James Tennent writes about the new anthology of Arabic literature, entitled Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature, edited by Suheil Bushrui and James M Malarkey and published by Saqi Books.  In some ways it is a companion to the earlier Literary Heritage of the Arabs – and both might be said to be updated versions of Roger Allen’s An Introduction to Arabic Literature and The Arabic Literary Heritage. 

At 480 pages, Desert Songs is a condensed book that might appeal to those looking to “catch up,” Tennent writes:

It can feel, to those in and from the West, that Arabic literature and literary tradition is a something we would never have the time to catch up with. From romantic poets, religious texts and revolutionary philosophers, there’s simply too much reading to get through – we could never get to a point where we might understand the references and canon well enough to enjoy the modern output.

Although from the “desert songs” it sounds like it is restricted to poetry, apparently, it isn’t. In fact, it seems to be rather eclectic in terms of selections, including travel writing (Ibn Battuta) and scripture within the definition of literature:

This wide-ranging book encompasses well-known names such as Ibn Battuta and puts them in the context of their contemporaries and the wider history of writing that has come out of the region.

It also features extracts from the Holy Quran and selected ­poems from Mahmoud Darwish. And yes, it has a few ­stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

According to Bushri, the selection was made on the basis of texts believed to be among “the major foundations of Arabic ­literature.” The title is a bit misleading then, although it seems that it is the poems that Bushri most wants to bring to the attention of the Western/English speaking reader:

when asked whether the West ignores Arabic literature, it wasn’t the modern works that the editors brought up, it was the classical. “The Arabic literature that is ignored by the West is that great humanitarian tradition of human dignity, of chivalry, of forgiveness, of generosity, that is expressed in the classical tradition of Arabic poetry,” says Bushrui.

3 thoughts on “Desert Songs of the Night: 1500 Years of Arabic Literature

  1. The title is most unfortunate. The links between Arabic literature and the desert are pretty feeble. After about 700 CE, the desert was mostly a folk memory for most writers in Arabic. And why the night for God’s sake? Is Arabic literature permanently benighted? That said, the content may well be excellent.


    1. It is just a little clichéd. I don’t know if “songs” was meant to make it more appealing?

      I had the same reaction to Irwin’s Night & Horses & the Desert, even though it is from Mutanabbi’s famous line, and even though the choice of title is more understandable in that case, since it is an anthology of classical literature.


  2. Thanks for the interesting overview. Just to point out that it’s not a “companion” to the earlier book “The Literary Heritage of the Arabs”: it’s the same book, with identical contents, under a new title.


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