Across Cultures / History / Biography / Poetry




By Allah!

Hakim Bey brings the poems of
Abu Nuwas up to date, and reviewer
Robert Rockwood praises heaven
Abu Nuwas -- or Hakim Bey?
 by Robert Rockwood
AT ABOUT THE TIME when the Germanic tribes were struggling against monsters and dragons and the Anglo-Saxons were creating the heroic poem of England, the Beowulf, an Islamic poet in the court of the Caliph of Baghdad was composing clever poems celebrating the joys of pederasty. The poet in question was Abu Nuwas, whose historical exploits were later transformed into the almost magical, trickster-like antics of the legendary Abu Nuwas who figures as a character in The Thousand and One Nights.

Abu Nuwas was the pen name of Hasin ibn Hani al Hakami, born of Persian parents around the middle of the eighth century in Ahwaz. As Hakim Bey points out in "A Legendary Life of Abu Nuwas," the scholarly biographical essay that occupies the second half of this volume, Abu Nuwas made the transition from slave to street-boy to poet, playing "the perennial archetypal juvenile-delinquent-genius role." Contributing to his success, no doubt, was the fact that Abu Nuwas, "future lover of boys, was himself famous for his beauty as a boy -- his penname means `master of the ringlets,' long curly locks of hair."

Hakim summarizes Abu Nuwas's achievement as a literary figure and legendary character thus:
Abu Nuwas flits through the 1001 Nights as a minor personage in numerous tales. His character, as painted in this great master- compendium of Arabic, Persian and Indian stories, matches the portrait we can infer from his authentic poetry: the very model of a worldly debauched court poet, jester, trickster, rake, wit, and drunk, boon companion to his friends, scathing lampoonist of his enemies, and above all, ravenous boy-lover.... Despite the religious Law, which utterly condemns homosexuality, Islamic society has often taken a tolerant view of pederasty; a great deal of Sufi poetry is composed in the form of love-songs to boys. Abu Nuwas helped to establish this theme in Islamic literature... But where the Sufis came to maintain a literary self-image of chaste longing and aesthetic appreciation (the cult of "Gazing at the Unbearded"), Abu Nuwas wrote poems about kissing, masturbation, frottage and anal intercourse with real live, unsymbolic boys.
Abu Nuwas's knack for repartee seems not only to have undone his rivals, but can actually be credited with saving his life. Hakim cites several charming anecdotes in which the very wit that got Abu Nuwas in trouble in the first place caused the exasperated Caliph to smile and forgive just as he was about to issue the order for the poet's execution.

Thanks to Hakim's modernized translations, each of the items in this collection has the immediacy and conviction of an original composition. Hakim brilliantly incorporates the conceptual idiom of today's English-speaking world while yet retaining a good measure of Islamic flavor. The poetry speaks directly to any boy-lover who vows the equivalent of "No by Allah No by Allah No by Allah" to the idea of giving up boys, and who must therefore be ever on the lookout for "the mind-police on my tail/ snarling in outraged puritan shock" (poem IX).

The wit that made Abu Nuwas into a legend is demonstrated to good advantage throughout this collection. Even the gentlest compliments to the boy are phrased in images that pack a knock-out punch. In the final lines of poem [X]XVII words become almost tangible:
But my speech tinged his cheeks
     with pink blush
as if my words were
      splashes of dye.

Boy and man share a drink


In poem XXII a boy's thinness is elevated to the level of pure mysticism:
Never before in real life nor in art
have I found one so beautifully slender --
so thin you might almost disappear
if I couldn't see you shining.

Illustrating a persistent tendency to depict the boy as an object of religious devotion, poem XII raises the ikon of the shining boy to the point of heresy when the boy's radiance is compared to the return to Allah on Judgment Day:
Last Friday night I encountered a mob
of wildly milling men all yelling
      "Judgement! The Last Hour's upon us!
      The return to Allah! The prophets say
a sign of the End shall be
the Sun at Midnight! Here it is!
      We tremble! We submit!"
      I laughed & said, "This is no sun
that rises as a star, but only
my friend, young Ahmad, brightening
      the velvet canopy with his crystal track,
      the dogstar on his forehead, venus on his cheek."


The image of the boy projected to the heavens occurs in many variations. Sometimes, as in poem XLVIII, which makes a case for the superiority of boys over women, the projections run simultaneously to the sky and down to earth. This poem also reveals how far Hakim is willing to go to bring Abu Nuwas fully up to date:
I love a willing boy, a dangerous gazelle
his forehead a moon half-veiled
by the clouds of his coalblack hair
who gave up Nintendo & TV for a new game
(a kind of croquet with mallets & balls)
who lolls around in his underwear
demands no jewelry or perfume
never goes on the rag
or gets pregnant.


Poem XXXIII is an ode to a moon that once presided over a boy's bedroom:
O moon of the darkened bedroom
I kissed him once, just once
as he slept, half hoping half fearing
he might wake up
      O silksoft moon
his pyjamas held such softness
Ah how I'd like a real live kiss
how I'd like to be offered
what's under the covers


Poem XLV:1 shows how easily Abu Nuwas can switch his approach from tender to bawdy:
Come right in, boys. I'm
a mine of luxury -- dig me.
Well-aged brilliant wines made by
monks in a monastery! shish-kebabs!
roast chickens! Eat! Drink! Get happy!
and afterwards you can take turns
shampooing my tool.


boy sitting with two men


The opening lines from poem X capture the poignant frustration shared by all spotters of boys who dare do no more than look:
Can't be arrested just for looking.
Eyes, feel free to enjoy his face,
his lazy exquisite pliancy.
Pure glances, dart about the public park.


In the concluding retort of poem XXXII, a man's romantic illusions are abruptly destroyed by the boy's quintessential, ultimate put-down:
All out of breath I caught up with him
Say, aren't you new around here
O fawn of the desert? Listen pal, he said,
go chase some girl. I don't want to
be in your movie.

Well known among unsuccessful wooers of boys is the unsatisfactory consolation of the hand, which Abu Nuwas describes in poem XXXIV thus:
won't even give me a hug
much less anything more
fuck off is all he says
with your boring complaints
& so I'm reduced to this
clothing love's hand with
the veil of jism
O yes I spent the night
on pain's camel
whining in misery
as you slept sound
to my right the winds of passion
to my left the stars of desire
wishing I could jack off so hard
the mountains would tremble to their roots


In poem XXXVIII legal imagery is cleverly used to express a man/boy relationship gone awry:
So... can't even say Hello
can't even chitchat
like you're running off to a lawyer
with transcripts of our conversations
to check if everything's legal
So tell me: what does your attorney say
about the grievous mayhem YOU've committed
O sweet moon of my dreams
little scoflaw juvenile delinquent


Finally, poem XLI must be quoted, for it supplies the title for this volume, and summarizes the credo of Abu Nuwas:
Lay in supplies
      -- (O tribe that loves boys) --
of a pleasure that will not be found
in Paradise
       -- for all its supposed joys.


Hakim Bey, in rendering these treasures into the contemporary idiom, has provided English-speaking connoisseurs of man/boy-love with a supply of erotic thoughts expressed in startling images. As the examples cited above should indicate, this is not mere verse, as boy-love poetry sometimes is, but real poetry, poetry that is often sublime. It is hard to imagine a finer, more artisticly modernized translation of ancient boy-love poetry than O Tribe That Loves Boys: The Poetry of Abu Nuwas.


***

O Tribe That Loves Boys: the Poetry of Abu Nuwas
, translated and with a biographical essay by Hakim Bey (Amsterdam: Entimos Press, 1993), 56 pages (unnumbered), illustrated.


Read more about Abu Nuwas:

iran-persia.blogspot.com/2007/09/abu-nawas.html

From the NAMBLA Bulletin, Vol. 15, No. 1, Pgs. 14 - 15, March 1994.
Copyright NAMBLA, 2008

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