The Ode of Tarafah

Muallaqat Tarafah ibn al- Abd


The early Arabic love poem, or Qasida, has a very simple structure:

1. a glimpse of the loved one's face on the deserted campsite,

2. riding one's camel and with one's tribe to try to forget how beautiful she is.

In later times Abu Nuwas would mock this, for he was a city person. But these early poems are still rooted in the hearts of Arabs, and reading one in English translation is a way to savor the beauty of the bedouin woman, and Iraq and Syria's flora and fauna.

This is one of the 7 "posted," or "hung--as in hung up for all to see-" poems, or mu'allaqat, translated by A. J. Arberry:


"The Ode of Tarafah"

A young gazelle there is in the tribe, dark-lipped, fruit-shaking,

flaunting a double necklace of pearls and topazes,

holding aloof, with the herd grazing in the lush thicket,

nibbling the tips of the arak-fruit, wrapped in her cloak.

Her dark lips part in a smile, teeth like a comomile

on a moist hillock shining amid the virgin sands,

whitened as it were by the sun's rays, all but her gums

that are smeared with colyrium -- she gnaws not against them;

a face as though the sun had loosed his mantle upon it,

pure of hue, with not a wrinkle to mar it.


Ah, but when grief assails me, straightway I ride it off

mounted on my swift, lean-flanked camel, night and day racing,

sure-footed, like the planks of a litter; I urge her on

down the bright highway, that back of a striped mantle;

she vies with the noble, hot-paced she-camels, shank on shank

nimbly plying, over a path many feet have beaten.

Along the rough slopes with the milkless shes she has pastured

in Spring, cropping the rich meadows green in the gentle rains;

to the voice of the caller she returns, and stands on guard

with her bunchy tail, scared of some ruddy, tuft-haired stallion,

as though the wings of a white vulture enfolded the sides

of her tail, pierced even to the bone by a pricking awl;

anon she strikes with it behind the rear-rider, anon

lashes her dry udders, withered like an old water-skin.

Perfectly firm is the flesh of her two thighs--

they are the gates of a lofty, smooth-walled castle--

and tightly knit are her spine-bones, the ribs like bows, her

underneck stuck with the well-strung vertebrae,

fenced about by the twin dens of a wild lote-tree;

you might say bows were bent under a buttressed spine.

Widely spaced are her elbows, as if she strode carrying the two

buckets of a sturdy water-carier;

like the bridge of the Byzantine, whose builder swore

it should be all encased in bricks to be raised up true.

Reddish the bristles under her chin, very firm her back,

broad the span of her swift legs, smooth her swinging gait;

her legs are twined like rope untwisted; her forearms

thrust slantwise up to the propped roof of her breast.

Swiftly she rolls, her cranium huge, her shoulder-blades

high-hoisted to frame her lofty, raised superstructure.

The scores of her girths chafing her breast-ribs are water-courses

furrowing a smooth rock in a rugged eminence,

now meeting, anon parting, as though they were

white gores marking distinctly a slit shirt.

Her long neck is very erect when she lifts it up

calling to mind the rudder of a Tigris-bound vessel.

Her skull is most like an anvil, the junction of its two halves

meeting together as it might be on the edge of a file.

Her cheek is smooth as Syrian parchment, her split lip

a tanned hide of Yemen, its slit not best crooked;

her eyes are a pair of mirrors, sheltering

in the caves of her brow-bones, the rock of a pool's hollow,

ever expelling the white pus more-provoked, so they seem

like the dark-rimmed eyes of a scared wild-cow with calf.

Her ears are true, clearly detecting on the night journey

the fearful rustle of a whisper, the high-pitched cry,

sharp-tipped, her noble pedigree plain in them,

pricked like the ears of a wild-cow of Haumal lone-pasturing.

Her trepid heart pulses strongly, quick, yet firm

as a pounding-rock set in the midst of a solid boulder.

If you so wish, her head strains to the saddle's pommel

and she swims with her forearms, fleet as a male ostrich,

or if you wish her pace is slack, or swift to your fancy,

fearing the curled whip fashioned of twisted hide.

Slit is her upper lip, her nose bored and sensitive,

delicate, when she sweeps the ground with it, faster she runs.

Such is the beast I ride, when my companion cries "Would I might ransom you, and be ransomed, from yonder

waste!"

His soul fluttters within him fearfully, he supposing

the blow fallen on him, though his path is no ambuscade.

When the people demand, "Who's the hero?" I suppose

myself intended, and am not sluggish, not dull of wit;

I am at her with the whip, and my she-camel quickens pace

what time the mirage of the burning stone-tract shimmers;

elegantly she steps, as a slave-girl at a party

will sway, showing her master skirts of a trailing white gown.

I am not one that skulks fearfully among the hilltops,

but when the folk seek my succour I gladly give it;

if yo look for me in the circle of the folk, you'll catch me.

Come to me when you will, I'll pour you a flowing cup,

and if you don't need it, well, do without and good luck to

you!

Whenever the tribe is assembled you'll come upon me

at the summit of the noble House, the oft-frequented;

my boon-companions are white as stars, and a singing-wench

comes to us in her striped gown or her saffron robe,

wide the opening of her collar, delicate her skin

to my companions' fingers, tender her nakedness.

When we say, "Let's hear from you," she advances to us

chanting fluently, her glance languid, in effortless song."


Anthology of Islamic Literature, James Kritzeck, ed., 1964 Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY., p.58-60 with acknowledgements for "The Ode of Tarafah," from THE SEVEN ODES, translated by A.J.Arberry, copyright by George Allen & Unwin, Ltd.

Middle East & Islamic Studies http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast