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Tel-Aviv University

Mahjar poets, particularly members of al-Rbiah al-qalamiyyah, established a new romantic school that exercised an immense inuence on modern Arabic poetry as a whole. Most of the scholars who have studied this poetry have put excessive emphasis on its Christian components, minimizing, if not altogether ignoring, Islamic and classical elements. This article examines whether this attitude is warranted, by investigating in detail the poetry of Nasb Arah, a prominent representative of that school. It turns out that Christian sources are infrequent in Arahs poetry, whereas Islamic and classical sources predominate. I conclude that the generalization about the primacy of Christian culture in the works of the alRbiah group is of doubtful validity, and that further investigations similar to this study are needed.

Mahjar poetry, especially the poetry written by Arab emigrant poets in the United States during the early years of the twentieth century, is generally credited with having made a unique contribution to the rejuvenation of modem Arabic poetry. Thanks in particular to the literary output of members of al-Rbiah al-qalamiyyah,1 emigrant poets are seen as having successfully established a new, romantic school of writing that differed markedly from the neo-classical qadah, still dominant at the time in the Middle East. The fact that all members of al-Rbiah were Christians, some having received their education at missionary schools, has prompted many scholars to claim that Christian culture was at the root of their innovative efforts and to highlight the specically Christian features and motifs that can be found in their poetry. Anas Dwd says, for example: The Gospel, Christian religious teachings, and what they inherited from their bigoted Christian surroundings became rmly lodged in the minds of Mahjar poets, and are reected in their poetry, for good and bad.2 So prevalent has this attitude
For details about al-Rbiah, see Mkhl Nuaimah, Jubrn Khall Jubrn (Baskinta, 1934), pp. 157-162; Is al-Nr , Adab al-Mahjar (Cairo, 1967), pp. 21-26. 2 Anas Dwd, al-Tajdd f Shir al-Mahjar, (Cairo,1967), p. 58. (Unless otherwise indicated, this and further translations are mine.) See also, M.M. Badawi, A Critical Introduction Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2007 Also available online www.brill.nl Journal of Arabic Literature, XXXVIII,1



become that the works of these poets are often summarily dubbed Christian poetry. The Christian background of al-Rbiah poets is of course undeniable, as are Christian inuences which can be traced in their works. However, as I will argue below, Christian lore is neither the exclusive nor even the principal component of the overall intellectual background which al-Rbiah poets had in common. In other words, scholarly preoccupation with the Christian features of the al-Rbiah school has led to a neglect of all other constituent elements of their literary output. This woefully lopsided view can be balanced with the following question: How likely is it that a group of Arab poets anywhere would be able to produce Arabic poetrywith its attendant rules of diction, grammar and prosodywhile effecting a complete rupture with their Arabic literary heritage? In the case of the al-Rbiah group, would it have been conceivable, let alone possible or practical, for them to excise from consciousness the totality of classical and neo-classical poetry they had learned and assimilated in their childhood and youth through formal education and informal cultural practice? It may be instructive to reexamine the validity of this thesis by focusing on the works of one of the prominent poets of the al-Rbiah group, Nasb Arah. Arah (1887-1946) was born in the city of Homs (im) in Syria and received his elementary education in one of the Russian schools there; he then moved to Nazareth where he studied for ve years (1900-1905) in the Russian Teachers Training College. In Nazareth he made the acquaintance of Mkhl Nuaimah (1889-1988) and Abd al-Mas addd (1890-1963). The three would eventually become members of al-Rbiah in New York in 1920. In 1905, Arah emigrated to the United States, where, in 1912, he established the Atlantic Press and later founded a periodical, alFunn, which published primarily Mahjar literature written by al-Rbiah members. In 1918, after having had to close the journal, Arah tried his hand at business but, when this too failed, he again tried to make a living from his writings. As noted above, he died in 1946 in New York. Arah was never able to escape nancial hardship, while privately he lived a life of solitude characterized, like his poetry, by much sorrow and pain.3 His poems were published posthumously in 1946, in a volume of almost 300 pages entitled al-Arw al-irah (Bewildered Spirits), containing a total of 95 poems.4 Most of these poems evince a deeply romantic sensibil-

to Modem Arabic Poetry (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 179-185; S. Moreh, Modem Arabic Poetry, 1800-1870 (Leiden, 1976), pp. 82-122. 3 Further details on Arah: Ndirah Sarrj, Nasb Arah, (Cairo, 1970), pp. 23-37; AlNr, pp. 408-420; Badawi, pp. 191-195. 4 Nasb Arah, al-Arw al-irah, (New York, 1946).



ity bent on depicting the sadness of life, the confusion, poverty, misery and loneliness inherent therein. The entire collection reects both the unfortunate circumstances of Arahs personal life and the unmistakably romantic attitude towards life and human fate which he exemplied.5 In this and other respects, Arahs dwn, perhaps more than any other al-Rbiah poetry collection, can be taken as representative of the entire Mahjar school in Northern America. Before examining this remarkable dwn in greater detail, especially as regards its outstanding use of imagery, Christian and classical alike, three preliminary remarks are in order. First, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Egypt, witnessed a signicant revival of the classical Arabic heritage, in what literary historians have come to call arakat iy al-turth (Movement for the Revival of the Classical Heritage). Printing presses were established, libraries created and literary associations formed, all of which led to an upsurge in the publication of many classical works, including poetry from the so-called Golden Age.6 In other words, the literary environment in Lebanon at the turn of the twentieth century was anything but divorced from, or oblivious to, classical poetry. Secondly, Arah studied for ve years at the Russian Teachers Training College in Nazareth. There, he became acquainted with the Arabic language and literature, both poetry and prose, of the classical age, including grammar and prosody.7 These ve years of study no doubt gave him a solid grounding that he would be able to exploit later when he turned to writing poetry following his immigration to the United States. Finally, there is Arahs documented endeavor of continuous self-education. Sarrj says that throughout his life in America Arah read American or English literature much less than any member of al-Rbiah; rather, he spent all his time in reading Arabic in the Arabic Section of the New York Public Library.8 When Arahs stylistic characteristics are examined more closely, Christian inuences are scant, especially when compared with their Islamic and classical counterparts. In the three-hundred or so pages of Arahs great collection Arw, I was unable to nd more than ve or six allusions to Christian lore:

5 About his miserable life, see Ndirah Sarrj, Shuar al-rbiah al-qalamiyyah (Cairo, 1964), pp. 350-353; Badawi, p. 192. 6 See Jurj Zaidn, Trkh db al-Lughah al-Arabiyyah (Beirt,1967), vol. 4; ann alFkhr, al-Jmi f Trkh al-Adab al-Arab, al-Adab al-adth (Beirt, 1986) pp. 7-20. 7 See Mkhl Nuaimah, Sabn, vol. 1, pp. 122-124, 143-145. 8 Sarrj, Nasb Arah, pp. 50, 141; Arah, p. 10.



a) In a poem called Sallat fawkih (Fruit basket),9 the fruit the poet sees in the basket evokes images of King Solomon and the Shulamite woman from the Song of Songs. The verse that opens this broad allusion is:

(I imagined I heard the voice conveying to me / the echo of the Song of Songs love poetry / and a scene with King Solomon that I could contemplate.) b) In another poem, entitled alt al-amwt (Prayer for the Dead),10 he exhorts the reader to pray also for repentant mmis (prostitute), a clear and direct allusion to Christ and Mary Magdalene:

(One like her walked with Christ / yet how often did people stone her by aspersion.) c) A third allusion to Christianity, this time to the cross as a symbol of suffering, appears in Al al-arq (On the road),11 a gurative portrayal of human life:

(Though burdened by the cross of time / we prevailed over our misery thanks to our hopes.) d) Another reference to Christian tradition, this time to King Davids Psalms, is found in the rst verse of the poem Allaqtu d (I Hung My Lute):12

9 10 11 12

Arah, pp. 91-96. Ibid., pp. 156-160. Ibid., pp. 61, 120, 186, 188. Ibid., p. 138; see also Moreh, p. 90.



(I hung my lute upon the willow of despair / and began to lament mankind in my solitude.) e) One other Christian symbol appears in Arahs long philosophical poem Al arq Iram (On the Way to Iram), where the Transguration of Christ is employed to symbolize the meeting with the Spiritual World:13

(Let us ascend the Mount of Transguration / and receive light on the summits. / When we climb up through the dele / we come near to God.) These ve allusions to Christian culture in Arahs dwn, few enough even in absolute terms, are truly negligible in the context of a collection containing 286 pages and composed by one of the most prominent Christian members of al-Rbiah al-qalamiyyah. In contrast, there are in the same collection many clear instances of Islamic and classical symbols and allusions, an indication of just how well versed Arah was in classical Arabic heritage and its concomitant Islamic culture. Some of these allusions are: a) An Islamic symbol that appears a number of times in Arahs dwn is Iram. The poet claries the title of the last-mentioned poem above, Al arq Iram (On the Way to Iram),14 in a preliminary comment: Arab legend has it that Iram dht al-imd was a marvelous city built by Shaddd ibn d out of golden stones, pearls and jewels. It was such a fascinating and dazzling place that no one who went there could behold it from a distance when it was facing the sunlight. The name of the city occurs in the Qurn as well,15 but the poet cites only the Arab legends and uses Iram in a new romantic context, as the symbol of a spiritual city which he has set out to reach with his caravan. Eventually, he is able observe its radiance from a distance, but is unable to enter it. Iram occurs again in a poem called al-Musr (The Traveler),16 with the same symbolic function. Addressed to his friend, W. Katsis, another

13 14 15 16

Ibid., p. 194. Ibid., pp. 177-197. Qurn, al-Fajr, 82/7. Arah, pp. 113-115.



member of al-Rbiah, who decided to travel to China, the poem contains the lines:

(The best route is through the unknown regions / which conceal the way to Iram. / If you reach its palaces / they will make you forget hunger and pain.) b) The Quranic angel Hrt17 is also mentioned in a poem called adth al-shir (The Poets Discourse):18

(. . . from the maidens beauty, in its seductiveness, Hrt did abhor the anticipation of eternity.) c) What is perhaps even more surprising is the use Arah makes of references to many Islamic concepts and terms in a poem dedicated to New York:19


(Here is a Kabah to which people make pilgrimage / every day, and nothing here is prohibited. / Here is the Kabah of aspirations, inside / is the desired stone (= The Black Stone) that everyone can kiss. / Here you feel the sanctity of the circumambulation [around the Kaba] and of drinking from Zamzam (= a sacred well in Mecca). New York, that quin-

17 18 19

Qurn, al-Baqarah, 2/102. Arah, p. 17. Ibid., pp. 270, 272; see also p. 172.



tessential representative of Western civilization, is depicted in unexpected, if not ironic, terms. d) Other terms, relating to resurrection in Islam, for example yawm al-dn, nushr, bq al-nushr and nafkh al-r, are employed in Arahs poetry more than once, for example:20

(Sleeping people may think your sigh / to be the trumpet of Resurrection on Judgment Day). Other Quranic expressions, such as quf dniyah, sidrat al- muntah and zaqqm,21 are utilized too. e) The last example is perhaps the most astonishing. In his poem Nashd al-muhjir (The Emigrants Chant), the Christian Orthodox poet states frankly:22

(In Palestine are my sanctuaries, my sentiments / in Najd, and the magnanimous Qiblah (= the Kabah) is my faith). The second category, of classical heritage, comprising literary gures, images and expressions, is by far the most dominant of all stylistic features in Arahs poetry. His dwn is unmistakably romantic, yet he manages to derive abundant elements from classical sources. He then employs these elements guratively in the new romantic context in which he embeds them. First, there are the classical gurespoets and eminent personalities in classical history in general. In the poem al-adq (The Friend), for example, Arah portrays the ideal friend he longs for, and after enumerating all his attributes, compares this friend to two classical poets, one known as a wine poet, the other as a brave knight:23

20 21 22 23

Ibid., Ibid., Ibid., Ibid.,

p. 87; see also pp. 125, 155, 195. pp. 95, 123, and 271, respectively. p. 248. p. 27. About other classical gures see also, pp. 75, 231, 254.



(When drinking wine, he is like ar-al-Ghawn [an alias of the Abbasid poet Muslim ibn al-Wald], / but when it comes to ghting, he is like Amr ibn Mad[karib]. It is signicant to note that as this poem laments the loss of moral standards in modern times, it turns for ideal friendship in drinking, companionship and courage in battle to those exemplary classical poets. Secondly, there are also many allusions to classical literature, especially poetry. Two references, for example, are made to riq ibn Ziyd, the conqueror of Spain, and to the famous speech24 he gave to his soldiers before ghting erupted:25

(We reach the port of fortune, then we burn the ships) (One dried date, when Im hungry in the desert, is sweeter to my taste than all the delicacies at the table of ignoble people.) Moreover, in a poem entitled Ghdat al- (the young girl of the ), Arah alludes in a single stanza both to al-Mutanabb (915-965) and to Dk al-Jinn, (777-849):26

(You have the beauty of the Bedouin and of civilization joined together / So you tempted Dk al-Jinn, the poet, woe unto your father! / It is killing glances you throw, not your fathers swords / that eliminated him and turned him into your love martyr.)

For more details on that speech, see liyya w, Fann al-Khibah wa Taawwuruh ind -al-Arab (Beirt n.d.), pp. 472-474. 25 Aah, pp. 131, 275, respectively. 26 Ibid., p. 258; see also p. 274.




Thirdly, Abbs and Najm, in their study on northern Mahjar poetry, rightly state that Nasb uses desert images very frequently [. . .]. The axis of most of his symbols is the caravan, and his journey is by and large a desert one.27 Motifs of the desert environment are scattered throughout Arahs collection, in different gurative contexts. Motifs such as rakb/qlah (caravan), al-d (caravan leader/singer), all (deserted campsite), dall (guide), an/iml (howdah), sarb/l (fata morgana), harq al-wib (to shed the milk-skins), al-im/al-rab (homeland), and many others, all used in a primarily gurative way, abound in Arahs dwn. Sufce it to cite one short specimen of two lines only, in order to illustrate how general these motifs are and how frequently they appear. In a poem entitled Al al-all (At the Deserted Campsite), the rst stanza begins:28

(The abode of affection and delity, oh my two companions [in the duad!] has been extinguished. / Turn to its remains and there stop with your hearts). This pair of lines brings together many of the terms associated with the all motif: ibayya (in the dual), afa, rab, ja, all, qif. Finally, I want to consider two poems separately, because of their tight connections with classical poetry. The rst poem, Itir Ab-Firs (The Last Breath of Ab-Firs), is composed of nine sections, on nine full pages, and is intended to dramatize the nal hours of Ab-Firs, who died in exile.29 The rst three sections, consist of a single qadah of twenty verses, with monometer and monorhyme, exactly as required by classical poetry, but the division into three sections is intended to reect the poets varying physical and psychological states. Unlike N. Sarrj who classies this poem as dramatic (qadah tamthliyyah),30 I would argue that this is, at the very most, an interesting experimentation in depicting the changing moods of the poet in his last hours, through an extended monologue whose poems, all varying in meter and rhyme, reect the psychological aspects of his nal journey. The poem is very much in the classical style, and in all its details reveals the poets familiarity with the life and poetry of Ab-Firs. Arah cites
27 Isn Abbs and Muammad Najm, al-Shir al-Arab f al-Mahjar (Beirut, 1967), pp. 213-214. 28 Ariah, p. 74; see also pp. 73, 88, 126, 130, 182, 188, 274. 29 Ibid., pp. 211-219. 30 Sarrj, Naib Arah, p. 114.



twelve verses from three of Ab-Firs poems,31 and shows that he is entirely at home in the works of Ab-Firs. The second poem, Y nafs (Oh My Soul),32 is a remarkable qadah in a strophic structure whose thirty stanzas contain four hemistiches each, in majz al-kmil meter with the rhyme scheme AAAB, the last rhyme serving as a refrain throughout the entire poem. Pervasively sad in its romantic questioning tone, this long poem obviously expresses the doubts and suspicions the poet endured with regard to his soul. At the same time, it illustrates, on the whole, the dominant concepts of al-Rbiah concerning the soul, the body, death and eternity. Arah himself had touched on the theme of the soul in other poems,33 but since this is only one poem in all Mahjar poetry to deal with the philosophical issue in such a comprehensive and profound way, it has become probably one of his most frequently quoted. Although Y nafs unquestionably represents a romantic innovation in theme and style, its stylistic connection with classical poetry and Islamic culture is undeniable, as is the case with most of Arahs poetry. Again, there are many classical and Islamic expressions and motifs: bq al-nushr (the trumpet of Resurrection), yawm al-dn (Judgment Day), rakb (caravan), al-im | al-rub (homeland), adm (skin, body), harq alwib (to shed the milk-skins), ral (saddle), sarb | l (fata morgana), uwm (thirst), umma al-qa (death came). But even more signicant is the direct inuence, in style and substance, of the classical poem Al-nafs by Ibn Sn/Avicenna (980-1037).34 Although the two poems are different in meter and rhymeArahs is a strophic poem in majz al-kmil, while Ibn-Sns has a classical structure with the full kmil metre and a monorhyme a substantial resemblance can easily be observed between them.35 The soul, in both poems, is depicted as a dove that has descended from some sublime place and unwillingly entered the body on earth. The body can only be a prison for the soul, which therefore will not stop lamenting until it is again released and can return to its former homeland. Both poems express this journey in identical wordings. In Ibn Sns poem, there are: warq ( pigeon), hub (descending), buk (crying), al-im (homeland), sharak/qafa (cage); while Arah uses: hammah (pigeon), hub (descending), naw (lamentation), al-im/al-rub (homeland), sijn al-adm (the prison of the body). It would be fascinating to quote and compare both IbnSns and Arahs poems in detail, but here, too, a brief quote from
31 Ab Firs al-Hamdn, Dwn Ab Firs al-Hamdn, (Beirut, 1993), pp. 63-64, 177-183, 267-268. 32 Ariah, pp. 87-90. 33 See for example Il nafsi, pp. 104-106; Y nafs l tabk, pp. 149-150. 34 Muhammad Kmil al-Hurr, Ibn Sn (Beirut, 1991). Pp. 74-76. 35 See also, Abbs and Najm, p. 66; Sarrj, Nasb Arah, pp. 65-66; Anas Dawood, p. 212.



Arahs poem will have to sufce to illustrate the above resemblances (stanzas 4, 6, 9, 10 in the original order in the collection):

(You sent out your lamentation in darkness, / let not the people hear you, / lest those asleep may think your sigh / is the trumpet of Resurrection on Judgment Day.)

(Are you a pigeon among stormy winds / led there by predestined fate / so its wings became wet from the rain? / Oh, my soul, why do you tremble?)

(Did you ascend in the longing caravan / until you reached your homeland / and were you then commanded to come back? Are you regretting you came back?)

(Or did old reminiscences thrill you, / reminiscences from a homeland before the nebula, / and so you stopped in the prison of skin, / while turning your face towards the homeland.) While it may be premature to extrapolate from the works of Arah, representative as they may be, to the rest of the poets of al-Rbiah al-qalamiyyah, his case nonetheless calls into question the sweeping generalization about the primacy of Christian sources in the works of this group of Mahjar poets. Further investigation along similar lines may furnish sufcient evidence to effect a long overdue revision of this dubious generalization.