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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the April 24, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Bernard Lewis: Poetic Vision of the Islamic World
Man’s wisdom is in his writing
his mind at the tip of his pen
with his pen he can reach as high
as a king with his scepter.
— Samuel ha-Nagid (11th century)
Only weeks into the post-September 11 world, with
its heightened interest in things Islam, came "Music of a Distant
Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems," an
anthology translated and introduced by Bernard Lewis, historian,
Princeton resident, and one of the world’s leading authorities on
the Middle East. Published in October, Lewis’ book shows a gentler,
more human side of Islam.
The product of a lifetime’s interest, the book is a literary
Never before has such a wide range of Middle Eastern verse been
into a single English volume by a single translator. "Only Lewis
could single-handedly assemble poems from so many languages and
into a coherent anthology," marvels Booklist, in a comment typical
of the high praise that Lewis’ work has received. Bernard Lewis will
read from "Music of a Distant Drum" at Barnes & Noble on
April 30, at 7 p.m.
These 132 poems give lyrical insight into the medieval Islamic world.
Most are short, less than one page, and most appear in English for
the first time. They span more than a millennium, from Rumi to Omar
Khayyam, from the seventh century, when Muhammad lived and died in
Arabia and Islam began, to the 18th century, when poetry — as
so much else in Islamic civilization — was disrupted by the impact
of the West. The poems come from the three major languages of medieval
Islam — Arabic, Persian, and Turkish (Sufi) — with the
from Hebrew. (Jews living in Arabic lands spoke and wrote Arabic,
while Hebrew remained their language of worship.)
Reviewers have lauded "Music of a Distant Drum," calling it
"a treasure trove of classical poems," "a jewel
"a garland," "a fine historical document," and "a
work of startling beauty and a bridge to transforming today’s
The poems are by 54 poets, most of them men, living in various
(Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and Spain, among them) then embraced by Islamic
culture. With Lewis’ mastery of the languages and cultures, and his
esthetic discrimination, he succeeds in bringing these poems alive
in English. The Arabic emphasis on rhyme is not retained in
Lewis appends a few quatrains to suggest to us the original rhythms
Poets and poetry had high status in Islamic culture and played a large
role in public life. Poets were courted by kings. "Even caliphs
and sultans," writes Lewis in his elucidating introduction,
and published poetry on themes such as love and war." Many were
recited, for declaiming was a profession. As time went on, virtually
all Muslim rulers had court poets. Poems might be panegyrics to
propaganda, satire, humor, epigrams, or public relations. They might
be political, religious, or racial. Poets were also used by rebels
for seditious purposes, by image-makers, merchants, and to announce
births, deaths, and marriages. Poetry was so powerful that, in
case, his poems announcing the possibility of unity with God led to
Not art, not architecture, but poetry was the preeminent art form
of Islam, says Lewis.
"Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their
wisdom, the muster roll of their history, the repository of their
great days, the rampart protecting their heritage," wrote the
ninth-century Arab author Ibn Qutayba.
Islamic verse covers a wide spectrum of poetic experience — love
of God, pleasures of life, love of women, sorrow, the inevitability
of death. The poems offer a glimpse into the simpler, more rudimentary
life of past ages, of changing times and places, from the pagan desert
to the Muslim cities and royal courts. They are sensuous, witty,
There are poems on the themes of wine, women, and song. How’s that?
Wine, although prohibited by Muslim law, became a metaphor for divine
love, drunkenness for ecstasy.
In one hand the Qur’vn, in the other a wineglass,
Sometimes keeping the rules, sometimes breaking them.
Here we are in this world, unripe and raw,
Not outright heathens, not quite Muslims.
— Mujir (12th century)
While access to women was constrained and unlawful sex
was severely punished, physical love might be taken as mystical union
with God and erotic imagery is often used to express religious
In addition, limited access inspires poems of unfulfilled love. "A
recurrent theme," says Lewis, is "the parting of lovers,
at dawn after a nocturnal assignation, sometimes because of the
of their tribes." Then the free lady of early Islamic times
and the well-guarded harem makes assignations dangerous or impossible.
And Song? Many poets write of the singing girls at court.
Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton University, joined Princeton’s
Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Institute for Advanced
Study in 1974. In 1986 he retired. He is the author of numerous books
on Middle Eastern history, most recently, the highly regarded
Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response." His other
books include "The Shaping of the Modern Middle East,"
Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years," and
Jews of Islam." He holds 11 honorary doctorates and has lectured
on four continents including in many Muslim countries.
Born in London, he earned his B.A. and PhD. at the University of
where he was a professor of history of the Near and Middle East from
1949 to 1974. He still retains his British accent.
Astonishingly, in our phone interview, this eminent Middle Eastern
scholar and author says he originally planned to become a lawyer,
"so you can study whatever amuses you at university. I got
in the Middle East. What began as a hobby became an obsession. When
the university offered me a job, I accepted with alacrity."
Some of the poetry translations are from Lewis’ student days, some
made during World War II, when, serving in the British Army, he
a small book to read during long periods of boredom. Later, to lighten
his carrying load, he memorized the poems and tried translating them
Two years ago, while working on "A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments
of Life, Letters, and History," for Random House, editor Jason
Epstein suggested he put together this anthology. Once he began, it
took only a few months. He had to make a selection, look over and
perhaps improve older translations, and write an introduction and
the brief end notes about the poets. The book’s black-and-white
of medieval prints come mainly from Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum
and Princeton’s Firestone Library.
Lewis’ criteria in selecting the poems? He names four: "I had
to understand it; I liked it; it could be translated into English
without extensive footnotes." Plus, the poem should reflect its
time and place. Lewis did not want this book to be scholarly, but
"a book that people would pick up and read because they enjoyed
poetry, not because they wanted insight into this or that
Using his own criteria, many fine and important poems, even the best,
were excluded, Lewis acknowledges.
Culture differences are greater than might appear in the book, Lewis
says. "The Persians tend to be more epigrammatic, the Arabic ones
more personal, off-the-cuff."
Over a millennium Lewis sees changes. "In court poetry, the poet
becomes sort of a public relations officer. And there are significant
changes in the role of religion." And in dealing with "wine,
women, and song." He quotes a Turkish poet, a woman, Mihri Hatun,
who died in 1506:
Woman, they say, is deficient in sense
so they ought to pardon her every word.
But one female who knows what to do
is better than a thousand males who don’t.
10 to 12 languages, view the sudden media attention and thirst for
information that has followed September 11? "The attention I’m
getting is for a very different book," Lewis tells me, that book
being "What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern
Published at the beginning of the year, Lewis analyzes the cultural
collision of Western and Arab worlds that gave rise to September 11.
"Anyone who can claim any special knowledge," he says,
"is under siege."
"`Music of a Distant Drum’ has had a certain impact," Lewis
admits. "Of all my books, it’s the only one I can read with
But of course it’s not mine."
One of the book’s poems might be a postscript for September 11, as
well as commentary on the continuing sameness and sadness of the human
condition. It is by the Persian poet Khaqani who lived in the 12th
In the garden of my life sorrow is gardener,
no tree or bush is left, no rose, no tulip.
On the threshing floor of time, from so much pain
no ear or grain is left, no straw, no dust.
This life and all existence are nothing,
this ancient home and bed are also nothing.
For the credit and the cash by which we live
youth is the capital, and youth too is nothing.
— Joan Crespi
"Music of a Distant Drum: Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish &
Hebrew Poems" (Princeton University Press; $19.95). Free.
April 30, 7 p.m.
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