A qaṣīda in praise of Salāma Dhū Fā’ish


(Meter: mutaqārib.)

ALL NIGHT LONG you held your eyes open,
******never to lay down with the night’s sleepers, really.
It’s her you can’t forget. And why her?
******[Just because] some of what she promised went unkept?
[Tell her:] “Off, and stay away from a hard-hearted
******cutter of the ties that he does knit!
Women like you are not rare. Their delight is in young men.
******Their bodies are ever sticky with scented oils.”
The watchman was asleep when I went atop her.************************5
******Insensate were her slumbering people’s eyes.
So I spent the night in her husband’s place,
******master over her and her would-be master.

Who holds his own and turns his back on guidance
******from a scold is one I can admire:
the happy fellow who hangs around with nobles,
******but won’t hang back [from paying] when it’s poured.
One night he came seeking my answer about some wine.
******“[Let’s] make a morning of it,” is what I said.
We gave [our mounts] a rest, coming first for the cup’s vigor.*************10
******Of those we went before, we were the envy.
The rooster had not yet crowed when we pulled up [at the shop]
******where two colors flash [in one wine] under guard.
Through a sieve, a little blue-eyed man decants
******an early vintage, in no danger of it finding no buyers.
“This one–give it to us” we said to him,
******“for a white camel by a tether led.”
“You could give me ten [camels], and it still wouldn’t equal
******the likes of this!” he said.
“Pay him,” I said to our servant, and when******************************15
******he saw the proofs presented [by our coins],
he lit his booth with a lamp. The fringes
******of its canopy were steeped in the night’s darkness.
[I said:] “Our dirhams are all good, so don’t detain us
******while you test their metal for its worth.”
So he desisted, and poured for us a wine
******whose thunderous effect was followed by a calming one.
Mixed with black, its redness came to light
******when its foam subsided and its substance cleared.
The lowly man who samples it recovers his dignity,**********************20
******and the eyes of its coveters are wet with tears.
Left to settle in its earthen jar, it was
******[as free of chaff] as the stomach of a chick newly hatched.
The ewer made its way around our group
******in the grip of a mulberry-dyed hand.
Our camels wore their saddles overnight
******and our horses stood in felted blankets,
and all the while their riders drained their drink.
******[But] they stopped drinking before it stopped pouring.
Drunkenness eased our departure from the scene.***********************25
******It gave us purpose before taking us off course.

Formidable was the waste, waymarked by [rearing] piles of stone.
******Men with able bodies, you would think them.
Those who journey through it are told by their guide:
******“Don’t err and miss a section of the trail.”
I cut across it when mirages wavered,
******on a maned she-camel hurtling forward mightily.
Heaped with muscle, her baby teeth all gone,
******she bears the added weight [of saddle and rider].
Her pace is brisk throughout the night, even*****************************30
******after a day of nonstop travel. You see her [running]
like the wide-eyed [cow of the wild], when her calf
******has gone missing on the rugged heights of Mt. Jaww,
to her despair. And after [the cow] returns
******to where she roamed before her bereavement,
her insides are gripped all night long by distress
******when her soul realizes its grief and isolation.
At the eastern rise of dawn, a pack of dogs
******besets her, driving her on with necks outstretched,
and off she goes, her four [legs] striving,*********************************35
******and she with them. Their struggle is one struggle.
Shunning rocky ground where there is no cover,
******she refuses to be chased [out of the brush] onto it,
but when the fast ones can’t be shaken she whirls around
******and sets her heavy crown against them.
[The points of] her horns keep them clear of her flesh,
******driving into their ribs with all her might.
And that’s what I compare my camel to,
******on her morning trek across the upland pebblefields.
Her way leads to Salāma Dhū Fā’ish.************************************40
******The object of her assignation lies with him.

From here to your house, how many plains are there [to cross]?
******How many tracts of crags and hillocked sand?
How many arid badlands, impassable by night,
******to the accompaniment of the strutting owl’s call?
How many times must saddle blankets come off and on?
******How many stops for water stowed in skins?
Ḥimyar lags at making sure its children
******get enough to drink. If the tribe were well run,
you would be recognized as their better man.*****************************45
******Your flint produces more flame than do their flints.
Hostilities among them have cooled [for the time being].
******If they should heat up again, and catch fire,
and armed bands [be heard to] say, “Who is with us,
******now that war and its contests are back upon us?”
and the fat of their kidneys rile them up to it,
******ready to share their expertise in combat with the seeker–
[in that case] you will be one to endure the heat
******of war and the recrudescence of war, and to keep your property
swelled with spoils–you, to whom despoilments**************************50
******may happen, but not one to tally the loss
as you escort men to their hours of destiny,
******sowing war from the backs of camels got in raids.
[In war,] many women go through nuptials undowered,
******and for other women there is a demand for ransom.
And many [she-camels] are haled from one man’s courtyard
******and added to the steading of another man.
Jealously guarded though they were, their milk
******is given to new possessors, who call them by new names.
In wintertime, when bangles slip loosely down the arms*******************55
******of [once-plump] nursemaids, your generosity is unrestrained.
And when a suppliant woman is taken in by your people,
******their custodianship of her is like an uncle’s.
They do not try her chastity in exchange for their largesse,
******nor do they leave her in a pauper’s state.
Equal to the attack of whomever they face are the people
******[of Salāma Dhū Fā’ish], when they see it’s time for battle.



Al-A‘shā Maymūn ibn Qays (d. ca. 629 CE) was a member of the last generation of Arabia’s pre-Islamic poets, and a contemporary of the Prophet Muḥammad. Whether or not he took to Islam at the very end of his life depends on which legend you believe. As a professional panegyrist he was active all over the Peninsula, but he is best identified with the Late Antique city-state of al-Ḥīra (now a ruin outside Najaf, Iraq).

Al-A‘shā lost his sight in adulthood; the word a‘shā means “unable to see at night,” and by this sobriquet more than a few early Bedouin poets were called. (Vision-impaired poets living in cities tended less euphemistically to be called al-A‘mā, “the Blind.”) His interventions in political and tribal disputes were many, as documented in his surviving poetry, most of which was composed for hire. Some of al-A‘shā’s poems suggest that he turned against alcoholic drink in later life; it is nevertheless as a celebrant of carousal that al-A‘shā is best remembered today.

David Larsen

David Larsen teaches in NYU’s Liberal Studies Program. The revised edition of his translation of Ibn Khālawayh’s Names of the Lion will be released in 2017 by Wave Books. His blog Writing Gathering Field is viewable at paintedlantern.blogspot.com.

English translation copyright (c) David Larsen, 2017.