Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Desert Reading: A List by Adel S. Gamal

Professor of Near Eastern Studies at The University of Arizona


The polarization of city and countryside in European literature has been observed in a long line of literary creation, stretching from Hesiod's Works and Days through the modern pastoral tradition. Pastoral romance and pastoral drama, which combine love, idealized country life, and natural description, have permanently colored the general western attitude to the land beyond the city limits. My favorite book on this subject is Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

In classical Arabic literature, however, the situation is completely different. The desert has played in Arabic literature a more significant role than has the "country." Many of the feelings and associations that cluster around the country in western literature are to be found, as far as classical Arabic literature is concerned, in works, primarily poetry, dealing with the desert. Here the dichotomy between "nature" and "nurture" takes the form of contrast between the desert and the town. No other literature has portrayed with such strangely moving power its composers' infatuation with and love for the desert. Nowhere else have the minute details of the desert life been so passionately depicted, nor has the desert dominated the literary imagination or molded literary conventions for so long as in classical Arabic literature. The Arab poet gifted with unusual power of observation strove to match every minute detail with an equally sensitive choice of words describing the desert: its vast expanse, its sand, dunes, plants, animals, birds, the scorching sun and shivering cold, the moon, the stars, the rain, the water wells and springs, the challenges he faced in crossing it, the demons that roamed at night.

There is virtually no pre-Islamic long poem that does not contain a section on the desert. Some poets devoted the vast majority of their poems to expressing their passionate love of the desert, of the innocence it represents, the peace and tranquillity and freedom. One of the best books on such poets is Yusuf Khulayf's Dhu al-Rumma: The Poetry of Love and Poetry of the Desert (Cairo: Dar al Ma'arif, 1970). Dhu al-Rumma's poetry is but love poetry dedicated equally to his beloved Mayy and to the desert.

The description of the desert with such moving power has fascinated western scholars. William Polk was so much struck by a certain poem composed by Labid ibn Rabiah (ca. 560-661) that he decided to undertake the thousand-mile trip across the Arabian desert Labid describes in the poem. To Mr. Polk's astonishment, everything Labid talked about was still the same, down to the last detail. He took pictures of all he saw on his long journey and the pictures matched exactly what Labid had put into words so many centuries earlier. Mr. Polk translated Labid's poem into English and it was published as The Golden Ode by the University of Chicago Press (1974) in an elegant edition. Each page has only one line written in a beautiful Arabic calligraphy, followed by an English translation and a brief commentary. Each line was also matched with a photograph that evokes the content of that line.

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