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.…Born and bred on the soil of the desert, the singers of the Age of Ignorance have left behind them a record of their race that richer and wiser nations will find hard to equal.

                                             Gertrude Bell

Wadi Rum

Al lail w´al khail w´al beida ta´rafuni.

Night and my steed and the desert know me.                                   Mutanabi

Photo Carl Raswan

Tradition is a very important part of Bedouin life, as we have already discussed in the chapter on Bedouin society. That included the tradition on horses, and according to the importance of the horse it is a fairly rich one. Bedouins relied solely on oral tradition, handed down over centuries, but at least large parts of it can be found in some written sources in different books, many by Arabic authors as early as the Middle Ages, and also quite a lot by travelers from abroad, mainly from later times. The most important source on the recent tradition on the horse for us today is the Abbas Pasha Manuscript. Oral badu tradition can be regarded nearly synonymous with their poetry, as also the narratives (salfah) were often in the form of rhymes and mostly were mixed with poems (qasidah) (Rasheed).


According to Jabbur the folk tale is called qissa. Madawi al-Rasheed´s book “Politics in an Arabian Oasis” dedicates an unique chapter to “the power of poetry”, titled “making history” and discusses its role in the history of her family, the house of Rasheed at Hail. It seems appropriate to the author to transfer her thesis on oral badu tradition to the traditions concerning horses that will be discussed in this chapter.


The Role of the Horse in Shaping Bedouin Society

The German authority on the Arab horse, the late Erika Schiele, compiled the following passage about the Bedouin poets, worth to be counted in the full length of one page from her book (translation by the author): “Nomadic life in Arabia developed mainly between Christ and Muhammad, but from the third century on the true Bedouin life with its raids, its fratricidal wars, its blood feuds, but also with its knightly ethos emerged only with the help of the horse. It transformed the camel-nomads into the aristocrats of the desert, that did not touch the soil but by the lips of their animals and had nothing but contempt for the settled, that by ploughing the soil did harm to it. The “wanderers over the sand” regarded the earth to have been created to read its tracks, and not to dig into it. Attacking the “slaves of the soil” was therefore not a disgrace, but a fair right. After the rise of Islam this time before Muhammad was named the Time of Paganism, the “Days of Ignorance”; at the same time it was also called the “Golden Age”. Reason for the latter was the all important role of the rhythmic prose, the singing language of the story tellers in the black tents and of the desert poets and errant knights. It became the mother of the classical Arabic language, later reflected in the qur´an and until today bonding all Muslim people worldwide. It was the time of the lonely knights, wandering from tribe to tribe across the steppe and reciting their melodies and heroic epics under the starry sky, singing of wars, courage, and victory, praising their strong steeds and boasting of their adventures and successes:


That many deserts did I cross, That many raids did I saddle my camel for, That many victories my fast steed carried me to, That many husbands of beauties did my lance toss into the sand, That many favors of fair ladies did I enjoy.


The poets found thankful and untiring listeners in the Bedouins, following their verses with an unique sense for the beauty of language. From the fourth century on the manifold rock-art diminished slowly, instead the spoken word, the passionate poetic word, became the only form of art in the desert. It is supposed that the very beginnings of the Arab poetry originated from the rhythmic steps and the gargling sounds of the camels and that we can perceive as first roots of this poetry the little songs of the camel riders and drovers, to be heard until today. Men sing it to hold their animals in a steady pace and at the same time not to fall asleep themselves: in a single brittle pitch, coming high from their throat and dying away in the clear air. The camel, the Arab say, only marches well, as long as it hears the rider on his back singing or talking.” (Schiele, rendering prominent by the author)

Impressions of Wadi Rum

The dromedary was the backbone of the nomad society of the Bedouins, but only the horse transformed it into the world of the poets and knights of the Golden Age, influencing the Islamic world until today and becoming also a model for the knights and minnesingers of Middle Age Europe. In German, the word “Ritter”, translated into English with knight, means rider. Besides, Shakespears´s Hamlet is supposed to be based on the story of Antara ibn Shaddad. The generic Arabic word for horses, khayl, is said to origin in the word ikhtiyal (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) in walking. The horse among the Arabs at the same time became a symbol for speed, prowess, glory, happiness, immortality, fertility and vital force (Sumi).


The importance of the horse for badu society is summed up by Jabbur: “There is no image that reflects the Arab sense of pride as beautifully as does the image of an Arab on a thoroughbred horse. Indeed, the word furusiya (“horsemanship”) in the Arabic language, and its connotations of gallantry, nobility, might, and fortitude, are derived from the terms for the mare (faras) and the horseman (faris), and the word faris has also become to mean “hero”. As their (unknown) poet said: If hero you´d be, then be like ´Ali; Or if poet you´d be, then be like Ibn Hani.” „A thoroughbred mare is called faras, the plural being expressed by the word hejl /kheil, and as, with but a few exceptions, only mares are bred, the word faras has come to mean horses regardless of sex, the rider being known as fares; the plural fursan, is rarely heard, sanam or hejl / kheil being used instead” (Musil). Two poets became known under the name al-Khayl: Zayd al-Khayl (“Zayd of the horses”) and Rabia al-Khayl. Zayd al-Khayl was the first man among the Arabs to become famous for his horses (Jabbur). “He owned many horses, so many more than anyone else in his tribe that he got his name, Zayd al-Khayl. He survived into Islamic times and came to visit the Prophet, who then named him Zayd al-Kahyr, “Zayd of the good deeds”. Among his many horses were al-Hattal, al-Kumayt, al-Ward, al-Kamil, and Lahiq.” (Jabbur, citing al-Damiri). 

The Development of the Arabic Language


To understand the role of poetry in the Arab societies of the past and today, it is vital to know the origin and the development of the Arabic language. Arabic belongs to the group of Semitic tongues, like Hebrew, Amharic and other Afro-Asian languages. The Arabic script developed from Nabataen Aramaeic. The oldest archaeologic finding, a tomb-stone from the Syrian desert with both Arabic and Nabataeic inscriptions, dates back to the year 328 AD. In the beginning Arabic was a mainly oral language. Pre-Islamic Arabia was known as al-djahilija (ignorance) and its inhabitants as al-ummijun (those not able to read or write). This time is also famous for its poets (sha´ir, pl. su´ara:). Poets like Imru al-Qays or Antara Ibn Schaddad recited their qasa`ed (long poems, sing. qaseeda/qasidah) on the market-places of Mecca or other important places of assembly in the Arabian peninsula. Thus their works were handed down orally, from generation to generation. The written Arabic only emerged with Islam after 622 AD, as the qur´an, the holy book of Islam, was written in the Arabic of the poets. This was the first and until today most important written document in Arabic language and became, together with the lyrics of the pre-Islamic Golden Age, the foundations of the Arabic language. Therefore Arabic oral poetry is regarded the earliest form of Arabic literature. This poetry can be dated back to the third century AD, but is believed to exist longer, especially in the light of its richness and sophistication. For the badu society, the camel was not only prerequisite for living in the desert, but also put its imprint on daily life to such a great extant that the Arabic tongue in the whole and the Arabic poetry especially were formed and molded by the dromedary. The reader is referred to the chapter on the pasturing of the camels in the part on Bedouin Society and to the above sentences by Schiele. From the little songs sung by the herdsmen and travelers on or with their camels developed the highly artistic Arabic poetry, worth to be investigated in detail, as it reveals not only the self-assessment of its society but also gives many details on the badu horse.

Arabic Classical Poetry


Arabic classical poetry (ash-shi´ru al-arabiyu) is categorized into two main types, 1. rhymed or measured, and 2. prose, with former greatly preceding the latter. There are 16 different meters of rhymed poetry. The meters of this rhymed poetry are called buhur (seas, sing. bahar). The measuring unit of that seas is known as taf´ilah, and every bahar contains a certain number of taf´ilas which the poet has to observe in every verse (bayt) of the poem. The measuring procedure of a poem is very rigorous. Sometimes adding or removing a consonant or vowel can shift the bayt from one meter to another. Also, in rhymed poetry, every bayt has to end with the same rhyme (qafiyah) throughout the poem. (Source: Wikipedia) Sumi claims: “In a poem a bard attempts to create an image with words.…The qasidah (pl. qusdan/qasaid) is a poly-thematic, mono-rhymed poetic form generally ranging from 15 to 80 lines. Traditionally the qasidah consists of three sections: al-nasib, al-rahil, and al-fakhr. Al-nasib, or the opening section, deals with elegiac motifs. Al-rahil contains poetic person´s travel scene through the desert on his mount, the she-camel. The third part, al-fakhr, or al-madih, comprises the poet´s praise or boast of himself and his tribe and the madih (eulogy) offers praise. The word qasidah is derived from either qasd, object or aim, or from qusd, meaning to break things into halves, as each bayt is divided into hemistichs and therefore the whole poem consists of two halves. 


The original meter employed in Arab poetry was the rajaz, a short jambic verse, always ending with the same rhyme, and believed to be the measure of the rude songs of the camel-drivers. Later, and until the pre-modern time, more meters were in use. “In these poems there existed two main patterns of meters:


1. majzu` (curtailed, i.e. it contains only two feet) and adheres to the following patterns of long and short syllables:


- - . - - - . - mustaf´ilun mustaf´ilun

- - . - . - - mustaf´ilun fa´ulun

- . - - - . - fa´ilatun fa´ilun

. . - . . - fa´ilun fa´ilun


2. Odes in the ghayr majzu´ (uncurtailed) modes adhere to special meters, the most perfect of which segment the line into the following rhythm patterns: - - . - - - . - - . - - mustaf ´ilun mustaf´ilun fa´ilatun - - . - - . - - - mustaf ´ilun fa´ilun fa´lun In both the majzu` and ghayr majzu` there were many familiar variations in prosody (´arud): khabn, tayy, qabd, ´asib, and others” (Jabbur). 

Sir Charles Lyall`s explanation of classical Arabic poetry, does, as Sowayan stresses, also apply to all the later badu poetry (the so called Nabati or pre-modern poetry): “The form and spirit of ancient Arabian poetry was very distinct, though it is not easy to bring it within the classes known to European criticism. It is not epic, not even narrative, except in so far as the description of incidence serves to heighten the picture of character. Still less is it dramatic, since the only person and measure known to the speaker are himself and his own ideal. …The Arabian ode sets forth before us a series of pictures, drawn with confident skill and first hand knowledge, of the life its maker lived, of the objects among which he moved, of his horse, his camels, of the wild creatures of the wilderness and of the landscape in the midst of which his life and theirs are set, but all, however loosely they seem to be bound together, are subordinate to one dominant idea, which is the poets unfolding of himself, his admiration and his hates, his prowess and the freedom of his spirit.…No Poetry better fulfils Mr. Matthew Arnold´s definition of a “criticism of life”; no race has better succeeded in drawing itself for all time in its grandeur and its limitations, its best and its worst. It is in this sense that the poetry of the Pagan Arabs is most truly their history. … What a poet said in his rhymes he had experienced himself, what commended him to his hearers, what commends him to us, is the accuracy and truth with which he drew for them that which he and them knew. And joined their mind and life of every day to the choicest words and noblest form of utterance which their speech permitted.”


This genre expected the reader, or better hearer, to be familiar with its formal and thematic traditions (Sumi). Although highly “academic” and “fixed” in both form and content, the qasidah described every-day life, and especially the wasf section created a mirror image of objects (Sumi) from first hand. In the author´s opinion, the rigid system of rhymes and orders the poets had to follow was a mirror of badu society itself, with its orders of family, clans, and tribes and its unwritten codex of honor and laws, there the individual had to stand back against the group. Nevertheless in it was found an individualist, the poet, and his purpose in creating the poetry, the unfolding of the poet himself (Lyall). 

The subject of both classical and Nabati qusdan / qasaid were the same and included (according to Jabbur) boasting and speaking in glowing terms of the poet´s own tribe, raids and battles, the defeat of enemy raiders, also panegyric, erotic description, elegy, and admonition. Post-classical lyric “dispenses with the subject of wine verse, but replaces it with verses on coffee, describing its cups, the aroma of its spices, how well it has been roasted, the way it has been pounded in the coffee mortar (jurn) with a musical beat, and how it has been heated and passed around to the guests. In Bedouin poetry there are many small melodious pieces, ranging from the war poem that the warriors sing in order to fan the flames of valor in their hearts before the battle (and sometimes during it and when they return from the raid), to the love poem with which lovers console themselves when they are traveling afar from their loved ones and wives, to the watering poem sung when one is watering his camels.” Jabbur maintains that most Bedouins odes of his time opened with the dispatch of a messenger upon his she-camel, usually a thoroughbred raised by the Shararat tribe, the noblest and fastest in northern Arabia (i.e. the equivalent to Omani camels in the ancient poetry). More often than not such an ode began with ya rakibin (“Oh rider”). Especially with the Anaza tribes there are thrilling accounts from the lives of their poet-knights, compiled by al-Sudayri. “The resemblance of this collection to the Ayyan al-Arab (Battle Days, i.e. the Golden Age of Arab poetry) is truly amazing” (Sowayan). Auda abu Tai, famous through the book of T. E. Lawrence, was the tribal leader of the Howeitat in the beginning 20th century and lived a life fully in the tradition of the poets of old. The ghazal is an amatory lyric, until today in high esteem in the Arab world.

Auda Abu Tai

Especially the vagabond poets (su´luk) became famous for their lifestyle and their work. The most important poets and heroes of that glorious time were Imru´al-Qays, Tarafa, Zuhair, Lebid, Amr ibn Kultum, Antara ibn Schaddad, and Harith. The best poem of each of them was gathered in the mu´allaqat (meaning par excellence), and are said to have hang from the Kaaba at Mecca. Habib ibn Abu Tamman´s “Hamasa” with countless Arabic folk-songs is only one popular example of many lesser known anthologies that were compiled during and after that pre-Islamic time. They are called diwan (poetry collection). Imru`al-Qays, just to look at one very prominent poet, lived in the 6th century AD in Nejd and was the youngest son of the last king of the Kindah kingdom. The tribe of Kindah originated in Southern Arabia with Rabi´ah as ancestor and migrated north to Nejd/Najd in the 4th or 5th century AD. Imru´ul-Qais is considered by many as the father of Arabic poetry and also as the poet of freedom. He is also known as the “lost king”, as he did never succeed his father to the throne. Imru´ul-Qays was the first to compare women to gazelles and horses to birds of prey and to staves. His famous mu´allaqat qasidah “Let us stop and weep” will be cited in parts in the following.


Let us stop and weep over the remembrance of my beloved.

Here was her abode on the edge of the sandy desert between Dakhool and Howmal.


… Many a night has let down its curtains around me amid deep grief,

It has whelmed me as a wave of the sea to try me with sorrow.


Then I said to the night, as slowly his huge bulk passed over me,

As his breast, his loins, his buttocks weighed on me and then passes afar.


"Oh long night, dawn will come, but will be no brighter without my love.

You are a wonder, with stars held up as by ropes of hemp to a solid rock.”


At other times, I have filled a leather water-bag of my people and entered the desert,

And trod its empty wastes while the wolf howled like a gambler whose family starves.


I said to the wolf, “You gather as little wealth, as little prosperity as I.

What either of us gains he gives away. So do we remain thin.”


Early in the morning, while the birds were still nesting, I mounted my steed.

Well-bred was he, long-bodied, outstripping the wild beasts in speed,


Swift to attack, to flee, to turn, yet firm as a rock swept down by the torrent,

Bay-colored, and so smooth the saddle slips from him, as the rain from the smooth stone,


Thin but full of life, fire boils within him like the snorting of a boiling kettle;

He continues at full gallop when others are dragging their feet in the dust of weariness.


A boy would be blown from his back, and even the strong rider loses his garments.

Fast is my steed as a top when a child has spun it well.


He has the flanks of a buck, the legs of an ostrich, and the gallop of a wolf.

From behind, his thick tail hides the space between the thighs, and almost sweeps the ground.


When he stands before the house, his back looks like the huge grinding-stone there.

The blood of many leaders of herds is in him, thick as the juice of henna in combed white hair.


As I rode him we saw a flock of wild sheep, the ewes like maidens in long-trailing robes;

They turned for flight, but already he had passed the leaders before they could scatter.


He outran a bull and a cow and killed them both, and they were made ready for cooking;

He did not even sweat so as to need washing

We returned at evening, and the eye could scarcely realize his beauty,

For, when gazing at one part, the eye was drawn away by the perfection of another part.

He stood all night with his saddle and bridle on him,

He stood all night while I gazed at him admiring, and did not rest in his stable. …


(From the mu`allaqat of Imru al-Qays (ca. 526 - ca. 565 AD), one of the seven “hanging poems” ) 

Nabati Poetry


Two examples of pre-modern poems on the badu horse, given by Musil, follow here:


O sweetheart! O thou with a white spot on thy forehead!

And today, where art thou, treasure of mine?

I followed thy footprints, every little while halting,

And yet I found neither the mistress true nor my dear mare.



Al-Hzejri said of her whom he drew to himself, holding her firmly:

“By descent she is Ra´ejl´s daughter,

Whom a small man cannot bridle

Except he stands on a big rock.

Oh, the depth of her eyes where the forelock ends!

They emit rays like beacons lighted on a high cone.

Behold, a bay steps under me like a pliant branch;

Her back in the middle is unbending.

The Sherif would like to place his saddle on her.”

This is my answer and the bargain for him is lost.


The poet (of the second poem) was al-Hzejri from the Southern territory, min dirt al-djenub; the reciters, ´Awde al-Kwecbi and Prince an-Nuri (of the Rwala). Al-Hzejri had a bay mare called ar-Ra´ejl. The chief of several tribes and the rulers of many settlements made him large offers for her, but in vain. The poor Hzejri would not part with her. The Grand Sherif of Mecca also heard of her and sent his son to al-Hzejri with large gifts. After examining the mare the Sherif´s son fettered her forelegs, grasping her by the forelock, said: “Ask what thou wilt, thou wilt get it, but I shall get the mare.” … Thereupon al-Hzejri drew the mare to himself and improvised this poem. When he had finished it, he bestrode his mare bareback; at a sign from him the spirited animal broke the Sherif´s fetter by a mighty straddle of her forelegs and flew like a bird towards the vast desert. The Sherif´s son with his whole retinue went in pursuit but returned without catching her” (Musil). 

Description (wasf) in Classical Arab Poetry


By talking about himself the sha´ir (poet) at the same time created a mirror of the badu society. This first hand description (wasf) in poetic verse was investigated by Japanese author Sumi in detail. One of her examples was the description of the horse, one of the main motifs of the fakhr unit. We will take a close look on it.


According to Sumi the descriptive verses of the qasidah, al-wasf, were a key element in this genre. Wasf is derived from wasafa, meaning to describe, characterize, but also: to praise, laud, and extol. The wasf creates a mirror image of objects, like photographs do in our days. The chivalrous hunt on horseback is one of the major Arabic poetic motifs, taking place in the wasf section or self-exaltation section (al-fakhr) within the tripartite structure of the traditional Arabic qasidah. The horse (khayl) symbolizes speed, strength, prowess, glory, happiness, immortality, fertility and vital force, vanity, arrogance, pride, and splendor. “Imru´ al Qays ibn Hujr and `Alqamah al-Tamimi al-Fahl bequeathed to us a qasidah in the context of poetic contest (mu´aradah, meaning opposition, contest). A poet composes a work in the same rhyme and meter as those of his target poem, while attempting to outdo that original. This imitation was considered an act of homage. In imitation and emulation, wasf plays an important role, for it offers a basis for comparison in deciding the victor of the contest. A well known khabar (anecdote) concerns a poetic contest between the two above mentioned jaheli poets (i.e. from the time of ignorance). Alqamah fought and won this verbal duel judged by Imru´al Qays wife, Umm Jundab. As a result, Imru divorced her. Instead, Alqamah married her, whereupon Alqamah was given the honorific title “fahl”, translated “stallion” or any other male animal or “master-poet”. It is most interesting to note that identical lines are found in both poems, that constitute approximately one-third of each qasidah.

Description of the Horse in Classic Arabian Poetry in the example of Imru´al-Qays:


Sumi: “In the fakhr (II. section, verses 20-55) of the quasid, the poet attempts to demonstrate manhood - glory, fertility, and prowess - through the ekphrasic description of a chivalrous hunt scene. The first line, wa qad aghtadi wa t-tayru fi wukunatiha, describes the poet´s setting out for the hunt in the very early morning when the birds are still in their nests. This opening phrase, found also in the mu´allaqah of Imru´al-Qays, is a conventional opening for the hunt of the fakhr in Arabic qasidah tradition. … We can often find the association of birds with horses in the Arab tradition. For example, there is a saying of the Arabs: “Horses are birds without wings.” …”God said to the horse, ´I shall make you fly without wings.`” A horse´s parts are sometimes named after birds´parts: such as nasr (vulture/eagle), the interior of the hoof; hamah (owl), the top of the head,; and asfour (sparrow), a brow-bone, etc. (Al-Andalusi). The bird is a symbol for speed and loftiness, … The horse ought to run as the bird flies. Imru´ al-Qays further combines the imagery of birds and water saying “I would ride forth early when the birds were still in their nests, and rainwater was still running in every torrent channel” (l. 20). In addition, a Bedouin hero´s steeds are frequently named “rushing waters,” “flood,” “rain,” or “river.” For example, Prophet Muhammad´s favorite horse was named Uskub (The Torrent) from sakab (swiftly running water). Such names may symbolize “insemination”. The heavy torrent with the image of “insemination” in Imru´al-Qays´s ode thus insinuates the impression of fertility and reproduction.


“The horse emerges in the second line of the fakhr section with its epithet, a sleek, swift steed (munjarid) (l. 21). Munjarid originally means “to be stripped.” A shackle for game (qaydi al-awabidi) is another epithet for the steed. With regard to the Arabic tradition of epithets, important subjects tend to be indirectly presented by the use of epithets rather than denotants. Since the she-camel bears significance in the rahil, being an indispensable vehicle and companion for the poet´s journey, she is rarely explicitly named as naqah, …. The horse in the fakhr is no exception. …


”The persona is the hunter riding on a sleek steed. Despite fatigue, his steed is ebullient (l. 22). His withers (sarat) look like a large tree on a lookout hill, though lean and quick. From the high lookout of the tree, which is the highest place in the tribal community, a tribal guard is watching his tribe´s enemies. The implication of this simile is that the horse, due to his great height, has an unobstructed view of the enemies´ approach. The association between the horse´s back and the tree is not much based on analogies, but rather on symbolic concept; by means of its height and vigilance, the steed protects the rider/persona. According to al-Andalusi, Ibn Qutaybah (b. 828 C.E) states that a long, supple neck for a horse is considered most desirable. The horse is excited, for he has spotted his game. He competes with a “kicker”, an epithet for a wild ass. The wild ass is known for the strength of its legs, particularly its pastern-joints. The horse´s body is like the wood of a cloth rack in its leanness, smoothness, and firmness.”

“The poet portrays the steed´s body using similes, as if it were a collage, i.e., a collection of best parts from other animals: “the two flanks of an antelope, the (two) legs of an ostrich and the withers of a wild ass standing on a lookout peak” (l. 24). Al-Andalusi claims that Imru´al-Qays in his mu´allaqah was the first poet to compare a horse with those animals. The ideal characteristics for a horse are molded on what is distinctive in each of theses species; the antelope´s slender waist, the ostrich´s short tights, the wild ass´s wide back. They are signs of good breeding. One can imagine theses (mnemonic) “rules of thumb” among horsemen in an oral society. … Imru´al-Qays “selects distinctive parts from the other animals and forms them into an idealized image. Though the parts of the horse are individually enumerated, they are to be unified in an ideal figure, visualized through the imagination of the audience. Just as the epithets encapsulate the “respective model´s enacted semblance and meaning,” so too, as I see it, do the similes. The epithets, or similes, are “aimed at a constructed ideal image: the type beyond the individual, the archetype beyond the type, and the symbol beyond the archetype.” (Stetkevych) The audience of the oral tradition was educated and cultivated through the intertextuality and interreferentiality of the qasidah so that they intuitively grasped the full subject, despite the seemingly scattered, diverse images. When they were listening, they could easily imagine the complete image of the ideal creature. (Rendering prominent by the author.)


“The description of the horse continues. The horse runs on hooves depicted with the epithets summ silab, hard and solid (l. 25) The poet says that they were like the stones of a streamlet covered by green moss. Again for him, the outward resemblance between the hooves and the stones is not paramount, but his emphasis is rather on the extreme solidness which is a common physical feature in the two components. The horse´s rump is like a sand-hill, and his withers are like a howdah´s wide saddle. The wide saddle of the howdah is a metaphor for the beautiful curve of the withers (the ridge between the shoulder bones) for its elevation and width. His eye is likened to an artisan´s mirror, which is polished and always clear (l. 27). 


Safeen (Ibn Safinaz/Abitibi Madeena)

“The horse has sharp-pointed ears revealing ´itq (beauty and nobility) or good breeding. The term ´itq, is often used for the excellent quality of the horse. His ears are compared to those of an alarmed (madh´urah) oryx-doe whose ears stand up because she is frightened. By the use of the epithet for a fearful oryx-doe and its erect ears, the sharpness of the horse´s ears is intensified. The back of the ear is round/revolving, which shows his high-breeding, as if his reins and bridle because of his high neck were on top of a sleek palm trunk (l. 29). The black thick tail is likened to moist date-laden boughs at Sumayhah Spring (l.30), which implies fruitfulness.


“The similes of the horse we have discussed so far reflect two aspects: 1. The noble lineage of the horse and 2. The poet´s considerable poetic knowledge of the horse. The ample signs of the horse´s good breeding demonstrate the cultivation of the steed by human beings, because he could not possess those excellent attributes if he were not the product of selective breeding and expert care. Indeed, according to Janet C. E. Watson, many pre-Islamic poets, who would improvise poems, were required to display extensive technical knowledge of the horse in their odes to prove themselves to be distinguished poets and often participated in poetic duels.


Although the description of the horse´s body parts in lines 26 - 30 appears static, it is actually integrated into a dynamic movement because it occurs during his swift gallop. Those concepts, signified through the physical depiction, now converge and are unified into an image of speed and momentum. The steed´s speed and the sound of his breathing are compared to a strong, powerful wind that causes a huge tree to shake (l. 31). This simile reminds us of the image of the horse, “created out of the wind.” The comparison to a large pulley shows the strength of the croup´s vertebrae (l. 32). He champs on the tethering post so vehemently that he seems to be possessed by an inescapable demon´s madness.


Let us now consider why the poet devotes as many as fourteen lines (20 - 33) to the physical description of the horse. The poet´s ultimate goal is to show the steed´s inner superiority through the depiction of his physical strength and beauty. One view maintains, “In orally preserved poetry, abstract concepts are expressed as physical attributes of concrete objects.” To this view we can add Daumas´s description of the pure-bred horse and the importance of breeding in relation to the horse´s character by quoting the Emir Abd-el-Kader´s remarks: “The Emir Abd-el-Kader takes physical and moral attributes as being inseparable,…his moral attributes must correspond to his physical appearance….We should judge the horse more by his character than by his appearance. By outward indications one can judge the breeding. From character alone you will have confirmation of the extreme care which is taken in breeding and of the vigilance which has been exercised to adamantly prohibit misalliances.” 

Safeen (Ibn Safinaz/Abitibi Madeena) and Marqueesa (Ansata Amir Zaman/Maareesa) with foal Malik El Bediya by Authentic Ibn Nawaal

…”It is not coincidental that the Arabic poetic tradition selected the horse as one of the main motifs of the fakhr unit; the horse, as the Emir argues, is the symbol of excellence and nobility in the poet´s tribal community. In order to build the ideal image of culmination in light of both the qasidah structure and of the tribal community, the poet makes use of the steed´s physical beauty and sturdiness, which God granted only to the horse among beasts. The horse is chosen to be the lord of beasts by God for its beauty and high value. According to the tradition, God conferred khayr on the horse (khayl), joined in its forelock. Khayr is “moral and physical good, anything that is good or ideal, good fortune, prosperity, happiness.” Khayr is also used by the Arabs to signify horses. Having illustrated the steed´s dignity in all senses, Imru´al-Qays further utilizes the technique of wasf in order to construct his own image as champion by overlapping himself with the image of the massive, powerful steed. For the poet, the horse is not a mere object of poetic wasf. The poem instead presents the symbiotic relationship of poet and horse. Furthermore, according to Daumas, the Emir states, “physical attributes alone do not constitute a perfect horse. It is necessary, because of his intelligence, because of his affection for the man who feeds him, cares for him, and rides him, that man and horse be as one.” Moreover, in the hunt, the steed also “keeps the hunter/persona safe from dangers in the chase” and “shares the emotions of sorrow and pleasure of the hunter by fighting.” The hunter/persona and the horse are portrayed as united not only in the sphere of body, but also in spirit.


“The poem now moves on to the dramatic hunt scene. The scene of the hunt and feast is the expression of invigoration and jubilation,…. If the loss in the nasib is presented in the phase of kenosis or emptying, the gain in the fakhr is in that of filling. … The chivalrous hunt is an expression of virility - generating new life through male aggression. … The hunt is described so as to suggest a sexual act: the steed playing the male role, the oryx cows like virgins. … The hunters wipe their hands on their horse´s manes when they stand up from their rare roast meat. This is the ritual marking the end of the feast. 

Sameera El Bediya (Safeen/Mabrouka Bint Maareesa) and Mabrouka Bint Maareesa (Ansata Amir Zaman/Maareesa) with foal Sameera El Bediya)

“The she-camel is loaded with the freshly-killed game, (hunters used to use horses only for the hunt itself, to go to and return from a hunt, they ride she-camels, which also carry the game, while leading their horses with ropes), like camels laden with bags of dates returning from Juwatha at evening (l. 52) - Juwatha is a place where people buy dates … When the horse shakes his head, he smells like a buck feeding on rabl (autumn herbage). (The shaking of the head could well be the typical habit of Arabian horses of today to turn their heads in a sort of circle in excitement or in high spirit, see under the pillar five, the character of the Bedouin horse, annotation of the author.) The rabl shrubs sprout green leaves at the end of a hot season without rain. Since a buck of the rabl eats both spring-herbage and autumn-herbage, he has great energy and power. This line suggests fertility and strength through metaphors of the fruitful land and the buck that is grazing on it. Bloodstains on the horse´s chest reveal his triumph in the chase. Suzanne Stetkevych claims that the comparison of the bloodstains to henna upon an old man´s hair (white) presents the intended analogy of “the revitalizing effect of blood shed in the hunt to the rejuvenating effect of henna on hoary locks,” and further associates the subject with “the Islamic use of henna in accordance with the Sunnah of the Prophet a symbolic expression of the immortality conferred by Islam.” The association of bloodshed of the hunt with the blood shed by deflowering a virgin also has a place here. The ending line shows that the steed has a thick, long tail that blocks the gap between his hind legs. According to Ibn Quraybah, the horse´s tail ought to be long and abundant enough to cover the gap, but never to reach the ground, which was regarded as a flaw. Imru´al-Qays´s horse has a reddish tail that reaches just a bit above the ground” (Sumi).


Rua El Bediya (Safeen/Marqueesa)



Identification of the poet with his horse was very strong, in the eyes of some authorities even called a complete identification. We see in the poems and in the above cited anecdote, that the borders between poet and his horse are effaced. The qualities and attributes of the poet´s horse are absorbed by the poet, his name may even be changed by adding al-khayl to it or fahl. And we should carefully note that the horse of the classic Arab poetry is -in opposition to later times - very often a male horse, with obvious reason: We have cited Sumi´s description of the wasf of the horse by Imru´al-Qays nearly in full length, because it reveals many important aspects. Arabic poetry is intrinsically competitive (Sumi) and thus a true child of its culture. And “for the poet the horse is not a mere object of poetic wasf. The poem instead presents the symbiotic relationship of poet and horse. … The hunter/persona and the horse are portrayed as united not only in the sphere of body, but also in spirit.” The ideal image of the horse (khayl) given by the poet symbolizes not only speed and strength, but also prowess, glory, happiness, immortality, fertility and vital force, vanity, arrogance, pride, and splendor. Thus the horse has become the symbol of muru´ah: mature manhood, manly perfection or male aggression. And therefore, also the symbol of the essence of badu society in the whole. In this context is is interesting to note that the mare, faras, pl. fursan, is handled in the Arabic language as masculine. The pastoral society of Arabia relied on the camel as the starting point of maybe the closest and most unique relationship of a society between men and beast to be found on earth. But the horse added glory and this special extra to it, transformed the pastoral nomad into the knight, the simple Bedouin into a hero and poet of Thousand and One Nights. The remarkable close bond between faris and faras was based on that special man-loving character, which is until today the most important characteristic of the Bedouin horse. The horse depended on its master and could only survive with his help and the help of the camel. And men, especially in the competitive society of Arabia, depended on the horse, as victory was bound to the horse. The horse presented the Bedouin a decisive advantage over his enemy, because “it was much easier to make or repel an attack on horseback than when mounted on camel” (Musil). We can say that a symbiotic relationship between man and horse stands in opposition to a “parasitic” relationship between man and camel (Jabbur). This is also reflected in the different ways the two animals are integrated in the Arab poetry. Image in classical Arab poetry, according to Sumi, is therefore to be understood not as `picture´ but as `likeness´, as a matter of spiritual similarity, an anti-pictorial meaning, which originates with the account of man´s creation “in the image and likeness of God” (in the First Book of the Bible, Genesis). The Arabic concept of surah, usually translated as “image” has etymologically a similar meaning: “mental image, a resemblance of any object, formed or conceived by the mind, an idea, a meaning of frequent occurrence in philosophical works.” Although post classical Arab poetry stands in the tradition of the classical qasidah, some changes have to be noted. The horse of Nabati poetry is not more a stallion, but (nearly) always a mare, a mare of war.

(This chapter continues in the book BEDOUIN HERITAGE)

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