As I translate the poetry of al-Ma’arri, I am struck by how frequently it resonates today, a thousand years after it was written. Not to mention three thousand miles away, in a land littered with the junk of another dying empire.
When al-Ma’arri writes:
it seems to me that he could be speaking of the predicament of modern Britain. Our assets are bartered away on the financial markets. We have lost our grip. Our compass is broken. In fact, the Abbasid Caliphate had not reached this stage when al-Ma’arri wrote these lines. But its power had peaked. Was his focus on corruption prophetic? While the empire projected strength and others traded on outward appearances, al-Ma’arri looked within. By looking within, he looked ahead.
Elsewhere, al-Ma’arri takes aim at humanity as a whole, as he considers the effect of greed on human relationships. He writes:
and with these lines, it is as though he has seen the capitalist economy as we have it today, and understood the exploitation at its heart. He seems to summarise a species of insolence that is well documented throughout British imperial history, in particular: that fondness for setting up extractive relationships and calling the outcome an ‘agreement’, or consenting to real agreements that are later blithely annulled, with threat of force. All of this half a millenium before any European state embarked on their project of systematic colonialism. A full millenium before we see the outcome of that endeavour, across our teetering and imbalanced globe.
In the same poem, he touches on our relationship with the natural world. Writing from the house where he spent his adult years, benighted between the four walls he knew only by touch, al-Ma’arri contemplates humanity’s treatment of wild animals. He takes up his pen and writes:
and ten centuries later, his exasperation remains fully justified. It is not difficult to square these lines with the species loss that is happening in 2020. This precipitous die-out, the sixth mass extinction on Earth, is widely blamed on recent human activity. Does the harm go further back? Al-Ma’arri shows us that today’s nature writers had a fellow environmental messenger in the Eastern Mediterranean around 1020 CE.
Of course, al-Ma’arri could not have known what we know: that our abuse of nature is leading to catastrophe, that our safety and our very survival is at stake. Yet even if he did, I suspect he would keep his poem just as it is. While today’s conservationists count the costs, identify the culprits and frantically seek to apply the brakes, al-Ma’arri takes a different tactic. His complaint is that our treatment of wild animals is fundamentally unnecessary and ungenerous. For all he knew, we could have gone on abusing the beasts with impunity, yet he still counselled peace. And the wisdom of this, showing mercy while you still can, has lost no relevance between the eleventh and twenty-first centuries.
Events have vindicated al-Ma’arri. I am sure they would not surprise him. His contemporaries continued on a violent footing, as do we, and he never expressed the slightest confidence that this would change. From the little I have read about him (so far: translating these poems has me wanting to find out more) I understand that he is considered a pessimist and nihilist. Yet underlying al-Ma’arri’s criticism, there is a rationale of hope. The rule of violence may reside deep in the human psyche, but so does the capacity to reflect, to recognise it, to cease and desist. This, too, is who we are. We are capable of peace.
This is apposite to where we are. Today’s writers have not entirely abandoned the tone set by al-Ma’arri, even if their immediate concern is to avert the worst consequences of biosphere destruction. Many of them abhor violence directly and for its own sake, even if their work is complicated by the fears, rhetoric and existential panic of the twenty-first century. Perhaps al-Ma’arri can bring perspective to today’s messaging, and still take us to the heart of the matter.
Back to human-to-human relations, and politics, where translating al-Ma’arri puts me in mind of a relatively recent writer, George Orwell. I have not gone looking for these synchronicities. It is likely because Orwell is everywhere in 2020 that he leaps so effortlessly onto the stage, next to al-Ma’arri. He is so often called upon to explain our world, perhaps he will appreciate the company. I imagine the two of them in duet, singing of a world as topsy-turvy as the one Orwell imagined in 1984, a world that would surprise neither him:
a world where the possibility of shared knowledge is destabilised by leaders like Donald Trump, who derides facts as “fake news” when he is confronted with them; where the holders of Opinion A no longer talk to the holders of Opinion B, and no longer could even if they wanted, since the same words have opposite meanings for the two groups; where social media oligarchs oversee the emptying out of digital communications and the destruction of civic discourse; where our behaviour is recorded, repackaged as data and sold, while we willingly consent to the extraction; where our attention is similarly acquired and again sold; where we twist our words, our relationships, our spirits and our selfies to get a reaction, any reaction. The most perverse is the most honest.
Finally, in the poem that prompted me to write this note (a poem that I haven’t published yet, but will soon) al-Ma’arri writes:
and it seems he is describing the life we have chosen to lead in 2020, just as he must have referred to the society in which he lived. It is the leadership we follow in the likes of Putin, Trump, Erdoğan, Bolsonaro, Modi and Xi. In the world’s biggest states, might has struck a victory over truth and moderation, just as it has in many smaller countries around the world, and it is crowing about it loudly.
The tone of long-suffering that permeates al-Ma’arri’s verse lands fresh after all these years. He lifts a weary eyebrow. The orb beneath is clouded and will admit no light, yet he sees, and I get the sense he wouldn’t be at all surprised to know that the rules haven’t changed between 1020 and 2020 CE. I think that if he came back to al-Ma’arra, and we gave him a roof over his head in his home town, now ravaged by war, he would unhurriedly take up his pen and add the next line as if the ink had not had time to dry.
* I am waiting until I finish translating the poems before I research the context in any detail, since this will allow me to reflect more clearly on the effects of contextual knowledge on translation. I am also holding off on reading other English translations (the only one I know of is that by G.B.H. Wightman) so that I can later compare my results with a direct Arabic>English version.