“A young soul in my ageing body plays,

Though time's sharp blades my weary visage raze

Hard bitter in a toothless mouth is she,

The will may wane, but she a winner stays. …”

Poetically capturing the essence of our deep fears of getting old and losing to time, one of the Arab world’s greatest poets ironically died too young to really feel the words he so timelessly composed. Abu At-Tayyib Ahmad ibn Al-Husayn Al-Mutanabbi, known to the world simply as Al-Mutanabbi, was killed when he was around 50. A controversial figure in his own lifetime, he was murdered in 965 AD by those he insulted in his poetry. That is how seriously poetry was once taken. Al-Mutanabbi’s poems can easily sometimes be described as arrogant.

“I am the one whose literature can be seen (even) by the blind And whose words are heard (even) by the deaf….”

And one of his most famous lines:

“Swift steeds, dreary nights, and the desert, all know me full well As do the sword, the spear, the paper and the pen.”

He often mocked time and praised the immortality of his poetic lines, and given how we are still reciting his creations, perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all. Some believe this extra ‘self-pride’ demonstrated by the great poet was perhaps his way of compensating for his family's poverty. Born in 915 in Kufa, Iraq, he strongly believed in his majestic grandeur to the point that in his youth, he claimed to be a prophet, hence the name Al-Mutanabbi ("the Would-be Prophet"). That is one theory. According to some other interpretations, he got this name after he likened himself to Prophet Saleh in some of his verses while others claim it is his political activities that won him the unusual name. Whatever the reasons, Al-Mutanabbi started composing poetry at the age of nine, and rose to fame because of his sharp wit and intelligence. He primarily wrote panegyrics in flowery, bombastic, and highly influential style marked by improbable marvelous metaphors. His great talent brought him very close to many leaders of his time, and he praised many kings and leaders in return for gifts.

Besides a turbulent life, where he went from being a favorite at royal courts to being dismissed and having to wander with no home, and then a favorite again and again losing shelter and so on, there is a side story to this 10th-century Arab poet that is often forgotten. He had a very special relationship with books. In his youth he was so poor that he could not afford books. And then, as he grew in importance, he wrote a whole poem dedicated to the importance of a book and he would write and create his own collection of books that he would carry wherever he travelled. The sense of nostalgia, the isolation, sense of loss and yearning for a home, wisdom and philosophies on life are what make pieces by Al-Mutanabbi relevant to today’s Arabs. Arabic poetry loses a lot of its essence and its multiple hidden meanings when translated, but nonetheless, it is always fascinating to discover just how deep and timeless these oral Arabic treasures are. A man without limits, he even tried to conquer time, and perhaps won.

"I want Time to aspire to my will A wish Time cannot aspire for itself."

——

Written by Rym Tina Ghazal