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The Arab and Hebrew Poetical Heritage of Gynocentrism in AL-ANDALUS


Arabic was the official language of the state in Al-Andalus, first in the Umayyad Caliphate and then in the Party Kingdoms, the muluk at-Tawa’if that rose in the wake of the disintegration of the Caliphate. It was not the native language of all Andalusis, who spoke Arabic, Tamazigh, and Romance languages respectively, but rather was a lingua franca that united the various ethnic and religious groups living in Al-Andalus. Classical Arabic was the language of Islam, of the court, the legal system, of scientific inquiry, of poetry (Wasserstein 1991; López-Morillas 1999). Arabic writers of Al-Andalus participated in the vast literary culture of the Arab world, which stretched from Al-Andalus in the West to Mughal India in the East. In some cases, they introduced new styles that distinguished Al-Andalus as a center of innovation at the far edge of the Arab world. Over time the Caliphal capital at Córdoba became known as a court that competed (or at least imagined itself competing) with Abbasid Baghdad in poetic, artistic, and intellectual refinement (Monroe 2004, 3–71; Cachia 1992; Jayyusi 1992). As elsewhere in the Muslim world, religious minorities such as Christians and Jews have not been barred access to public life and regularly served in highly-placed positions at court. Jewish courtiers distinguished themselves, and by the reign of Abd Ar-Rahman III in the tenth century, a man like Hasdai ibn Shaprut could rise to prominence at court, where he served the Caliph as physician, advisor, and diplomat. During this time Dunash ben Labrat developed a Hebrew poetics that mirrored the aesthetics of the Arabic poetry of his day, mapping Arabic meters, motifs, and genres onto Biblical Hebrew language (Schirmann 1956, 31–41; Brann 1991, 29–33; Cole 2007, 23–24). Over time, this Arabicizing Hebrew poetry became the dominant aesthetic in Hebrew poetry in Al-Andalus and beyond. This embrace of Arabic poetics meant not only that Sephardic poets such as Dunash ben Labrat and those who came after him adopted the meters, motifs, and commonplaces of the Arab poets, but also that they began to use Hebrew poetry to express themes and give voice to ideas that were not in the service of the liturgy (Schippers 1994). Arabic thus enabled Hebrew to move beyond the synagogue; for the first time since the Biblical era, Hebrew poets waxed lyrical over the generosity of great men, the beauty of young girls and boys, the delights of drinking wine in a fragrant garden, and the philosophical (but not always devout) musings of the poet. In turn, these secular poetics inspired innovations in the poetry of the synagogue, which was now populated by the gazelles and beloveds of the Arab poets, who took their place beside the traditional Biblical motifs with which Hebrew poets had been praising God since the Biblical era (Scheindlin 1986; Scheindlin 1991; Cole 2007). In its mimicry of Arabic, Hebrew developed a secular poetics and a rich corpus of poetry both profane and devout that would go on to become the classical tradition of modern Hebrew literature. However, were one to open a modern history of Hebrew literature, the poems of Andalusi authors such as Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Moses ibn Ezra would not include their Arabic writings, which were just as “Jewish” as they were “Andalusi.”



Modern literary historiography obscures just as much as it edifies, and would have us think, as Menocal has written, that the work of medieval poets was “little more than the primitive stages of what will eventually become the real thing" (Menocal 2004, 61) whether that real thing is “Arabic,” “Hebrew,” or “Spanish” literature. When literary critics write about cultural crossings, mutual influences, or exchange they inevitably turn to translation as one of the conduits of literary material between linguistic or national traditions. Poetry is notoriously resistant to translation, and in the medieval period, we see almost no translation of poetry that is not scriptural. In the Andalusi period, the closest we come to poetic translations are perhaps the Hebrew rhyming prose works translated from Arabic, such as Judah al-Harizi’s translation of the Maqamat of al-Hariri, the Mahberet Itti’el (al-Harizi 1952, 1965, 2001). However, even in these cases, the poet replaces the Arabic verses of al-Hariri interspersed with the rhyming prose with new original verses in Hebrew. At the court of Alfonso X “The Learned” of Castile-León, poets composed verse in several languages, including Latin, Galician-Portuguese, Provençal, and Hebrew (Procter 1951, 130–132; O’Callaghan 1993, 144–146; Salvador Martínez 2003, 2010; Snow 1977, 7; Cabo Aseguinolaza et al. 2010, 398; Targarona Borrás 1985; Alvar 1984). Only Castilian, the official language of Alfonso’s court, was not used for poetry. So resistant was poetry to the translation that even when the Castilian itself was not considered a fit vehicle for original poetic composition, there is still no evidence of poetic translation into Castilian (Burnett 1994; Jacquart 1991; Gil 1985; Sáenz-Badillos 1996a). Why might this have been? In a time and place where writers produced volumes of history, law, religious narrative poetry, scientific treatises, and all manner of secular prose in Castilian, not until the mid-fourteenth century do courtly poets begin to compose in the language of the court? Castile was ironically out of step with Galicia, Catalonia, Occitan, and Sicily, where poets had been composing profane courtly verse in the vernacular since the late eleventh century when William X of Aquitaine famously penned the first lines of troubadour verse (Bonner 1972; Akehurst and Davis 1995; Gaunt and Kay 1999). Frederick II of Hohenstaufen’s court at Sicily, in so many ways a cultural model for that of Alfonso X in Castile, was home to poets who wrote sonnets in the vernacular that would be the inspiration for the Tuscan stil novisti and in turn for Petrarch (Gensini 1986; Abulafia 1988, 272–279). But not in Castile. It was not for a lack of poets or appreciation of verse. Alfonso retained many poets who versified in Provençal, Galician-Portuguese, even Hebrew (Milá y Fontanals 1966, 179– 199; C. Alvar 1984, 181; O’Callaghan 1993, 144; Beltrán 2006, 165–166; C. Alvar 1978, 35–38, 54, 81, 123, 230). Alfonso himself authored (or at least directed) a large collection of Marian verse in Galician-Portuguese, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, as well as a corpus of satiric and jocular verse in the same language, the Cantigas d’escarnho e maldizer. But although Castile thrived as a language of science, history, law, and even religious narrative poetry, it would make no inroads into courtly poetry until well after Alfonso’s time (C. Alvar 1984, 7). Why?



We really cannot be certain. It is possible that Galician-Portuguese and Provençal, prestigious poetic languages in their own right, were sufficiently intelligible to be serviceable as poetic languages for educated Castilian speakers. Another is that courtly audiences did not feel it necessary to fully comprehend poetry presented at court —and to be honest, we have very little information about poetic performance at the court of Alfonso. What the poets themselves tell us mostly refers to Alfonso’s patronage rather than to the actual conditions or practices of composition, performance, and circulation. It may well have been, and this could be the case for the whole of the Peninsula, that the material record that has arrived at us is only the tip of the iceberg of medieval poetic practice. We know very little about the performance practice of medieval poets (a bit more about the Arabic and Hebrew poets of the Peninsula who documented, or at least fantasized about poetic gatherings, readings, and the composition process, as did some of the Provençal troubadours). One Hebrew poet, Judah ibn Shabbetay, who lived during the reign of Alfonso VIII, reports having performed his rhyming prose narrative at court, where Alfonso rewarded his performance generously (Ibn Shabbetai 1991, 2: 33, ll. 779– 793). This was probably a fictional, quite possibly parodic account meant to demonstrate the poet’s influence, but gives us some idea as to the nature of poetic performance at courts where multiple poetic languages thrived (Nykl 1946, 381; Cynthia Robinson 2001, 280). Interstitial poetics are the tip of the iceberg of poetic practice. National literary history tells us that the glorious presence of your national language has a glorious past as well. Interstitial poetics appear as a blip on the screen of this narrative, a glitch, a fluke, or at best a quaint innovation. But these moments are indices of a broader poetic practice that has been lost to us by the literary scholarship of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This vision of medieval poetic practice was forged in a present that privileged monolingualism, and in which the role and function of poetry itself had changed and no longer looks very much like what it was in 1000 or 1400 CE.




Today popular poetry is still very much a part of our lives, mostly in the form of popular recorded music, which we consume and enjoy, but we rarely sing for others, except perhaps in ritual settings (Christmas caroling, “Happy Birthday,” etc.). The romance or ballad, once a very living tradition, survives in Mexico as the corrido but even in Spain is in decline as a living tradition (Díaz Roig 1992; Smith 1996; Menéndez Pidal 1968; Catalán 1970; Orta Velázquez 1981). There is arguably little to no poetry at court or in the halls of power of our governments, and a high government official rarely publishes verse. Thus the practice of poetry itself has been transformed in such a way as to be unrecognizable to an aficionado of twelfth-century Santiago, León, Valencia, or Granada. In al-Andalus itself, this interstitial was not always a question of Arabic/Romance bilingualism or diglossia. Andalusi vernacular Arabic differed a great deal from the Classical Arabic used in poetry; so much so that one had to learn the poetic register as a Classical language in school. The Arabic of the home and the market was not the Arabic of the mosque, the academy, and the court. Even so, there are poetic texts that tell us Andalusis sought to experiment with mixing the vernacular with the Classical, to bring the street and the court into contact in their verse. The earliest and most famous examples of these are two poetic genres that began life in al-Andalus and later spread through the Arab world. The muwashshah was, according to legend, the innovation of a blind poet from Córdoba named Muqaddam of Cabra (10th century). In his day, Classical Arabic verse was declaimed or recited in monorhyme verse but was not sung to a melody. Muqaddam defied these conventions: he composed songs in Classical Arabic that were set to popular melodies from oral tradition that one might hear in the market. What’s more, his verses were written in a variable rhyme scheme, like the popular melodies upon which he based his compositions. To make things worse, he ended his poems with a couplet from the popular tune itself. Critics would later call this couplet the kharja, or “exit” from the poem, which readers of Spanish will recognize as Garcia (Armistead 1987; Monroe 1992; Zwartjes 1998; Abu-Haidar 2001; Armistead 2005).




This inter-register interstitial would become common practice with the learned glosas of popular couplets written by the courtly cancionero poets of fifteenth-century Castile, but in Córdoba in the tenth century, it was highly unorthodox, even shocking to prevailing literary tastes. Muqaddam’s experiment in linguistic and poetic interstitial was a success, and soon poets throughout al-Andalus and the broader Arabic world began to compose muwashshahat based on popular melodies and incorporating a bit of a popular verse as the final couplet. The sudden shift in register and/or in the language (in the case of a kharja in Andalusi Romance) shocked and delighted audiences, according to the twelfth-century literary historian Ibn Bassam (Zwartjes 1998, 59–60). Some poets took this example of early Arabic literary vernacularization and ran with it, composing zajals in Andalusi Arabic using a verse form (aaab cccb dddb, etc) which would come to be known in Italy as the ballata and in France as the virelei (Zwartjes1998, 94–124). In the twelfth century, the Andalusi poet Ibn Quzman would achieve renown working in the zajal genre. He left an entire corpus of scandalous poetry in a quasi-colloquial register of Andalusi Arabic (Ibn and Corriente 1984; Monroe 1985; Buturovic 2000). However, because he operated in the interstices of what would become modern national literature, he never achieved that status accorded to other Bacchic poets who wrote in Classical, rather than colloquial Arabic (Monroe 2013). This literary appreciation of the Andalusi vernacular was a defining characteristic of Andalusi literary culture (López-Morillas 2000). Later writers such as the Granadan Abu Yahya al-Zajali would edit collections of popular sayings and proverbs that elevated Andalusi Arabic both as a poetic language and as a source of culturally authentic lore that passed muster at court (Al-Zajjali 1971). The success of the muwashshah and zajal genres echoed through Arabic cultural history. Well into the age of recorded music, iconic Arab singers such as Fairouz (Lebanon) and most notably Umm Kulthum (Egypt) recorded dozens of hit muwashshahat. Singers throughout the Arab world continue to cultivate the muwashshah in both secular and devout settings (Reynolds 2000; Jonathan Holt Shannon 2006, 29–30, 32, 117–119, 132; Jonathan H. Shannon 2007). Current-day practitioners of the zajal in Morocco or Lebanon use the form as a vehicle for parody, satire, and invective and do not necessarily consider it to be an Andalusi tradition (Beinin 1994; Hazran 2013).




The literary and linguistic porousness displayed by Arabic Andalusi poets inspired similar innovations in the Hebrew poetry of al-Andalus and later in Christian Iberia. Jewish Andalusi poets followed this fashion and composed scores of muwashshahat in Biblical Hebrew, with final couplets or kharjat written in either Andalusi Arabic or the dialect of Romance spoken in al-Andalus. These Hebrew compositions added another voice to the interstitial poetics of their moment, blending the language of the bible with the imagery, conceits, and habits of thought of the Arab poets of the dominant culture in which they lived. Like their counterparts who wrote only in Arabic, Jewish courtiers in al-Andalus were well educated in Arabic letters, including the Qur’an and its commentaries (Decter 2006). Their Hebrew muwashshahat blended images from the Song of Songs with the gazelles and beautiful boys and girls of the Arab tradition, with the lovesick maid of popular Andalusi song (Roth 1982; Roth 1991). Tradition tells us (though we would do well to question it) that the first poet to bring Arabic poetics over into Hebrew was the tenth-century courtier Dunash ibn Labrat, who studied in Baghdad under the sage Saadia Gaon and returned to al-Andalus to shock the Jewish literary establishment with his innovation which would forever transform Hebrew poetry. Labrat’s innovation was to map the traditional meters of Classical Arabic poetry onto the Hebrew language, which some contemporary critics saw as hammering a square peg into a round hole. Despite these objections, Labrat’s innovation transformed Hebrew poetry forever, and for centuries poets in the Iberian Peninsula and beyond wrote using the Arabic metrics he pioneered. Labrat’s wife, whose name has been lost in the archive, is thought to be the author of the only surviving Hebrew poem composed by a woman from the Andalusi period. Jewish writers would cultivate the zajal and muwashshah genres for centuries, in all the languages of the Peninsula. The great scholar Maimonides, who was born in Córdoba but later migrated to Fez and thence to Cairo, decried the composition of vernacular (Ar. ajamiyya, literally “non-Arabic” but in the Iberian context referring to either Andalusi Arabic or Andalusi Romance) as “improper,” from which he can conclude that it must have been fairly commonplace among Andalusi and North African Jews (Monroe 1988). Andalusi Hebrew writers likewise cultivated narrative genres, such as the maqama (rhymed prose narrative interspersed with verse) in Hebrew, adapting the formal, thematic, and aesthetic conventions of the Arabic maqama in Hebrew (Drory 2000a, 2000b). As with poetic genres, they populated the structures of the Arab poets with Biblical Hebrew language, and in their lines the commonplaces and imagery of the Classical Arabic tradition mixed freely with Biblical toponymy, imagery drawn from the Psalms, the Prophets, and other poetic texts, the narratives of Genesis and Exodus, and even the technical priestly texts of Leviticus (Yellin and Pagis 1972, 118–149; Pagis1976, 70–79; Kozodoy 1977; Schippers 1994; Cole 2007, 253).


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