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.



Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait
Updated 09 May 2021

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait

Arab coalition intercepts, destroys Houthi drone targeting Khamis Mushait
  • The coalition said it is taking operational measures to deal with sources of threat to protect civilians and civilian objects
  • The coalition confirmed that the Houthis’ attempt to target civilians was a serious violation of international law

DUBAI: The Arab coalition intercepted and destroyed a Houthi drone targeting Saudi Arabia’s Khamis Mushait, state news agency SPA reported.
The coalition said it is taking operational measures to deal with sources of threat to protect civilians and civilian objects.

The coalition also confirmed that the Houthis’ attempt to target civilians was a serious violation of international law.

The Iran-backed militia has been intensifying attacks against Saudi Arabia, targeting key oil facilities and civilians amid international and Arab condemnation in support of the Kingdom’s security.

 


KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan
The findings revealed a 39 percent increase in mobile phone use and 52 percent of people spent their time on other entertainment activities. (Social media)
Updated 09 May 2021

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan

KSA poll finds 72 percent fall in Saudi socializing in pandemic-hit Ramadan
  • Saudis reduced visits to relatives by 46 percent and to friends by 54 percent, the center found

JEDDAH: A new poll has revealed that Saudis reduced their participation in social events by more than 70 percent amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The results were part of a recent telephone study by the Saudi Center for Opinion Polling that surveyed a random sample of 1,190 people aged 18 years and older during Ramadan.
Saudis also reduced visits to relatives by 46 percent and to friends by 54 percent, the center found. During Ramadan, 42 percent of people maintained regular levels physical exercise, while 39 percent of respondents said they watched less television.
The findings also revealed a 39 percent increase in mobile phone use and that 52 percent of people spent their time on other entertainment activities.
Speaking to Arab News, Arwa Meer, an admin supervisor at a Jeddah hospital, said that she had reduced her social activities due to the nature of her work environment.
“Last Ramadan, I was working for the whole period of the COVID-19 curfews and lockdowns. Even if I had time, I wouldn’t see anyone because I was in constant contact with COVID-19 cases. That was something that made me refrain from seeing anyone,” Meer told Arab News.
However, this year has also created a similar situation, she said. “There’s potential exposure to COVID-19 cases as I continue my work at the hospital. Some of my colleagues got infected, so that made me refrain from social gatherings and visits even more. Even with my family at home, I try to avoid physical contact with them as much as possible, just as a precaution not to possibly infect anyone if I was a carrier.”
When asked if her visits to friends had also changed, the supervisor said the pandemic forced her to become “less social.”
She added: “The pandemic has made us all a little less social actually. It’s been a long time since I’ve last seen my friends. I see them maybe once a month. This Ramadan, I didn’t see my friends at all, not for iftar or sahoor.”

HIGHLIGHT

The results were part of a recent telephone study by the Saudi Center for Opinion Polling that surveyed a random sample of 1,190 people aged 18 years and older during Ramadan.

Sharing the same sentiment, 28-year-old Talal Al-Shammari from Jeddah said that it is “only natural” that family visits will decrease during the current circumstances.
“Nobody wants to be put in such a situation to be infected in the first place. Everyone is afraid for their family members over themselves,” he told Arab News. “No one would ever want to harm their relatives or friends, especially the elderly, those with a weaker immune system or children.”
The survey found that online shopping was also unaffected during Ramadan when compared with previous levels.
Meanwhile, 68 percent of people surveyed reported that higher levels of advertising during Ramadan did not affect their buying decisions. “Another surprising result is that the majority (79 percent) were reluctant to eat in restaurants during Ramadan,” the survey said.
Other results revealed that total hours of sleep during Ramadan increased for just 25 percent of respondents, while the majority of those surveyed said that they did not “significantly change their lifestyles” during Ramadan.
The survey also found that 58 percent of people did not notice a change in their moods or emotions during the period.
Work discipline remained the same for 81 percent of people, as did working hours for 79 percent of respondents.
The Saudi Center for Opinion Polling is a not-for-profit organization authorized by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, and the Ministry of Commerce.


Saudi authorities intensify preparations at Two Holy Mosques ahead of 27th and 29th nights of Ramadan

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
Updated 09 May 2021

Saudi authorities intensify preparations at Two Holy Mosques ahead of 27th and 29th nights of Ramadan

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques said they are working in joint cooperation around the clock. (SPA)
  • The authority intensified COVID-19 preventive measures inside the Two Holy Mosques

JEDDAH: Authorities in Saudi Arabia intensified preparations to receive pilgrims and worshipers for the 27th and 29th nights of the Muslim month of Ramadan at the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.
Hani bin Hosni Haider, spokesman for the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques, said the authority intensified coronavirus preventive measures, particularly purification and sterilization operations, and technical and transportation operations, including providing vehicles inside the Two Holy Mosques.
Haidar said staff are working around the clock and have also intensified regulating entry and exit mechanisms and services provided to pilgrims and worshipers under the supervision of head of the presidency, Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais.
He said that the presidency coordinated with relevant authorities to organize the movement of pilgrims and worshippers inside the Grand Mosque and the Prophet’s Mosque and its squares, to ensure their safety and to fulfill the precautionary health requirements.
Haidar said the “presidency was keen to intensify its efforts to achieve the aspirations of the Kingdom’s leadership and highlight the great efforts the state is making toward the Two Holy Mosques.”


Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 
Updated 08 May 2021

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 

Saudi authorities bust hashish, khat smuggling operations 
  • A total of 41 people have been arrested in connection with the drug smuggling attempts

RIYADH: Authorities in Saudi Arabia have arrested several people in connection with the seizure of a large quantity of illegal drugs in the Jazan and Najran regions.
Lt. Col. Mesfer bin Ghanam Al-Quraini, spokesman for the Border Guards, said that the seizures came as part of the continuous monitoring of criminal drug activities targeting the Kingdom.
Al-Quraini added that 802 kilograms of hashish was seized in Jazan and Najran, and 25 individuals suspected to be involved in the smuggling operation were arrested, including 14 Yemeni nationals, four Ethiopians, three Saudis, two Somalis and two Pakistanis.
He said that among several other security operations conducted by the Border Guards, 25.4 tons of khat were seized in the Jazan region and 16 people were arrested, all of whom are Yemeni nationals.
The spokesman said: “The Border Guards will continue to carry out their tasks with great determination to confront attempts to smuggle narcotic substances across all borders, and arrest those involved.”


Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust
Preliminary legal measures have been taken against those arrested in preparation for their referral to the Saudi Public Prosecution. (SPA)
Updated 09 May 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust

Saudi Arabia’s Hail region arrests 11 people in quarantine measure bust
  • Saudi Arabia has administered more than 10.3 million COVID-19 vaccines so far

JEDDAH: Saudi authorities have said that they are “remaining vigilant” and continuing to penalize people who violate health and quarantine measures in the Kingdom.
On Saturday, media spokesman for Hail region police Tariq Al-Nassar said that 11 people were arrested in the region for violating quarantine rules after they were notified of positive COVID-19 tests.
Preliminary legal measures have been taken against those arrested in preparation for their referral to the Saudi Public Prosecution.
Provisions and penalties mean that those who violate quarantine instructions will be punished with a fine not exceeding SR200,000 ($53,000), or imprisonment for a period not exceeding two years, or both.
If the violation is repeated, the punishment is doubled. Expats who violate these terms and repeat an offense will be deported and prohibited from returning to the Kingdom after completing a sentence.

FASTFACT

The total number of coronavirus cases in KSA reached 425,442.

On Saturday, 997 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in the Kingdom, meaning that 425,442 people in Saudi Arabia have now contracted the disease.
Saturday also saw 1,026 new recoveries, bringing the total number of recoveries over the course of the pandemic to 408,676. The Kingdom’s death toll rose to 7,059 after 14 new COVID-19-related deaths were recorded.
Saudi Arabia has administered more than 10.3 million COVID-19 vaccines so far.
There were 69,482 PCR tests carried out in the past 24 hours, raising the total number conducted in the Kingdom to more than 17.4 million.