A Woman After My Own Heart

A saga of tribal war, blood money and a rebellious woman - a translation of one of the most beautiful works of the acclaimed pre-Islamic poet Zuhair bin Abi Sulma.

This year I realized a dream and began studying Arabic language and literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As I took my first clumsy steps, stumbling and falling and picking myself up again, suffering and bruised - I heard a rumor: "Orientalists are warning of a dramatic drop in the number of students taking Arabic in [Israeli] high schools." And the Orientalists were also saying - this I heard with my own ears, as reported by the Channel 2 evening news - that the 5,000 students currently studying for the five-point matriculation exam in Arabic comprise only about one-third of the number the defense establishment needs. The news also said that this state of affairs constitutes "grave damage to the national strength of the State of Israel."

Several days later, the bad news was mitigated by some good news: Though the number of young people studying Arabic has declined in the country, at a Be'er Sheva high school, some two dozen students have begun studying Persian at the five-point matriculation level. The intention, according to the newspaper that reported this happy fact, is that "upon completing their studies they will be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces intelligence system." Moreover, according to the report, at the festive event launching the program - in the presence of the students, their parents, Education Ministry officials and army representatives - the woman responsible for the education portfolio at the Be'er Sheva municipality said: "This is the first pilot program of its sort, and the students participating in it have been carefully selected. This is an opportunity to learn a language that will open the door for them to elite units in the army."

Kitab al-Aghani - January 2012

"They shall beat their swords into plowshares ... neither shall they learn war any more," said the prophet Isaiah in his day. But he would not have been able to imagine the day when they would "beat" learning materials into weapons of destruction and learn only war, to the point of having no language and culture, but only a door through which to enter the intelligence establishment and the army's elite units.

This is sad, I said to myself, but maybe something good will still come out of all this for me, and perhaps after this "change of life," I too will rejoice. For I have been young and now I am old. I served in the army and I also rebelled, and I became a hater of Israel in the eyes of many of my countrymen and countrywomen. And now, having gone to study Arabic language and literature, I have found myself unwittingly joining the ranks of those who are fortifying the State of Israel's national strength.

But before I reach the end of the hard road of familiarizing myself with some of the treasures of the culture of our millions of neighbors, here is a juicy morsel from my student's desk, which I have translated with the help of my young teacher and guide, Guy Ron-Gilboa. It is about a rebellious woman who succeeded, unlike me, in bringing a bit of peace to her tribe in the Arabian desert.

The text is taken from "Kitab al-Aghani" ("The Book of Songs"), by the 10th-century Abbasid scholar Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, the most famous comprehensive encyclopedia of early Arabic poetry, which includes not only poems but also stories about poets, singers and other heroes. Each poem is accompanied by a description of the events that served to inspire it.

The story translated below is part of the information Isfahani offers about the acclaimed pre-Islamic poet Zuhair bin Abi Sulma. One of the latter's most beautiful and best-known poems - and indeed one of the most famous exemplars of the early Arabic qasida (metrical ode ) - praises the generosity of Harith bin 'Auf and Harim bin Sinan of the Bani Dhubyan tribe. The two undertook to pay a large sum of blood money as compensation for the deaths of members of a rival tribe, thereby putting an end to a bloody war of four years, which had originally broken out between the two tribes because of a horse race.

The story translated here from "The Book of Songs" is not about Harim bin Sinan - the philanthropist who joins up with the protagonist of the story, Harith bin 'Auf - but rather about his brother, Harija bin Sinan. In any case, the following translation is dedicated to the woman in the story, Bahisa, who in her own way resisted stubbornly and said no to war.

This is the tale of the marriage between Harith bin ‘Auf to Bahisa, the daughter of Aws, and how he took upon himself the payment from his own property of the blood money in the war between the Abs and the Dhubyan tribes.

Harith bin ‘Auf bin Abi Haritha asked Harija bin Sinan: “Can you imagine that I would ask someone for the hand of his daughter and he would refuse me?”

He replied: “Yes.”

He asked: “Who was it?”

He replied: “Aws bin Haritha, the son of a mother from the Tayy tribe.”

Harith turned to his servant and said: “Prepare the camels and the supplies and we will set out.”

The servant did as he was told and the two rode together until they came to the place where Aws bin Haritha dwelt and found him in his tent.

He said: “Peace.”

He said: “Peace and blessings.”

He said: “What has brought you, O Harith?”

He said: “I have come to ask for your daughter’s hand.”

He said: “You are not worthy.”

The man departed without saying a word. Furious and fuming, Aws went in to his wife, who was a daughter of the Abs tribe.

She asked him: “Who is the man who came and stood before you and did not stay and you did not speak to him?”

He said to her: “He is the leader of the Arabs, Harith bin ‘Auf bin Abi Haritha of the Murra tribe.”

She asked him: “And why did you not extend him hospitality?”

He said to her: “He behaved foolishly.”

She asked him: “How?”

He said to her: “It was to ask for my daughter’s hand that he came to me.”

She asked him: “And you, don’t you want to marry off your daughters?”

He said to her: “I do.”

She asked him: “And if you don’t marry them off in accordance with the custom of the Arabs, to whom will you marry them?”

He said to her: “What is done cannot be undone.”

She said to him: “Fix what you have done.”

He asked her: “How?”

She said to him: “Catch up with him and bring him back.”

He said to her: “What escaped from my mouth, escaped from my mouth and how will I bring him back?”

She said to him: “Tell him: ‘I was angry that you had come to me without any preliminaries and I had no answer apart from what you heard. And now come back. Anything you want of me you shall have. Ask and I will do it.’”

Aws rode after the two.

Harija bin Sinan said: “By God, I was going along and all of a sudden I turned around and I saw him. I went up to al-Harith and he did not speak to me, he was so insulted, and I said to him: ‘Here is Aws bin Haritha following us.’ He said to me: ‘What have we got to do with him! Go on ahead!’

“Aws bin Haritha saw we were not standing and waiting for him and he shouted: ‘Wait for me a minute,’ and we waited for him.”

Aws told those things to Harith and he turned around and they went back together happily and in good heart. And he entered his tent and said to his wife: “Tell my eldest daughter to come to me,” and the daughter came, and he said to her: “O my beloved daughter, this man, Harith bin ‘Auf, a leader of the Arabs, has come to me asking to enter into a marriage with my family and I thought of marrying him to you. What do you say?”

She said to him: “Don’t do it.”

He asked her: “Why?”

She said: “Because my face is twisted and not all my qualities are good and there is no blood relationship between me and him so that he will extend me his protection. And he is not a neighbor of yours who would be ashamed before you and I fear lest he find something he hates and divorce me and that evil will befall me.”

He said to her: “Get up and go and may God bless you, and call my middle daughter to come to me.”

And she called her. And her father said to her what he had said to her sister, and she answered him as her sister had answered him and said: “I am no wife of a soldier nor do I have good hands, and I fear lest he find something he hates and divorces me and the evil that you have known will befall me. And there is no blood relationship between him and me that he would be my protector, nor is he a neighbor of yours who would be ashamed before you.”

He said to her: “Get up and go and God bless you, and call in Bahisa,” who was his youngest daughter.

She was brought before him and he told her what he had told her two sisters and she said to him: “As you will.”

And he said to her: “I offered this to your sisters and they refused.”

And she said − and he had not told her what her sisters had said: “But I, by God, have a pretty face and clever hands, and my qualities are good and I have a good pedigree and if he divorces me, may God not give him a good wife in my stead.”

He said to her: “God bless you.”

Then he came out to us and he said: “I will marry Bahisa to you, o Harith bin ‘Auf.”
He said to him: “I agree.”

And the father ordered the mother to ready her daughter and her belongings, and then he ordered that a tent be prepared for Harith and they pitched a tent for him and settled him in it.

And when she was ready, he sent her to him. She went into him and he tarried a long time and then came out to me.

I asked him: “Did you finish your business?”

He said to me: “No, by God.”

I said to him: “Why not?”

He said: “When I stretched my hand out to her, she said: ‘No! In the home of my father and my sisters?’ By God, there has never been such a thing.”

And he gave the order to leave. We departed and we took Bahisa with us, and we went quite a way.

And he said to me: “Go on ahead, and I went on ahead.”

And he turned off the path with her, and he tarried and did not catch up with me right away.
I asked him: “Did you finish?”

He said to me: “No, by God.”

I asked him: “Why?”

He said: “She said to me: ‘Will you do to me the deed that is done to a slave girl bought in a foreign place or to a captive taken by force? No, by God. Rather, first you will slaughter an animal and sacrifice it and invite the Arabs, and behave according to the traditional way a woman like me must be treated.’”

I said to him: “By God, I can see in her nobility and intelligence and I hope she will bear you successful children, God willing.”

And we continued on our way until we reached the place where we dwell. And he brought the camels and the sheep, and then he went in to her and then came back out to me.
I asked him: “Did you finish?”

He said: “No.”

I asked: “Why?”

He said: “I went in to her and I wanted her and I said to her, ‘Here, now you see, we have prepared the sacrifice.’ And she said to me: ‘By God, you told me you were noble but I am not finding it in you.’ I asked: ‘Why not?” She said: ‘Is your mind free for business with women at a time when the Arabs are killing one another?!’”

And the days were the days of the war between the Abs tribe and the Dhubyan tribe.
He said: “And what shall be done?”

She said: “Go out to those tribes and make peace between them. Afterward come back to your wife and you will not leave empty-handed.”

I said: “By God, indeed I do see in her nobility and intelligence. She spoke sensibly.”
He said to me: “Come with us.”

We set out and we came to the tribes and we spread words of reconciliation between them. And the tribes agreed to make peace on condition they count up the number of dead and take the difference in blood money from the tribe that is found to be owing. And we took it upon ourselves to pay the blood money, 3,000 camels in three years, and we acquired a very good reputation for ourselves.

Vivian Eden translated Ilana Hammerman’s Hebrew translation of the original Arabic into English.