Perhaps you’ve heard of الهجاء (or Hija – invective poetry) growing up in Egypt’s educational system. And though most of your memories of Arabic literature back in school may be grim and nightmare-inducing, folk back then used to put in a lot of effort when it came to fucking with each other, perhaps for a lack of better things to do.
Oftentimes, poets would harness all the vitriol and anger they had into crafting scathing verses to hurl at their rivals – whoever or whatever they may be. It was a wonderfully creative outlet; without it, the Arabic language as we know it today would have been severely lacking.
There Were These Two Gentlemen…
If I were to try and write their full names here, I’d risk heavily butchering their pronunciations, and confusing you, dear reader. Suffice it to say that a few centuries ago, there were two pretty affluent and capable poetic minds: Al-Farazdaq, and his political/poetic rival, Al-Jareer. It takes a certain level of dedication to the linguistic arts in order to spawn the kind of light-hearted yet burning prose these two would pelt at each other. Such as this verse from Al-Jareer, cynically quipping on Al-Farazdaq’s intention to kill a man by the name of Morabaa.
زَعَمَ الفَرَزْدَقُ أَنْ سيقتلُ مِرْبَعًا … أبشر بطول سَلامَة يَا مربعُ
“Al-Farazdaq has claimed that he will slay Morabaa… Here’s to a long and peaceful life, Morabaa.” That’s one way to put somebody in their place. Much like this verse by Al-Jareer, blasting Al-Farazdaq for being noticeably unattractive by the time’s standards:
لقد ولدَت أمّ الفرزدق فاجرا … فجاءت بوزواز قصير القوائمِ
يوصّل حبليه إذا جنّ ليله … ليرقى إلى جاراته بالسّلالم
“Al-Farazdaq’s mother has given birth to an abominable child (or a monkey), for he is stocky in appearance, and short in stature. So much so that he would need a rope to ascend the stairs up to his neighbours.” Jareer really didn’t like the guy. Luckily, Farazdaq was known for his extensive vocabulary, and even more impressive command over insults. Case in point:
يا ابن المراغة كيف تطلب دارما … وأبوك بين حمارة وحمار
وإذا كلاب بني المراغة ربّضت … خطرت ورائي دارمي وجماري
“How dare you question those of the Darem tribe (Farazdaq’s people), you son of a cesspit, while your father toils away between an ass and its wife? Even the dogs of your tribe can’t fathom the glory behind both Darem and Gamari.”
كم خالة لك يا جرير وعمة … فدعاء قد حلبت عليّ عشاري
“Oh how many of your aunts and relatives have all but warped their fingers and bones, milking my camels for me?”
Farazdaq and Jareer kept hurling acid at each other for well over 40 years. And though they were both coveted for their innumerable contributions to Arabic linguistics and culture, there were others who claimed their fame through some heavy use of anger.
Such As Al-Hatee’a (الحطيئة)
Now here’s a man so full of piss and vinegar that he ran out of people to burn through. And he’s not exactly unjust in his demeanour; Hatee’a grew up in a less-than-hospitable home, with a family as distant as they are unwashed, and just as uncaring to boot. He had nothing but his poetry prowess to put clothes on his back and food on his miserable table, and he used it well enough to make quite the name for himself in the annals of Arabic literature. Having at one point run out of opponents, he did the next best thing: he humiliated his (supposed) mother, father, himself, and anyone in-between.
تـنـحـي فـاقـعـدي مــني بـعيداً … أراح الله مــنـك الـعـالـمينا
ألـم أوضـح لـك البغضاءَ مني … ولـكـن لا أخـالُـكِ تـعـقلينا
أغــربـالاً إذا اســتُـدعـت سـراً … وكـانـوناً عـلـى الـمتحدثينا
جـزاكِ الله شــراً مــن عـجوز … ولـقَّـاك الـعقوق مـن الـبنينا
حــيـاتـكِ مـاعلمت حـياةُ سـوءٍ … ومـوتُـكِ قــد يـسرُّالصالحينا
“[to his mother] Clear away from me, and sit afar in hopes that god may rest those around you from your presence. Have I not made my discontent towards you clear, despite how difficult it is for you to understand? I can hardly entrust you with a secret before you spread it to everyone like wildfire. You’ve been blessed with nothing but evil, and naught but the defiance of your spawn. Your wretched life leaves none to compare, and your death may very well be a blessing to the kind.” That’s your mom though fam…
لـــحــاك الله ثـــم لــحــاك حــقاً … أبــاً ولــحــاكـمـن عــمٍّ وخــالِ
فـنعم الـشيخُ أنت لدى المخازي … وبـئـس الـشيخُ أنت لدى المعالي
جـــمـعت الـلـُّؤم لا حـياك ربـي … وأبـــواب الــســفـاهـةِ والـظلالِ
“[To his father] Truly you have been blamed for being made a father and/or an uncle. For the simplest thing you can do is to disappoint, and the most difficult thing for you to do is to anything right. May god take you away, you and your treachery, idiocy, and malcontent.” Yep, what you can sum up with a righteous “fuck you,” this guy made into something you can burn onto your skin.
أبـت شـفتاي الـيوم إلا تـكـلـماً .. بـسوءٍ فـما أدري لمن أنا قائله
أرى لـي وجـهاً شوَّه الله خلقهُ .. فـقُـبِّح مـن وجـهٍ وقـُبـِّح حـامله
“[To himself, after seeing his reflection in water] My lips have ordained nothing better to speak ill, but alas, there is no one fit for my words. Yet I see a face deformed profusely by God, for it is as ugly as a face can be, and so ugly is its bearer.” Literally ran out of people to fuck with, so he fucked with himself. It’s disturbing how often this same trend happens nowadays, albeit in simpler words.
And Then There Was Al-Akhtal…
Truth be told, it was an often heated debate trying to establish a so-called ‘King of Poets’ back then. To most, however, the pickings were confined to three at the time: Al-Farazdaq, Al-Jareer, and an illustrious Levantine Christian by the name of Al-Akhtal. Akhtal’s very first encounter with Jareer was a thing of beauty, if you look past the salt:
قال الأخطل: أنا الذي قذفت عرضك، أسهرت ليلك، وآذيت قومك.
فقال جرير: أما قولك قذفت عرضك فما ضر البحر أن يشتمه من غرق فيه، وأما قولك وأسهرت ليلك، فلو تركتني أنام لكان خيراً لك، وأما قولك وآذيت قومك، فكيف تؤذي قوماً أنت تؤدي الجزية إليهم ؟
“Akhtal: I am he who has tarnished your reputation, he who has kept you awake from your slumber, he who has laid ruin to your people.”
“Jareer: As for tarnishing me; the sea cares not for the insults of those who drown in it. As for you keeping me up at night; it is in your best interests that I sleep in peace. And as for you ‘laying ruin to my people’; how can one hurt folk whom one is forced to pay for protection?” Akhtal and Jareer had a (let’s say) healthy rivalry of sorts, and although Jareer was far more gifted in the eyes of many, Akhtal still had a good jab or two to his name. One of the finer examples of this are his words on Jareer’s tribe.
قومٌ إذا استنبح الأضياف كلبهمُ … قالوا لأمّهمُ بُولي على النّار
فتمسك البول بُخلا أن تجود به … ولا تبول لهم إلا بمقدار
To understand the beauty of this verse, it’s best to tell the story behind it. According to Al-Akhtal, Jareer’s people were of the cheapest and most frugal variety. So much so that when their dogs caught the scent of travellers going towards their flame for food, they would bark loudly, alerting the landowners. They had very little shame, and the thought of them expending clean water to douse a fire was absurd. So, they’d ask their mother, as if she were a gormless slave, to urinate on the fire in order to ward away visitors. But seeing as they were an incredibly cheap people in Al-Akhtal’s eyes, the mother would be too frugal to expend even her urine; opting instead to release but the smallest amount capable of putting out the fire. All that in two lines.
Ibn Al-Rumi Was a Big Deal
Merely mentioning Ibn al-Rumi in the presence of anybody with even the faintest Arabic lit background can easily spark waves of much-deserved embellishment. For this Baghdad-born Abbasid poet was not just a grain of sand in the wind. He holds under his belt an assortment of highly decorated literary works. But for all his eloquence, the guy really knew how to shit on fools when he wanted to. Like that one time he put the verbal smack-down on a sad, sad man by the name of Amro:
وجهك يا عمرو فيه طول وفي وجوه الكلاب طول
مقابح الكلب فيك طرّا يزول عنها ولا تزول
وفيك أشياء صالحات حماكها الله والرسول
فالكلبُ وافٍ وفيك غدر ففيك عن قدره سفول
وقد يحامي عن المواشي وما تحامي وما تصول
“It seems your face matches that of a dog’s in length, Amro. But while a dog’s ugliness fades, yours yet persists. You have some good in you, bestowed upon by God, guarded by his Prophet. But a dog covets loyalty, yet you covet malice. It keeps watch over cattle, yet you can barely watch your own self.” Or this one other dude and his defenceless nose:
لك أنف يا ابن حرب أنفت منه الأنوف
أنت في القدس تصلي وهو بالبيت يطوف
“You bear a nose so large that others tremble in disgust, Ibn-Harb. It takes up pilgrimage in Mecca while you pray in Jerusalem.” And then there was poor, frugal Eissa…
يُقتِّر عيسى على نفسه … وليس بباقٍ ولا خالدِ
فلو يستطيع لتقتيره … تنفَّس من منخرٍ واحدِ
“Eissa does indeed tighten his belt, even though he’s mortal, and not long for this world. For if he was to tighten it even further, he would choose to breathe out of one nostril.” Guy’s so cheap he’d rather save up on air. There are way too many examples of how deft Ibn al-Rumi was at burning his foes, but some of them can take a frankly cruel turn. Such as his musings on one Abu Qerra:
أ قصرٌ وعَوَرٌ
وصَلعٌ في واحدٍ؟
ناهیک من شواهد
حي قائماً کقاعد
فکّ منه بصراً
مثل السّراج الواقد
وحتّ منه شعراً
“Short, rude, and bald all in one? Acceptable features nonetheless, given how one can never tell if you’re sitting or standing. Your stare can only be likened to a blazing stove, and your hair is akin to pitch-black vines.”
And Many More
These few simple verses are each part of much bigger, more elaborate poems. Seeing as I have a limited capacity when it comes to understanding Ye Olde (formal) Arabic, I could only muster up the more sterling examples of satirical poetry back in the day. However, should you find these few examples interesting, there is a near-infinite wealth of literary gold out there for you to discover. Oh and if you’re mad at how I may have butchered something, mistranslated another thing, or you just don’t like my hair, please discuss in the comments section on social media.