al-Khansa’, Drawing by Kahlil Gibran, al-Funun 2, no. 10 (March 1917)
AL-KHANSAA COMPOSES ONE LAST ELEGY
The tribes bury infant daughters.
The men believe they bury shame and sorrow,
not flesh and blood. But mothers dig
deepest. Fingers raw, tattooed with dirt,
they plant their daughters like seeds.
Left alive, our girls would grow to grieve
for sons, brothers, husbands,
gone like the few rainy days each year,
their blood carried home
on another man’s robes.
How do we watch them kill
each other? Soon we’ll walk naked,
all our clothes ripped out of grief.
No words left to describe our sorrow.
I’ve spoken them all.
Every death haunts my words
like the spirits that bring madness,
poem after poem leaves my tongue
dry as the brush in the valley.
It’s our boys we should bury:
Bury them now so we won’t love them,
never miss them, never wish we held them tightly
in the darkness beneath. I dig a grave
for words, place them gently inside,
cover them with earth. The dead
need these tokens, reminders that we remain
roots shallow, spread wide, seeking water
wherever it seeps.
(poem by Eman Quotah)
note: Al Khansa is considered by many as the greatest Arab poetess of all times, renowned for her eloquence and outspoken courage, and she remains to this day a legend in Arabic literary annals. She was born in 575 AD, to a father who was the chieftain of his tribe, Bani Sulaym, and all circumstances in her youth were preparing her to become a great poetess. History does not tell us much about her childhood, except that she was nicknamed Al Khansa, which means either the ‘Gazelle’ or the ‘snub-nosed one’ and that she had a very strong personality and presence since her early days.
Al Khansa was so proud of her tribe that she rejected the marriage proposal of a very famous knight, Duraid Bin Al Samma, in favor of a cousin called Rawaha. But this marriage, the fruit of which was one child, did not last long because her husband was addicted to gambling. She remarried another cousin, Murdas Bin Abi Amer, and they had four children.
In her early years, Al Khansa wrote a few lines of poetry every now and then. In fact, most of what she wrote in her youth was lost because nobody at that time cared much about her inherent talent. But what gained her the prestigious status was the profound sorrow and mourning she carried all her life, following the tragic deaths of her two brothers Mu’awia and Sakhr. Both were famous knights who were destined to die in skirmishes with rival tribes. She wrote several poems mourning the death of Mu’awia and inciting Sakhr to avenge his brother. It is clear from her poetry that Sakhr was actually her favorite brother; especially that he had shared his resources with his sister several times during her first marriage whenever her husband lost all he had in gambling.
Sakhr succeeded to kill his brother’s murderer, but was fatally wounded in the battle. The bereaved sister had to watch her beloved brother suffering in front of her eyes for a whole year till he died. The poems she wrote during that year and the elegies she wrote on the death of her brother are regarded as the best in Arabic literary history.
She met Prophet Muhammad in 629 and converted to Islam and encouraged her children to fight for their new faith. She died in 645.
In those days, it was part of a poetess’ role to compose elegies for the dead which were recited before the whole tribe. Khansa’s elegies made her famous throughout the Arab world. Her poetry was full of deep passion and anguish.
Many literary researchers of pre-Islamic poetry have rated the work of Al Khansa as superior to others in terms of literary merits and pathos.