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 prays for ‘continued security and stability’

King Salman prays for ‘continued security and stability’
Updated 14 May 2021

King Salman prays for ‘continued security and stability’

King Salman prays for ‘continued security and stability’
  • All mosques and prayer areas maintain full health protocols

JEDDAH: King Salman performed Eid prayers in NEOM on Thursday. 

Earlier, he extended greetings to Saudi citizens and residents and Muslims all over the world.

In a tweet on Thursday, the king said: “We thank God Almighty for making the blessed Eid Al-Fitr a sign of good and satisfaction after completing the fasting and prayers of Ramadan. 

“Eid carries hope, optimism, and happiness, and we pray to God to cleanse the entire world of all evil, protect us from harm, and grant us continued security, stability, and tranquility.”

The king said this Eid is an occasion to overcome the ordeal that the world has suffered from the health, social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

King Salman said he was “optimistic about the positive steps in place to achieve stability in the Arab world, so that security and prosperity prevail for all parts of the globe.”

“Combating this pandemic that has befallen the world requires all of us to adhere to the health measures announced by the Ministry of Health, including social distancing, and the need to receive the vaccine, which will work to immunize our dear community of citizens and residents,” the king said.

Mask-clad worshippers entered Makkah’s Grand Mosque along socially distanced paths to offer Eid prayer. Worshippers at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah also followed COVID-19 protocols.

As Saudi families gathered to celebrate the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, the Kingdom’s health minister urged people to follow official health precautions to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

“I need your attention on your Eid. Be careful, refrain from shaking hands completely, be sure to practice social distancing, and avoid large gatherings,” Tawfiq Al-Rabiah tweeted on the eve of festivities.

“Go to the Eid prayer with your own prayer mat, wear the mask constantly, sanitize your hands before and after receiving or giving Eidiya, and leave a safe distance between you and others,” he added. The minister also warned parents not to allow children to hug or kiss their grandparents, saying that such practices may endanger older members of the family.

Worshippers across the Kingdom performed Eid Al-Fitr prayers in 20,569 mosques and open-air prayer areas set up by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance.

Mosques and prayer areas were equipped with facilities in accordance with the health protocols approved by the authorities to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

The imams spoke during the Eid sermon about the blessing of completing fasting and praying qiyaam, and the importance of the continuation of good deeds after Ramadan.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reported 11 more COVID-19-related deaths on Thursday. The death toll now stands at 7,122.

The Health Ministry reported 1,116 new cases, meaning that 430,505 people have now contracted the disease. There are 9,244 remaining active cases, 1,344 of which are in critical condition.

According to the ministry, 377 of the newly recorded cases were in Riyadh, 320 in Makkah, 134 in the Eastern Province and 71 in Madinah. In addition, 1,129 patients recovered from the disease, bringing the total number of recoveries to 414,139.

Saudi Arabia so far has conducted 17,812,376 PCR tests, with 71,457 carried out in the past 24 hours.

Saudis and expats in the Kingdom continue to receive their COVID-19 jabs, with 11,195,164 people inoculated so far.


OIC: Continuing Houthi attacks against civilian targets tantamount to war crimes

OIC: Continuing Houthi attacks against civilian targets tantamount to war crimes
Updated 14 May 2021

OIC: Continuing Houthi attacks against civilian targets tantamount to war crimes

OIC: Continuing Houthi attacks against civilian targets tantamount to war crimes
  • The OIC announced on Thursday that it will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday, at the request of Saudi Arabia, to discuss the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza

JEDDAH: The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) strongly condemned the “cowardly, hostile action” by terrorist Houthi militias in Yemen, which on Thursday launched eight drones and three ballistic missiles at civilian targets in the Kingdom.

The Arab coalition fighting the Houthis in support of Yemen’s internationally recognized government said it intercepted and destroyed the drones and missiles before they reached their targets.

OIC Secretary-General Yousef Al-Othaimeen praised the coalition forces for their vigilance and professionalism in responding to the Houthi’s attack, which took place on the Muslim holiday of Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.

“The continued launch of ballistic missiles and drones toward civilians and civilian objects is considered war crimes, and a flagrant defiance of international laws, customs and agreements,” he said.

He also reiterated the OIC’s solidarity with the Kingdom in all the steps Saudi authorities take to deter Houthi aggression and protect civilians.

Hamdan Al-Shehri, a political analyst and international-relations scholar, told Arab News: “This is a particularly special day for Muslims, Eid Al-Fitr, and all Muslims are also preoccupied by what is happening in Palestine.

“We always hear Iran making threats, but instead of standing with Palestine it is targeting Makkah, Madinah and the Kingdom. This demonstrates the Houthi’s futility, and the extent of Tehran’s malice and how it is always standing with the Houthi forces.

“As we’ve seen, such events are always against civilians. Iran and the Iran-backed Houthi militias have their weapons aimed at civilians because they want civilian victims.” Al-Shehri added: “These are war crimes. The global community should do something, especially about the hundreds of ballistic missiles and drones. The world is only watching.” Meanwhile, the OIC announced on Thursday that it will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday, at the request of Saudi Arabia, to discuss the situation in Jerusalem and Gaza. The meeting of the foreign ministers of OIC member nations will address the continuing Israeli attacks in the Palestinian territories, which have escalated since Monday.

Israeli troops were massing at the Gaza border on Thursday. Meanwhile Hamas targeted Israel with rocket attacks. The increasingly intense hostilities have caused international concern and provoked clashes between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

With fears growing that the violence could spiral out of control into full-blown war, the US announced on Wednesday it is sending an envoy, Hady Amr, to the region.


Saudis divided between electronic, traditional Eidiya

Saudis divided between electronic, traditional Eidiya
Updated 14 May 2021

Saudis divided between electronic, traditional Eidiya

Saudis divided between electronic, traditional Eidiya
  • Due to the ongoing pandemic, many Saudis turn to electronic payments to give out Eidiyas this year as opposed to cash in hand

JEDDAH: As Muslims around the world are celebrating Eid Al-Fitr in their own unique ways, children in every nation tend to always steal the spotlight with their tireless demands for Eidiya money.

Similar to Halloween in the west, children wait eagerly for this time of the year so they can dress up, visit one household to the next, and receive as much Eidiya money (and chocolates) as possible.

However, due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many Saudis turned to electronic payments to give out Eidiyas this year. Still, others prefer the old-fashioned way of handing out Eidiyas in cash while also taking COVID-19 health precautions into consideration.

Saudi dentist Jameela Al-Ghamdi, 29, said being deprived of family gatherings for Eid Al-Fitr last year was frustrating. 

“It was so strange to go through,” she told Arab News. “We never skipped visiting our families on such special occasions.”

She is now relieved because people in her family susceptible to the virus have received the vaccine jab and these special occasions can happen again. 

“I am so happy to dress up with my sisters and also visit family members I have not seen in an unfairly long time,” Al-Ghamdi said.

Her family, although mostly vaccinated, prefers to give out Eidiyas electronically, as Al-Ghamdi says she is a fan of technology. 

“We tried giving out Eidiyas through STC Pay last year and it was very quick, simple and convenient. No need to break down SR100 at minimarkets anymore,” she said.

Ali Mansour, a 33-year-old Saudi industrial engineer at Saudia airline, said the best part of Eid is visiting family. He also added the occasion is not the same without gatherings. Mansour’s family started giving out Eidiyas electronically long before the pandemic because of its convenience.

HIGHLIGHTS

•Similar to Halloween in the west, children wait eagerly for this time of the year so they can dress up, visit one household to the next, and receive as much Eidiya money (and chocolates) as possible. •However, due to the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many Saudis turned to electronic payments to give out Eidiyas this year. Still, others prefer the old-fashioned way of handing out Eidiyas in cash while also taking COVID-19 health precautions into consideration.

“Way before the pandemic and the creations of such platforms like STC Pay, we gave out Eidiyas through bank transfers,” he told Arab News. “Electronic payments are not something new to us. My dad would always transfer the Eidiya into my account, never in cash.” He added that the last time he received Eidiya in cash was probably back in high school.

Young children are the most significant part of the Eid celebration, said Mansour, as they will receive Eidiyas in cash since they cannot use devices.

Saudi Lujain Al-Jehani, 27, said Eid Al-Fitr is extra special this year because people were deprived of the holiday gatherings last year.

“Due to the pandemic, we did not have the opportunity to celebrate together,” she told Arab News. “We are so excited and thrilled. We are going to prepare cakes and activities that we were deprived of last year.”

Al-Jehani’s family prefers to give out Eidiyas in person: “The experience is different, holding cash in your hand,” she said.

Al-Jehani added that most of the elderly in her family do not know how to use electronic payment platforms.

Saudi medical student Renad Bajodah, 25, said Eid celebrations are important experiences and will have a lasting impact on a child’s memory.

“Eid means joy to me. It means coming together and honoring the days of our lives, and celebrating after the completion of the holy month of Ramadan,” Bajodah told Arab News. 

“The excitement of Eid’s eve is what is most beautiful to me, seeing kids wearing their new pajamas all happy on the night of Eid. It also teaches parents how to give to their children. To give them the best experience and beautiful childhood memories.” 

While Bajodah’s family still prefers Eidiyas in cash, they sanitize them thoroughly before delivering in carefully closed envelopes. They like the “traditional old school style,” he said.

Saudi Yara Ahmad, 27, who works in the market research industry, said Eid Al-Fitr means a lot to her. The whole experience from new clothes, delicious food and candy, family gatherings and Eidiya money is something adults and children alike look forward to every year.

Electronic Eidiya did not bode well for her family which continues to distribute cash to children while keeping in mind the sanitization part and necessary precautions.

Saudi Salman Al-Otaibi, 32, who prefers the old-fashioned way of giving out Eidiyas while following hygienic measures, said a new voting poll for Eidiyas that has been circulating a week before Eid Al-Fitr takes away a special element.

“The idea has nothing to do with the purpose of Eidiyas and bringing a smile on children and adults’ faces,” he told Arab News. 

“Because it has become a contest and everyone is running after people in groups and social media sites to vote. I think it is far from what Eidiya is supposed to mean.”


Taif rose oil a ‘treasure to be discovered’, says French envoy

Taif rose oil a ‘treasure to  be discovered’, says French envoy
Updated 14 May 2021

Taif rose oil a ‘treasure to be discovered’, says French envoy

Taif rose oil a ‘treasure to  be discovered’, says French envoy
  • Taif roses have, throughout history, expressed the cultural identity of Taif city, says Mayor Ahmed Al-Qathami

TAIF: “Treasure to be discovered,” were the words used by the French ambassador to the Kingdom describing the rose oil industry in Taif, after his recent visit to the 14th Taif Rose Festival held at Al-Radf Park and organized by the Taif Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Ludovic Pouille toured the old town of Taif at night with representatives from the province and the Ministry of Culture, expressing his happiness to discover the vital market on the eve of the celebrations of Eid Al-Fitr, and to drink traditional coffee in the historic neighborhood of the capital of roses.

He also discovered the traditional professions in the old city of Taif, discussing with the mayor the tourist capacity of the city and opportunities to cooperate with France.

Mesmerized by the fragrance and the pink scenery around him, the envoy walked the roses’ stairway in the festival covered in roses from both sides, describing it as a “stairway to heaven.”

French Ambassador Ludovic Pouille

Dr. Ahmed Al-Qathami, mayor of Taif Province, said that the visit of the French envoy reflects the importance and reputation of Taif roses across borders, “one of the most important tools in promoting the Kingdom’s tourism, culture and economy.”

Al-Qathami told Arab News that Taif roses have, throughout history, expressed the cultural identity of Taif city, symbolizing its beauty thanks to their odor and perfume.

“Taif roses are a source of cultural inspiration to all Saudis for whom the roses are a way of life and a cultural destination that attracted dignitaries and important figures throughout history,” he added.

He added that the visit of the French ambassador indicates the depth of friendship and love he has for Saudi Arabia. “This visit reflects his knowledge and appreciation for the efforts made to sustain the Taif rose industry, and develop its products and promote them at local and global levels.”

Al-Qathami pointed out that Taif roses were, and still are, an “honorable image” for Taif province, and all the celebrations and festivals held in the past and the accompanying exhibitions contributed in shaping its identity as a cultural hub that helped in strengthening the
ties of communication between the city and those who love and admire it.

Adel Al-Nimri, a rose factory owner in Al-Hada, Taif, said that the prominent and important figures who visit Taif and admire the great efforts “give us the impetus to continue and improve the product to reach the highest standards of
production, and export them abroad after gaining widespread fame.”

He stressed the importance of caring for the Taif rose industry and teaching people about it for future generations, adding that Taif roses are known for their purity and fragrance.


Saudi interior minister greets security personnel for Umrah success

Saudi interior minister greets security personnel for Umrah success
Updated 13 May 2021

Saudi interior minister greets security personnel for Umrah success

Saudi interior minister greets security personnel for Umrah success

RIYADH: Saudi Interior Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif on Thursday conveyed the congratulations of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the personnel of the Ministry of Interior and security sectors on the success of security plans for the Umrah season and the advent of Eid Al-Fitr.

Prince Abdul Aziz, who is also the chairman of the Umrah Supreme Committee, expressed thanks to the leadership for the support that enabled the security sectors to perform their duties in this year’s exceptional Umrah season, expressing his pride in the efforts made by security men in the service of Umrah performers and visitors.

Muslims performed Eid Al-Fitr prayer throughout Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

In Makkah, the prayer was performed at the Grand Mosque and led by the Imam of the Grand Mosque Sheikh Saleh bin Abdullah bin Humaid. The prayer was attended by Makkah Gov. Prince Khalid Al-Faisal and a number of princes.

In Madinah, the prayer was performed at the Prophet’s Mosque. The prayer was attended by Madinah Gov. Prince Faisal bin Salman.

The prayer was also performed in various regions and attended by regional governors and senior officials.

The imams who led the prayer congratulated Muslims on Eid Al-Fitr, praying to Allah to accept their fasting, prayers, charity and good deeds.