Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Desert tracings

Last week the BBC published an interesting article by Paul Cooper on the theme of ruins and Arabic writing.  He notes that the 'motif of the atlal (‘ruins’) originates in the pre-Islamic period', possibly with the 6th Century poet-king Imru’ al-Qais. In 'The Mu’allaqah of Imru al-Qais', the landscape conveys an overwhelming sense of loss: 'The courtyards and enclosures of the old home have become desolate; / The dung of the wild deer lies there thick as the seeds of pepper.'  Robert Irwin includes a translation of this qasida (ode) in his excellent anthology of classical Arabic literature, Night & Horses & The Desert, and notes that in English Literature, Tennyson's 'Locksley Hall' begins in the same way, with the poet asking companions to leave him in peace with his memories.  Ruins recur in Arabic poetry down the years, even though the trope was being mocked as early as the eighth century, in a poem by Abu Nuwas: 'The wretch paused to examine an abandoned campsite, / While I paused to inquire about the neighbourhood tavern.'

Having set the historical context, the BBC article goes on to give three examples of ruins in more recent Arabic culture:
  • In the novels of Iraqi author Sinan Antoon, e.g. The Corpse Washer, where a character wonders through 'the ruin of the Baghdad National Library, which was destroyed during the 2003 invasion, and the National Film Archive, the repository of a century of Arab film-making destroyed by a US bomb.'
  • In the film Son of Babylon by Mohamed al-Daradji, in which a Kurdish boy searches for his imprisoned father through the earliest remains of civilisation - Ur, Nimrud, Bablyon - and the new ruins created by the Iraq war. But 'rather than seeing memories held in the ruins, al-Daradji’s characters find only blankness and emptiness...' 

Source: Film Walrus

I have summarised Paul Cooper's article here but I could equally have drawn this from his Twitter thread on the same subject. Personally, I find these threads irritating to read and suspect they are quite fiddly to compose.  Perhaps the thread is developing its own form, like a qasida...  I still prefer to use this blog to write about landscape, rather than split thoughts up into Twitter threads.  But of course nothing beats a good old fashioned book, and Cooper's article prompted me to dig out Desert Tracings, an anthology of six classical odes translated by Michael A. Sells.  Particularly moving is 'The Mu’allaqah of Labid', which begins, again, with the poet looking for traces of his beloved's campsite.  The images that follow convey the way memory can be effaced and restored.  The dung-strewn ground that suggests how long it has been since humans were present, is replenished by the rain:
The rills and the runlets
uncovered marks like the script
of faded scrolls
restored with pens of reed.
And yet, 'although renewed, the inscriptions are indecipherable.  When the poet questions the ruins, they are summ (hard, deaf), offering only a lapidary silence, or words whose meaning is unclear.'

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