Syrian Poet Abu l’Ala: Ancient Visions of Hell, Paradise, and Forgiveness

By Lynne Rogers

The Epistle of Forgiveness, Volume One: A Vision of Heaven and Hell
By Abu l-Ala al-Ma’arri
NYU Press, 2013

In Syria somewhere around the year 1033, the blind poet and man of letters, Abu l’Ala, received a missive from another elderly grammarian, Dawkhalah. Dawkhalah hoped to ingratiate himself to the poet, and wanted to cleanse his reputation after slandering a mutual friend. Abu l’Ala’s response took two volumes, “The Epistle of Forgiveness” or “A Pardon to Enter the Garden,” although he only begins the actual letter addressing Dawkhalah’s concerns in the forthcoming translated volume two.

 In Volume One, “A Vision of Heaven and Hell” preceded by Ibn al-Qarih’s “Epistle,” Abu l’Ala borders on heresy as he describes a voyage to both heaven and hell in a virtuoso performance of linguistic acrobatics. This prose work begins with a rambling open letter by Abu l’Ala to Dawkhalah, a section usually omitted in translations. This should delight scholars interested in classical Arabic culture. The Arabic on one page, and the English translation on the opposite page will facilitate a scholarly reading, as will the extensive and informative footnotes. Although not easy to follow, this section offers the reader delightful irony as well as wonderful citations such as,“A fine reputation veils scandalous deeds; but you will find no veil that covers good deeds” (unknown poets), or “I carry a head I am tired of carrying; Is there no lad who’ll carry its load for me?” (Unidentified poet).

In the second section of Volume One, Abu l’Ala imagines Dawkhalah’s journey through Paradise and Hell. The writer relentlessly mocks his fellow grammarian, with quite a bit of wine and saliva consumed in the process. The imagined conversations between Dawkhalah and those he meets in Paradise and Hell often center on “points of morphology, syntax, lexicography, and matters of versification, such as irregularities of meter and rhyme.” Abu l’Ala uses his paradigm to satirize both the popular ideology of the afterlife, as well as the oblivious Dawkhalah, who wants to discuss rhyme schemes with a poet suffering in Hell, and case endings with the snakes in Paradise. While casual readers can pick up “The Epistle of Forgiveness” and enjoy a few pages of ancient satire and puns, more academic readers of eschatological literature and Arabic linguistics will appreciate the formidable efforts entailed in this translation’s attempt to present a prose work by “one of the great poets in Arabic literary history” to contemporary readers. 

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