Welcome to the history page, if only to
find refuge from the madness of the current crisis. As a native
New Yorker, it is hard for me not to mention the recent terrorist
attacks on New York and Washington.
I worry about us, the human race that is,
and wonder how, at this advanced stage of our development,
some of us still feel the need to resort to tactics that are
more in keeping with the cruelty and religious hysteria of
the Middle Ages or even the mass exterminations of the Roman
Era. Until we learn that the written word is a far more powerful
instrument for change and revolution than violence, all of
our strides will come to naught. How can it be that there
are still those among us who have not learned that violence
only begets violence?
I heartily grant that both poles of the
Arab/Western dichotomy contain an element of truth. However,
out of respect for Gary's wishes that this website be non-political,
I will refrain from that discussion . . . unless I can devise
a way to work it into a future history page. Forgive my ill-advised
attempt at humour at this bleak hour.
As I write my column today, the day set
aside by the US and the EU as a day of mourning, I seek my
personal reconciliation by reaching deep into history to retrieve
the very best of the Islamic world: its accent on learning
and erudition, especially poetry. It seems uncanny to me that
last week I should have put forth al-Sabbini, the Moorish
poet, as a possible topic for this week's page. I now stand
by the inner voice that prompted me to do so and present you
Al-Sabbini: the Ibicenco Poet
During the exotic years of Moorish rule, there was born in
Ibiza an illustrious poet named al-Sabbini. His literary career
was well documented, both during and after his life, for he
was considered one of the greatest poets of Islamic Spain.
His fame outlived him by several centuries, a fact verified
by his inclusion, nearly two hundred years after his death,
in an anthology of Andalusian poets called 'The Book of the
Champion' Banners' (1253). The anthologist, Ibn Said al-Magribi,
ranked al-Sabbini as THE foremost poet of his time, a bold
superlative considering the abundance of bards spawned by
Unfortunately, very little is known about
the poet on the personal level - where he lived in Ibiza,
who his parents were, whether his upbringing was humble or
privileged, etc. The most I can provide is a general description
of the times in which he lived.
Al-Andalus: Erudite Empire
Though the date of the poet's birth is unknown (due to what
I romantically assume to be his humble origins) his death
occurred in 1077. This point of reference situates the prime
years of his life during the reign of King Ali, the benevolent
sovereign of Denia and the Balearics (1044/5-1058/9). Islamic
Spain was renowned for its achievements in the arts and sciences,
and despite a progressive political disintegration, the level
of cultural and intellectual activity remained high throughout
the Middle Ages. Ibiza, its small size notwithstanding, was
Once the island was integrated into the
al-Andalus sphere of influence, the literacy rate among the
general population rose considerably. As Erna Paris points
out in her excellent work 'The End of Days': "Public
literacy was a government policy." One indication of
this upturn is that tombstones from the Moorish period were
engraved with very few grammatical and spelling errors. Obviously,
the most important members of society could afford the best
in funerary rites, but even the roughest grave markers, crafted
by the simplest masons, were chiselled with surprising accuracy
- in Arabic, of course.
Based on these archaeological findings,
it can be assumed that basic reading and writing skills were
possessed by at least a small sector of the lay population.
When compared to the rest of medieval Europe, where mass illiteracy
was the rule, punctuated only by the clergy and civil servants,
even a five or ten- percent literacy rate is remarkable. Paris
informs us that, " a parallel class of educated laypersons
did not emerge elsewhere [in Europe] until the thirteenth
century." As a point of interest, the first university
ever founded, Karueein, was built by the Moors in Fez in 859.
Compare Oxford (1170), Bologna (1160) and Paris (1150), the
first European universities.
All of this indicates that al-Sabbini lived in a society which
put a high premium on literary prowess. Paris explains that:
"Poetry was the medium of history, thought, satire, desire,
love, courtly patronage, and communication in general."
Sabbini's balladry was therefore rewarded by lucrative financial
returns. Here is one poet who never starved in a garret! Obviously,
with a gift as appreciated as his, the Ibicenco was swept
away from island life and into the most elevated circles of
mainstream Moorish culture.
His most prestigious appointment was as
poet laureate in King Ali's court, but he also accepted assignments
on commission from other kings and noblemen. Al-Sabbini's
verses did not come cheaply. He charged a set fee of one hundred
gold dinars for a 'qasida' or 'eulogy poem'. The poet once
allowed himself the immodesty of explaining his high rates
to al-Mutadid, King of Seville, saying, "I hope you understand
my insinuation: the daughters of my inspiration are so highly
appreciated, as you know, that he who would wed one of these
virgins must pay a handsome dowry."
One of al-Sabbini's most famous poems is
'The Goblets' written for King Ali. The following fragment
was translated into Catalan by the prestigious Ibicenco author
and poet Marià Villangómez and, in turn, translated
rather clumsily by me into English:
Heavy were the goblets when, in emptiness,
They were brought to us,
But when filled with the pureness of wine,
They became so light they fairly soared,
In the same way that bodies are lightened
When infused by spirit.
Well, the Islamic world is not what it once was, nor, unfortunately,
is American statecraft. God Bless this global society we've
gotten ourselves into.