Valentine’s Day: The appeal of literature and poetry about romantic love in Arab culture

Valentine’s Day: The appeal of literature and poetry about romantic love in Arab culture
Epic tales of love have crossed national and cultural boundaries down through the ages, evolving into the global celebration that is Valentine’s Day. (Photos: Getty Images)
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Updated 13 February 2020

Valentine’s Day: The appeal of literature and poetry about romantic love in Arab culture

Valentine’s Day: The appeal of literature and poetry about romantic love in Arab culture
  • Valentine's Day has evolved into a tradition that has transcended national and cultural boundaries
  • The Arabic love story of Antar and Abla appeals to lovers both young and old across Saudi Arabia

LONDON: As Valentine’s Day approaches there is little, at first glance, to be found in common between the persecution of an early Christian priest sentenced to death by the Roman Empire and the tale of Antar and Abla, one of the most famous love stories in Arabic poetry, invoked by lovers across Saudi Arabia on Feb. 14.

In fact, although both tales have become inextricably linked through the exchange of love tokens on Valentine’s Day — itself an invention of the European Middle Ages — they also share a deeper meaning, and an origin in darker times, that perhaps explains their enduring appeal.

Although wrapped today in the red-hued hearts-and-flowers packaging of love, neither tale has what could remotely be described a happy romantic ending.

St. Valentine, after all, was beaten with clubs and had his head cut off for his troubles. 

Antarah ibn Shaddad, the son of a black slave woman and the author of a series of autobiographical pre-Islamic poems, fought his entire life to prove himself worthy of both his father’s Arabic tribe and of the hand of the woman he loved — and yet died with that love unrequited.

Rather than simply celebrating the joy of romance, in other words, the true message of both Valentine and Antarah is that in life there are times when we must fight for what we believe in and that to give up that fight, no matter how hopeless the cause, is to surrender a vital part of ourselves.

St. Valentine is thought to have been executed in about AD 269 on the orders of the Roman emperor Claudius II, for the “crime” of defying the empire and marrying couples of the persecuted Christian faith.

Canonized by the Catholic Church, he was given an annual feast day on Feb. 14, a festival that at some point in medieval England drifted away from being a commemoration of ultimate sacrifice in the name of faith and evolved into a more general celebration of love. 

Over the centuries, Valentine’s Day evolved into a tradition that has transcended national and cultural boundaries to become a global celebration of romance, close to the hearts of young lovers and the makers of greetings cards and heart-shaped chocolates everywhere.

The first known reference to Valentine’s new role as the patron saint of lovers is to be found in two poems written between 1380 and 1390 by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, author of “The Canterbury Tales.” One, “Parliament of Fowls,” describes a gathering of birds to choose their mates for the year ahead on “seynt valentynes day.”

The poem is described by the British Library, which holds a 15th-century copy of the manuscript, as “a humorous and at times philosophical exploration of the idea of love.”

The story of Antarah ibn Shaddad, the warrior poet of pre-Islamic Arabia, is an epic tale whose origins are, if anything, even less certain than those of the Valentine’s Day with which it has become incongruously entwined.

The generally accepted version of Antarah’s life is that he was born in the Nejd in about AD 525 (some 250 years after the execution of Valentine), the son of Shaddad Al-Absi, an Arab warrior of the Banu Abs tribe, and Zabibah, an Ethiopian slave. Dark-skinned like his mother, Antarah was regarded by his community and his family, including his father, as himself no better than a slave. As a young man he set out to prove his valor and win his freedom through his legendary exploits in battle.

Although it is the immortal love story of “Antar and Abla” that has endured the passage of over 1,400 years, finding its way into the Saudi high school curriculum and the expressions of affection voiced by young lovers today, there is vastly more to the story of the warrior poet than a simple tale of unrequited love for one of his cousins.

Ibn Shaddad is considered to be the author of one of the seven famed poems compiled in the 8th century as Al-Mu’allaqat, “the hanged poems,” a collection of the best pre-Islamic poetry said by legend to have been inscribed in gold letters on linen and hung on the walls of the Kaaba in Makkah.

Known only as “The Poem of Antar,” Ibn Shaddad’s contribution is a rich blend of longing for his love — “verily you have occupied in my heart the place of the honored loved one, so do not think otherwise than this, that you are my beloved” — and brutal testimony to his prowess as a warrior: “I pierced him with my spear, and then I set upon him with my Indian sword pure of steel, and keen.”

The bulk of the poems attributed to Ibn Shaddad are, however, overwhelmingly focused on warfare rather than on matters of the heart.

In 2018, the Library of Arabic Literature, supported by a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute, published the first translation into English of more than 40 poems attributed to Ibn Shaddad. Only some of the poems in the anthology “War Songs” mention Abla and yet, as the editor’s introduction notes, “as ‘Antar and Abla’, this story of unrequited and doomed love enchanted and captivated subsequent centuries and continues to weave its spell today.”

Regardless, the anthology is a fearsome collection that drips blood and gore. Here Ibn Shaddad is chiefly a fighter, not a lover, an outsider determined to be accepted, but on his own terms, a black warrior-poet “belligerent, defiant, brutal, uncompromising, unsettling” whose poetry “breathes a spirit of indomitability, pride, and loyalty to kith and kin.”

Wielding spear, sword and bow and arrow with deadly precision, he carves a bloody path through his people’s enemies, leading his Arab cavalry into battle with their “banners flapping like vultures’ shadows.” As he strews the remains of his opponents across the desert sands, he makes no bones about his calling:


“I am Death.

I have felled many a foe,

their chests

dyed in rivers of red jiryāl,

their bodies unburied

on the open plain,

their limbs torn to shreds

by dusky wolves,

aortas pierced

by the pliant spear

gripped tight

as I closed in.”


Not much romance there, in other words.

Fortunately for the lovers of today who invoke the tale of Antar and Abla, at some point in the 11th or 12th century Ibn Shaddad was reinvented as a lover rather than a fighter, in much the same way that the festival commemorating St. Valentine’s grisly end was later hijacked in the name of love.

The anthology includes eight poems taken from “The Romance of Antar,” a 10,000-verse epic composed long after our hero’s death that was to spread his fame — and his softer side — far and wide.

In 1868, the romance inspired the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to write “Antar,” his second symphony. By the late 18th century, translations were circulating in the US and the great European capitals, with one American critic enthusing in 1896 that the romance was “the free expression of real Arab hero-worship ... even in the cities of the Orient today, the loungers over their cups can never weary of following the exploits of this black son of the desert who in his person unites the great virtues of his people, magnanimity and bravery, with the gift of poetic speech.”




Aimed at the heart: Koka, the late Egyptian actress known for her roles as a Bedouin, played Abla (Antar’s beloved) in four Egyptian films. (Supplied)

It is uncertain, but unlikely, that any of the poetry in “The Romance of Antar” was composed by Antar himself, but without doubt it conveys the spirit of the man as it has been handed down over the centuries.

With that in mind, and with Valentine’s Day upon us, we’ll leave the last word to him:


“Daughter of Malik, sleep is forbidden me.

How could I sleep on this bed of coals?

I’ll weep till the birds hear of my misery and the turtledoves coo
my elegy.

I’ll kiss the ground wherever you’re camped.

May its tear-stained sands dampen the fires that consume me.”

And if you put that in your Valentine’s Day card, you won’t go far wrong.



King Salman calls for global approach to tackling climate change

King Salman speaking at the virtual Climate summit. (Photo: Bandar Galoud)
King Salman speaking at the virtual Climate summit. (Photo: Bandar Galoud)
Updated 23 April 2021

King Salman calls for global approach to tackling climate change

King Salman speaking at the virtual Climate summit. (Photo: Bandar Galoud)
  • Saudi ruler tells summit of world leaders the challenges created by global warming do not respect national borders
  • Biden says US will reduce emissions by up to 52 percent by 2030; China, Russia also pledge to make cuts

NEW YORK: Boosting international cooperation is the “optimal solution” to tackling climate change, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman told a summit of world leaders on Thursday.

He said global warming threatens lives on our planet and that the challenges “recognize no national borders.”

“The objective is sustainable development, and in order to achieve this there must be a comprehensive methodology that takes into account the different developments and circumstances that exist around the world,” King Salman said during the Leaders Summit on Climate, which was hosted by the US.

He said the Kingdom has launched packages of strategies and introduced regulations with the aim of using clean, renewable sources to produce 50 percent of the country’s energy needs by 2030.

“Enhancing the level of international cooperation is the optimal solution to meeting the challenges of climate change,” the king said.

“During our G20 presidency last year we advocated the need to adopt a notion of a circular carbon economy, launching two international initiatives to curb land degradation and to protect coral reefs.”

He added that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced two new environmental plans: the Green Saudi Initiative and the Green Middle East Initiative. They aim to reduce carbon emissions in the region by more than 10 percent of current global contributions.

“These initiatives also aim at planting 50 billion trees in the region,” he said.

The Kingdom, he added, will work with its partners to achieve these goals and host forums for both initiatives later this year.

“Finally we would like to affirm our keenness and commitment to cooperation to combat climate change, in order to create a better environment for future generations, wishing success for our efforts to protect our planet,” he said.

Earlier, US President Joe Biden — who convened the summit with a view to building global momentum for climate action ahead of COP26, the UN’s

Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November — pledged to cut US fossil fuel emissions by up to 52 percent by 2030.

“Meeting this moment is about more than preserving our planet,” Biden said. “It’s about providing a better future for all of us.” He called it “a moment of peril but a moment of opportunity.”

In his presidential campaign last year, Biden made tackling climate change one of his top priorities. While Republicans oppose his plans on the grounds they will cost jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries, Biden believes that a transition to cleaner energy sources will create millions of well-paid jobs, a stance echoed by many of the world leaders who attended the summit.

“This is not bunny-hugging, this is about growth and jobs,” said the UK’s Conservative prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Forty leaders are taking part in the two-day summit. The UN has described 2021 as a “climate emergency” year, with scientists warning that climate change caused by the use of coal and other fossil fuels is exacerbating natural disasters such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires. There are fears that the world now faces a race against time to avoid the disastrous extremes of global warming.

The world’s most powerful nations have announced various measures to address the crisis. They include targets for reductions in harmful emissions, plans to stop the public financing of coal, and a commitment to integrating climate action into economic-stimulus plans in an effort to “build back better” after the pandemic-related economic collapse, with the goal of “leaving no one behind.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin also made commitments to reduce emissions. Neither of them made any mention of their respective non-climate disputes with Biden.

Xi — whose country is the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, followed closely by the US — said that “to protect the environment is to protect productivity, and to boost the environment is to boost productivity. It’s as simple as that.”

Putin, who Biden recently referred to as a “killer” because of the Russian leader’s crackdown on opponents, said his country is “genuinely interested in galvanizing international cooperation so as to look further for effective solutions to climate change as well as to all other vital challenges.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a number of other leaders who spoke at the summit in welcoming the US back to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, from which President Donald Trump withdrew.

She told Biden: “There can be no doubt about the world needing your contribution if we really want to fulfill our ambitious goals.”

Small states and island nations, which contribute the least to greenhouse- gas emissions but face the most severe dangers and damage resulting from climate change as they are increasingly affected by hurricanes and rising sea levels, asked the major world powers for help.

Gaston Alfonso Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said his people are “teetering on the edge of despair.” He asked the international community for debt relief and assistance to help his country recover from the effects of storms and the pandemic, to “prevent a flow of climate refugees.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the commitments made during the summit to achieving carbon neutrality as “a much-needed boost to our collective efforts to address the climate crisis ahead of COP26 in November in Glasgow.”

He added: “It is now urgent that all countries, especially other major emitters, present their 2030 climate plans well before COP 26.”

Guterres also urged leaders to deliver on $100 billion of climate commitments made to developing countries a decade ago.

“The world will be watching carefully, particularly those already experiencing severe climate impacts and an ongoing economic crisis,” he said.

“Today’s summit shows the tide is turning for climate action, but there is still a long way to go. To avert a permanent climate catastrophe, we must now urgently build on the momentum delivered today, in this make-or-break year for people and the planet.”


‘Let’s Make it Green’ campaign plants 10 million trees across Saudi Arabia

The campaign focused on planting native tree species which have adapted to Saudi Arabia’s environment and require limited irrigation. (Supplied)
The campaign focused on planting native tree species which have adapted to Saudi Arabia’s environment and require limited irrigation. (Supplied)
Updated 23 April 2021

‘Let’s Make it Green’ campaign plants 10 million trees across Saudi Arabia

The campaign focused on planting native tree species which have adapted to Saudi Arabia’s environment and require limited irrigation. (Supplied)
  • Efforts will continue to plant more trees, in line with the ‘Green Saudi’ and ‘Green Middle East’ initiatives

RIYADH: A campaign to plant 10 million trees in 165 sites across the Kingdom to develop vegetation cover and limit desertification has been successfully completed.

The Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture and the National Center for Vegetation Cover announced the success of the “Let’s Make it Green” campaign that was launched in October 2020. 

The campaign covered all of the Kingdom’s 13 provinces. The Eastern Province topped the list with more than 2.6 million trees planted, followed by more than 2.1 million in Madinah, over 1.3 million in Makkah, around 1 million in both Jazan and Riyadh, 462,000 in Qassim, and 270,000 in Asir.

Baha reached nearly 300,000, and more than 142,000 trees were planted in the Northern Border, followed by Jouf with more than 113,000, then Hail with about 85,000, Tabuk with over 75,000, and finally Najran with nearly 52,000 trees.

The campaign focused on planting native tree species which have adapted to Saudi Arabia’s environment and require limited irrigation. (Supplied)

The CEO of the center, Dr. Khaled Al-Abd Al-Qader, said that the campaign planted endangered trees and shrubs in areas that were environmentally degraded due to overgrazing, logging, uprooting, and urban sprawl.

“The campaign focused on planting native tree species which have adapted to Saudi Arabia’s environment and require limited irrigation,” he added.

The ministry ensured that the campaign was aligned with sustainability and water conservation requirements and by using treated wastewater or seawater for irrigation, in line with the best international practices.

The center and ministry worked in cooperation with various governmental authorities, private sector organizations, environmental associations, and community groups.

Minister of Water, Environment and Agriculture Abdul Rahman Al-Fadli said: “What we have accomplished is the result of the support and directions of the Saudi leadership to make the Kingdom a pioneer in protecting the Earth, achieve the international objectives in protecting the environment, increase the vegetation cover, reduce carbon emissions, combat pollution and land degradation, and preserve marine life.”

Efforts will continue to plant more trees, in line with the “Green Saudi” and “Green Middle East” initiatives, he added.

Al-Qader said that the “Let’s Make it Green” campaign has recovered biodiversity, rehabilitated degraded vegetation cover sites, promoted positive behaviors to preserve the nation’s environment and improve the quality of life in Saudi Arabia.


Volunteers in Asir donate 2 million hours of their time

Volunteers in Asir donate 2 million hours of their time
Updated 23 April 2021

Volunteers in Asir donate 2 million hours of their time

Volunteers in Asir donate 2 million hours of their time

MAKKAH: More than 11,000 volunteers in Asir region have donated more than 2 million hours of their time as part of an initiative that aims to encourage people to get involved in their communities, in particular with efforts to tackle the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Nashama Asir initiative was launched last Ramadan to boost voluntary work and raise awareness in the region of its importance, in support of government efforts to increase participation.

“It was launched by the Coronavirus Crisis Management Chamber in Asir, under the leadership and vision of Asir Gov. Prince Turki bin Talal,” Nasser Qmeshan, who is supervising the initiative, told Arab News.

“It came as a response to the significant societal readiness to assist the government in its efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic and its repercussions.”

It was necessary to develop a strategy, identify targets and set up a mechanism to ensure the efficient implementation of the project, he added. The strategy that was developed by the chamber included a vision for the initiative, specific fields of work, and clear goals.

“Those able to provide ideas, financial support or volunteer services in certain health, economic and social fields can apply through the initiative’s website,” said Qmeshan. “The site was visited by about 4,000 people in the first week after the initiative was announced.”

“Hundreds of activities not requiring assistance — such as financial support, in-kind support and physical preparation — were referred to the bodies that would directly benefit from them,” said Qmeshan.

“As for those that required assistance, a project was set up, partners were identified and approached, an action plan was developed, and standards were set along with performance indicators and launch mechanisms.”

HIGHLIGHT

  • The Nashama Asir initiative was launched last Ramadan to boost voluntary work and raise awareness in the region of its importance, in support of government efforts to increase participation.
  • Specific projects included the provision of quarantine facilities, hygiene tools, and food baskets for families and employees who were struggling as a result of the pandemic, along with fundraising support.

Specific projects included the provision of quarantine facilities, hygiene tools, and food baskets for families and employees who were struggling as a result of the pandemic, along with fundraising support.

In response to the initiative 11,077 people volunteered to help and so far they have carried out 2,008,841 hours of work.

Some of the activities were technical in nature, Qmeshan said, such as one “where a qualified group of young Saudi volunteers helped with maintenance work at family homes during the lockdown period.

“The requests for this service were processed automatically and the service was provided free of charge, while taking into consideration all precautionary health measures,” he added.

The initiative also helped to improve awareness of health and security issues among the residents of Asir region. Announcements and advice from the health and security authorities were translated into a number of languages, for example, and volunteers supported the work of the healthcare sector by highlighting the importance of social distancing and other precautions to slow the spread of the disease. They also provided healthy meals for workers during Ramadan, along with other types of community assistance.

Another project is helping municipalities implement pandemic precautions in markets and shopping centers. “The implementation of this project will start with the reopening of markets by the end of the holy month of Ramadan,” said Qmeshan.

A specialized, medical-manufacturing project was proposed to develop and manufacture spare parts for ventilators, along with various types of protective equipment, using 3D printers in engineering laboratories at King Khalid University.

Qmeshan said that dozens of officials and tribal delegations, including princes, ministers, tribal sheikhs and social figures, have visited the initiative’s operations center.


83 Jeddah outlets shut for COVID-19 breaches

83 Jeddah outlets shut for COVID-19 breaches
Updated 23 April 2021

83 Jeddah outlets shut for COVID-19 breaches

83 Jeddah outlets shut for COVID-19 breaches

JEDDAH: Authorities in Jeddah have shut down 83 commercial outlets for breaching coronavirus disease (COVID-19) protocols.
Municipalities in the Kingdom have stepped up their efforts to ensure compliance with COVID-19 safety measures designed to protect public health.
The municipality of Jeddah governorate carried out 4,166 inspection tours of commercial centers and facilities and identified 116 violations for issues related to overcrowding and the failure to effectively use the Tawakkalna app. Authority officials in the Red Sea port city urged people to report any suspected breaches of COVID-19 regulations to the 940 call-center number.


KAICIID-organized forum of experts look to counter hate speech in Europe

KAICIID-organized forum of experts look to counter hate speech in Europe
Updated 23 April 2021

KAICIID-organized forum of experts look to counter hate speech in Europe

KAICIID-organized forum of experts look to counter hate speech in Europe

RIYADH: The King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) organized an expert forum on combating hate speech in collaboration with religious institutions and other organizations.
The meeting was held in cooperation with the European Council of Religious Leaders, the Religions for Peace in Europe, and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
The consultation aimed to explore pathways and efforts to combat hate speech in Europe by strengthening ties between religious and political entities and civil society.