The picaresque poet from Baghdad

The "maqama", a classical Arabic form of prose-poetry, is still almost unknown in Germany – as is the name of the 11th-century Baghdad poet Ibn Naqiya. A new translation has the potential to change all that. By Gerrit Wustmann

By Gerrit Wustmann

11th-century Baghdad: a prosperous metropolis, and a place where theologians, philosophers, merchants and artists congregated. In their midst was the wealthy merchant Ibn Naqiya (1020 - 1092), whose life we know very little about. What we do know is that he was also a poet. Some of his work has survived – and at its centre are the "Ten Transformations", the maqamas about the subversive rogue Al-Yashkuri. A crafty bon vivant, Al-Yashkuri’s greatest pleasure lies in exposing all the imposters and hypocrites of his age and purloining the masks of opportunists whose piety is all a pretence – often by drawing on the Koran.  

The Islamic studies scholar Stefan Wild, who is based in Bonn, has unearthed and translated this treasure into German. Entitled "Moscheen, Wein und boese Geister" (Mosques, wine and evil spirits), it is now available as part of the publisher C.H. Beck’s Neue Orientalische Bibliothek series.

The maqama, a piece of rhyming picaresque prose, is a classical Arabic literary form, attributed to Al-Hamadhani (968 – 1007), and made famous in Germany by Friedrich Ruckert. "At its heart," writes Stefan Wild in his detailed introduction, "there is most often a cunning, eloquent, roguish hero, who might just as easily be described as an anti-hero."

Disguised as an itinerant beggar, preacher or scholar

With the help of his polished wit, his deviousness and his constant transformations, he makes his way in an inhospitable world. He roams the country disguised as a beggar or a preacher, a pious visitor to mosques, a scholar or a prophet.

Each maqama, however, is told from the perspective of one of Al-Yashkuri’s "victims", someone the rogue encounters in one of his many disguises; it is only when his rhetoric has won an argument or he has snared the object of his desire that he is recognised as Al-Yashkuri.

Cover of Stefan Wild's German translation of Ibn Naqiya's Ten Transformations – "Moscheen, Wein und boese Geister" (published by C.H.Beck)
Wer sich nicht vorstellen kann, dass es ein Hochgenuss ist, einen neunhundert Jahre alten Dichter zu lesen, darf sich in diesen "Zehn Verwandlungen" eines Besseren belehren lassen. Diese Verse sind nicht nur für die Literatur- und die Islamwissenschaft ein Juwel, sondern eben auch für jeden Leser heute.

While, as a rule, the literature of the time presents a fictional, exaggerated pseudo-reality, oriented towards religious and moral principles and praising both rulers and priests, maqamas turn the tables; like the German niedere Minne, which focussed on the lower classes, they are interested in representing the world and the people in it as they are. And this frequently means throwing all religious and moral imperatives out of the window, or exposing them as false.

It goes without saying that these efforts were not universally applauded. According to Stefan Wild, in the margin of the original manuscript one scribbled remark from an anonymous author reads: "The writer has mentioned nothing that might be regarded as philology or genteel education. He thus reveals only the absence of true education." This was probably far from being the only piece of hostile criticism that Ibn Naqiya received, even during his lifetime.

Apeing the dreadful, doggerel-writing, would-be poet

The tricks and escapades, the cunning and stories of Al-Yashkuri are in fact surprisingly modern, thanks not least to Stefan Wild’s translation. Wild has said himself that his style is oriented towards Rueckert and Robert Gernhardt. And when Al-Yashkuri appears in the "poet maqama" as a dreadful, doggerel-writing would-be poet, blowing open a sophisticated society, you can’t help but be reminded of Axel Kutsch's work. In this maqama:

Dann fuhr er fort, poetisch zu holpern

und durch das Versmaß dahinzustolpern.

Das Metrum des langen Gedichts war verfehlt,

die Reime ohrenpeinlich gequält.

(Then he continued, coming out with doggerel / and stumbling through the measures. / The long poem’s metre was bungled, / the rhymes a torturous embarrassment to the ears.)

In the "Baghdad maqama", he passes himself off as a blind beggar to another sophisticated society, pleading for entry and alms by citing verses from the Koran, and finally succeeding. By the time those he has fooled realise that Al-Yashkuri is by no means blind or poor, it’s much too late: his belly and his pockets are already full.

Da rief ich: "Verfluchter Lügenbold!

Du hast uns glauben machen gewollt,

dass Gott dir deine Sehkraft genommen.

Doch kerngesund bist du hierher gekommen.

Dir fehlt an deiner Gesundheit nichts,

und nichts an der Kraft deines Augenlichts!"

Da lächelte er und sagte geschwind:

"Sei zufrieden, dass ich nur im Herzen blind

und mein Hintern niemals Ruhe find't."

(Then I cried: "You cursed liar! / You tried to make us believe / that God had taken your eyesight. / But you came here in the best of health. / There is nothing wrong with you, / or with your vision!" / At that he laughed and swiftly said: / "Be content that I am blind only in my heart / and that my backside never finds a resting place.")

Insights into the time of Ibn Naqiya

Whether it’s the enjoyment of wine and the ban on drinking it, or miserliness and greed, or art, power, religion, pederasty or music, there is no subject from which Ibn Naqiya shies away. It is fair to assume that in some of today’s religious fundamentalist circles, these texts would be rejected with no less vehemence than they were in their author’s day (something else that testifies to their continuing relevance). And so these thematically wide-ranging, highly artistic and, not least, incredibly funny prose poems afford us insight into Ibn Naqiya’s time, the society and the conditions in which he lived, in a way that many other verses or drawings from 11th-century Baghdad are scarcely able to. 

If you can’t imagine that reading a nine-hundred-year-old poet could be a great pleasure, your mind will certainly be changed by these "Ten Transformations". These verses are a gem, not merely for literary and Islamic-studies scholars, but for all contemporary readers. And this discovery suggests that the treasure trove of classical Arabic poetry may well contain much else to be found and translated for us.

Gerrit Wustmann

© 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin