Abū Nuwās was a great Arabic poet whose poetry encapsulated the society of his time. It has now been twelve centuries since Abū Nuwās composed words as he trod the streets of Baghdad. For most of that period, major parts of his work were censored by state and mosque. It’s only recently that the suppressed material has been allowed to see the light of day, and this new translation of the known khamriyyāt faithfully reflects the original.
Abū Nuwās’s khamriyyāt exhorts his listener to seek out pleasures. He pays homage to aged wine and to the tavern as a recourse for carnal pleasures, where the client is entertained by an engaging wine-server (saqi) who welcomes him with a kiss and urges him to drink. A whole body of symbolism revolves round the wine. At its heart is the feminine imagery; the wine (khamr, feminine) is the daughter of the vine, a bride brought out of its boudoir (vat) to be mated with water (mā’, masculine) to whom it submits at the mixing. That symbolism is a convenient vehicle for invoking a hetero/homo-erotic theme. Abū Nuwās does not seek his pleasures discreetly, asserting that a pleasure is not complete unless enjoyed openly. He is equally unreserved in his religious and social subversions.
To an Arabist, the khamriyyāt is a rich feast of lofty verse, witty allusions and dazzling imagery. Those qualities are reproduced here in a lucid and elegant translation that will delight the specialist as well as the general reader.