We have recently been undertaking a lot of research in Andalucía, southern Spain, having been commissioned to write a literary guide to that region as a follow up to our Sicily book. In many ways it was a natural extension, with so many cross-Mediterranean currents flowing between the two areas – not least of which being the Arab connection. Many Moorish writers spent time in both locations, bringing a pan-Arab perspective to their work. If we think of Arabic literature in Sicily, the names that spring to mind are Ibn Jubayr and al-Idrisi, the traveller and mapmaker, yet that is only part of a much larger picture often dominated by poets belonging to both al-Andalus and Siqilliyya.
Before we delve into the heart of the article, those curious to know what Siculo-Arabic may have become, should hop over to Malta, as some scholars point to Maltese as the ultimate extension of that 10th century dialect. However, for the time being, let’s take the Pozzallo ferry back from Valletta and focus on the most renowned of the poets in question, Ibn Hamdis al-Azdi al-Siqilli, born in Noto or Siracusa, depending on the version you read, in 1056. It seems his childhood was a favoured one, the evidence of his learning in the verses of his poetry ample testament to a rounded education.
The writer and scholar, María Rosa Menocal, who has written a fascinating account of Medieval tolerance in Spain, The Ornament of the World, also penned a text entitled, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Its subtitle, A Forgotten Heritage, is something of a lament for the greats of that era, including many Siculo-Arabic authors. There are few translations into the Romance languages or English of Hamdis and the other Sicilian writers. Any Arabic scholars out there? Sadly, many manuscripts were lost. In fact, the best way to capture the Siracusan’s work is to turn to the poems he wrote later in life which have been translated.
Hamdis was caught up in the Norman invasion of Sicily, when Robert and Roger Guiscard managed to militarily exploit a Muslim ruling class fragmented into rival fiefdoms. The death knell of Arabic Sicily was the fall of Palermo, known as Balarm to the Moors, in 1072. Although the reconquest of the city didn’t spawn the bloody reprisals so prevalent in Spain, it did trigger a flood of Muslims intent on leaving the island, a tide of emigrants that included Ibn Hamdis and his family.
They ended up, unsurprisingly, in al-Andalus (Andalucía), specifically at the Sevillian court of al-Mutamid Ibn Abbad, a patron of the arts. Menocal quotes the Italian Arabist, Gabrieli, as saying ‘La Sicilia insomma… non è che una provincia letteraria della Spagna’ – which implies the overarching dominance of al-Andalus when it came to cultural matters. Ibn Hamdis wrote some panegyric poetry praising his new ruler, but was again forced to move when the Spanish Christians exiled Ibn Abbad. He first crossed the straits to Algeria then moved on to Tunisia.
After this peripatetic life, his old age was spent pining for his Sicilian youth, those days of luxury and happiness. Even we put on rose-tinted glasses when picturing those tiled courtyards, fountains whispering gently against the backdrop of lemons and oranges. His life spent in contemplation of the muses and a perfectly sensual atmosphere for visions of love and loss, occasionally infused by the fermented fruit of the vine – a pleasure these oriental poets were happy to afford themselves.
Contrary to Sicily, any search for the poetry of Muslim Spain and its diaspora will prove productive, yet hidden within these anthologies are more than a few verses written by Sicilian poets. In the Spanish translation of Adolf Friedrich von Schack’s, Poetry and Art of the Arabs in Spain and Sicily, there is a whole series of Ibn Hamdis’ poetry, including this tale of bawdy goings-on in a convent. It seems the convents and monasteries in Muslim realms, that were permitted to operate, had a reputation for producing good wine. If we believe these verses, Hamdis would have snuck in to take his pleasures. With apologies to Juan Valera, we translate them here:
My soul was lost in pleasure,
There in my youth;
Today my white-haired old age exhorts
My soul to virtue.
Like a plant rooted in sterile soil
Virtue stayed within me;
By heaven it was cultivated in vain;
I gave it no fruit.
Passions were launched from my soul
In displays of giddy ostentation,
And one’s being crumbled into atoms,
Flying in all directions.
And there were storms, confusion, fights,
My anger quick to ignite:
Weak were my thoughts on sudden attack,
They remained captive.
Wine, the clear wine bubbled over
The gold in white foam,
It was my greatest delight, the orgy
In the happy choir.
The cup-bearer was never missing there,
Beautiful, rich in love,
Which the strength of the wine calmed,
Cooling its ardour.
Space doesn’t permit the complete translation, but the poem continues in a similar vein, with the older Ibn Hamdis waxing nostalgic for his youthful exploits, whilst berating his excessive behaviour from the not-so-comfortable distance of old age. Whatever the exact context, it’s a sentiment many of us can certainly relate to, even from the syncline of encroaching middle-age!
The poem’s last verses contain this wistful paean to his lost homeland:
When Sicily fills my memory,
Ah what pain I feel,
Upon remembering my youth, my glory,
My delirious love!
What more could we possibly add to such heartfelt emotion.
Andrew and Suzanne are the authors of Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their book: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
Andrew is also the translator of Alejandro Luque’s compilation of short stories set in Sicily, The Sicilian Defence. Diane Donovan in The Midwest Book Review called it ‘a magnificently crafted series of vignettes exposing the underbelly of choice and its consequences’.