Horse, Hawk and Cheetah: Three Arabic Hunting Poems of Abū Nuwās

1 February 2015

These three early ninth-century Arabic poems are examples of a genre of hunting poetry popular from the eighth to the tenth centuries. Three animals are described: a horse; a tiercel gos; and a cheetah.

The poet is Abū Nuwās (d. ca. 813-14)1, easily the greatest of all early Arabic poets. His name ‘Abū Nuwās’ means ‘Bearer of the Forelock,’ a moniker that describes an unusual hairstyle probably associated with his outrageous lifestyle. His extant corpus of poem describes all sorts of indulgences, from wine-drinking to boy-love.

‘Horse’ is composed in rajaz metre, with the rhyme –āquhu, and describes a young stallion (‘Colt’) of astonishing, mythic, power. Colt is ridden in a wild ass hunt.

The many opaque uses in the poem of the third person singular, in verbal and pronominal form, posed me certain challenges of interpretation and translation. I struggled at times to determine what the referents of any given occurrence are. I have tried to present a solution.


Rays lit up the sky
Black night struck camp—
Proof it was day.
I brought out Colt—a stallion of brute power and pedigree.
Fire’s energy coursed 
Through his tight-twist, taut-rope joints
He was sent to earth2 by night clouds guided by a rising star
Showered with their gifts
Blessed by clouds black with rain
In constant downpours.
He drank from their bounty. Limbs grew strong.

We approached. The ass neighed in alarm.
Colt stirred with lust.
The ass sprinted from al-Ṭuwā’s holy trees3.
I said to my slave, an expert hunter:
‘Mount! Colt makes me anxious.’
His light frame settled on Colt’s back.
He fired him. Colt’s eyes swam with water.
He hunted a hardloin male—
A thrust that made its jaws spew
Thick belly blood mixed with spit:
The bitter food of death
Delivered by doom’s lightning bolt
Neck iridescent, voltaic.

وانجاب من ذي ظُلَمٍ رَوَاقُهُ
قرّبتُ شَهْمًا كَرُمَتْ أعْراقُهُ
كمَرِسٍ مُمَرَّةٍ أطْلاقُهُ
من نَوْءِ نجمٍ جاده انْدفاقُهُ
والغيثُ مُدْهِمُّ ٱلذُّرَى وَدَّاقُهُ
لمّا دنونا ذُعِرَتْ نُهَاقُهُ
فلاح مِنْ غَابِ ٱلطُّوَى فَرَاقُهُ
إِرْكَبْ فقد أقْلقَنَا إِقْلاقُهُ
أرسله وَٱغْرَوْرَقَتْ أحْداقُهُ
بِطَعْنةٍ مجّتْ لها أشْداقُهُ
عن طَعْمِ مَوْتٍ مُمَقِرٍّ مَذَاقُهُ
من الرَّدَى إذ لمعتْ أعناقُهُ

لمّا بدا من ساطِعٍ إشراقُهُ
وحان من نهارنا مِصْداقُهُ
ومار في أوصاله إحراقُهُ
أَرْمَى به الغَيْثُ سَرَى بُعَاقُهُ
أَسْعدَه بوابلٍ غَيْدَاقُهُ
حتّى ربا من نِعْمَةٍ شِقَاقُهُ
والمُهْرُ قد هيَّجه اشتياقُهُ
قلتُ لِعَبْدٍ دُعْلِبَتْ أخلاقُهُ
لمّا استوى في متنه خفَّاقُهُ
فصاد عَيْرًا لاحِقًا صِفاقُهُ
نَجِيعَ جَوْفٍ شَابَهُ بُصَاقُهُ
من الذي أبرزه إبْراقُهُ

The poem explores a central feature of the ancient Arab conception of the horse, an equation of equine power, lightning and water. It is enhanced here to a mythic level: the horse is nurtured and cherished by lightning storms and rainclouds. As I read the final verse, the horse, the lightning from the rainclouds and death become one. The resulting picture is of an elemental horse of astonishing physical and poetic power. This mythpoeic quality is enhanced by the Qurʾanic overtones of verse 14 in the description of the hallowed wild ass safe in the sacred sanctuary of al-Ṭuwā until the arrival of Death in the form of Colt.

Whilst I was working on this translation, I could not stop thinking about a poem by Ted Hughes: ‘New Foal,’ published in 1977 or 1978.4 In that poem Hughes weaves a web of mystery and cosmic power around the newborn foal, describing how ‘he wants only to be Horse’ till the energy of ‘unearthly Horse’ surges through him. I seem to hear Hughes’s poem everywhere in my version of Abū Nuwās.

  1. His original name was al-Ḥasan ibn Hāniʾ.
  2. I have opted to give the phrase armā bihi a maximal reading that is actually a literal reading. It is possible to interpret the phrase as: ‘rainclouds drenched him.’
  3. Al-Ṭuwā is the hallowed valley where Moses was addressed by God: see Q Ṭāhā 20.12 and Nāziʿāt 79.16.
  4. Ted Hughes, Collected Poems, edited by Paul Keegan (London: Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 386-388.
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