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1 For details about al-R®biah, see M¬kh®æ¬l NuÆaimah,  Jubr®n Khal¬l Jubr®n (Baskinta, 1934), pp. 157-162; ÆIs® al-N®Æ‚r¬ ,  Adab al-Mahjar (Cairo, 1967), pp. 21-26. CLASSICAL ELEMENTS IN  MAHJAR POETRY SULAIMAN JUBRAN Tel-Aviv University  Abstract  Mahjar poets, particularly members of al-R®biah 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 war- ranted, by investigating in detail the poetry of Nas¬b ÆAr¬¥ah, a prominent repre- sentative of that school. It turns out that Christian sources are infrequent in ÆAr¬¥ah’s poetry, whereas Islamic and classical sources predominate. I conclude that the generalization about the primacy of Christian culture in the works of the al-  R®biah 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 gener- ally credited with having made a unique contribution to the rejuvenation of modem Arabic poetry. Thanks in particular to the literary output of mem- bers of al-R®biah al-qalamiyyah, 1 emigrant poets are seen as having suc- cessfully established a new, “romantic” school of writing that di f f ered markedly from the neo-classical qa¬dah, still dominant at the time in the Middle East. The fact that all members of al-R®biah  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 ef f orts and to highlight the speci cally Christian features and motifs that can be found in their poetry. Anas D®w‚d says, for example: “The Gospel, Christian religious teachings, and what they inherited from their bigoted Christian sur- roundings 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

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    Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2007 Journal of Arabic Literature, XXXVIII,1Also available online www.brill.nl

    1 For details about al-Rbiflah, 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 indi-cated, this and further translations are mine.) See also, M.M. Badawi, A Critical Introduction


    SULAIMAN JUBRANTel-Aviv University


    Mahjar poets, particularly members of al-Rbiflah al-qalamiyyah, established a newromantic school that exercised an immense influence on modern Arabic poetry as

    a whole. Most of the scholars who have studied this poetry have put excessiveemphasis on its Christian components, minimizing, if not altogether ignoring,Islamic and classical elements. This article examines whether this attitude is war-ranted, by investigating in detail the poetry of Nasb Arah, a prominent repre-sentative of that school. It turns out that Christian sources are infrequent inArahs poetry, whereas Islamic and classical sources predominate. I conclude thatthe generalization about the primacy of Christian culture in the works of the al-

    Rbiflah group is of doubtful validity, and that further investigations similar to thisstudy are needed.

    Mahjar poetry, especially the poetry written by Arab emigrant poets inthe United States during the early years of the twentieth century, is gener-ally credited with having made a unique contribution to the rejuvenation ofmodem Arabic poetry. Thanks in particular to the literary output of mem-bers of al-Rbiflah al-qalamiyyah,1 emigrant poets are seen as having suc-

    cessfully established a new, romantic school of writing that diff

    eredmarkedly from the neo-classical qadah, still dominant at the time in theMiddle East. The fact that all members of al-Rbiflah were Christians, somehaving received their education at missionary schools, has prompted manyscholars to claim that Christian culture was at the root of their innovativeefforts and to highlight the specifically Christian features and motifs that canbe found in their poetry. Anas Dwd says, for example: The Gospel, Christianreligious teachings, and what they inherited from their bigoted Christian sur-roundings became firmly lodged in the minds ofMahjar poets, and arereflected in their poetry, for good and bad.2 So prevalent has this attitude

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    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; Al-Nr, pp. 408-420; Badawi, pp. 191-195.

    4 Nasb Arah, al-Arw al-irah, (New York, 1946).

    become that the works of these poets are often summarily dubbed Chris-tian poetry.

    The Christian background of al-Rbiflah poets is of course undeniable, as

    are Christian influences which can be traced in their works. However, as I will argue below, Christian lore is neither the exclusive nor even the prin-cipal component of the overall intellectual background which al-Rbiflahpoets had in common. In other words, scholarly preoccupation with the Christianfeatures of the al-Rbiflah school has led to a neglect of all other constituentelements of their literary output. This woefully lopsided view can be bal-anced with the following question: How likely is it that a group of Arab

    poets anywhere would be able to produce Arabic poetrywith its attendantrules of diction, grammar and prosody while effecting a complete rupture with their Arabic literary heritage? In the case of the al-Rbiflah group, would it have been conceivable, let alone possible or practical, for them toexcise from consciousness the totality of classical and neo-classical poetrythey had learned and assimilated in their childhood and youth through for-mal education and informal cultural practice?

    It may be instructive to reexamine the validity of this thesis by focusingon the works of one of the prominent poets of the al-Rbiflah group, NasbArah. Arah (1887-1946) was born in the city of Homs (im) in Syriaand received his elementary education in one of the Russian schools there;he then moved to Nazareth where he studied for five years (1900-1905)in the Russian Teachers Training College. In Nazareth he made theacquaintance of Mkhl Nuaimah (1889-1988) and Abd al-Mas addd(1890-1963). The three would eventually become members of al-Rbiflah inNew York in 1920. In 1905, Arah emigrated to the United States, where,in 1912, he established the Atlantic Press and later founded a periodical, al-

    Funn, which published primarilyMahjar literature written by al-Rbiflah mem-bers. In 1918, after having had to close the journal, Arah tried his handat business but, when this too failed, he again tried to make a living fromhis writings. As noted above, he died in 1946 in New York. Arah wasnever able to escape financial 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 almost300 pages entitled al-Arw al-irah ( Bewildered Spirits), containing atotal of 95 poems.4 Most of these poems evince a deeply romantic sensibil-

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    5 About his miserable life, see Ndirah Sarrj, Shuar al-rbiflah 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 al-Fkhr, 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.

    ity bent on depicting the sadness of life, the confusion, poverty, misery andloneliness inherent therein. The entire collection reflects both the unfortunatecircumstances of Arahs personal life and the unmistakably romantic atti-

    tude towards life and human fate which he exemplified.5 In this and otherrespects, Arahs dwn, perhaps more than any other al-Rbiflah poetrycollection, can be taken as representative of the entireMahjar school in NorthernAmerica.

    Before examining this remarkable dwn in greater detail, especially asregards its outstanding use of imagery, Christian and classical alike, threepreliminary remarks are in order. First, in the second half of the nineteenth

    century, the Middle East, especially Lebanon and Egypt, witnessed asignificant revival of the classical Arabic heritage, in what literary histori-ans have come to call arakat iy al-turth (Movement for the Revivalof the Classical Heritage). Printing presses were established, libraries createdand literary associations formed, all of which led to an upsurge in the pub-lication of many classical works, including poetry from the so-called GoldenAge.6 In other words, the literary environment in Lebanon at the turn of the

    twentieth century was anything but divorced from, or oblivious to, classicalpoetry. Secondly, Arah studied for five years at the Russian TeachersTraining College in Nazareth. There, he became acquainted with the Arabiclanguage and literature, both poetry and prose, of the classical age, includ-ing grammar and prosody.7 These five years of study no doubt gave him asolid grounding that he would be able to exploit later when he turned to

    writing poetry following his immigration to the United States. Finally, thereis Arahs documented endeavor of continuous self-education. Sarrj saysthat throughout his life in America Arah read American or English lit-erature much less than any member of al-Rbiflah; rather, he spent all histime in reading Arabic in the Arabic Section of the New York PublicLibrary.8

    When Arahs stylistic characteristics are examined more closely, Christianinfluences are scant, especially when compared with their Islamic and clas-sical counterparts. In the three-hundred or so pages of Arahs great col-

    lection Arw, I was unable to find more than five or six allusions toChristian lore:

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    9 Arah, pp. 91-96.10 Ibid., pp. 156-160.11 Ibid., pp. 61, 120, 186, 188.12 Ibid., p. 138; see also Moreh, p. 90.

    a) In a poem called Sallat fawkih (Fruit basket),9 the fruit the poet seesin the basket evokes images of King Solomon and the Shulamite womanfrom 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 ofSongs love poetry / and a scene with King Solomon that I could con-


    b) In another poem, entitled alt al-amwt (Prayer for the Dead),10 heexhorts the reader to pray also for repentant mmis (prostitute), a clearand direct allusion to Christ and Mary Magdalene:

    (One like her walked with Christ / yet how often did people stone herby aspersion.)

    c) A third allusion to Christianity, this time to the cross as a symbol of suf-fering, appears in Al al-flarq (On the road),11 a figurative portrayalof human life:

    (Though burdened by the cross of time / we prevailed over our miserythanks to our hopes.)

    d) Another reference to Christian tradition, this time to King DavidsPsalms, is found in the first verse of the poem Allaqtu d (I HungMy Lute):12

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    13 Ibid., p. 194.14 Ibid., pp. 177-197.15 Qurn, al-Fajr, 82/7.16 Arah, pp. 113-115.

    (I hung my lute upon the willow of despair / and began to lamentmankind in my solitude.)

    e) One other Christian symbol appears in Arahs long philosophicalpoem Al flarq Iram (On the Way to Iram), where the Transfigurationof Christ is employed to symbolize the meeting with the Spiritual World:13

    (Let us ascend the Mount of Transfiguration / and receive light on thesummits. / When we climb up through the defile / we come near to God.)

    These five allusions to Christian culture in Arahs dwn, few enougheven in absolute terms, are truly negligible in the context of a collectioncontaining 286 pages and composed by one of the most prominent Christian

    members of al-Rbiflah 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 wellversed Arah was in classical Arabic heritage and its concomitant Islamicculture. Some of these allusions are:

    a) An Islamic symbol that appears a number of times in Arahs dwn is

    Iram. The poet clarifi

    es the title of the last-mentioned poem above, Alflarq Iram (On the Way to Iram),14 in a preliminary comment: Arablegend has it that Iram dht al-imd was a marvelous city built byShaddd ibn d out of golden stones, pearls and jewels. It was such afascinating and dazzling place that no one who went there could beholdit from a distance when it was facing the sunlight. The name of the cityoccurs in the Qurn as well,15 but the poet cites only the Arab legendsand uses Iram in a new romantic context, as the symbol of a spiritualcity which he has set out to reach with his caravan. Eventually, he isable observe its radiance from a distance, but is unable to enter it. Iramoccurs again in a poem called al-Musfir (The Traveler),16 with thesame symbolic function. Addressed to his friend, W. Katsflis, another

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    17 Qurn, al-Baqarah, 2/102.18 Arah, p. 17.19 Ibid., pp. 270, 272; see also p. 172.

    member of al-Rbiflah, who decided to travel to China, the poem con-tains the lines:

    (The best route is through the unknown regions / which conceal the wayto Iram. / If you reach its palaces / they will make you forget hungerand pain.)

    b) The Quranic angel Hrt17 is also mentioned in a poem called adthal-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 refer-ences to many Islamic concepts and terms in a poem dedicated to NewYork:19

    . . .

    (Here is a Kabah to which people make pilgrimage / every day, and

    nothing here is prohibited. / Here is the Kabah of aspirations, inside / isthe desired stone (= The Black Stone) that everyone can kiss. / Here youfeel the sanctity of the circumambulation [around the Kaba] and ofdrinking from Zamzam (= a sacred well in Mecca). New York, that quin-

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    20 Ibid., p. 87; see also pp. 125, 155, 195.21 Ibid., pp. 95, 123, and 271, respectively.22 Ibid., p. 248.23 Ibid., p. 27. About other classical figures see also, pp. 75, 231, 254.

    tessential representative of Western civilization, is depicted in unex-pected, 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 poetrymore 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 quflf dniyah,sidrat al- muntah and zaqqm,21 are utilized too.

    e) The last example is perhaps the most astonishing. In his poem Nashdal-muhjir (The Emigrants Chant), the Christian Orthodox poet statesfrankly:22

    (In Palestine are my sanctuaries, my sentiments / in Najd, and the mag-nanimous Qiblah (= the Kabah) is my faith).

    The second category, of classical heritage, comprising literary figures,images and expressions, is by far the most dominant of all stylistic features

    in Arahs poetry. His dwn is unmistakably romantic, yet he manages toderive abundant elements from classical sources. He then employs these ele-ments figuratively in the new romantic context in which he embeds them.

    First, there are the classical figurespoets and eminent personalities inclassical history in general. In the poem al-adq (The Friend), forexample, Arah portrays the ideal friend he longs for, and after enumerat-ing all his attributes, compares this friend to two classical poets, one known

    as a wine poet, the other as a brave knight:23

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    24 For more details on that speech, see liyya w, Fann al-Khiflbah wa Taflawwuruhind -al-Arab (Beirt n.d.), pp. 472-474.

    25 Aah, pp. 131, 275, respectively.26 Ibid., p. 258; see also p. 274.

    (When drinking wine, he is like ar-al-Ghawn [an alias of theAbbasid poet Muslim ibn al-Wald], / but when it comes to fighting, heis like Amr ibn Mad[karib].

    It is significant to note that as this poem laments the loss of moral standardsin modern times, it turns for ideal friendship in drinking, companionship andcourage in battle to those exemplary classical poets. Secondly, there are alsomany allusions to classical literature, especially poetry. Two references, forexample, are made to firiq ibn Ziyd, the conqueror of Spain, and to thefamous speech24 he gave to his soldiers before fighting 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 tastethan 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 toDk 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 killingglances you throw, not your fathers swords / that eliminated him andturned him into your love martyr.)

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    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.

    Thirdly, Abbs and Najm, in their study on northern Mahjar poetry, rightlystate that Nasb uses desert images very frequently [. . .]. The axis of mostof his symbols is the caravan, and his journey is by and large a desert

    one.27 Motifs of the desert environment are scattered throughout Arahscollection, in differentfigurative contexts. Motifs such as rakb/qfilah (car-avan), al-d (caravan leader/singer), aflll (deserted campsite), dall(guide), an/iml (howdah), sarb/l (fata morgana), harq al-wiflb (to shedthe milk-skins), al-im/al-rab (homeland), and many others, all used in aprimarily figurative way, abound in Arahs dwn. Suffice it to cite oneshort 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-aflll(At the Deserted Campsite), the first stanza begins:28

    (The abode of affection and fidelity, oh my two companions [in the duad!]has been extinguished. / Turn to its remains and there stop with yourhearts). This pair of lines brings together many of the terms associated

    with the aflll motif: ibayya (in the dual), afa, rab, ja, aflll, qif.

    Finally, I want to consider two poems separately, because of their tight con-nections with classical poetry. The first poem, Itir Ab-Firs (The Last

    Breath of Ab-Firs), is composed of nine sections, on nine full pages, andis intended to dramatize the final hours of Ab-Firs, who died in exile.29

    The first three sections, consist of a single qadah of twenty verses, withmonometer and monorhyme, exactly as required by classical poetry, but thedivision into three sections is intended to reflect the poets varying physicaland psychological states. Unlike N. Sarrj who classifies this poem as dra-matic (qadah tamthliyyah),30 I would argue that this is, at the very most, aninteresting experimentation in depicting the changing moods of the poet inhis last hours, through an extended monologue whose poems, all varyingin meter and rhyme, reflect the psychological aspects of his final journey.

    The poem is very much in the classical style, and in all its details revealsthe poets familiarity with the life and poetry of Ab-Firs. Arah cites

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    31 Ab Firs al-Hamdn, Dwn Ab Firs al-Hamdn, (Beirut, 1993), pp. 63-64, 177-183,267-268.


    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.

    twelve verses from three of Ab-Firs poems,31 and shows that he isentirely 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 withthe rhyme scheme AAAB, the last rhyme serving as a refrain throughout theentire poem. Pervasively sad in its romantic questioning tone, this longpoem obviously expresses the doubts and suspicions the poet endured withregard to his soul. At the same time, it illustrates, on the whole, the domi-nant concepts of al-Rbiflah concerning the soul, the body, death and eter-nity. 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 philo-sophical issue in such a comprehensive and profound way, it has becomeprobably one of his most frequently quoted. Although Y nafs unquestionablyrepresents a romantic innovation in theme and style, its stylistic connection

    with classical poetry and Islamic culture is undeniable, as is the case withmost 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 al-wiflb (to shed the milk-skins), ral (saddle), sarb | l (fata morgana),uwm (thirst), umma al-qa (death came). But even more significant isthe direct influence, in style and substance, of the classical poem Al-nafsby Ibn Sn/Avicenna (980-1037).34 Although the two poems are different inmeter and rhymeArahs is a strophic poem in majz al-kmil, whileIbn-Sns has a classical structure with the full kmil metre and a monorhymea substantial resemblance can easily be observed between them.35 The soul,in both poems, is depicted as a dove that has descended from some sublimeplace and unwillingly entered the body on earth. The body can only be aprison for the soul, which therefore will not stop lamenting until it isagain released and can return to its former homeland. Both poems expressthis journey in identical wordings. In Ibn Sns poem, there are: warq(pigeon), hubfl (descending), buk (crying), al-im (homeland),

    sharak/qafa (cage); while Arah uses: hammah (pigeon), hubfl (descend-ing), naw (lamentation), al-im/al-rub (homeland), sijn al-adm (theprison of the body). It would be fascinating to quote and compare both Ibn-Sns and Arahs poems in detail, but here, too, a brief quote from

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    Arahs poem will have to suffice 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 hearyou, / lest those asleep may think your sigh / is the trumpet of Resurrec-tion 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 home-land / and were you then commanded to come back? Are you regretting

    you came back?)

    (Or did old reminiscences thrill you, / reminiscences from a homelandbefore the nebula, / and so you stopped in the prison of skin, / whileturning your face towards the homeland.)

    While it may be premature to extrapolate from the works of Arah, represen-tative as they may be, to the rest of the poets of al-Rbiflah al-qalamiyyah,his case nonetheless calls into question the sweeping generalization about

    the primacy of Christian sources in the works of this group ofMahjar poets.Further investigation along similar lines may furnish sufficient evidence toeffect a long overdue revision of this dubious generalization.