Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology

Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology

Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology

Classical Arabic Literature: A Library of Arabic Literature Anthology


A major translation achievement, this anthology presents a rich assortment of classical Arabic poems and literary prose, from pre-Islamic times until the 18th century, with short introductions to guide non-specialist students and informative endnotes and bibliography for advanced scholars. Both entertaining and informative, Classical Arabic Literature ranges from the early Bedouin poems with their evocation of desert life to refined urban lyrical verse, from tender love poetry to sonorous eulogy and vicious lampoon, and from the heights of mystical rapture to the frivolity of comic verse. Prose selections include anecdotes, entertaining or edifying tales and parables, a fairy-tale, a bawdy story, samples of literary criticism, and much more.

With this anthology, distinguished Arabist Geert Jan van Gelder brings together well-known texts as well as less familiar pieces new even to scholars. Classical Arabic Literature reveals the rich variety of pre-modern Arabic social and cultural life, where secular texts flourished alongside religious ones. This masterful anthology introduces this vibrant literary heritage--including pieces translated into English for the first time--to a wide spectrum of new readers.


Many ancient Arabic Bedouin or quasi-Bedouin poems begin with the exclamation khalīlayya, “My two friends!” According to a literary convention, never fully explained, the poet, who is supposed to be traveling in the desert when he spots a place that reminds him of past pleasures, asks two companions to sympathize with his feelings of loss, or at least to wait for him until he has poured out his elegiac verse. The poet, or rather his persona, does not keep his private feelings to himself, silently or soliloquizing: he must have an audience. Whether the feelings are real or imagined, whether the two companions are real or fictional (their names are never given), all this does not matter. The poem must be heard, and its emotions understood and recognized, not only by the anonymous friends but by everyone. The past love affair is the theme of the beginning of the poem only, which moves on to other things, present or future: the description of the poet’s trusty camel, the desert, tribal matters, feuds and loyalties, patrons or enemies, or anything else that is on the poet’s mind.

In this anthology there is, as it happens, no poem that begins with khalīlayya, but the motif occurs several times. The desert poem is only one of the many forms and genres found in the long history of Arabic literature. Arabic poetry and prose: just as the desert poems they must be heard, or read, preferably in their original language; but in a time when the growing interest in the Arab world is matched only by ignorance of its literary heritage, translations can be informative, entertaining, and perhaps even enjoyable not only as curiosities but as examples of genuine works of literary art. In the western world the two Arabic books that are best known are, inevitably, the Thousand and One Nights and the Qur’an; but neither is typical or representative of Arabic literature, the one being partly a product of European literature, at least in the form that has become world literature, and the other a unique text in more ways than one (and one that should not be read by the uninitiated without some guidance). This book aims at filling some of the large gaps.

“Literature” is difficult to define even in modern Western culture. In a premodern Arabic context the problem is no less daunting. For the purposes of the present anthology it is taken not in the general sense of everything written but . . .

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