Horse, Hawk and Cheetah: 3 Arabic Hunting Poems of Abū Nuwās

By | 1 February 2015

‘Hawk’1, in rajaz metre with rhyme –īḥi, is a description of a tiercel goshawk. The poem has the three-part format of most examples of the hunting genre: a description of the hunter (in this case the poet focuses on how the raptor was acquired and trained), a vivid account of the chase (in this case an attack on a group of waders, in a pond or watercourse) and lastly the tally of the dead (a wonderfully hyperbolic ‘fifty’ birds).


I move through darkness with a fine tiercel—
A purebred, his genealogists say,
A clear, bright, noble brow
(You can’t find fault with perfection!)—
On my hand. I won’t part with him:
I paid a very good price.
The product of fasting and starving, 
Of water treatment and classes in semiotics,
He became fit and lean—but kept his demon spirit.
So he knew the voice, could read the revealed signs.

Many highsighted ṭuwwals2
Who tried to vault to freedom in the air
To escape sudden, steely precision blows
Were grounded by the hand of the wind:
A thwack of cantharidin spears.3

Before distress and fatigue he hunted fifty,
Some barely alive, some slaughtered.

مَحْضٍ لِمَنْ ينْسُبُه صريحِ
وليس ما يُغْمَزُ كالصحيحِ
ممّا اشترى بالثمن الربيحِ
ورَشِّه بالماء والتلويحِ
وعرف الصَّوْتَ ووَحْيَ ٱلمُوحِي
لم يُنْجِهِ طُمورُه في اللُّوحِ
تُرْجِلُه الريحُ بكَفِّ الريحِ
فاصطاد قبل الأَيْنِ والتبريحِ

قد أغتدي بزُرَّقٍ صبيحِ
صَلْتِ ٱلجبينِ واضحٍ مليحِ
بكفِّ ضَنَّانٍ به شحيحِ
فلم يزل بالنَّهْم والتقديحِ
حتّى انطوى إلّا جَنَانَ الرُّوحِ
فكم وكم من طُوَّلٍ طَمُوحِ
من فَلَتَاتٍ صَلَتَانِ شِيحِ
وضَرْبةٍ بِنَيْزَكٍ مَذْرُوحِ

خمسين مُسْتَحْيًى إلى مذبوح

As with the horse poem, Abū Nuwās mythologises the animal. A particularly fierce raptor, the gos is said to retain a ‘demon spirit’, for all the excellence of its training. In fact, it is a genie (in Arabic jinn or shayṭān) in avian form: the rebellious genies are said to have tried to eavesdrop on God in heaven (see Q Ḥijr 15.18, Ṣāffāt 37.8) and so pilfer the secrets of the Revelation. This perfectly trained hawk is endowed with prophecy for its ability to read the signs and signals given by the austringer. The unsettling picture that results is of a perfect killing machine, an embodiment of God’s power to destroy man, and an avatar of the pre-Islamic genies who pilfered God’s Revelation.

  1. Abū Nuwās, ed. Wagner, Dīwān, volume II, pp. 218-219.
  2. The ṭuwwal is a wader of some sort, possibly a heron or stork (the name is Arabic is cognate with the root ṭ-w-l, ‘long’.)
  3. The ‘hand of the wind’ is a metaphor for the hawk that binds to the birds with his spear-like talons and forces them to the ground. Cantharidin is a highly toxic substance produced by the blister beetle (in Arabic dhirrīḥ). The ‘spears’ are the hawk’s talons.
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