Abu Nawwas, the Persian Arab

June 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Abu Nawwas, the greatest drunkard of all Arabic poets, was completely intoxicated in one of the streets of Baghdad when the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid passed by with his escorts.

The caliph was embarrassed to see his favorite poet inebriated in public. While he used to drink along with the poet in private, allowing him to be drink in public would have created a big political problem, for the Prince of Believers would be seen as refraining from applying the law of God.

Al-Rashid walked up to the poet, who had the bottle in his right hand. Abu Nawwas hid the bottle behind his back.

"Show me your hand," said the caliph. The poet stretched his left hand behind his back, held the bottle with it and then showed the caliph his right hand.

Al-Rashid said: "Show me your other hand!"

The poet did the same thing again, stretching his right hand behind his back to hold the bottle and showing the caliph his left hand.

"Show them both!" said the Caliph.

Abu Nawwas walked back to the nearest wall, held the bottle against the wall with his back and showed both his hands to the caliph. The caliph, starting to realize the absurdity of his investigation, asked the poet to walk forward, at which point the poet said: "Prince of Believers, you know that if I walked the bottle would fall!"

The caliph and his escorts laughed. However, the poet was still facing a punishment of 80 lashes when the caliph declared: "No one with such wit can be drunk, and I cannot lash him only for holding a bottle; let him go!"

This story is typical of the stories of Haroun al-Rashid and his poet, Abu Nawwas. The character of Abu Nawwas has been the subject of many studies. He was one of the first Arab poets of Persian origin. In a social system based on lineage and blood links, he lacked much social power.

But the social system was not only based on blood links - language was also a great source of power. He mastered Arabic so well that it earned him a place in the caliph's court. He used this position in starting two movements, one in politics and the other in literature. In the first Abbasid period, literature and politics were inseparable because the political system was based on the literary interpretation of the Koran.

Abu Nawwas changed the form of the traditional Arabic poem. Traditional Arabic poets used to start their odes by weeping over the traces of the tribes of their loved ones. A description of tents, traces of camels and trenches dug to protect the tents from floods were the traditional starters of Arabic poems. The poet would then go to describing the beauty of his beloved, then the nobility of his tribe before getting into the main issue of the poem.

The most famous pre-Islamic poet, Imri al-Qais, whose most celebrated ode begins: "Stop my friends, let's weep for the memory of a beloved and a home" set this tradition. When the mobility of the tribal society ended by settling down in great cities like Baghdad, urban life dominated the literary production of the first Abbasid period. Two trends emerged. The first was still attached to the traditional form of the poem and was led by Arab jurists and scholars who still believed in the superiority of the Bedouin Arabic culture, and politically advocated the power of the Arab caliph over the power of his Persian ministers and administrators.

On the other hand Abu Nawwas, a friend of the Persian house of Barmak, ministers of al-Rashid, used to write in another vein. He started his poems glorifying liquor, a direct attack against tradition; moreover he would openly attack the weeping of tents, the description of camels and anything that comes from the desert. In some of his poems he makes fun of Arabs as "locust eaters," an expression that persists in today's Farsi. Abu Nawwas's relation with Al-Rashid and his continuous mocking of the social system were two contradictory aspects of the same movement.

Al-Rashid came to power after a short dispute with his brother, Moussa al-Hadi. In this conflict al-Rashid sought the support of his Persian friends in the house of Barmak, whom he made his ministers. During the first part of his reign he depended almost entirely on their administration. The power of Persians in the state was increasing, and a pro-Persian movement in politics backed the anti-Arab movement in literature. Abu Nawwas was part of this shift.

Later on, when al-Rashid tried to stop the tide and balance the scales, in the space of a few days he ordered the house of Barmak to be executed, their money confiscated and power to be centralized in his hands. The popular story about the reasons of al-Rashid's rage refers to some illegitimate relationship between Jaafar of the Barmak house and Abbasa, Al-Rashid's sister. Of course this story is more the product of storytellers' imaginations than real history. But it is still telling of the power the Persian Barmaks had.

After the destruction of the house of Barmak, Abu Nawwas was put in prison for being drunk. The caliph, now holding the reigns of power in his hands, wanted to build a new image of himself - a pious caliph who did not allow the violation of the law of God. Abu Nawwas had to play into this, and his anti-Arab, pro-Persian, liquor-glorifying tone had to be temporarily abandoned. He was released from jail, only to be cast out of public life by the negligence of al-Amin, son and successor of al-Rashid. Al-Amin's mother was an Arab Hashemite, and he tried to depend less on Persians in the administration. Mamoun, his brother, had a Persian mother, and, based in the Persian province of Khurasan, he started a rebellion against his brother, which ended with him entering Baghdad and becoming a caliph.

Abu Nawwas' legacy remained under Ma'moun's rule. Ma'moun had another concept of Arabism; he knew that being an Arab was not necessarily being a Bedouin anymore, and consolidating the Persian and Greek cultures into the Arab culture so as to make them inseparable was Ma'moun's dream. He constructed the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, which was a great school of translation, bringing all the literary wonders of Persia, India, China, Greece and Rome into Arabic. In this context, Abu Nawwas' legacy lived along, not as a Bedouin, not as a Persian, but as the new Arab. Just like in his story with al-Rashid, his bottle of wine, was not a violation of the law anymore.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/Jun-15/93591-abu-nawwas-the-persian-arab.ashx#ixzz2wG5GAeaZ 
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