Al lail w´al khail w´al beida ta´rafuni

Night and my steed and the desert know me                                                          Mutanabi


The Power of Poetry


Tradition is a very important part of Bedouin life, as we have already discussed in the chapter on Bedouin society. That included the tradition on horses, and according to the importance of the horse it is a fairly rich one. Bedouins relied solely on oral tradition, handed down over centuries, but at least large parts of it can be found in some written sources in different books, many by Arabic authors as early as the Middle Ages, and also quite a lot by travelers from abroad, mainly from later times. The most important source on the recent tradition on the horse for us today  is the Abbas Pasha Manuscript. Oral badu tradition can be regarded nearly synonymous with their poetry, as also the narratives (salfah) were often in the form of rhymes and mostly were mixed with poems (qasidah) (Rasheed). According to Jabbur the folk tale is called qissa. Madawi al-Rasheed´s book “Politics in an Arabian Oasis” dedicates an unique chapter to “the power of poetry”, titled “making history” and discusses its role in the history of her family, the house of Rasheed at Hail. It seems appropriate to the author to transfer her thesis on oral badu tradition to the traditions concerning horses that will be discussed in this chapter.


The Role of the Horse in Shaping Bedouin Society


The German authority on the Arab horse, the late Erika Schiele, compiled the following passage about the Bedouin poets, worth to be counted in the full length of one page from her book (translation by the author):


“Nomadic life in Arabia developed mainly between Christ and Muhammad, but from the third century on the true Bedouin life with its raids, its fratricidal wars, its blood feuds, but also with its knightly ethos emerged only with the help of the horse. It transformed the camel-nomads into the aristocrats of the desert, that did not touch the soil but by the lips of their animals and had nothing but contempt for the settled, that by ploughing the soil did harm to it. The “wanderers over the sand” regarded the earth to have been created to read its tracks, and not to dig into it. Attacking the “slaves of the soil” was therefore not a disgrace, but a fair right.


After the rise of Islam this time before Muhammad was named the Time of Paganism, the “Days of Ignorance”; at the same time it was also called the “Golden Age”. Reason for the latter was the all important role of the rhythmic prose, the singing language of the story tellers in the black tents and of the desert poets and errant knights. It became the mother of the classical Arabic language, later reflected in the qur´an and until today bonding all Muslim people worldwide. It was the time of the lonely knights, wandering from tribe to tribe across the steppe and reciting their melodies and heroic epics under the starry sky, singing of wars, courage, and victory, praising their strong steeds and boasting of their adventures and successes:


That many deserts did I cross,

That many raids did I saddle my camel for,

That many victories my fast steed carried me to,

That many husbands of beauties did my lance toss into the sand,

That many favors of fair ladies did I enjoy.


The poets found thankful and untiring listeners in the Bedouins, following their verses with an unique sense for the beauty of language. From the fourth century on the manifold rock-art diminished slowly, instead the spoken word, the passionate poetic word, became the only form of art in the desert. It is supposed that the very beginnings of the Arab poetry originated from the rhythmic steps and the gargling sounds of the camels and that we can perceive as first roots of this poetry the little songs of the camel riders and drovers, to be heard until today. Men sing it to hold their animals in a steady pace and at the same time not to fall asleep themselves: in a single brittle pitch, coming high from their throat and dying away in the clear air. The camel, the Arab say, only marches well, as long as it hears the rider on his back singing or talking.” (Schiele, rendering prominent by the author).


The dromedary was the backbone of the nomad society of the Bedouins, but only the horse transformed it into the world of the poets and knights of the Golden Age, influencing the Islamic world until today and becoming also a model for the knights and minnesingers of Middle Age Europe. In German, the word “Ritter”, translated into English with knight, means rider. Besides, Shakespears´s Hamlet is supposed to be based on the story of Antara ibn Shaddad. The generic Arabic word for horses, khayl, is said to origin in the word ikhtiyal (pride, arrogance, haughtiness) in walking. The  horse among the Arabs  at  the  same  time became a symbol for speed, prowess, glory, happiness, immortality, fertility and vital force (Sumi).


The importance of the horse for badu society is summed up by Jabbur: “There is no image that reflects the Arab sense of pride as beautifully as does the image of an Arab on a thoroughbred horse. Indeed, the word furusiya (“horsemanship”) in the Arabic language, and its connotations of gallantry, nobility, might, and fortitude, are derived from the terms for the mare (faras) and the horseman (faris), and the word faris has also become to mean “hero”. As their (unknown) poet said:


If hero you´d be, then be like ´Ali;

Or if poet you´d be, then be like Ibn Hani.”            To continue click here