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

By | 1 February 2015

‘Cheetah’1: Hunting with cheetahs was an elite pastime. This fine poem (the metre is rajaz, the rhyme –di) is compact and economical, with a detailed analytical dissection of the cheetah’s physique, and a tense description of how it stalks the prey (presumably gazelles). The poem ends on a note of delight.


I move through black cloud night—
Dark, at war with Dawn,
Quivers with a fine blade’s sheen—
With a vigorous, widejaw cheetah
Thickneck, spine-welded-scapulae
Leanbelly in taut-twist well-rope body
Cheek-folds plump in a scowl,
Sheeny; black teardrops on masseters2
Bactrian lungs in saffron ribcage
Heavy paws, bull neck, sudden dart
A lion but for the spotty coat
Alert for shapes that shift.

A long search sights two herds
On ground flat as a man’s brow
He’s off, a slow stalk, 
A trap about to explode3
Puff adder4 slither
Through ground high and low
Face to face with his prey now—
Havoc! He scatters them across the desert
Full stretch, full pelt
Greedy fury.

Why hunt with any creature but a cheetah?

والصبحُ في الظلماء ذو تَعَدِّي
بأَهْرَتِ الشِّدْقَيْنِ مُرْمَئِدِّ
طاوي الحَشَا في طَيِّ جِسْمٍ مَعْدِ
دُلامِزٍ ذي نَكَفٍ مُسْوَدِّ
شَرَنْبَثٍ أَغْلبَ مُصْمَعِدِّ
للشَّبَح الحائلِ مُسْتَعِدِّ
سِرْبَيْنِ عَنَّا بجبينٍ صَلْدِ
في لَهَبٍ مِنْهُ وخَتْلٍ إدِّ
بكلّ نَشْزٍ وبكلّ وَهْدِ
صَعْصَعَهَا بالصَحْصَحَانِ الجَرْدِ
بين شَرِيجَيْ طَمَعٍ وحَرْدِ

قد أغتدي والليلُ أحْوَى السُّدِّ
مثل اهتزاز العَضْبِ ذي الفِرِنْدِ
أَزْبَرَ مَضْبُورِ القَرَا عِلَّكْدِ
كَرْهِ الرُوَا جَمِّ غُضُونِ الخَدِّ
وسَحْرِ بُخْتِيٍّ بنَحْرِ وَرْدِ
كاللَّيْث إلّا نُمْرةً بالجِلْدِ
عايَنَ بعد النظر الممتدِّ
فانقضّ يَأْدُو غَيْرَ مُجَرْهِدِّ
مثل انسياب الحيّة العِرْبَدِّ
حتّى إذا كان تُجاهَ القَصْدِ
وعاث فيها بِفَرِيغِ الشَّدِّ

لا خَيْرَ في صيدٍ بغير فَهْدِ

  1. Abū Nuwās, ed. Wagner, Dīwān, volume II, pp. 200-202.
  2. In the lexica the term nakaf is glossed as meaning a ganglion at the base of the jaw. Cheetahs have black teardrop patterns on their cheeks. I have interpreted nakaf as a reference to prominent masseter muscles, used in mastication.
  3. Idd is an echo of Q Maryam 19:89.
  4. There is some disagreement about ʿirbadd in the lexica. I have conflated the two common meanings usually given: that of a snake that puffs but does not harm; a vicious venomous viper. The puff adder (Bitis arietans) is found in southern Arabia, though the provenance of this poem is Iraq.
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