Poems of Wine & Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas
Arabic literature has a distinguished tradition of bacchanals but none are so consistently entertaining, explicit or iconoclastic as those of Abu Nuwas al-Hasan ibn Hani al-Hakami (c. 756 - c. 815), the 'bad boy' of Abbasid poetry.
One of the greatest of Arabic poets - indeed, the greatest in the opinion of some critics - Abu Nuwas wrote accomplished verse that demonstrated his technical mastery of all the major genres. However, it is his poems on wine (khamriyyat), homosexual love (mudhakkarat) and ribaldry (majouniyyat) for which he is best known and that earned him his notoriety. These poems often landed him in trouble and prison during his lifetime and, even today, are still subject to censorship by the guardians of public morality. As his talent makes him difficult to ignore, he is frequently subject to misrepresentation.
Abu Nuwas' poetry is characterised by an astonishing lack of inhibition and one of the most attractive features of his diwan is the extent to which his verse reveals its author's personality. What emerges is a likeable, if rather louche, character with an outrageous sense of humour, sharp wit, unaccompanied by malice, and considerable sensibility who let no convention save, on occasion, the order of the caliph, restrain him in his pursuit of life's sensual pleasures.
In his khamriyyat, Abu Nuwas offers a glimpse of the hedonistic and dissipated world he inhabited: the world of Baghdad high society at the zenith of the Abbasid caliphate. Yet there is also a modern and up-to-date feel about his poetry that makes it ideal for presentation to an English-speaking readership, some twelve centuries after his death.
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