The Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry and the Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah projects: comparisons and contrasts 

Having worked previously on poetry translations and analyses, I thought it might be interesting to give some incite into my current experiences and how they differ from my initial foray into the poetic landscape. What are the essential differences between working on the Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry (which was hosted at St Andrews University) between 2014-2016, and my current role in the Arabic Poetry Cairo Genizah project (hosted at Trinity College Dublin)?   

The Analytical Database of Arabic poetry researched Arabic poetry from Late Antiquity through to the twentieth century and is now a completed project with a fine online corpus of poetry with accompanying lexicons. Most poems were from slightly prior to the founding of Islam and during the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasid (750-1258) dynasties. Emphasis was particularly given to the rich corpus of Jahili poetry (which is a reference to pre-Islamic poetry, although the word literally refers to poetry from the days of “ignorance”, since the poetry hailed from an era in which social degradation was at its lowest point) that is famously studied even in modern Muslim seminaries in South Asia and indeed in Arabic literature degree programs in the Middle East as its literary value endures, particularly for the study of the Qur’an. These poets are worth mentioning, and include Imru’ al-Qays, Zuhyar b. Abi Sulma, al-Nabigha al-Dhubyani, Labid, al-A’sha, Ta’abbata Sharran, Antara b. Shaddad. Almost all the poetry in the database had been previously published, albeit sometimes in obscure sources which required much searching to locate. Some of it required translating, and others had multiple translations, such as the famous Burda of Sharafuddin Muhammad b. Said b. Hammad al-Busiri’s. All the lemmata (fancy word for a phrase or word entered into a dictionary) were organised according to their linguistic nomenclature to get a sense of whether a particular lemma was a particle, verb or noun. It also helped with the creation of a dictionary, which can be searched specific to the poem and thus is an excellent tool for learning and aids poem-specific studies.  

The Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah project is also related to poetry (mainly from the 11th-19th centuries), albeit in a much more ambitious and sophisticated manner than the previous project I was involved in, and is still in its embryonic phase. A Genizah is a sacred storehouse where anything written in Hebrew (a sacred language for Jews) was deposited in a storeroom in a synagogue so that it could be ritually incinerated in a manner that respected its integrity. This was usually done on an ad hoc basis whenever there was material sufficient enough to warrant a purge of the probably overflowing deposit room. It’s unlikely this needed to be done on a regular basis since literacy, writing tools and paper as well as the desire to write was unlikely a quotidian pursuit for the majority of writers in that language. Although there are facsimiles of previous poetry, much of what was written was never intended to be published and the authors remain unknown. There are also fascinating aspects relating to the nexus of Jewish-Arabic culture that are revealed in Qur’anic texts, God’s names, not strictly the focus of the selected fragments we are researching but which add to the mystique of this large repository of information, and which do frequently surface in the poetry too.  

Another intriguing aspect of these fragments is that they are Arabic in Hebrew transliteration, hence the appellation of Judaeo-Arabic to mark this distinct body of literature. This entails, for our purposes, that we initially convert the “Hebrew” into Arabic, and then translate from the Arabic into English. The complexity of this feat is compounded due to the condition of many fragments, as they have to be carefully deciphered in order to accurately capture the intended meaning. The feasibility of this task can also be compromised when the writing is illegible. Sometimes this leads to whole words being missed out although the reason for this may also be that there is a hole in the fragment or the word has been worn out or is too feint to read. The value of tenacity in such instances may not be fully understood until an advanced stage of the project’s development. Cross-referencing (not the easiest task when most authors are unknown) may still be beneficial even when there are missing elements and for thematic purposes. Nonetheless, the complexity of this project due to working in three languages, with mostly fresh data and that too frequently in a careworn state presents unique challenges to the Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah. It is a relief that the fragments have been digitized and are available at the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society.  

Having stated how the fragments and published poetry differ markedly, I finish with a quote from each corpus in order to illustrate their similarities and timeless appeal. Here is a snippet from one penned by Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932) from the Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry:   

رُزِقْتَ أسمح ما في الناس مِن خُلُقٍ   إذا رُزِقْتَ التماس العذر في الشِيَمِ 

You are endowed with the noblest virtues 

If you seek excuses for the sins of others.   

Although the Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah project is in its nascent stages, it may still be deemed a corpus, which is the trajectory to which it is heading. The following are two verses:  

קאל פמן אלמופק ללכׄיר  קאל 

אלראצׄי באליסיר מע סלאמת 

قال فمن الموفق للخير قال  

الراضي باليسير مع سلامت 

He said: who is it that is assisted in virtue? He said  

The one who is content with a little and has peace.   

Although both of the above verses speak about virtues from different angles there are similarities in their objectives. They are exhorting the reader (or perhaps listeners) to cultivate a higher personal virtue ethic through adapting certain attitudes: finding excuses for the lapses of others, and being content with little means. It is such insights which give a fascinating glimpse into what mattered for poets, and the messages which they were trying to convey. In a way they were educating their audiences to better their lives by following the guidance they imparted.    

Written by Muhammad Imran Khan