Islamic fundamentalists have forgotten their own heritage of women writers and extraordinary Arab mythby Robert Chandler / November 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
While a strong, expansive culture can afford to be tolerant, a culture that feels beleaguered, like that of the Arab world today, tends to close in on itself, to narrow its own boundaries. As paranoia grows, an ever-shrinking cultural space is defended with increasing ferocity. Not only does it become difficult for artists and writers to be receptive to the work of other cultures-it becomes hard for them to acknowledge some of the most interesting elements in their own.
The two most exciting books I have read this year, both published some time ago by small publishers, are by Abdullah al-Udhari. A poet and translator of Arabic verse, born in Yemen in 1941, he has long resisted these pressures. Now, as the words Islam and terrorism become almost inseparable in many people’s imagination, al-Udhari’s work seems still more important. I know of no other books that so vividly convey the richness and diversity of a culture more closely related to our own than most of us realise.
Al-Udhari’s Classical Poems by Arab Women (Saqi Books, 1999) includes the original Arabic and his own English translations of poetry as witty and sensual as the surviving fragments of Sappho. Many of these poets lived in Arab Andalucia, one of the most tolerant cultures ever to have existed in Europe. Hafsa, who lived in 12th-century Granada, has lines like:
Ask the lightning when it roarrips the nightcalm if it’s seen my man as it makes me think of him…
If you were not a star I would be in the dark.
Al-Udhari resists not only the tendency within much of contemporary Islam to deny the creativity of women, but an equally entrenched tendency to deny the worth of pre-Islamic Arab culture. One of the most powerful poems in this volume was written in the 6th century, by Jalila bint Murra. Her husband, a tribal king, has been murdered by her brother, and her husband’s sister accuses her of complicity. Jalila laments: “I am the killer and killed.” No feud, between families, nations or cultures, is ever resolved until all parties can say such words.
Al-Udhari’s greatest translation, however, is probably his epic the Arab Creation Myth (Archangel Books, 1997). From a variety of sources-folk-tales (some of which he heard in his own childhood), fragments of pre-Islamic texts, the Koran itself-he has assembled a coherent narrative of the Arab creation myth. Anyone who…