The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings. He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?
Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi.
He was born in Al Kufah, Iraq, the son of ancient and noble family which by his fathers generation had fallen on hard times. His father was a water carrier. Still, lineage counts for something and Al-Mutanabi got an education in Damascus, and made something of it. Arrogance marked the fellow, well justified in the literary realm, probably less so in other endeavors. He thought he should be a man of power.
At nineteen he joined a band of Shi’ite Qarmatians, and with a crew of Bedouins led a revolt against his home town in 932. It fizzled, he spent two years in a Syrian prison before recanting and so gaining his freedom.
Renunciation was one thing, he still needed to make his way in the world. He took up the pen and started looking for men who would pay for flattery.
It is a frequent comment about Arabic literature is that the best aspects of it cannot be translated without falling flat, and I’m willing to believe it. In the case of Al-Mutanabi, his work is said to be so good that “blind people can read it”and “deaf people can hear it.” (Granted, he himself said that, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of dissent. It ain’t bragging if it’s true.)
Not an easy path, praising people to the skies when you yourself have an outsized ego. The fact was, his own dreams of power never really left him, and he hoped that his panegyrics would lead to political appointments with some heft.
It didn’t happen. Worse, as the politics of the day were constantly shifting and Al-Mutanabi could not always restrain himself from the barb. He removed to Egypt for a time where his patron was the slave born black eunuch regent Abu al-Misk Kafur, regent for the ruling Ikhshidids. Disappointed in his hopes for serious preferment, Al-Mutanabi, conscious both of his skill as a writer and his above-average ancestry, he eventually departed for Iran, leaving behind some rude poetry about his former friend.
He next settled in Shiraz, where he was court poet for Adud ad-Dawlah, more or less on the straight and narrow until 965. But he couldn’t restrain that talent for invective. This time he insulted one Dhaba al-Asadi (a figure otherwise forgotten by history). The man took it to heart and began to track the poet down. The offended party found him, too, on the road just outside of Baghdad, and even from a distance it was clear that al-Asadi intended violence. Al-Mutanabi and his traveling companions mounted up and began to run away, but one of their thought there was a bit of shame in this and began to recite the lines above.
It stung Al-Mutanabi’s pride. He immediately turned around and faced his attackers, inviting, and in the event getting, violent death for the sake of personal honor.
Outside of Pushkin, also killed in a matter of personal honor, it is difficult to think of too many poets with that kind of moxie.