Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature — Anthology Review

Author ········· Zahra Marwan
Published ······ Online, Sep 2015
Section ·······  Culture

“There is perhaps no other literature so closely allied to the history of its people as is that of the Arabs.” Desert Songs of the Night is a compilation of Arabic literature with stories that vary drastically from region, time, and theme, and many of which are over a 1,000 years old. The compilers of this anthology, Suheil Bushrui and James M. Malarkey, have asked themselves: “how might an acquaintance with Arabic literature help the reader enter the far more nuanced heart of Arab experience and aspiration?” The first is to travel, meet people, and learn how they live their lives in the Middle East. Though, as we are readily exposed to the region with stories of violence, this path to learning and of studying the language, culture, religion, and history is often not considered. The editors have exposed another path to learning about and understanding the Arabs, and that is through their literature.

“Poetry, novels, short stories and plays written in Arabic offer a window, as with other literate civilizations, to what many Arabs across the ages have held to be sacred, admirable, noteworthy or scandalous. Few civilizations have invested the word with as much potency and virtue as have the Arabs.” The Arabs refined the art of the written word in order to express themselves throughout the centuries. They used this expression to display their emotional, social, and personal lives. Whereas Europe is known for its well-rendered paintings, the Arab world is known for its literature. The Arabic literature presented in this book deals with subjects that challenged the status of equality between men and women through fiction, whereas some eras elated themselves with honour through poetry. A reader can travel with a youth through his sorrow of leaving his home, and encounter the significance and responsibility of reading and becoming educated which Islam had imposed. Readers who familiarise themselves with this literature will see that they share many common values and aspirations with the ancient and modern writers presented in this anthology.

The pre-Islamic period in the sixth and early seventh centuries was often referred to as the Jahiliyya in Arabic, or “days of ignorance”, and was predominantly tribal. They embodied a heroic ideal through oral poetry. In Al-Khansa's Lament for my Brother, he confronts death, pressuring it to justify itself in not waiting longer in taking the wise. He writes “What have we done to you, death that you treat us so...I would not complain if you were just.” Many of the authors did not hinder themselves in emotional expression. They are more distinct and clear in meaning than they are subtle.

The anthology moves within the historic timeframe, and takes us then to the Islamic period of the tenth century. With the rise of Islam, civilisations in the Middle East were urban, linked through communication lines, and formed around wealth. In the beginning, they were ruled by an orthodox caliphate for 29 years, and were overthrown by the Umayyad family in 661 AD. The Umayyad Dynasty was distinguished for its army and pushing forth of its frontiers. This remains unmasked in their literature, where they amplify science, grammar, and Qur'anic interpretations. Bushrui and Malarkey describe the Umayyad Dynasty's behaviour: “at home there was an increasing tendency to adhere to aristocratic principles; the ruling class paid only lip service to religion and had scant regard for culture. Nevertheless, a number of “sciences” prospered, especially those concerned with elucidation of the Holy Qur’an: theology, history, law and grammar.” In Abd al-Hamid al-Katib's The Art of Secretaryship he recounts the traits of a good craftsman, how to live correctly, and what principles to guide one's life by. Though, parts of it could pertain to our modern day lives:

“[s]tudy the Arabic language, as that will give you a cultivated form of speech. Then, learn to write well, as that will be an ornament to your letters. Transmit poetry and acquaint yourselves with the rare expressions and ideas that poems contain. Acquaint yourselves also with both Arab and non-Arab political events, and with the tales of (both groups) and the biographies describing them, as that will be helpful to you in your endeavors.”

With the uprise of free thought among the people, in 750 AD, the Shi‘ite and Persian Muslims joined forces under the leadership of the ‘Abbasids to overthrow the Umayyads. The ‘Abbasid dynasty (750- 1258 AD) was established. It flourished for almost five hundred years, and included the period known as the Golden Age of Islamic culture. The ‘Abbasid capital was based in Baghdad, and was highly linked and influenced by Persia. We see the influence that these civilisations had on one another during this dynasty, most notably in Spain, where the 'Abbasids – under Harun Al-Rashid – built their second capital in Granada.

The anthology wraps up with chapters that move through cultural stagnation, literature in the times of colonial encounters, and the reawakening (Nahda) of the Arab world. The work of these authors deserves to be read. Several of the stories reflect the hospitality, resilience, dilemmas, and struggles of the Arabs. The authors of these texts have been driven by inspiration and the ideas of their time. As I read these stories, I slowly became convinced that knowledge of the history of the Arabs through their literature will give an accurate depiction of their culture. The Desert Songs of the Night is an excellent first step towards that knowledge.

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Zahra Marwan spent the majority of her life learning and growing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, yet is of Persian descent and originally from Kuwait. She studied visual arts for three years in both Paris and Lyon, and currently works on various professional illustrative projects. These days, she studies Flamenco dance along with its social and cultural implications, and tutors undergraduates at the University of New Mexico in French, Arabic, and English writing.