Poems by Nasir, the Hebrew and Arabic Litterateur. Edited and translated by Alan Elbaum
The author of the texts translated here is a Jewish poet and popular entertainer named Nasir, who enjoyed local acclaim in Mamluk-era Cairo around the year 1300 CE. After his death, he was forgotten. Many of his papers, fortunately, wound up in the trove known as the Cairo Geniza, the heap of about 400,000 scraps of medieval trash preserved in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat (Old Cairo). Last year, I began noticing manuscripts in his distinctive handwriting, and I’ve now assembled approximately 40 fragments containing his previously unknown poetry and rhymed prose. About two-thirds of the material is written in Judaeo-Arabic (i.e., Arabic language in Hebrew script), and the other third is in Hebrew.
Nasir composed solemn dirges and festive songs, liturgical poetry, erotic odes, lampoons of stingy hosts and tactless guests, retellings of biblical tales, a jingle about basketmakers and fava-bean vendors (“if you pop these beans in your mouth, you’ll be perfumed with fragrance and freshness”), and a great deal of love and wine poetry.
Both of the following texts are riddled with lacunae and uncertain readings. These translations are literary rather than literal, though every liberty is rooted in some aspect of Nasir’s originals.
I’ve selected two of Nasir’s more “popular” works for translation in this issue on folk culture and literature. The first, “Love’s Cure,” is not technically a poem but rather a composition like
a maqama—a picaresque tale in rhymed prose—containing a mock medical prescription for the lovesick narrator. This text is based on a vignette composed by the prose writer al-Wahrani (d. 1179), a set piece which surfaces in various places in later Arabic literature, including in one version of the Tale of Attaf from the Thousand and One Nights. There are also adaptations in medieval Hebrew literature, notably in the Tahkemoni (maqamas) of Yehuda al-Harizi. Nasir adopts the conceit and the template from al-Wahrani, but he expands it dramatically with variations and flourishes of his own. Nasir’s text is currently split across four manuscripts located at Cambridge University Library (T-S NS 264.27 + T-S NS 224.181 + T-S AS 145.360 + T-S 12.537). This translation is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, and potential users should note that it was written on the back of a dismembered marriage contract.
Glory be to God alone.
I exhort you, O lovers, to pledge fealty to the beautiful.
Prostrate yourselves before them, dispel doubt with certainty, and say,
Alhamdu lillahi rabbi l-‘alamin,
Who granted us union after long estrangement and division.
May God favor the one who looks after his needs—
And the one who best pleasures his beloved.
When I experienced, dear readers, how passion overcomes piety, Wastes the body, increases its pains, and drowns it in the seas of ardor, I complained to a doctor of the symptoms of love.
He said, You need a prescription,
So I said, Give me a medicine to cure me of discord and distress,
For my passion is unbearable, and my pangs are overpowering.
He said, Take, with the blessing of Love and the aid of the Heart,
1⁄2 pound pure lovers’ union, picked from the heads of the envier and the censor,
10 stalks marshmallow of fidelity, peeled of the husks of discord and scorn,
2 ounces purslane seeds of union, shaken of the dust of distance and division,
2 ounces myrobalan of secrecy, pitted of the kernels of rejection and exile,
2 ounces violet of amorousness, sifted of the bran of parting,
2 ounces embracers’ plum and galbanum of coupling, shaken of the days of separation,
2 sticks cassia of coquetry, purged of abandonment and listlessness,
20 buds […] of union, pruned of the branches of disunion,
1/2 pound sugar of reproof, 2 ounces garden lady and jujube,
6 measures each Yemeni flirtation, Indian erectness, Cairene throes, Damiettan pillow talk,
1 ounce each Jewish striptease, Christian lust, Abyssinian moans,
1 ounce each courtiers’ debauchery, Indian dancing, Cairene elegance, Fustat fondles,
1 ounce each Nubian physique, Kurdish quivering, Turkish beauty, Baghdad chic,
1 ounce each countryside cooing, Damascene banter, Frankish clamor, Aleppan cuddles,
10 measures each flowing locks, coy smiles, enfolding of bosoms, pressing of hips,
3 ounces bud of the rose of the cheek…
1000 kisses, grated and crushed… 100 on the right cheek,
100 of rose and jasmine,
100 of wine,
100 dove pecks, 100 of sugar…
Soak it all in fiery wine…
If you take the medicine in wintertime,
You must be in a villa of honeycombed arches and ornamented walls.
Should you fear any discomfort, recline on a couch,
Bedeck your chamber with Abadani mats and Byzantine carpets…
And light forty candles and four candelabras…
…lily of the valley, poppy anemone…
…narcissus, moringa, violet, basil…
…music, meat, wine…
…pistachio, lemon drops…
…fingers of Zaynab…
Continue thus for seven days and leave the house only to go to the bath. When you emerge from the bath, don a Venetian gown, a satin vest, a striped robe… or a squirrel-fur blouse. Next, make a spritzer: three ounces each syrup of citron pulp, apple with musk, and rose- and Levantine lily-water. Nap for an hour, and when you awake, feast on broth and boiled hens.
If you take the medicine in springtime,
To arouse its secret power, lie in a bower on a bed of flowers,
Among rose and pomegranate blossoms, oxeye and jasmine,
To the strains of the oud, the river’s murmurs, the songs of the birds,
The mourning dove and the nightingale, the thrush and the blackbird,
The ring dove and the starling, the quail and the sparrow,
And the splish and the splash of the waterwheels.
Let the nay transport you, the dancers excite you,
The breeze cool you, the flowers perfume you,
Amidst violet, jonquil, and narcissus—
The blue, the yellow, the radiant lights.
If you take the medicine in summertime,
You must be on a terrace, high and spacious.
Cancel your plans, engage in no business;|
Have coq au vin for every meal as you lounge on silk brocade.
Make your pastime the flask and the pitcher,
Your fruit the apple and the apricot,
Your dessert the kissing of beautiful faces.|
Pass your days in reveries, and banish all worries—
What shame in this? As the poet says,|
Whenever I resolved to mend my ways,
Wine and beautiful faces held me fast.
My Wine—My Religion
The second text, “My Wine—My Religion,” is a vernacular strophic poem, a zajal, and a cousin of the folk genre of the debate poem. The narrator, an evangelist for wine and an enemy of hashish, offers one of the only known depictions of the pothead (al-mastul) in medieval Arabic or Jewish poetry. It is found in a pocket notebook of 14 pages, currently located at the National Library of Austria (PER H 134).
My Religion—My Wine
1 – Hashish has a way of scrambling the brain.
You aim for Qalyub, and you land in Banha.
2- That dude over there, stoned out of his mind,
He’s like a ghoul, eating all in his path.
3 – Hearken and heed me, consider and judge.
Eating hash will wreck you—try it and see.
4 – As a man of taste, I never eat hashish.
I swear to God, I don’t touch the stuff.
5 – It’s wine that I love, so pour me some bubbly.
How delicious, how sweet! Let’s never be parted.
6 – My wine sells for cash, paid to the penny.
As for hashish, you can’t sell it on credit.
7 – Swallow some grass, you’ll be high in two bites.
You’ll hardly see straight in that delirious mess.
11 – Make merry in your cups, and shun hashish.
It’s like a scorpion, its sting is rancorous.
12 – It’s bound your legs and shackled your arms.
Hashish is no kohl—it’s set your eyes aflame.
14 – When you’re sickened by weed, stop eating the stuff.
It lays lions low—you’ve got no chance against it.
15 – It’s bankrupted you, taken the shirt off your back.
Your fortune has flipped, but all’s not lost—yet.
17 – Your mind is spinning, you’re slacking at work.
Before it kills you, rise up and kill it.
18 – For all these faults, I cast it far from my heart.
Pour me some wine, and I’ll sing you its praises.
19 – It froths in its cup, banishing misfortunes,
And all exclaim, How lovely in the cup!
20 – The vine’s daughter enraptures whenever she comes.
I’ve found nothing so lovely, so sweet in the mouth.
21 – Hashish saddens, but wine seduces—
Her delights put to shame even my praises.
22 – O cupbearer, pass me the daughter of the jugs.
She banishes cares and summons my joys.
24 – O friend, rise! Quickly, make our cups froth over.
When evening falls, bring a candle and light it.
25 – Wake up in the morning, and lounge on the grass,
And bring us the mats, and sit and arrange them.
26 – The vine’s daughter’s a maiden, winsome and shy.
Bring the hundred-dinar dower if you want to drink.
27 – How I’ve wandered the climes for the princess of liquors,
How I’ve searched the abbeys for a monk who would sell her.
28 – Hey, monk! I said, I’ve come to you craving.
I’ve brought just the man to betroth your girl.
29 – He turned and said, Ahlan, a hundred welcomes.
First show me the dower, then take her away.
30 – Without further ado, I forked over the money.
I said I was pleased and carried my wine off.
31 – And now, I can barely keep her admirers at bay.
All demand her aroma, all submit to her charm.
32 – Friend, I’m in torment, how long it’s been gone!
Pass my love back, put her right there between us.
33 – I’m Nasir the Jew, and I revel in my cups.
These are my boasts, these verses I publish.
35 – My religion—my wine—I’ll never abandon.
You can’t change my mind, so pour another round.
Alan Elbaum is the senior research assistant at the Princeton Geniza Project and a medical student at the UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program. Click here to follow him on Academia.edu
This article was first published in ArabLit Quarterly, a magazine that focuses on translations of Arabic works, medieval and modern. You can learn more about them through their website, and get their issues by signing up to their Patreon.
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 5847 fol.122v