‘We Were Limpid, So We Were Not Turbid’

ṣafaw-nā fa-lam nakdur wa-‘aẖlaṣa sirra-nā | ‘ināṯ(un) ‘aṭāba-t ḥamla-nā wa-fuḥūl(u)

A verse of classical Arabic can be tightly packed. Besides immersion in grammar, what’s most useful to this student of the language is a highly Congruent (1) translation. It amounts to what’s called a “trot,” and is the least likely kind of text to be published, which deprives the student of a valuable tool.

Making my own trots involves intensive bouncing between Hans Wehr (2) and Lane (3) as I mutter phrases from each verse aloud, lodging them ever more determinedly into my recall faculty. The great boon of Arabic’s conservatism is that vocabulary and structure encountered in a sixth-century poem are still current. The continuity is gobsmacking. For contrast in English culture, read Beowulf.

Arabic “roots” comprised of 3 (sometimes 4) consonants depart, theoretically, from a core meaning which can then be extended across a formidable drift of connotation and signification in the dictionaries. Settling on a choice of term for my poem-trots can be agonizing. I find myself hewing to core meanings, even when they yield weird resonance, as an expedient for cleaving the knot until context may dictate otherwise. What’s to remember is that a trot isn’t the destination, it’s a way-station on the journey to comprehension and retention.

The first poem in Arberry’s anthology (4) is by As-Samaw’al ibn ^Adiyā’, who flourished in the mid-sixth century. Here’s verse 12 transliterated:

ṣafaw-nā fa-lam nakdur wa-‘aẖlaṣa sirra-nā | ‘ināṯ(un) ‘aṭāba-t ḥamla-nā wa-fuḥūl(u)

Here’s my trot: “We were limpid [ṣafaw-nā], so we were not turbid [fa-lam nakdur], and made pure [wa-‘aẖlaṣa] (5) our excellence of lineage [sirra-nā] (6) | females [‘ināṯ(un)] (who) made good [‘aṭāba-t] our carrying [ḥamla-nā] and males [wa-fuḥūl(u)].”

Here’s a version with subject-verb order more conventionally aligned: “We were limpid (or “clear”), for we were not turbid (or “muddy”), and females and males (or “stallions”) who made good our carrying (or “fetus”) made pure our excellence of lineage (or “race”).” (“Made pure” and “made good,” while unwieldy, mirror the factitive quality of the form 4 Arabic verbs.)

Here’s Arberry’s translation: We have remained pure and unsullied, and females and stallions who bore us in goodly fame kept intact our stock.

Skilled and dashing, also Expansive, which isn’t always helpful to the learner. Steering closer to trot-level can lend an oddly apt, modernist swerve to translated verse which makes a roistering 19th-century tone fall musty on the ear. What comes clear is that As-Samau’al’s archaic boast wafts a whiff of the “pure blood” tribalism that roils human affairs now, as then.

For the record, I’m not sure my trot of this verse is on the money; I must take on board what I’ve gleaned, however, and move on to the next verse.

(1) My labels are Congruent (matches the source text fairly closely, with minimal liberties taken for readability); Omissive (suppresses elements of the source text without obvious justification); Expansive (adds interpretive structure or content not discernible in the source text but plausibly deriving from it); Inventive (carries the “expansive” element to a level not obviously supported by the source text); Transgressive (departs from the source text in a way that seems to betray the poem’s letter or spirit).
(2) Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by J Milton Cowan, Cornell University Press, 1966.
(3) Edward William Lane, An Arabic–English Lexicon, vols 6–8 ed. by Stanley Lane-Poole, 8 vols (London: Williams and Norgate, 1863–93).
(4) A.J. Arberry, Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students, Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 30-32.
(5) Lane: ẖallaṣa: “He made, or rendered, it clear or pure. [This is the first meaning of form 2 in Lane. He equates the first meaning of form 4 to it.] ‘aẖlaṣa: You say ‘aẖlaṣa-s-samn(a), He clarified the cooked butter by throwing into it somewhat of the meal of parched barley or wheat (sawīq), or dates, or globules of gazelles’ dung: or he took the ‘ẖulāṣaẗ [the dregs-free part] of the cooked or clarified butter.”
(6) Lane: sarāraẗ(un): see sirr(un). “It signifies also (assumed tropical:) The best of the productive parts of a meadow. And hence, (assumed tropical:) Pureness, choiceness, or excellence, of anything: pureness, and excellence, of race, or lineage.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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