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)
Short Url
Updated 13 February 2020

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.



Turning a new leaf: Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region ditches qat crops for coffee trees

The growth of the educational landscape in the region, in addition to the success of the coffee industry, are some factors that help the authorities combat qat abuse. (SPA/Supplied)
Updated 24 February 2020

Turning a new leaf: Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region ditches qat crops for coffee trees

  • The Khawlani coffee bean is being offered to UNESCO for inclusion on a heritage list

JAZAN: Efforts to draw the younger generation in the Kingdom’s Jazan region away from the harmful and addictive substance qat are succeeding, with even the crop being replaced by coffee trees to support the booming coffee business.
Qat, a plant that is native to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is a stimulant that triggers excitement and alertness. But it can also cause anxiety, insomnia and aggravate pre-existing mental health conditions.
It grew in the Jazan region along with coffee trees. But the strength of the coffee industry, combined with an increased awareness about the harmful nature of qat, has led to its gradual disappearance.
The governor of Al-Dayer, Nayef bin Lebdah, said the people of Jazan were proud of the Khawlani coffee bean. He also said that coffee beans were much more economically beneficial than qat.
“All newly planted qat trees have been completely uprooted,” he told Arab News. “All the people have found that planting coffee beans is much more feasible and rewarding than qat. Attempts to smuggle qat have also dropped thanks to the security efforts along the border with Yemen. Add to that, young people themselves have concluded that their future will be in coffee beans.”
Teacher Yahiya Shareef Al-Maliki viewed qat as an “intruder’’ and said the coffee tree was the region’s indigenous product.
“In 1970, there were only four people who used to chew qat in the entire governorate,” he told Arab News. “It then started to become common among the people here in 1995 due to opening the borders that caused importing qat from abroad.”

FASTFACTS

• In 2014, people reconsidered coffee as an alternative crop and young people started to grow coffee beans with the help of unlimited support from the governorate.

• Some 50,000 seedlings were distributed and farmers began to restore the profession of their fathers.

• The governorate replanted more than 10,000 genuine Khawlani coffee seedlings and gave them to the farmers.

The increase in qat cultivation affected the planting of coffee beans, he added, but in 2014 people reconsidered coffee as an alternative crop and young people started to grow coffee beans with the help of unlimited support from the governorate. “Some 50,000 seedlings were distributed and farmers began to restore the profession of their fathers.”
People in Jazan used to waste their time and money on qat, he said. They would gather and chew qat for many hours, he added, hours that could have been spent working. But the growth of the educational landscape in the region, in addition to the success of the coffee industry, was a factor in combating qat abuse, as young people were able to access more opportunities and improve their prospects.
The Khawlani coffee bean is being offered to UNESCO for inclusion on a heritage list.
“The preparation of the file related to the skills and knowledge pertaining to the cultivation of Khawlani coffee in the Jazan region has been completed before presenting it to UNESCO,” the Kingdom’s Culture Minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah said. If listed, he added, it would be the Kingdom’s fourth intangible cultural heritage and eighth among the total heritage items included in the UNESCO heritage list.
Saudi columnist Hamood Abu Talib said the Jazan region was the only place the beans were grown. “This festival (Coffee Beans Festival), which is being held in collaboration with the governorate (of Jazan), the farmers themselves and Aramco, is an important national economic investment,” he told Arab News.
“Many countries’ economies, such as Brazil and Ethiopia depend mainly on this product — coffee. It needs professional marketing through the media to attract visitors from inside and outside the Kingdom. This is an essential strategic transformation.
“We know that the Faifa Mountains Development and Reconstruction Authority’s strategic goal was to uproot the harmful trees of qat and replace them with profitable crops that are beneficial to the farmers as well as the whole region. These were also intruding, invasive trees. We replanted more than 10,000 genuine Khawlani coffee seedlings and gave them to the farmers.”