Music of A Distant Drum

Music of A Distant Drum

Classical Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew Poems

Book - 2001
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Music of a Distant Drum marks a literary milestone. It collects 129 poems from the four leading literary traditions of the Middle East, all masterfully translated into English by Bernard Lewis, many for the first time. These poems come from diverse languages and traditions--Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Hebrew--and span more than a thousand years. Together they provide a fascinating and unusual window into Middle Eastern history. Lewis, one of the world's greatest authorities on the region's culture and history, reveals verses of startling beauty, ranging from panegyric and satire to religious poetry and lyrics about wine, women, and love.

Bernard Lewis, one of the world's greatest authorities on the region's culture and history, offers a work of startling beauty that leaves no doubt as to why such poets were courted by kings in their day. Like those in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , the poems here--as ensured by Lewis's mastery of all the source languages and his impeccable style and taste--come fully alive in English. They are surprising and sensuous, disarmingly witty and frank. They provide a fascinating and unusual glimpse into Middle Eastern history. Above all, they are a pleasure to read.They range from panegyric and satire to religious poetry and lyrics about wine, women, and love. Lewis begins with an introduction on the place of poets and poetry in Middle Eastern history and concludes with biographical notes on all the poets.

This treasure trove of verse is aptly summed up by a quote from the ninth-century Arab author Ibn Qutayba: "Poetry is the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their wisdom, the muster roll of their history, the repository of their great days, the rampart protecting their heritage, the trench defending their glories, the truthful witness on the day of dispute, the final proof at the time of argument.'

In one hand the Qur'vn, in the other a wineglass,
Sometimes keeping the rules, sometimes breaking them.
Here we are in this world, unripe and raw,
Not outright heathens, not quite Muslims.
-- Mujir (12th century)

Publisher: Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c2001.
ISBN: 9780691089287
Branch Call Number: 808.81 Music 2001
Characteristics: 222 p. :,ill. ;,21 cm.
Additional Contributors: Lewis, Bernard 1916-2018.


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May 31, 2017

This collection of poems from another civilization is fascinating, though the reader should definitely read the introduction to understand what some of them are about. Of course, translated from other languages, they lose their rhymes and much of their meter and wordplay – but they retain their beautiful and often surprising imagery. Some of the most extraordinary images occur in the love and erotic poems: “On a night that was like her hair”, “my moon-featured, fairy-faced one, my jasmine-scented, rose fragrant one”. There are also surprising images of the seasons, such as spring as an army: “the branches are his army of spears, and above, the leaves are his unfurled flags.” Others (particularly the religious poems) are more obscure, and it takes some time to tease the meaning from them. Concerning the religious poems: one, written by a sultan, is a bloodthirsty call for jihad (it is probably included in this book to give a balanced representation of the bad along with the good) but many of them express a mystical/nothingness-tinged philosophy which seems more akin to Zen than conventional Islam: "not of the earth, not of water, not or air, not or fire, ...I am not from the highest heaven, not from this world, not from existence, not from being." The last group of poems in this collection, written in Hebrew during the same time periods and under the same rule, use many of the same forms and imagery but make Jewish rather than Islamic references (and one, obviously written during the crusades, is a lament that Jerusalem is overrun with Franks).

Some of the poets are known in our own culture (Omar Khayyam, Rumi), but their more famous poems are not included: the author/translator deliberately selected lesser known works for this collection. This is both a negative and a positive: some of the more famous are so because they are simply better poetry – but on the other hand, reading lesser-known pieces is like discovering lost gems by otherwise familiar classical composers or pop groups. And, there is of course a vast assortment of obscure but equally deserving works underneath the famous half-of-one-percent.


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