Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (22-25)

You were saying that we have a wise creator
And I replied, you’re not wrong. But listen,
You say he knows neither time nor place,
Words which, for all we know, could be
Signs in a secret tongue: it’s vain talk.
We have no hope of thinking straight.

Whether she believes, or carries a cross,
Always be kind to your tired wife

No matter if she attacks religion, saying:
“Friends, who cares about the old beliefs,

People commit terrible crimes knowing full well,
The smallest acts alone will win you the fires of hell.”

God, when will I leave this world?
I’ve been around too long. My star is dark,
Since it turned, no friend awaits my help
No enemy my fury.

Life is the bitter after-effect of youth,
And death its cure.
The Earth is my chamber, and yours;
Nobody has ever left the place they’re laid to rest.

There are people like an open tomb:
You give all you love most
And get nothing in return.

A man who is cold inside, yet generous,
Is like a rock sprinkled with rain;
Moss grows, but nothing flowers.

Tear down all the dwelling places on Earth.
Each shelters a creature bound to destroy
The untamed soul of a good man.

Above all, hold fast to all that you are,
Don’t waste it, and don’t let your life
Be governed by what drives you mad.

They gave you the gift of a dove:
Fetch it a basin of clear water
And forget the state of the other palm trees.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (19-21)

Needles have sown a death shroud with the thread of our lives;
It crowns our temples. The clear-eyed intellect

Sees light as a newborn thing and darkness
As the dimension that gave it birth.

No one should pray for a kingdom, lest they end up trying
To gather power by force. Kings are sad creatures.

Each night at twilight, I warned the silent ones gazing ahead
That the light would vanish; and each day, the messenger Death

Calls at our door. Without uttering a word,
He leaves us an open invitation.

I know about those horses, battle-clad, who stink of war
And are too afraid to eat. They wait, champing at the bit.

The soul, separated from the body, weeps
For the memories it has left behind.

A dove that is wounded in flight twists its neck
To look back sadly and see its nest destroyed.

Aristotle was right, that there isn’t room among us to shelter
Both the risen dead and those who are not yet born.

The world is grouped: white and black, snow and pitch.
Ham wasn’t black because he sinned; it was just how God wanted it.*

And just as there are no people living in the sky,
There’s no angel who walks the Earth or rests underground.

Many nations were built on other men’s lands,
Then they fell, and were scattered to the ground.

You can wring out your memory in search of the ancestors
You have lost: it’s only going to tell you they are gone.

* According to the book of Genesis, Ham was Noah’s second son and his offspring populated Africa and Western Asia.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (16-18)

If your home is a prison then your tomb
Must be a fortress.

If this life degrades your mind
Then the dust of the grave will cleanse it.

So I can tell you why the trees have no branches
It’s because their roots have rotted underground.

I handed all my worries
To God, but never thought to ask
If there would be an eclipse.
Many ignorant men
Are saved from this death,
While the thinkers rush headlong into it.

The most singular event in life:
(God is not forgetful,
Nor does he break his promises)
Two in the bed are transformed into three.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (13-15)

When an Indian self-immolates,
He burns his flesh and bones.
Does he fear the holy torture,
Or the pressure of the tomb
Upon his smooth skeleton?

Does the comet possess nerves or is it dead?
Does it have a mind or is it burning rock?

There are those who believe in a life after death
While others say we are nothing but vegetables.

My advice to you is that you avoid perversion
And do what is good, because I have learned that the soul

Next to death, repents; it repents of its gout-ridden
Skin that began so fresh, and might be so again.

They say the soul is shipped from corpse to child
Until, cleansed by each voyage, it is fit for God.

Don’t you believe what they tell you, lest your mind
Confirms their truth: the trunks of palm trees praised like clouds

Are still made of wood. Be at peace, take care and call to mind
That the Indian sword is slender from so much sharpening.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (10-12)

When I die it won’t matter to me how God
Treats the world; let it burn, let it flood.

The Earth cannot know what it eats;
Skeletons of sheep, carcasses of lion.

I was forced to come to this house of disaster,
But now I’ve settled in, I have no wish to move.

I suffer hardship and there is no light
In the temperament of man. Clouds of rain, clouds of death

Pass over populations that swell like planets.
Man lives by might; the intellect is redundant.

Mankind is like a fire that from a spark
Rips into flame. Men in the country,

Men in the cities, are servile and mute,
Even if they avoid wearing chains.

Each part has its role: our hands cannot walk,
Our feet carry us. Hundreds of visions

Exist on this Earth, and God
Who is old, is the last.

Treasure the deeds that bring you light,
Or your days may end in sadness.

Translator’s Note: Then and Now


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:

nor al-Ma’arri:

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.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (7-9)

I’m surprised that he has died and rests in peace.
He had many friends, his life was full
Of highs and lows, a weight balanced on the scales.

Sheets of lightning transformed the lands of the Beni Silsilah*
From dust into acres of rich harvest.

Clouds rolled in, cumulous, pregnant with rain
And drenched the Earth, or this part of it.

The storm washed the grime from my body,
But my soul is the part that needs cleansed.

My lips have not touched prohibited liquor,
I do not hurt my soul; my soul hurts itself.

The pillars of life, the four elements, are columns
Supporting the dome of stars.

The deeds of God are a point that is at once fixed and in motion.
Time is not conscious of living beings.

So why blame Time for what happens?
A man never tires of the women he desires,

But waits his chance. Action tires the body,
Action, which is necessary to avoid boredom.

Fate looms; we laugh and cry. But Time is not
Why we laugh or cry: Time, whom we curse

Has never intervened. If it could, it might
Have words to say about our behaviour.

We give free reign to the worst in ourselves,
The most perverse is the most honest.

Day and Night, two youths who go wherever we go:
No matter how we feel, they stick to us fast.

* Tribe of Syria

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (4-6)

We laughed; our laughter betrayed our disrespect.
The people of this land ought to live; in fear.
When men shake hands with Time, Time
Crushes them like glasses; little shards of crystal.

Humanity is the water that is whipped up
And swept along on the east wind.

The deeds of good men are natural
But the charity of a scoundrel
Is meticulously calculated so as to please.

A youth’s lengthy silence may appear
A sign of wisdom,
But in reality it is sloth.

Even if life is a loan to pay back,
We hope that God will recompense us.

The world is not at fault,
So why blame the world?

The blame should fall on my head
And the heads of those like me.

A glass holds wine; so where does fault lie,
In the man who crushed the grape,

Or the one who drinks the wine?

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (1-3)

God help us, we have sold our souls,
The very best that we had,

For a business in the hands of the Syndicate.
We have received neither dividends

Nor rights for the price that we paid.
Even if our hearts could choose

Between this corrupt dealing
And a future paradise,

You can be sure they would prefer
The world that we have now.

Sin and crime, Crow, crime and sin,
All are guilty, none is pure.

Take the food that you need from the plain,
And go live in the rich canopy of the trees,

I won’t blame you. Even if your wings were to extinguish
The light of night, I would defend you.

Mankind scares the lion in its lair,
He never gives the jackal peace.

The thieves who tempt their neighbours to crime
Would be as well selling grapes to the growers of vines.

Man perverts life as he finds it,
And undermines the friends who seek his help.

If you factored man’s estate and made it
Prosper, stones would be your salary.

The unstable intellect is crushed by the world,
A weak man in a prostitute’s embrace.

If the mind learns discipline,
The world is a woman of distinction
Who disdains the insinuations of her lover.

Introduction: Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri

The third poet who appears in Selección de poesía árabe is Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri (973-1057 CE), who was born 223 years after Abbas Ibn al-Ahnaf (750-809 CE) and 112 after Abdullah Ibn al-Mu’tazz (861-908 CE), the two poets whose work I have already translated. In fact, taken together, the lives of these three poets coincide closely with the first three centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate, which was established in the year of al-Ahnaf’s birth (750 CE) and peaked during the subsequent two centuries. Fortunes turned thereafter, and by the time al-Ma’arri died in 1057, the empire faced serious challenges, although the ruling dynasty managed to hold on, in one form or another, until 1517 CE. For more on the historical background, and in particular the emergence of the Abbasid Caliphate, see this post. In the meantime, here is my translation of the biography of al-Ma’arri that appears in Selección de poesía árabe.

Abu al-Ala al-Ma’arri was born in the Syrian city of al-Ma’arra in the year 973 CE. When he was four, he suffered an attack of smallpox and lost his sight. His father died when he was fourteen, and al-Ma’arri decided to depart for Aleppo, Antioch and other Syrian cities, where he would live and study for six years. It is notable that al-Ma’arri, like his father and other members of his family, avoided undertaking the customary pilgrimage to Mecca. At the age of twenty, he returned to the town of his birth, where he lived in relative poverty even as his reputation as a poet began to grow.

In 1008, al-Ma’arri travelled to Baghdad, where he performed his poetry to wide acclaim. After eighteen months in the Abbasid capital, he returned home, where he adopted an ascetic and vegetarian lifestyle, eating lentils and figs, and where he would remain confined in his house for the rest of his life. Blind and enclosed between four walls, he became known as “the twice-imprisoned man”. Adding his abandonment of religion to these two privations, he described himself as “thrice benighted”. Al-Ma’arri’s attempt to live as a hermit enjoyed only a partial success, as his home became a site of pilgrimage, with disciples from around the world visiting to hear him speak. Al-Ma’arri’s work is full of philosophical propositions and moral energy. It represents the highest point reached during the flourishing of intellectual life that characterised the Abbasid period. Al-Ma’arri died in 1057 at the age of 83.

My translations of al-Ma’arri’s poems will appear here in the weeks to come. As before, I’ll be working from Alberto Manzano’s Spanish, itself a translation from the medieval Arabic.