Music Of A Distant Drum, edited by Bernard Lewis
For those who want to gain credibility as experts in a given field, this book is a good example of how to do so. How does Lewis do it? Well, he translates a series of poems from four different linguistic traditions in the Middle East and does so with considerable sensitivity and skill, demonstrating his breadth of knowledge concerning the cultures of the Middle East. He does so without bragging, without being flamboyant about his knowledge, but demonstrating the sort of competence that others could only dream of. And he does so in a way that shows his humanity as well, taking a wide range of poets whose concerns show the broad scope of Near Eastern poetry from the rise of Islam onward, perhaps even including some pre-Muslim poets who were remembered in later ages, and certainly showing the sort of poets who deserve to be remembered here. The writers included here are ones whose works are worth knowing even in translation, and they not only provide evidence of the author’s own awareness of the worth of Near Eastern culture but also demonstrate that there is a tradition of worthwhile poetry that has lasted in cultures whose present achievements do not appear very impressive to many people.
After a somewhat lengthy introduction that shows the importance of poetry to the world of the Near East even up to the present time, and demonstrates as well his own personal exposure to this longstanding poetic tradition, the author divides this work into the translation of four different languages of poetry within the Near East. First comes the poems from the Arabic, and these include a few poems by a noted African descendant of a slave-woman whose poems point out the tension between religious and ethnic and social identity in the medieval Arab world. After this comes Persian poems, which demonstrate the survival of the culture of that region despite a considerable period of Arab and a continuing period of Muslim domination. Following this there are Turkish poems that point out that even the newest of the major cultures in the Near East have a great deal of worth in their poetic tradition, dealing with questions of love and politics. And finally the author includes some medieval Hebrew poetry that shows the immense worth of that often-neglected culture as it survived under Muslim rule and demonstrated its own intense creativity. Between the various sections there is artwork that is related to the cultures in question, which add to the worth of this little volume of a bit more than 200 pages, which is closed with notes about the poets, an appendix, a note on transcription, source notes, and illustration credits.
This is a worthwhile book on a variety of levels. For one, the poetry itself is easy to appreciate. Even in cases where the poets are engaged in activities that are immoral and not worth endorsing, such as poets bragging about the ease of their finding diverse and sometimes inappropriate lovers, most of the poems tend towards the dignified, as the authors wonder about the impermanence of life or the problems of aging, and where one poet comments on a spectacularly unsuccessful effort at wooing a palace beauty with his poetry where he insults him for his ugliness and is not impressed. The humanity that is showed by these poems points out that at least among those who are creative and literary that there is a great deal of understanding of immensely important issues of life and humanity. It is to be regretted that these poets have seldom been rulers, and that the insight gained through witty lines has not led to more humane behavior on the part of those societies from which the poets came. These poets, as is often the case with creative people, show a degree of insight that is not often translated into showing humanity to others.