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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the April 24, 2002

edition of

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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"a garland," "a fine historical document," and "a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

and tonalities.

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

his assassination.

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

into English.

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.

How does Lewis, an eminent scholar now in his 80s who reads

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

Bernard Lewis, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,


"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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