Persian in Arabic Poetry: Identity Politics and Abbasid Macaronics.

Author:Harb, Lara
Position:Critical essay


The phenomenon of employing foreign words in Arabic poetry (macaronics) is mentioned favorably by several Abbasid authors. In a discussion of the appropriate choice of words (lafz) in poetry, al-Jahiz (d. 255/868f.) writes: "An Arab may find pleasure in inserting something of Persian speech (kalam al-farisiyya) in his poetry." (1) Abu Bakr Ibn Dawud (d. 294/909) includes citations of macaronic poetry in a chapter "On poetry that is found beautiful and elegant (yustazraf) for its departure from the known limits (li-khurujihi 'an hadd ma yu'raf)" which includes all kinds of poetic eccentricities such as palindromes and acrostics. (2) Slightly later, Hamza al-Isfahani (d. after 350/961) concludes his commentary on one of Abu Nuwas's (d. between 198/813 and 200/815) macaronic poems (farisiyyat), stating: "In this poet's ability to insert Persian eccentricities into his poetry while mastering the utmost oddities of Arabic lies the proof of his versatility in the peculiarities of literature." (3) The actual function behind the practice remains unclear, however. (4) Was it the result of the spirit of experimentation and anti-conventionality that was characteristic of the modern (muhdath) style of poetry that started developing in the early Abbasid period? Was it a subversive act with a political agenda? Or did it merely serve a comic effect by imitating the foreign?

A comprehensive inventory of macaronic poetry that employs Persian in Arabic does not exist. (5) The extent of the phenomenon is therefore hard to gauge. There are several references to it in medieval sources, but only a handful of poetic examples have survived. Nevertheless, the employment of Persian in Arabic poetry is already attested in pre-Islamic times, with poets as renowned as al-A'sha (d. after 625 CE), one of the mu'allaqat authors. (6) We find examples as late as the sixth/twelfth century, with the Egyptian poet Ibn Sana' al-Mulk (d. 608/1211), who employs Persian in the exit lines (sg. kharja) of some of his muwashshah (strophic) poems, (7) but the bulk of the surviving examples come from the early Abbasid period. The most famous are by Abu Nuwas. According to Hamza al-Isfahani, who identifies a handful of complete poems and fragments by Abu Nuwas that employed Persian, (8) he used a total of two hundred Persian words in his poetry. (9) Al-Jahiz and Abu Bakr Ibn Dawud cite other examples composed by poets from the Umayyad and early Abbasid periods. (10) In addition, scattered verses can be found in a number of texts and anthologies. (11)

After studying the small corpus of macaronic poetry that has survived from the first four centuries after the rise of Islam, I have been able to identify two aspects of the function of Persian in Arabic poetry: one purely aesthetic, the other thematic. Below I will focus on the latter and show how the Persian relates to the theme of the poem as a whole. I argue that Persian vocabulary was inserted deliberately as a marker of a Persian identity. The identity is brought up for a variety of purposes in the poems and stands for the "foreign Other" (12) in contrast to a Muslim, Arab identity. This relationship is manipulated differently depending on the historical and political contexts. I begin with an introduction to macaronics and then analyze how Abbasid poets represented these dynamics in their macaronic poems, concluding with a brief reflection on the phenomenon's relationship with the pro-Persian shu'ubiyya movement. I will look at two poems by Abu Nuwas, as well as two selections cited by al-Jahiz with attributions to the first/seventh-century Umayyad poet Ibn Mufarrigh and the second/eighth-century Abbasid poet al-'Umani. Finally, I will discuss a poem by Ibn al-Hajjaj, the popular fourth/tenth-century Iraqi poet, and his clever inversion of the roles represented in the earlier poems.


    There is no technical term used by medieval authors writing in Arabic to describe bilingual poetry. The technical term in Persian for such poetry, mulamma', is rarely used in that sense in Arabic. The word "macaronic" is a description of a kind of mixed-language verse that comes out of the medieval European context. Applying it to medieval Arabic poetry therefore requires some flexibility and adaptation of the category. The case of Persian insertions into Arabic has its own unique challenges and is complicated particularly by the fact that many Persian words enter the Arabic lexicon as Arabicized loanwords. Because pre-Islamic poetry is so old and it is therefore (by default) considered by medieval authors fasih (pure and correct), most of the foreign vocabulary found in it entered Arabic lexicons and much of it is quite common. (13) The same is true for words in the Quran that are of Persian origin, an issue that was subject to contention over the centuries. (14) Moreover, with the influx of Persian vocabulary in the early Abbasid period, one cannot know whether certain words at the time were common among Arabic speakers of cosmopolitan urban centers such as Basra and Baghdad, even if they have not entered the lexicons, functioning as vernacular rather than foreign vocabulary. (15) It is therefore difficult to assess how intentional Persian insertions in Arabic poetry were in many cases.

    Nevertheless, poets like al-A'sha and Abu Nuwas were explicitly seen by medieval authors to have used Persian vocabulary. Ibn Rashlq (d. ca. 456/1063) states, for example, that "al-A'sha in the past and Abu Nuwas more recently" used foreign words occasionally for the sake of embellishment. (16) Moreover, the sources listed above identify the phenomenon as one of inserting foreign words into Arabic poetry. These medieval authors therefore recognized the poetry as bilingual. My guiding principle in considering poetry macaronic is therefore, first and foremost, their identification by medieval authors as poems that use Persian words, even if some of these words can be found in Arabic lexicons. Second, I classify poems as macaronic when the Persian vocabulary employed has not entered the lexicons at all, especially when the equivalent Arabic could just as easily have been used.

    In the European context, macaronic verse "entails not inserting foreign words but giving words of the poet's native tongue the inflectional endings of another language (Latin), yielding a comic mock-Latin." (17) More broadly, however, it could entail the alternating of sentences or phrases or the application of one language's morphological constructions to the other. (18) There does not seem to be an established convention in Arabic except in the case of the muwashshah. In the poems I discuss below, the Persian vocabulary is inserted freely and it usually does not entail anything beyond the employment of single words. Indeed, the discussion of the phenomenon in works of literary criticism often takes place within discussions of the role of the choice of words (lafz) in eloquence. (19) It is therefore a matter of inserting Persian vocabulary into Arabic. (20) Nevertheless, these insertions are typically made to conform to the grammar and meter requirements of the verse, such as the addition of the Arabic definite article, or of final inflections indicating the grammatical function of the word, as well as the voweling of the words themselves in ways that make them sound more Arabic. (21) This likely yielded a comic effect.

    The word "macaronic" was popularized by the Renaissance Italian author, Teofilo Folengo (d. 1544), in describing his own bilingual verse "as a literary analogue of macaroni ('a gross, rude, and rustic mixture of flour, cheese, and butter')." (22) The analogy describes both the mixing of vernacular languages with Latin and the gross and obscene character of his work. Macaronic poetry is, therefore, often associated with humor, ribaldry, and lewdness. The two Arabic strophic genres of muwashshah and zajal, flourishing in the fifth and sixth/eleventh and twelfth centuries in the Iberian peninsula, made use of Romance and Hebrew, as well as vernacular Arabic, and were typically humorous, lighthearted, and often obscene in content. (23) David Hanlon suggests that in the case of the muwashshah, the function of Romance and vernacular Arabic, restricted to the final lines, was to enhance the form's characteristically comic conclusion. He argues that the foreign languages and non-literary vernacular Arabic represent lower linguistic registers and therefore are "appropriate vehicles for the facetious and frequently obscene element [...]." (24)

    Not all macaronic poetry is comic, however. Before Folengo, macaronics had been in use in Europe in the Middle Ages in the form of religious lyrics and church hymns, lending the macaronic literary enterprise a profoundly solemn purpose, and it has been postulated that among the reasons for the proliferation of such macaronics then was the desire to reach a wider audience. (25) In modern times, we find in Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot examples of a serious use of the macaronic. In these cases, the mixing of European languages, as well as ancient Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Sanskrit, represents a more intellectual enterprise that can be appreciated only by a few.

    Several centuries after the appearance of Persian insertions into primarily Arabic poetry, which is the subject of this article, the reverse, known as talmi', becomes a fairly common practice in Persian poetry. This typically involved the solemn mixing of Arabic verses or hemistichs (often Quranic quotations) in Persian poetry. Nargis Virani explains that among the reasons that motivated such insertions was the desire "to invoke baraka (blessings) as well as to gain legitimacy," (26) given the high and sacred status that the Arabic language had gained through Islam. In her discussion of Jalal al-Din Rumi's macaronic poems (mulamma'at), Virani also argues that the linguistic mixing allowed the poet to break free from...

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