Horse, Hawk and Cheetah: Three 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.

Cheetah

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?
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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