Justin Marozzi

The hell-raiser from Baghdad

The hard-drinking libertine Abu Nuwas for one, whose rollicking, subversive verse set 8th-century Baghdad in uproar

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.

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