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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Arabian Satire

Ḥmēdān al-Shwēʿir

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To purchase Arabian Satire

Title: Arabian Satire
Author: Ḥmēdān al-Shwēʿir
Genre: Poetry
Written: to ca. 1740 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 163 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: Arabian Satire - US
Arabian Satire - UK
Arabian Satire - Canada
  • Poetry from 18th-Century Najd
  • Arabic title: ديوان (i.e. the generic: 'Diwan')
  • Edited, translated , and with an Introduction by Marcel Kurpershoek
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Arabic facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B : well-presented, and some very fine bits

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Ḥmēdān al-Shwēʿir was a leading Najdī poet -- Najd being Central Arabia, now entirely within the borders of Saudi Arabia -- and he flourished before the 1744 consolidation of territory under Muhammad bin Saud (marking also the beginning of the dominating influence of Wahhābīsm).
       This collection consists of thirty-four poems. They are presented with the Arabic text facing the English original; as translator Marcel Kurpershoek explains in his Introduction: "in classical Arabic poetry, each Nabaṭī verse consists of two hemistichs", half-lines of verse, which makes for a two-column look on the page. The originals do rhyme -- the poems are: "without exception composed with a single rhyme at the end of each verse" -- while the meters vary -- including fifteen pomes that are: "in a meter that does not exist in classical Arabic poetry".
       In his Introduction, Kurpershoek reports that no poet "who composed their verses in the vernacular of Central Arabia has remained more in vogue than Ḥmēdān al-Shwēʿir" -- and, indeed, that even today: "his voice and words are immediately recognizable to a large audience of cognoscenti in Riyadh and beyond". This doesn't -- and probably can't -- really come across in translation; indeed, even any distinctiveness -- a unique, or particular voice -- to the poetry is difficult to discern. Nevertheless, there's a biting sharpness to quite a few of these verses and poems, and they are agreeably direct -- there's little simply ornate embellishment. Formulaic religious incidentals and frills are also welcomely absent.
       While sometimes he notes the weakness and limitations of old age (and the lack or loss of respect that comes with it), the author is certainly not all humility -- introducing himself in one poem with:

These are the words of a learned and discerning poet:
     Ḥmēdān, who has a reputation for irreverence.
       The role he often assumes is that of: "Ḥmēdān the poet / who delights in bursting vain pretensions". There's a great deal of advice on offer: Ḥmēdān presents himself as someone who has seen it all: "I have experienced all vicissitudes, / the greatest and the gravest, even in minor things", and he draws on that experience in his wise words of what choices to make, from what kind of woman to marry to what company to avoid. Colorful contrasts abound -- often somewhat simplistic and extreme, but often quite funny as well.
       There's also some strikingly ribald humor in some very explicit sex scenes, which include both evocative renderings such as:
When he unsheathes and wields his night sword,
     his flutes strike up a tune to a beat gone wild.
Once it is drawn and gets moist
     it begins to leak and drip with fluid
       Elsewhere -- a few lines later -- he's already more ... naturalistic, noting of the sex-act that: "you hear the slosh and squelch of their parts" -- and irreverence will out too, as he notes:
They toil away and reach climax,
     accompanied by a salvo of farts.
       Elsewhere, he is more direct and raw: one poem has a woman: "longing for his hard dick to rub her pussy", after which she: "gorges on butter, a saddlebag full, / to make her cunt tight and sizzling hot" (a method that Kurpershoek regrettably offers no further insight into in any endnote ..).
       There's usually a streak of some raw sharpness, but in many poems Ḥmēdān's expression is also more restrained; occasionally, the loftier poet also shows through, as in the nice twentieth poem, where he writes of his ambition ("harder than the hardest rock"), and -- again, not particularly humbly -- reflects on his craft and passion:
I am the expert craftsman who forges verses,
     working the meter effortlessly.
       Here also he ponders: "poetry's wide range of meanings", and while his tends towards the direct and fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit of interesting variety to it.
       A detailed Introduction offers a good overview of the poet, while extensive supporting material -- endnotes, a twelve-page glossary -- also provides helpful information; there are also several bibliographies. The focus here, however, is decidedly on the source text(s), rather than the translation (and Kurpershoek's approach to it); while some sense of his choices can be gleaned from some of the endnotes, and while the English versions read quite well, the book definitely has more the feel of an Arabic text with an incidental (though useful) English gloss. Even so, the selection is quite entertaining, even for readers without any Arabic, and there are some very nicely turned bits.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 November 2017

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Arabian Satire: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Arab poet Ḥmēdān al-Shwēʿir (حميدان الشويعر) -- normally transliterated Ḥumaydān al-Shuwayʿir, also (LOC): Ḥamīdān -- lived in the 18th century.

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