You know you’re in good hands when the dedication reads: ‘To the writers, drinkers and freethinkers of the Arab and Islamic worlds, long may they live.’ Abu Nuwas was all three, and a complete hoot. Why he is so little known in Britain should be a mystery. But outward-looking as we are as a nation, we remain peculiarly parochial in our literary tastes outside the Western canon.
Born in the late 750s in Ahvaz, Abu Nuwas came to Baghdad during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al Rashid in what was Islam’s golden age. In and out of favour as much as he was in and out of prison, he led a free-spirited, wine-drenched, sex-filled life, recorded in electrifying verse.
For many Arab readers, he was the most famous bacchic poet, immortalised in his swashbuckling appearances in The Arabian Nights. Yet for the real cognoscenti, as Alex Rowell emphasises in his excellent introduction, Abu Nuwas was much more than that. To the vast corpus of wine poetry one must add hunting odes, amorous verse, including scandalously homosexual poetry, panegyrics, lampoons, ribaldry, pious verse and even kufriyyat, or infidel verse. Abu al Atahiya, the transcendent poet of the Abbasid era (750–1258), considered Abu Nuwas the greatest poet of all time. His influence, according to one of his admirers, was so profound that it helped determine the range of Arab, Persian and Turkish love poetry for many generations to come.
You don’t need to be a genius to see why he got into trouble so often, or why high-minded clerics then regarded him as the devil incarnate, just as Islamists do today. He’s still too hot to handle for the Saudis, who removed all mention of pederasty from Abu Nuwas’s entry in the Global Arabic Encyclopedia.
But never mind all that. What about the poems? The first one I came across, ‘The Wine in Heaven’, is vintage Abu Nuwas:
As for that which is forbidden
Whatever could be dafter?
A thing banned in this world
Yet abounds in the hereafter.
In Abu Nuwas’s world nothing is sacred. Everything is a target. Among his most dangerously subversive work is that in which he satirises Islam. He delights in mocking aspects of his faith, from daily prayers and fasting in Ramadan to the haj and the clergy.
Someone asked: ‘Would you do the Haj?’ I said:
Yes, were there no pleasure left in Baghdad.
He ridicules the tired, nostalgic poetry that venerates the traditional life of the desert Bedouin, and revels in their austerity and sentimentality.
Nicer than a campsite in Dhu Qar
Is a vintner’s tavern in Anbar…
And intimacy with gentle maidens
And a young gazelle wrapped in zunnar
Are more pleasant than a tiring desert
And the mirage’s cruel canard...
Mischief and good humour stalk these pages together. ‘Pour me the Haram before the Halal’ is the sort of title that could get you killed today. Even in one of his formal panegyrics to the caliph Harun, Abu Nuwas still manages to weave in wine and love, astonishing his fellow poets with his audacity.
Many a glass like the sky’s lamp I drank
Over a kiss, or romantic appointments
Of wine aged till it became as though
Light slipping through cracks in the heavens…
Who knew that Arabic has more than 30 words for wine? And who could not smile at this couplet?
What is folly but being found sober?
What’s life but pleasure and inebriation?
This is a sparkling collection of 125 wine poems, brought to life again in Rowell’s elegant, effervescent translation. There is an important point here. Reading Abu Nuwas reminds one of an earlier Middle East, whose pluralism, tolerance, satire and freedom of expression represented ‘an utter and dazzling repudiation’ of the slaughter and hatred of today’s pitiful Islamists. Like the ‘hellraising, omnisexual hedonist’ Abu Nuwas, I’ll drink to that.