Wednesday 29 November 2023

Review: Arabian Satire: Poetry from the Eighteenth Century by Hmēdān Al-Shwē’ir.

I’ve been reading eighteenth century literature a long time, and I’ve read many eighteenth century satirical poems, most of them from (and about) London. So I was very intrigued when I picked up Arabian Satire: Poetry from the Eighteenth Century, a collection of poems by Hmēdān Al-Shwē’ir. 

He lived in the Najd region in what is now Saudi Arabia in the first half of the eighteenth century. He lived at the same time as  Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, a reformist preacher who teamed up with Muhammad bin Saud, the Emir of Diriyah the first of the Saud dynasty. Wahhab strikes me as the Muslim John Wesley, leading a sort of back to basics movement.. not that Al-Shwē’ir is any part of this, he lives further south and the only poem that may be referring to the two reformers is one about rutting camels.

Al-Shwē’ir styles himself as a peasant, a hard-working man who has spent countless years developing rows of dates that he had to abandon when the shifting political strifes trampled his area. He describes himself as having advised a Shaykh, but not a very good one, who bottled during a raiding party leaving Al-Shwē’ir and everyone else to die. He represents himself as an old man within his family, with a screeching harridan for a wife, children who don’t respect him and an eldest son who is lazy and luxurious, heaping all his money and attention on a beautiful but useless second wife. There’s an element of ‘old man shouts at cloud’ about the poems, but he plays into that agéd duffer persona for effect.

The poems are written in the Nabati style, a colloquial form of oral poetry that is still practiced today. There was a discussion in the introduction about whether Al-Shwē’ir was even literate. Interestingly, the Arabic of the region is an old one, and so many of these colloquial, oral poems share a lot in common with classical, formal poems of other places. Metre is an important element, with different metres being employed for different themes and styles. Like a lot of oral poetry, there is also a lot of use of stock phrases and images - though the introduction does say that Al-Shwē’ir plays a little fast and loose and invents his own elements. It’s a shame that the translation doesn’t really communicate these different metres, but it is a translation which is clear and easy to read.

What struck me, as a reader of English eighteenth-century satirical poems, were the similarities and difference between Al-Shwē’ir’s works and the Scriblerans. 

Satire is often ugly, maybe not in form, where it can take beautiful language, but in purpose. The British satirists thought their role was to scourge the hypocrisy of the world, they weren’t afraid to name names and attack individuals. Pope took particular pleasure in his Dunciad in condemning all those he thought were degrading culture to having pissing contests and swimming in shit - he furthered the thrust by suggesting they might like it. 

Al-Shwē’ir similarly attacks hypocrisy and pretty much every poem includes a curse on what he would like to happen to someone or another. People, often the residents of whole cities, are invited to boil in the sand, be attacked by wild animals or be gruesomely murdered by their enemies. In some ways he goes further, condemning his own family and neighbours to terrible strife for perceived slights. 

However, the British satirists seem pampered in comparison. Even Swift, in his full baby-eating ‘savage indignation’ seems a soft touch compared to Al-Shwē’ir. While the British satirists did have real problems to attack, like Swift at the indifference of the government to the Irish plight, most of the times, their arguments were about silly culture wars. They spent most of their time arguing viciously against academic practices or modern writing styles they didn’t appreciate. Al-Shwē’ir’s problems include rival groups massacring towns or the very real threat of desert-based drought or starvation.

While the British satirists wrote to an audience in coffee houses and living rooms, Al-Shwē’ir’s point of view is characterised by extreme paranoia. No-one is trust-worthy, everyone is useless, his life seems made of death, revenge, violence and the desperate grab of power. He may invoke stock phrases about praying to Mohammad as often as a dove coos on a tree, but there’s no religion or tempering agent in the poems. He lives a life where the only morality is ‘do violence unto the other person before they do violence unto you.’ There’s no time for beauty or rapture, only pain, disappointment and fear. There’s even a grovelling poem, the Scriblerans would never have feared enough to have to write a grovelling poem. What’s more, as much as Al-Shwē’ir attacks hypocrisy, there are a number of times he advises it. He doesn’t live in a world where truth has much purchasing power.

Al-Shwē’ir does live in a world with sex though. The British satirists (especially the Scriblerans of Pope, Gay and Swift) are an oddly assexual bunch but Al-Shwē’ir is not. He clearly appreciates a small waist and large bum, and is prepared to go far more explicit. The two pornographic poems, coming after a spate of advice poems, were very surprising. Even more so when you realise the sex he’s describing/imagining is between his son and daughter-in-law. He and the Scriblerans would have agreed that women are evil though.

One of the things I most enjoy about the British satirists is their playful way with literary forms. The notes told me Al-Shwē’ir also did a lot of this - but not having a lot of knowledge of Arabic literary forms, I could only be told he did. It’s also very possible my characterisation of the bleakness of Najd life and the whole piece in general is simply a result of my ignorance. Certainly, someone coming to the British satirists without an understanding (and more importantly feeling) of the time would see a bunch of privileged twits being overly nasty to each other about really petty things… indeed, that’s one of my favourite elements of their work. So, it’s likely I took Al-Shwē’ir’s bleak depiction of his life too literally without really appreciating playfulness or pleasure within it.

With the caveat of my own ignorance in mind, I didn’t enjoy this work, finding in Al-Shwē’ir a broken old man who hates and is suspicious of everyone he sees, shouting cynical wisdom into an empty desert and occasionally daydreaming about his son having kinky sex.

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