Al-Andalus. The Rich and Surprising Variety of Love Lyrics.

Al-Andalus. Love Lyrics.

Al-Andalus, the name the Moors gave to the land they occupied in the Iberian Peninsula from 711 to 1492, enjoyed a highly sophisticated culture anchored by the Arabic language, a refined medium of expression that was given added authority and prestige by being the sacred language of the Qu’ran.

Within Arabic tradition, lyric poetry was the oldest and most venerable literary vehicle reaching back to pre-Islamic days.  Poets were revered for their ability to assemble words, using a wide variety of techniques (e. g. alliteration, rhyming schemes, metaphors, complicated puns). Not for nothing were they known as “jewellers with words.” Tradition, then, was bolstered by revelation, so it not surprising that writers in Arabic in al-Andalus should turn for inspiration to their linguistic and cultural ancestry.

Still, despite the political strength of al-Andalus from the 8th to the 10th centuries, the high point of Andalusi poetry was not attained until the end of the 10th and particularly the 11th and 12th centuries when al-Andalus suffered a radical weakening of its political power and fragmented into small taifa states. Surprisingly, the conditions turned out to be favourable for literary pursuits. Not only were many of the taifa leaders themselves poets (e. g. al-Mu’tamid of Seville, 1040-95), but cultural expression (in architecture as well as poetry) in a way made up for the political impotence of the taifa states as a means of self-aggrandisement.

In poetry, poets became effective tools in a literary battle between taifa kings, as well as useful and prestigious mouthpieces to eulogise the leaders themselves.  The panegyric tradition was a long and cherished one in Arabic culture and its propaganda value widely recognised: it legitimised the role of the leader and upheld his authority at the same time that it proclaimed the artistry of the poet (and the better the poet the greater prestige of the king, and the greater the poet’s reward!).

But the pen of poetic praise could also be armed with satire and directed at the enemy; it could also ease and oil the wheels of diplomacy. Poetic competitions, often in the form of riddles on given topics, sharpened the wits of the participants and landed them prestigious positions at the same time that it whetted the appetite of a cultured elite well versed in the intricacies of poetic compositions. Perhaps no better indicator of the significance of poetry and poets is the observation that the major part of the budgets of the taifa states was spent on poetry.

Fruits of this love of poetry are the several literary anthologies gathered by Andalusi scholars, from the Book of Comparisons of Ibn Kattani to the huge anthology of verse compiled over a 100 years by the family of Ibn Said al-Magribi (d. 1286) of Alcalá la Real (near Granada). Consisting of 15 volumes, the anthology was begun by Ibn Said’s grandfather (Abd al-Malik) a prominent scholar and completed by Ibn Said himself, who then compiled a one-volume selection whose best known title in English is now The Book of the Banners of the Champions and Standards of the Elite, or more simply The Banners of the Champions. In addition, there were collections of poems –known as Diwan or Divan– by individual poets, gathered and arranged usually by contemporaries in recognition of their artistry.

The Love Lyrics of al-Andalus.
What was this poetry like? If we leave aside the political poems, panegyrics, satires, military praise and religious works etc. and consider that most popular topic of lyric verse, love, we find a world rich in sensual evocations, surprising imagery (including erotic female descriptions, and frequent allusions to wine and moments of indolent pleasures). What is equally surprising is 1. the wide acceptance of poems dealing with homoerotic or homosexual love, 2. the attention paid to nature, from imagery drawn from it and inserted into love poetry to garden scenes and the surprising observance of what might be called “unpoetic” objects (e. g. an artichoke); 3. the lively activity of women poets.

As a generalisation, Andalusi love poetry can be divided into two kinds, one inspired by the Udhri concept of love as unrequited service, the beloved’s superiority and sovereignty, and the lover’s madness. This strand has been suggested as having significant influence on Provençal courtly love poetry, the principal and most prestigious voice in lyric poetry in Europe from the 12th to the 14th centuries.

The other is a much more earthly kind where the relationship between lover and lady is expressed in human terms, ranging from praise of the lady’s beauty to much more hedonistic, erotic and even sexually explicit portrayals. But what stands out is the artistry of the poets: the bold metaphors, the unexpected and surprising insights or fields of associations, the sudden tangential jumps, often achieved with remarkable verbal economy.

We’ll look at some of the ways in which Andalusi poets conveyed their feelings, but readers are reminded that all the poems are translations, and translations are at best only approximations of the originals.

Let’s look first at the following by Ibn Ammar (d. 1086), vizier to al-Mutamid of Seville. The poem is called simply “The Beloved:”
She was a little gazelle with narcissus gaze, lily touch and daisy smiles.
Her earrings make signs to me and her pendants extend from her ears to listen to the melody of her girdle. (Transl. from Poemas arabigoandaluces # 9.)

The description is of the face and hands of the poet’s (i. e.narrator’s) lady, but with the exception of her “ears,” we are left with a very impressionistic portrait conveyed by metaphors drawn from nature. She is small and slender (“gazelle”), her eyes are narcissus, her hands lilies and her teeth daises. Beauty with colour and aromatic freshness, and music suggested by the melody of her girdle (to which presumably little bells are attached). Add to that a suggestion of fragility and delicacy, with a touch of whimsy.

The following, by Abu Walid Ismael ibn Muhammad (d. c 1048) is entitled “Modesty:”
When you offer those present  –like the wine bearer who serves the wine glasses— the wine of your cheeks, glowing with modesty, I hurry to drink it;
for this wine is made delectable by the eyes of those who, on looking at you, make you blush, while the other wine is made delectable by the feet of the harvesters. (Transl from Poemas arabigoandaluces # 6.)

Comparisons with wine, and indeed the praise of wine, were common in Muslim verse despite the injunctions against alcohol in Islam. [It may have been acceptable since in the Qu’ran wine is plentiful and enjoyed by the righteous in Paradise (e. g. Sura 47, Sura 83, Sura 56).] Here there are two kinds of wine: the metaphorical referring to the modest blushes of the poet’s lady, which he drinks with his eyes, and the kind produced by the harvesters as they tread the grapes. Both are delectable.

The impact of this description is conveyed by the implied boldness of those looking at the lady, sufficient to make her blush, and the poet’s admiration for her virginal modesty reflected in the blushes. At the same time, the image of wine suggests an underlying erotic tone or element as the poet “drinks” her with his eyes, while his lady’s blushes reveal something of her hidden feelings.

Al-Mutamid (d 1095) is more open about the feelings exposed by his cheeks. Famous as the taifa king of Seville who called on the Almoravids for assistance following the fall of Toledo (1085), al-Mutamid writes of the separation from his beloved in the following terms:
Filled with the pain of separation, I am writing to you, and my longing is like one who has been exiled from paradise.
My pen cannot write without my tears tracing lines of yearning on the pages of my cheeks.
If it were not for my search for glory, I would visit you passionately, as the dew visits the petals of the rose.

The separation of lovers is an old and common theme, often conventionalised. Here, however, we know that the king was alluding to a real separation, prompted by the affairs of state (hence the search for glory). The allusion to paradise would recall for the Muslim reader the images of Paradise in the Qu’ran, where the blessed would enjoy the companionship of chaste maidens. But cast out of Paradise and therefore apart from his beloved, the poet cannot control his tears which, by running down his cheeks, publicise his grief like pages open for all to read. The image of the tears “tracing lines of yearning” on his cheeks is striking, bringing a king’s suffering down to a level understood by all, regardless of rank. It’s a frank confession that even the mighty have their weaknesses.

There is a poignant note at the end, where the passion is tempered by the delicate images of dew and rose, and the fragility of human pleasure is implied in the transitory nature of those same images.

The poet Ibn Utman al-Mushafid (d. 982) from Córdoba uses a metaphor that most readers acquainted with the Western lyric tradition will recognise:
She spoke to me and I said, “Some pearls have fallen.” And she looked down at her necklace to see if it had broken.
Then a smile lit up her face and she showed me another string of pearls. (Banner # 60)

Teeth as pearls is now a well-worn metaphor, but it only became popular in European literature after Petrarch in the 14th century, and here we have it deliciously used in 10th-century Córdoba.

What is refreshing here is the rapidly drawn context of dialogue followed by the smile that reveals the lady’s beautiful teeth. The poet-admirer’s subterfuge directs both the lady and us to the necklace she is wearing, and when she realises that he has tricked her, her response –which is the key to the whole poem– reveals the real purpose of the deception: the surprise, which is to get her to smile and thereby reveal another string of pearls. Al-Mushafid does not tell us that the lady’s teeth are like pearls; by surprising us, he lets us find out for ourselves, and makes us participants in the discovery as we move from necklace to teeth.

The preceding poems are restrained when compared to the more erotic overtones of much of Andalusi poetry.  One poet, Ibrahim Ibn Khafajah (Alzira, just south of Valencia, 1058-1138), for example, evokes the approach of his lady and the night of love enjoyed by them in “Love Scene”:
With gazelle glances, with her white deer-like neck, with lips red like wine and teeth like bubbles
Intoxication made her recline languidly in her gown embroidered with gold which wrapped itself around her like shining stars entwined around the moon;
the hand of love clothed us by night in a robe of embraces which the hand of dawn tore off. (Banner # 170)

At no time do we see or have a physical description of the beloved, but the animal imagery and the evocation of wine and bubbles convey a highly charged picture of sexual readiness. But the physical act, too, is hidden from the reader by the very language that insinuates it, as the poet cleverly cloaks the act in the same imagery that gives the poem its impact. Instead of describing the commonplace, the act of love, Ibn Khafajah transforms it by personifying love and dawn, the former providing the opportunity under the cloak of darkness and the latter breaking it all up. Nothing, then is straightforward, but wrapped in a world of apparently unrelated images brought together to provide a highly impressionistic image of the beloved and the sexual act.

Cleverly, too, Ibn Khafajah, has conveyed a striking impression of himself as a sensual man, without any self reference. He does this through his selection of imagery with erotic overtones: “gazelle glances,” “lips red like wine and teeth like bubbles,” her “languid” posture, “robe of embraces.” It is he who has endowed the lady with these erotic images.

Ibn Khayrah of Granada (11th century) describes “An Enchanting Girl” in audaciously suggestive terms:
O my friends, a young girl with a slim waist has taken over my heart; she bends and enchantment spreads from her hips.
She has breasts like spear points that are aimed only to guard her fruit from being plucked. (Banner # 163)

Not only is the picture of the slender, young girl bending down salacious but the weapon image of the last line implies an underlying violence when the admirer transforms the simple motion of bending down into a potential battle as he implies the possibility of “plucking” the “fruit” the young woman guards.

Ibn Quzman (1078-1160), perhaps the most accomplished, if disreputable, Andalusi poet, could write verse that verged on the pornographic. In one poem, he describes his love-making with a Berber girl leaving nothing to the imagination:
Hardly had I beheld that leg/ and those two lively eyes,/ when my penis arose in my trousers like a pavilion, and made a tent out of my clothes/ … /I, by God,  immediately set to work:/ either it came out or it went in,/ while I thrust away sweetly, sweetly as honey,/ and my breath came out hotly between her legs… (Medieval Iberia, pp. 181-83.)

This a blunt and unforgiving description of the sexual act that robs the poem of any erotic suggestiveness/ delicacy. But it may be that Ibn Quzman had a specific aim in mind. A constant thorn in the side of the puritanical Almoravid rulers of the time, his poetry often seemed aimed at undermining their religious authority.  The above lines come from a poem with language offensive to the austere Almoravids. The poem begins “My life is spent in dissipation and wantonness” and predictably contains references to wine as well as women and sex.

The Umayyad emir of Cordoba, al-Hakam I (r. 796-822), mixes sensual imagery with the more courtly idea of servitude. Although the political ruler, he is no ruler of his passion, which renders him weak and powerless, even when his complaints are directed at some slave girls:

Willow branches that move to and fro among the sand dunes,
when fleeing from me, determined to reject union with me.
They rule over me, although I am the king; but my strength,
because of love, has been weakened
into the languor of captivity.
Who will help me against the tyranny of my body?
They make me surrender –through love– my strength and power. (Rubiera Mata 58)

Contemporary readers of this poem would not fail to recognise behind the opening metaphors from nature sensual allusions to waists and hips, nor would they be surprised that all-consuming passion render a man powerless, even a ruler. The nature metaphors are codes, but the power exercised by a woman through her attractions is real enough, even if she is no more than a slave.

Images from nature, of course, are not only a form of coded language; they are also used frequently to evoke memories of happier moments with the beloved or to intensify a particular image of human relationship. Andalusi poets give a decided impression of voluptuous pleasure in the lingering recall of past sensations through the evocation of images drawn from nature. Ibn Abi Rawh’s (Algeciras 12th century) poem “River Honey” ends on a note of melancholy, but only after reliving intensely a night of pleasure with the beloved:

Turn off by the River Honey, stop and ask about a night I spent there, despite the censors, until the break of day,
sipping the wine of kisses or picking the roses of modesty.
We embraced as branches above the streams embrace.
There cups of fresh wine were passed by the hand of the north wind.
And the flowers, needing no fire, gave off the scent of aloeswood,
and the candles in the mail coat of the pool were like tips of lances.
And so we spent the night, until the cold of the jewels made us draw apart.
And only the song of the nightingale aroused my melancholy. (Banner 161)

Ibn Utman al-Mushafid, whom we earlier saw evoking teeth as pearls, makes a striking comparison with the quince (a very hard, bitter sweet fruit that looks like a yellow apple, it is used to make jellies and preserves):

It is yellow, as if it were clothed in a tunic of narcissus, and has the aroma of penetrating musk.
Its perfume is that of the beloved and its hardness is like her heart; but its colour is that of her passionate and emaciated lover.
Its paleness is borrowed from my paleness; its aroma is the breath of my lady.
When it swelled up fragrantly on the branch and its leaves had woven for it brocade gowns,
I stretched out my hand gently to pluck it and place it like a perfume holder in the middle of my room.
It wore a downy, ash-coloured dress which fluttered over its smooth, golden body.
And when it finally lay bare in my hands, with no more than its narcissus-coloured chemise,
it reminded me of the one I cannot name, and the passion of my breath withered it in my very fingers. (Poemas arabigoandaluces # 40)

The poem is ostensibly about the quince, but everything about it reminds the lover of his lady. It is full of suggestive imagery although there is nothing here to indicate past pleasure; on the contrary it is a picture of frustration because the lady is indifferent to him, leaving him –as he says– pining or “yellow” (the colour of the fruit).  Where, then, does the suggestive quality come from? It comes primarily through the involvement of the senses, the sight of the ripe fruit, its musk-like aroma, the touch as it plucked off the branch, even sound as the leaves flutter off. But the true relationship between them is implied by taste: the quince looks and smells beautiful and feels firm, but it has a sharp, acidic/ bitter taste. Appearances are deceptive. The lover may in fact be able to control all aspects of the lady’s life, but if he does not have her love all he will get is surface beauty, which although beautiful in itself lacks that vital ingredient that makes happiness complete.

Andalusi love lyrics introduce us to a world rich in sensory evocations. Female descriptions are regularly eroticized by allusions to and metaphors drawn from nature: animals that suggest litheness (the gazelle is especially favoured), flowers or trees whose colours and heady perfume are complemented by the intoxicating presence of wine. Together, they evoke the mysterious world of Arabian nights.

Bellamy, James & Patricia Owen Steiner  Banners of the Champions. An Anthology of Medieval Arabic Poetry from Andalusia and Beyond Selected and transl. from the original Arabic of Ibn Said’s anthology, Madison 1989.
Constable, Olivia R Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources. Philadelphia 1997.
Garcia Gomez, Emilio Poemas arabigoandaluces Mexico 3rd ed 1946 (based on Ibn Said’s collection, The Banner of the Champions.
Menocal et al eds The Literature of Al-Andalus Cambridge 2000.
Monroe, J. T  Hispano-Arabic Poetry: a Student Anthology Berkeley 1974.
Rubiera Mata, Ma Jesús   Literatura hispanoarabe Madrid 1992.
For a very good and wide ranging anthology of poetry from al-Andalus, see