam, some of my verses might be difficult but in the main, they are plain and straight-forward.
Both Abu ‘Ala’ and Omar Khayyam were ambiguous in many of their verses, especially when they wrote about life and the hereafter. An example is Abu ‘Ala’’s lines:
That he brought justice down from-ah, so high!
He was an archer in the morning land.
And Omar Khayyam musing:
For ‘is’ and ‘is-not’ though with Rule and Line,
And ‘Up-and-down’ without, I could define,
Compare these to my clear questions when I ask:
Then why am I on this earth in tattered robes,
When His generosity on others flows, and flows?
Or when I discuss the afterlife:
If death is the only slumber and for the soul release,
Then why the terror that our life will cease?
Clarity is only one difference; there are others. To give my Prairie Rubaiyat some cohesion, I have divided it into three sections: the first, which I call ‘Where the Breezes blow’ relate, in the main, to the western Canadian prairies. In this section, I reminisce about the harshness of the land, the winter winds and the days of my youth. If in my verses the cold winter storms seem to be all important, it is no accident. With no central heating in those depression years, it seemed I was cold all through the winter months. Although many years have slipped by, I still vividly remember those cold blistery years.
The second section ‘In the Garden of Love’ is filled with my fantasies about the beauties of life, especially captivating women. All bards dream about bewitching and enticing females and I am no exception. The attractive and charming women in the streets, public places and sunny beaches, all enchant me and inspire my verses. Without these radiant jewels of life, my Rubaiyat would lack an enticing and alluring element.
The last section ‘The Secrets of Life’ is the longest and the most philosophical. In this section, I question life and its purpose. The established religions of mankind are not to me all sacred. Fate has an all-important place in my verses and I do not reject the idea that God manipulates our lives on earth. Pessimism about life, glory and the afterlife permeates my lines and I am undecided as to the truth. I conclude that since we do not know the truth we should enjoy this life and worry not about the other. Perhaps, more than any other, this verse explains my thoughts clearly:
Come! Talk not to me of life and its rewards,
Or of the trials and tribulations, it records,
But enjoy its pleasures before the Invisible One
Our slotted place in that other world awards.