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Studying Nabaṭī Poetry: A plea for method

Saad A. Sowayan

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  • 1 This paper is based on a public lecture delivered at New York University at Abu Dhabi on November 1 (...)

1The present paper1 begs the reader’s indulgence, for in this study I am going to throw caution to the wind and express a personal conviction. I shall draw comparisons between Nabaṭī poetry and Greek literature, I shall also give examples from ancient Near Eastern cultures, and I am going to deliberately tip the balance ever so slightly in favor of Nabaṭī poetry. I say deliberately because my purpose is to make certain claims with the greatest emphasis.

2I will argue that if we were to compare Nabaṭī poetry and Greek literature, Nabaṭī poetry would not suffer in comparison, if it were not for the sophisticated analytical tools which have been used throughout the ages to hammer out the best aspects of Greek literature, and to add to its luster, brilliance and coherence that might not otherwise be perceived. Much ink has been spilled by brilliant classicists and Renaissance scholars in the study of Homeric epics, or Hesiod’s Theogony, or Pindar, or Sappho, the poetess of Lesbos! Since the Renaissance this has been an ongoing scholarly undertaking that verges on indoctrination, not to say infatuation, an undertaking no less emphatic, not to say fanatic, than Sunday Bible lessons. It is this inherent bias in Western scholarship that makes the Greek concept of moira a concept loaded with profound philosophical significance, while its exact Arab counterpart qismah/naṣīb is a mere indication of fatalism. Greek culture was enthusiastically adopted by European elites as their cultural heritage, an attitude not unlike that adopted by Arab intellectuals towards the Ǧāhiliyyah era, both were pre-s, Greek culture was pre-Christian and Ǧāhiliyyah was pre-Islamic.

3To clarify myself, I can only give a few simple examples, keeping in mind that I am here concerned not so much with Nabaṭī verse or Greek verse as with the overall related traditions, by which I mean the whole encompassing cultural milieu of each of these poetic traditions, including myths and legends and, in the case of Nabaṭī poetry, the narratives sawālif (sing. sālfah) usually associated with the poems. It would be too tedious to compare Nabaṭī poetry and Greek poetry image for image, or topos for topos. There is hardly a heroic scene in the Iliad, for example, which does not have a matching scene in the Nabaṭī tradition. Since each of these two poetic traditions is a reflection of the general cultural ambiance and its heroic ethics, it would be more enlightening and parsimonious to compare these two cultural settings. I am calling for a shift in emphasis from literary criticism to a more comprehensive cultural criticism. This would provide us with the leeway to bring in other adjacent and relevant traditions including the totality of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. We could thus widen the comparative scope to include Sumerian, Egyptian and Semitic cultures.

The Nabati poetic tradition

4The Nabaṭī poet usually starts off a poem by saying how, when he is overcome by the compositional mood, he enters into an altered state of mind. His trance thus resembles the trance of the pythia, the prophetess of Apollo at Delphi who delivers her prophetic oracles in mad ravings. The Greek word for such a prophetess is mantis, a word related in etymology to mania or madness. The Nabaṭī poet tells us literally that he goes mad: when he feels the urge to compose, he seeks solitude away from the crowd so that people do not see him in such a state of disarray, with such a striking demeanor. He usually makes for the top of a high mountain. The image of going up a mountain summit collapses two ideas: the idea of the difficulty of composing poetry and the idea of a widening horizon that allows the poet to see from higher up further than ordinary mortal scan see. What concerns us here is the fact that ancient Greeks and Semites always sought mountain tops to be closer to the Gods and as a source of inspiration. The Babylonians whose country was flat built ziggurats, or what is conventionally dubbed the Tower of Babel. We should also remember that Moses received the Ten Commandments on the top of mount Horeb.

5Also related to the theme of poetic composition is the description of the mental toil of the poet in his search for beautiful images, compared either to the mental anguish of the lover yearning for his lady or to the hunter after the quarry, at times running barefoot on rocks and thistles and at other times crawling on hands and knees. Actually, many poets like Srūr al-Aṭraš and Sāćir al-Khmešī are avid hunters. In the opening lines of his poem, the poet-hunter will tell us how he waited in his hiding place with his gun loaded for the game to pass by. But as he aimed, ready to shoot, the beautiful eyes and graceful neck of the gazelle reminded him of his amour, and so he did not shoot. There is something reminiscent of legends related to the Greek deity Artemis (Diana of the Romans), the virgin goddess of the hunt. We may take the hunter’s refusal to shoot his quarry as a propitiation to the goddess, and as a sign of respect for her virginity, since both killing a game and violating chastity involve the shedding of blood. The legend says that the hunter Acteon glanced at Diana while she was bathing naked in the lake. As a punishment, she transformed him into a gazelle and he was hunted down by his own hunting dogs which tore him to pieces. Glancing at naked lasses in a pool is also a favorite theme in Arabic poetry, from the classical poet Imruˀ al-Qays to the Nabaṭī poet Ǧabr b. Sayyār.

6The goddess Aphrodite was enamored with the Trojan prince Anchises and she wanted him to sleep with her. Anchises was stunned and overwhelmed by the glory of the deity, he beseeched her to leave him be and not to molest him anymore. He promised her that, if she spared him, he would offer her a sacrifice every year and build her a sanctuary on the top of the highest mountain, so everyone may see it. From the ǧāhiliyyah till recent times Bedouin used to raise a white flag and build a cairn of white boulders on a high mountain, on high roads or near watering wells to tell of a favor done by someone to someone else. This is called bayāḍ “whitening”. On the other hand, sawād “blackening” is done to blacken the name of a treacherous or a dishonest man. The camel brand of the intended man is scratched on the white or black cairn.

7The god Hermes, the clever son of Zeus, stole the cattle of his brother Apollo on the very day of his birth. To deceive Apollo, Hermes wore his sandals backwards, in order that his footsteps might look reversed. This is the very trick resorted to, according to legend of course, by Ġālib b. Ḥaṭṭāb, the poet chief of the al-Ǧawf district when he escaped from the prison of Ibn Rashīd in Ḥāyil.

8As part of the narrative background of a poem by Šarīf Barakāt, the story goes that his mother-in-law was infatuated with him but he rebuffed her advances. She skinned a desert rat (ǧarbūˁ) and threw it in the maǧlis (place where guests are received) of his father claiming that this son had tried to sexually assault her and that while defending her honor she had dropped her fetus. The father chastised his son and told him never to show his face in his maǧlis anymore. The same happened with the Greek hero Hippolytus. He was willing to kneel before the goddess Artemis but not Aphrodite. Aphrodite was angry with him and caused Phaedra, the wife of Hippolytus’ stepmother father Theseus, to fall in love with him. Hippolytus suffered the same fate as Šarīf Barakāt, or is it the other way round?!

9Another Greek legend says that Hecuba, the wife of Priam, king of Troy, while pregnant with her son Paris, dreamed that she was giving birth to a blaze of fire that burnt everything. As is well known, Paris caused the Trojan War when he kidnapped Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Mycenae. The same story goes for a noblewoman from the tribe of al-ˁIǧmān, who is said to have dreamed the same dream and married Sulṭān al-Dawīš, chief of the Muṭayr whose incessant raids had cost the people of al-ˁIǧmān dearly.

10The heroic values of the Nabaṭī tradition coincide with those of the Greek tradition. Both traditions assert that only heroes deserve fat meat and fair ladies, and to sit on carpets and cushions rather than on the bare ground. Both traditions have the same concept of honor, renown or glory, kleos in Greek, a common theme in Homer’s epics, especially in the episode of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. One achieves honor and glory by performing outstanding heroic feats which are then compiled into a biographical narrative or sālfah, or poems that people still recite well after the hero’s death, thus causing his name to be immortalized and the memory of him to be passed on for many generations. Such deeds would enhance the reputation and social status of the hero’s progeny, buy also hold them responsible for the protection of his good name, preserving the honor bestowed on them and having to live up to it. This is the only immortality one can achieve in both Nabaṭī and Greek traditions. There is no afterlife.

The Ancient Near East

11Let us now leave Greece and go somewhere else, to the ancient Near East. The ancient Sumerians were called the black-headed people. Interestingly, the same expression Sūdān al-rūs (the Black Heads) designates the Šammar tribe. What makes this parallel significant is the very close relationship of Šammar to Mesopotamia and the continuous waves of migrants from Northern Arabia to Mesopotamia since very ancient times.

12Another example is the Nabaṭī epithet ˁaḏrā (pl. ˁaḏārā), which in the Nabaṭī tradition does not mean “virgin”; “virgin” is bikir, not ˁaḏrā. The latter simply means “fair young lady”. One wonders what light this could shed on the epithet maryam al-ˁaḏrāˀ, which is translated as the Virgin Mary.

13I remember as a young boy that when farmers worked the land to plant corn they used to sing: yāwalī al-samā tiǧˁalih ˁayṯarī meaning “Lord of the sky, grant us a bountiful corn harvest”. Is not ˁayṯarī derived from Ishtar or ˁIṯtar, the Goddess of fertility? And is not “Lord of the sky” a befitting title for Zeus? I also remember that the corn fields planted in the open desert and irrigated by rain were called baˁal, also the name of an ancient deity.

14There is no end to such cultural parallels between the Nabaṭī tradition and ancient Semitic beliefs. Take for instance tree worship, especially when the palm tree is concerned. Before the Wahhabi movement in Najd, an unmarried woman used to circumambulate around a male palm tree while repeating: yā-faḥl al-fuḥūl urīdu baˁlan qabl al-ḥūl. Remnants of tree worship do not stop here. The Najdis used to put blades from the palm fronds on exposed food or milk believing that such a precautionary measure would protect the food from rotting.

15There are also remnants of fire worship. According to tradition, one should avoid hitting cinder with one’s bare hand, but were one to do so, they should pronounce the name of Allah, otherwise one would be seized by the jinn. A reckless person is said to hit cinder without mentioning the name of Allah: yxabiṭ bi-l-rimād wa lā ysammī.

16In the Najdi version of the Hilālī epic the hero Abū Zayd is travelling with his nephew ˁAzīz, who dies on the way back home. After burying him, Abū Zayd tethers his camel, leaves his ring, and cuts his hair on his nephew’s grave. This is an obvious echo of grave offerings.

17We could mention the ˁiṭfih, also called markab or ẓillih. These refer to some gigantic, ornate riding gear like a hodah هودح with a young noblewoman inside, practically naked and ululating to encourage her tribal folks on the battlefield. Could the markab be a remnant of the ancient Semitic tabernacle? The ululating lady would be a remnant of Athena or Ishtar, both deities of war and love, among other duties of course.

Customary law

18Let us now turn to customary law. Each Bedouin tribe usually sets apart one of its branches to be a refuge for the accused and transgressors, till they get a fair trial. We find the same institution recorded in Chapter 20 of the book of Joshua.

19In customary law among the Bedouin, most procedures relating to taking oaths have to do with sexual organs and fertility symbols, like the oath of šamlah and the oath of namlah. A šamlah is a kind of “brassiere” put on the udders of a female camel in milk so that her young does not suckle all her milk and there should be some left for the family. The namlah is the ant. Ants come out during harvest season. The connection with fertility in these two cases should be clear. On the other hand, when someone is in distress and seeks the help and protection of a stronger man, he holds the belt of his benefactor while seeking his help. Taking the belt here is a euphemism for the phallus, the instrument of fertility. This reminds us of the story of Abraham and his servant whom he ordered to go to the land of Haran to ask for the hand of Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, for his son Isaac. Abraham asked the servant to put his hand on his, i.e. Abraham’s, thigh and swear that he would seek a wife for Isaac from Haran and not from the Canaanites. Again, I think of Abraham’s thigh as a euphemism for his penis. When the servant arrived to the house of Laban, the grandson of Nahor, he refused to partake of the food they offered him until they had heard him out first and granted him his request, i.e. the hand of Rebecca for Isaac. This is the Bedouin’s ritual of mumālaḥah. Among them, an emissary will not taste even water or coffee until his request is granted. This ritual is related to the bond of hospitality, or what the ancient Greeks called xenia, whereby a guest enters a bond with his host and neither of them is supposed to molest or harm each other. The institution of xenia is demonstrated by the incident of the encounter of the two Homeric heroes Glaucus and Diomedes on the battlefield of Troy. Although the two heroes were fighting on opposite sides, when they met they refrained from killing each other when they discovered that they were bound by the xenia bond, a bond they had inherited from their ancestors. Violation of xenia is demonstrated by the unseemly conduct of the suitors who wanted to marry Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, thinking that he would never return from Troy. Traces of this institution can be detected in the story of Lot as recorded in the nineteenth chapter of Genesis. Lot begged the people of Sodom not to molest the two angels because they were guests beneath his roof.

“Mother Earth”

20The earth is pictured in ancient cultures as a goddess called Ga by the Greeks, and whose name recalls the Arabic word for earth, qāˁ (or gāˁ). Nabaṭī poets used to have two epithets to refer to their homeland. Al-ˁAwnī in his poem Al-xalūǧ called it “our mother, sweet is her milk”. Poets who composed panegyrics praising the late king ˁAbd al‑ˁAzīz and lauding his efforts to unify the kingdom referred to Najd as a beautiful young bride whose dowry was gunpowder and drawn swords. On the other hand, chiefs, kings and pharaohs in ancient societies were depicted as a bull, the bull being a symbol of brute force and insatiable sexual virility, and therefore fertility and prosperity. It is the responsibility of the king or pharaoh to fertilize the land and to defend it against enemy intruders. The image of the bull goes as far back in history as the drawings on the Narmer pallete, named after the first Egyptian pharaoh, not to mention testimonies from Mesopotamian archaeology. In Nabaṭī poetry, brave warriors on the battlefield are compared to a stampede of camel bulls in heat, for it is impossible to stand in the way of a rutting bull advancing towards a female camel in heat.

21Should the chief of a Najdi settlement be besieged by his enemies, he feigns marriage and orders his men to beat the drums in celebration of his wedding to show the enemy that his sexual appetite is at its peak and that the siege does not worry him in the least. There thus is a link between sexual virility and courage in war.

22One of the most interesting examples illustrating this theme is a poem by the Šammarī poet Ḫalaf Abū Zwayyid praising Saṭṭām b. Šaˁlān, chief of the Rwālah Tribe. For reasons we need not go into, Ḫalaf Abū Zwayyid fell from grace at the court of Prince Muḥammad b. Rašīd and sought refuge with Saṭṭām b. Šaˁlān. Ibn Rashīd was sterile and had no children. Abū Zwayyid alluded to this in a poem while at the same time comparing Ibn Šaˁlān, the traditional enemy of Ibn Rashīd, to a stud horse. The court poets of Ibn Rashīd took this as a very grave offense and composed many poems defending the virility of their prince.

Research tools for the study of Nabati poetry

23The points of contact between the Nabaṭī tradition and the ancient traditions here mentioned are so vast, varied and variegated that it is hard to pin one down and get a good grip on it. I could cite many more examples to but my aim here is only to give a few in order to draw the reader’s attention to parallelisms between the Nabaṭī tradition and the ancient Greek and ancient Near Eastern traditions. Thus, by carefully studying Nabaṭī poetry and comparing it with these ancient traditions, not only do we shed light on Nabaṭī poetry itself, but we also shed light on these ancient traditions. Furthermore, such parallelisms allow us to benefit from the research tools applied since the European Renaissance to analyze ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, Semitic and Greek cultures and literatures, and to use them in our study of Nabaṭī poetry. We need all the sophisticated scientific tools used to study the culture, folklore, oral literature and oral history of all nations, ancient and modern. Furthermore, such parallelisms remind us that Nabaṭī poetry is no less valuable and worthy of our attention than other traditions deemed important by specialists. It is time to treat this poetic tradition with the same scholarly seriousness with which we treat the ancient traditions.

24So far, I have been dwelling on a comparative approach as one of the research tools needed in the study of Nabaṭī poetry. I would now like to list other research tools we need to apply if we are to consider the study of Nabaṭī poetry according to scholarly standards. We need all the scientific ammunition we can muster, and particular attention should be paid to the holistic approach which emphasizes the connectedness in oral societies of literature to the rest of culture. It was the economist Karl Polanyi who first pointed out that in premarket societies, the economy is embedded in other social institutions and hence cannot be analyzed as a separate realm. Organizations carrying out production are dependent on and derived from other sets of social relations. Productive units are undifferentiated and tend to be multi-purposed, so that economic behavior is not their sole or governing purpose but just one aspect of their total activity. Therefore, in studying traditional economies it is vital to examine non-economic aspects, such as kinship systems, ethnic composition, religious ideology, political organization, and other social forces. This is what anthropologists call the holistic approach, which can be fruitfully applied to the study of small-scale traditional, so-called “primitive” societies. It is in these kinds of societies that specialists in oral literature usually do their research. Specialists such as Eric A. Havelock and Walter Ong keep alluding to the encyclopedic nature of oral literature, a fact realized by the ancient Arab philologists who called pre-Islamic poetry “the register of the Arabs”, meaning that it contains information on their history, genealogy, worldview, cultural values, and entire way of life. Oral literature, like the economy, is embedded in and enmeshed with the rest of culture in traditional societies.

25Therefore, literary criticism and exegesis are not just philological and literary, but mainly ethnographic activities. Literary studies and ethnographic studies merge and intersect in this case.

26In reviewing the history of scholarship in the field of oral literature—and here I am considering Nabaṭī poetry as an oral literature—we find that the theory of oral-formulaic composition and performance is one of its most outstanding landmarks. The application of this theory in its traditional conception as proposed by Milman Parry and enunciated by Albert Lord is rather restricted, however, in that it applies only to the poetic genre strictly from a formal literary perspective. It is a surface-structure oriented theory with very meager intellectual yield, not to mention its being prone to gross misapplication. Havelock, Ong, Jack Goody, and others have tried to broaden the anthropological and psychological implications of the theory to include not only an oral mode of composition but also an oral mode of thinking and the processes of oral discourse in general. The discussions since then have shifted to focus on the oral stage versus the writing stage of Culture, and what effects the introduction of script has on the individual and on the society as a whole. The emphasis now is on examining the structure and workings of human memory and cognition and the means through which oral societies store, organize and retrieve knowledge, pass on their traditions, and maintain cultural continuity through successive generations. What started as an insular theory of textual criticism is now turning into an interdisciplinary enterprise. Scholarship on oral literature has crossed academic boundaries to straddle many disciplines, ranging from aesthetics to linguistics, communication, psychology, anthropology, history, folklore, and many more. This broadening of the academic base has been very fruitful in bolstering theories and methods for the field.

27Studies by Wallace L. Chafe and David R. Olson have stressed that use of language associated with literacy is “autonomous” in the sense that the meaning is in the text: whatever is needed for comprehension is included in the words of the text, which can carry meaning all by themselves. In contrast, the use of language associated with orality is “non-autonomous” in that meaning is in the context, in the simultaneous transmission of information over paralinguistic, gestural, postural, tonal and other channels, as well as in the contribution of background information on the part of the hearer. This is because speakers and writers have different relations to their respective audiences, the former detached and the latter involved. The same thing can be said about oral literature. Just as we can hardly comprehend a conversation outside of its situational context, neither can we understand nor appreciate an oral literary piece devoid of its cultural context, or what the Bedouin interweave into an introductory narrative, or sālfih.

28In studying the total cultural ambience of an oral literary text such as a Nabaṭī poem, we come to understand fully not only its content and meaning, denotative and connotative, but also its function, which is usually not strictly artistic and aesthetic, as opposed to the literary texts of script cultures. For example, a speech by Pericles is not intended to be a strictly literary piece; the aesthetic merits of the speech are not meant to stand alone, but rather to bolster its public functions. A poem composed by a Bedouin sheikh is not just a poem. It would be considered frivolous and unbecoming for a respectable sheikh to compose a poem just for its own sake, and sheikhs usually open their poems with a disavowal. It has to have a dignified purpose and serious intent—to defend a cause, lay a claim, exhort to action, declare war, celebrate victory, sue for peace, and so forth.

29In my view, oral literature is, in a sense, like crude oil in that there are so many derivatives that can be extracted from it, but only if you have good refineries; in the present instance this means sound methodology and a sophisticated theoretical approach. This way, if you do not enjoy oral tradition as art, you can utilize it, for example, as a linguistic corpus or, à la Jan Vansina, as a historical document reflecting or refracting social facts. Linguistic, aesthetic, ethnographic, psychological, sociological, and historical analyses should be blended together to illuminate the true meaning of the poetic text and to determine its proper place and function in the intricate web of the total culture. Such a multidimensional and eclectic approach is not meant to play down the aesthetic values of oral literature, but rather to enhance and highlight them against their whole cultural background.


30If we agree that Nabaṭī poetry is a reflection of Arabian culture, then its interpretation becomes not merely a linguistic or literary undertaking, but rather a comprehensive ethnographic project. For to deal with the themes, imageries and the whole content of Nabaṭī poetry is to deal with the cultural components of Arabian culture in its totality. At this level of analysis, Nabaṭī poetry and classical Arabic poetry interlock and interact to give us a comprehensive, continuous ethnographic portrayal of Arabian culture from pre-Islamic era to pre-modern times. Just as Nabaṭī poetry is the natural continuation of Ǧāhilī poetry, so the pre-modern culture of Arabia is the continuation of its classical predecessor.

31Therefore, as much as we call for the study of Nabaṭī poetry for a deeper understanding of pre-Islamic poetry, we also just as urgently call for the study of the culture of pre-modern Arabia to shed light on aspects of the pre-Islamic era, which are still unknown to us. This way, we can fill the gaps in our knowledge of earlier times. Furthermore, we should remember that the Arabian Peninsula is the original home from which all Semitic races migrated since ancient times and that Bedouin culture is the prototype of ancient Semitic culture. Therefore, Bedouin ethnography holds the key to a deeper comprehension of pre-Islamic Arabia, as well as ancient Semitic society, religion and customs.

32My intent in widening the scope of the study to Greek and other ancient cultures was to look at Nabaṭī poetry from a wider perspective and to treat it with the seriousness it deserves as a potent social, political, and ideological force in traditional Arabian society. Studying Nabaṭī poetry within strictly local limits is not very illuminating. Such an approach undermines the real value of this tradition. More specifically, there must be a stop to the wrong kind of people studying Nabaṭī poetry for the wrong reasons, and using the wrong tools. We need to elevate the study of this heritage from the anecdotal to the scholarly.

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1 This paper is based on a public lecture delivered at New York University at Abu Dhabi on November 12, 2013.

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Saad A. Sowayan, « Studying Nabaṭī Poetry: A plea for method », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 5 | 2015, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2015, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cy.2982

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Saad A. Sowayan

Professor of Anthropology, King Saud University in Riyadh

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