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This article is taken from PN Review 144, Volume 28 Number 4, March - April 2002.

Impossible Traces: Translating the Sayfiyat of Abu Tayyib Al-Mutanabbí Walid Abdul-Hamid and Nigel Wheale

Travelling from Iran to Iraq in 354 AH (965 CE) Abu Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husain al-Mutanabbí was attacked by bandits at Dayr al-'Aqul near Baghdad. His first impulse was to escape, but one of his servants protested, 'Master, didn't you say in your Sayfiyat, "Horses, night and the desert know me, and the sword, spear, paper and pen"?' Perhaps stung by this quotation of his own most famous line against himself, the poet turned to fight but was killed in the encounter. So ended the life of al-Mutanabbí, considered by many to be the greatest classical Arab poet. One hundred years after al-Mutanabbí's murder, Abu Ala al-Maari, poet and critic, wrote that he sometimes felt the desire to alter the occasional word in al-Mutanabbí's verses but he never managed to improve on the original. It's probably the case that no other pre- or post-Islamic poet has been the object of so much commentary and criticism as al-Mutanabbí. His audacious spirit is evident from his name, which means 'The Would-Be Prophet'; in his early twenties he had tried to create a new religious movement among the Syrian Bedouin.

The poems translated here are taken from al-Mutanabbí's Sayfiyat, a series of praise-poems addressed to prince Ali Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamdanid (c. 327-46 AH, 948-57 CE), emir of a small state situated in what is now Syria. Sayf al-Dawla was a cultured, charismatic leader who for a time managed to resist the incursions of the Byzantine empire during a period when ...
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