The Mu'Allaqa of Ibn Tarafa




Tarafah ibn al 'Abd ben Sufyan ben Malik al Bakri of the tribe of the Bakr ben Wa'il was born in 543 AD in Bahrein on the Persian Gulf. His father died when he was still a child. His mother's brothers, bound by law & custom to take him in, were greedy & scornful men who neglected his education & robbed him of his rightful inheritance. As soon as he was old enough, Tarafah took to women, wine & gambling. He got so crazy his scandalized tribe kicked him out. So he took to the road with his camel, erring from country to country. Some said he went as far as Abyssinia. According to the tales, he divided his time between raiding the live stock & women of other tribes, & stopping in oases to meditate on the meaning of life. After a disastrous attempt to reintegrate his tribe he went back to his nomadic-bohemian ways, now adding poetry to his activities. He became known as a poet, a sha'ir -- literally, "one who knows." This nomads' nomad came one day to the court of Hira where he met up with his uncle, Al Mutalammis and his brother-in-law, Abd Amr ben Bichr, both renowned poets. Amr ben Hind, the king, has heard that Tarafah was a sha'ir & thus received him weel & made him one of his familiars. Hira was in those days a rich & opulent city, burning like a star & drawing people like a magnet. But Tarafah, the nomad-poet & free Beduin was to have have a rough time of it among the sedentary hierachies. "The butterfly was to burn his wings on this flame," as a commentator has it. Unable -- & unwilling -- not to speak out. First he antagonized his brother- in-law, accusing him of mistreating his sister, Al Khirniq. Then he composed a satire on king Amr himself & on the latter's brother, prince Qabus. The enraged brother-in-law used the occasion to turn the king against Tarafah, who, as they say, thus "dug his grave with his tongue." The royal revenge against the poet was not long in coming. Tarafah & his uncle received letters from the king to be taken to the latter's governor in Bahrein. On the road Al Mutalammi became suspicious, broke the seal & read the letter: it was his death warrant. He tore it to pieces & told his nephew to do the same, but Tarafah refused to even open his letter. When they reached Bahrein they went to see the governor who happened to belong to the Bakr, Tarafah's own tribe. The governor read the letter & told Tarafah to get out as fast as his camel could run. The nomad-poet refused so the governor has him thrown in jail & wrote the king: "Name another governor. I refuse to have this young man executed." The king complied with this request, naming a new governor who belonged to the tribe of the Beni Taghli who had long lived in enmity with the Bakr. This man told Tarafah:" I have to kill you one way or the other. Which way would you prefer to die. The choice is yours." Tarafah's answer was: "Fill me with wine all the way up to the throat. Then bleed me." Which is what happened: Tarafah shed his life like a punctured goat-skin sheds its wine. That was in 569 AD, & Tarafah wasn't thirty yet. His tribe bemoaned his death & his sister, the poet Al Khirniq, composed a glorious ode in his memory.

The translation of Tarafa's ode (incomplete, here) is itself a nomadic process: obviously incapable of rendering the form -- not only the monorhyme scheme & the complex meters are impossible in English, but even more troublesome is the high rhetoric structure, something so alien to contemporary American poetry & voice as to be inadmissible. In fact all translations that try to reproduce it sound like bad late Victorian or Tennysonian orientalism. My nomadic translation then comes via a nearly Japanese, haiku-ess decision to lopp off the rhetoric, leave the image clusters & organize them (shades of Williams' three stepped lines) into short stanzas. Here it is:


Come off it! you who tell me not to fight &

& last but not least the joy in shortening a cloudy day

a traveller with no luggage & no invitation.

Translated by Pierre Joris via the original Arabic & various French & English versions.

The route back, if not home: