#3 A Jigsaw Puzzle in Abu Nuwas’ Hands
by Ammar Haj Ahmad
Before the invention of the CD:
It is the second week of February and Valentine’s Day. In my hometown, people used to have different ways of dealing with this occasion. Some of them thought it was just a pretentious way to imitate western society, and others tried to find red clothes in their wardrobe to have ready to wear on the day. Some cassette shops, before the CD was invented, used to play love songs very loudly; most were really cheesy, but I liked them. And of course some people thought that the celebration of Valentine’s Day was completely forbidden and haram. What was really interesting and funny at the same time is that lots of young ‘lovers’ used to give what we, individually, thought of as the most unique present, but unfortunately was the most clichéd: a cassette of songs, which were the same on all the cassettes gifted on Valentine’s Day, as if Cupid’s bow and arrow were replaced that week by a sack like Santa’s, dropping hundreds of copies of the same cassette all over town.
The songs were: ‘Lady’ by Kenny Rogers and his shining armour, ‘Please Forgive Me’ by Bryan Adams, even if no problem existed between the couple to make the giver beg for forgiveness, and by the same singer ‘Everything I Do, I Do It for You,’ and the ‘everything’ the guy does is to walk less than 1km to stand on the veranda of his lover risking the parents’ or the neighbours’ reaction, or in front of the school so he can say ‘hi’. You would also find on the cassette ‘Careless Whispers’ by George Michael, though I have no idea where on earth someone can whisper in the ear of their lover in my hometown. But the best one among them all was ‘Last Christmas’ also by George Michael, although it was February and Christmas was so far away. Above all, I always appreciated what most of my people used to say: ‘We don’t need Valentine’s Day, love should be there all the time, not on a specific day only.’ And yes, love was there always… at weddings and funerals, through success and failure, fights and peace. I don’t remember a day when my mother didn’t share some of our meal with our neighbours, and they, of course, used to do the same. Love was always there, Valentine’s Day or not.
To be on stage drunk on cranberry juice and a poem:
The wheels of the rehearsals began to spin in Fez, Morocco. It was ‘One Thousand and One Nights,’ a play scheduled to be performed in Toronto in the summer of that year. Tim Supple, the director of the play, asked me to play Abu Nuwas, the poet famous for the ribald humour of his Mojoniyyat or “Obscene Poems”. I was terrified as Abu Nuwas is without a doubt one of the hardest characters to play on stage in a six-hour long show. Abu Nuwas was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable poets of his time, in Iraq and ‘Bilad al-Sham’ (the Levant). He was known as the poet who took the Bedouin cloak off the Arabic poem and replaced it with an urban style. He always enjoyed shocking his society under the Abbasid caliphate, by writing openly about cultural and religious taboos.
I went to Tim after the rehearsal that day and asked him to give me a different role. I was so serious, which drove him to say one sentence only: ‘If you don’t trust yourself, trust me!’ Working on Abu Nuwas and getting to know him better was such a fascinating process, especially when listening to the great Lebanese singer Fairouz singing with her captivating voice one of his beautiful poems:
The lover is burdened with love
But singing makes him feel light
He is right to cry
For his love is dead serious
Yet you laugh playfully
While he cries his eyes out
You wonder at my sickness?!
It is my good health that is surprising!
For every time one reason for my sorrow is allayed
You replace it with another!
When he speaks about love, the smooth rhythm of his short poems suggests he took a sip of his wine before effortlessly writing each verse. With Harun Al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Abu Nuwas was like the fool in Shakespeare’s plays – the smart one, and the one who, regardless of the eminence of the ruler, tells it to him like it is. Abu Nuwas was the voice of the people outside the gates of the palace. Even Al-Ma’moun had no tolerance for him and imprisoned him a few times. In love, Abu Nuwas was the same; he spoke clearly and openly of all the feelings he endured, without placing any boundaries or limits on their expression, unafraid of the opinion of society or rulers.
Each day, during the rehearsals, and although the bottle of wine was filled with cranberry juice, the experience of playing this great poet was pure joy.
So, in that week in February, I didn’t want to give her a cassette with the throaty voice of Bryan Adams on it, or ‘Hello’ by Lionel Richie with his existential question: ‘Is it me, you’re looking for?’ which goes beyond Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’. I wanted to give her something different, something that suited what I think Valentine’s Day is all about, to tell her that I’m the one and only for her, as she is for me. My hometown was one of two cities in Syria where girls and boys were allowed to study together. I went to our school early on that day many years ago, and rushed to her classroom with a plastic bag filled with beautiful white jasmines I had stolen the day before from the garden surrounding the neighbourhood’s Ba’ath party office. I put all the jasmines in her desk with a poem by Abu Nuwas in which he says:
Tell the one with the seductive glance
Yet surly face
The one whose beauty turns
Our hearts necks!
A single word of greeting
So for the sake of Christ’s soul
And in the name of the Cross
Stop for a second if you pass by
And greet us, O my love!
I was so excited thinking of the expression on her face when she found her present. But she didn’t show up, and I waited until nobody in her class was left in school. I couldn’t wait until the next day, but as soon as she saw me, she came over with a grin on her face, stretching out her arm and giving me back the poem, saying: ‘Ammar, Abu Nuwas wrote this poem to a boy, not a girl! Thanks anyway!’ She said that with complete confidence, leaving me drowning in a vast sea of frustration.
Around fifteen years later, this story made me laugh before going on stage in Toronto for the premier of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, because I didn’t know at the time of that unforgettable Valentine’s Day that Abu Nuwas, besides writing about his love of women, hunting, drinking and knowledge, also wrote about his love of young boys. Taha Hussein, one of the most influential 20th century Egyptian writers, tells us that men’s love of boys was not expressed in Arabic poetry before the Abbasid era, so even in this Abu Nuwas was original.