David Jalajel

In classical Arabic poetry, the poetic form is based on fixed metrical lines, known as buhûr (plural of bahr), which are used for all poetic forms. The term qasîdah is used for longer poems, regardless of the topic, so it is a formal term. The term ghazal, by contrast, refers to the content of the poem. The Arabic ghazal is, therefore, a poetic genre. The term ghazal is etymologically a word of Arabic origin, and literally means “flirtation” or poetically “a love serenade”. The term was later adopted by the Persians. The rhyming couplets of Persian and Urdu ghazals are derived from the Arabic ghazal, but they are not quite the same.

One significant difference is that the Arabic qasîdah allows for ideas to continue between couplets, even allowing a sentence to continue for more than one couplet. Radical enjambment, however, is virtually non-existent between the couplets, though it may exist between the two lines of a couplet.

In the following pages, I wish to explore the potentials of using Arabic models to enrich the writing of English-language ghazals.

The formal structure of Arabic poetry is that of a couplet which follows a strict meter—alternatively the couplet can be interpreted as a single long line with a caesura in the middle—in which the second line of the couplet rhymes with each successive couplet in the poem.

A poem consisting of a single couplet is called a yatîm (orphan verse). If it has two couplets—of which the second verses of each must rhyme—it is called a nutfah (plucked verse). A poem of three to six of these couplets is known as a qit`ah (piece). Anything longer is called a qasîdah (full poem), though there were some Arabic poets who insisted that a qasîdah must have at least nine or ten couplets.

The following poem is a qasîdah in a 13/14-syllable English interpretation of the meter known as tawîl:



He tinkers around hammering all his contrived matter
in spiralling time, building and shaping his plans faster. 

From metals and ores base and untempered, he lovingly
invents little gears, miniscule machines of all manner; 

as wrought in his mind's baffling schemes, in dimensions where
no rational souls can in their maddest of dreams venture. 

Machines with designed idiosyncrasies, fated to 
malfunction, like circuitry that flashes and spurts fire... 

and sensitive light sensors, their cables ahead of them, 
the lines of their sight blocked by the jumbles of dense wire... 

a gear sawed in half roughly affixed to a cylinder
to serve as a thumb, fitting an angular clawed grasper. 

They work and they fail, breaking down constantly, sputtering, 
colliding in frail crashes and showers of glass shatter; 

a chaotic hodgepodge of inventiveness frolicking 
in faltering motions, yet all dancing together. 


His workshop's a small cubical structure, a brick boxlike
affair, yet it stands graceful, composed; a sublime sculpture 

of function and taste, elegant contours... an edifice
near perfect; alas, save for a fissure in one corner, 

a gap of one brick, never set down in its place, so that
Perfection is eluded—a tragic, flawed picture. 

The people converge, gathering round the workshop. Weeping, 
they puzzle and moan, groping about for a clear answer. 

They circle the walls, desperately and incessantly, 
and when their sad eyes befall the gap their hearts grow madder. 

They cry and they wail: “O! if that brick were just there” and then 
they question the wisdom and the sense of the tinkerer. 

What then, when the tinkerer emerges, and he places
the brick in the gap? How will they bear the unsought closure? 

The following poem is a qit`ah in six couplets. Its meter is an accentual-syllabic interpretation of the bahr known as madîd, which I interpret as closely resembling Sapphic verse:


Goblins minting coinages out of kilter...
Treasure houses squandering gold and silver...
Elfin bankers' empires running rampant...
Knights and dragons bartering helter-skelter... 

     Wizard-summoned policies brew and conjure
         royal edicts floundering left of centre... 

Kings and nobles pilfering swords and scabbards...
Peasants, knaves, and commoners hoarding water...
Pixies taxing teacups and mugs of coffee...
Witches pasting labels on bottled ether... 

     Ogres, gnomes and gargoyles gauge the markets—
         faerie kingdom's never been any better... 

The next poem is very loosely based on the bahr known as wâfir. Instead of using an accentual-syllabic interpretation, I chose to play it by ear. Arabic meter is quantitative, not accentual, and I found from reading Arabic poetry—and more importantly from listening to Arabic poetry being recited—that, to an English ear, the lines sound metrically very different, but the ear can still pick up an underlying metrical consistency. I tried to capture this here, in what is a capricious reverse translation of al-Shâfi`î's famous qasîdah in wâfir:


don't let the nights hold back what they despise 
& embroil yourself in what randomness misconceives 

absorb yourself in the stillness of the days
for the static of the universe perpetually flees 

& be not a child permeable to simplicity
acting the part of a rigour that deceives 

as if virtues have become rare in the microcosm 
& you are loath that they are all one sees 

reveal yourself as mean against those virtues
& expose them although misery reprieves 

all joy is then rescinded & all sadness 
with all felicity beneath you & all unease 

expose your accomplices to perpetual pompousness
since the snivelling of complicity never bereaves 

but do despair the bigotry of the prodigal 
since the frost exudes hunger as dry wine & cheese 

your bankruptcy is compounded by industry
& misfortune confounded by what indolence achieves 

if your lungs exhale doubt & indifference 
then you are unlike the vessels on the seas 

for whoever has pleasure erupt from their ceilings 
have their gables befall them as well as their eaves 

the skies of the lowly are narrow & quite 
indifferent to life & to the spread of disease 

Though radical enjambment is extremely rare between couplets, it is common within a couplet. In the Arabic qasîdah, even when the printed lines are arranged clearly as couplets, it is quite common for the line to break right in the middle of a word, though the strict meter is never compromised. The following poem, which is a qit`ah in an accentual-syllabic interpretation of wâfir, demonstrates this practice in its final couplet. Topically, it is a hijâ` (defamatory poem), a popular classical Arabic genre often used by one poet to disparage the work of another.


How thrilling it is to receive such a token 
of honour from one whose good name is oft spoken— 

Whose victuals are not so much crabbed as they're lobstered, 
no carapace curled back concealing what's hidden, 

But stretched out quite plainly, obscuring no blemish 
and shedding no shell in a manner unbidden; 

So florid and fleshy, they're justly applauded
the taste and good prepping that leave tongues quite smitten. 

Unclawed and undeviled, the tails are more succu-
lent, chopped off the living, and tasting like chicken. 

This phenomenon of words transcending the first half of the couplet has led some critics to consider each of the Arabic buhûr as representing a long line with an optional caesura, rather than a couplet. This is actually closer to the Arabic view on things, since classical Arab metricists refer to the whole long line as a bayt (verse) and each of the two halves variously as a shatr (half-line), a misrî` (hemistich), or a qasîm (division). The first half-line is referred to as the sadr (precedent) while the second half-line is called the `ajuz (posterior).

The following poem is based on this idea of the bahr representing a single long line. Metrically, the poem is another interpretation of the Arabic meter known as wâfir. You will note that each line can be interpreted as having 24 syllables. In this case, it is possible to break each line into two 12-syllable lines to give it a conventional “ghazal” look without splitting any word in half.

THE TEA PARTY—a qasîdah

How you're degrading me. If you're out to vex me then beware, for as relentlessly I will be—
likewise I will be—bent on despairing of you, and with equal or even sicker fervency. 
Truly, had you been me—a perverse and twisted and malignant take on myself admittedly—
you would have been far worse in your fabulous rage, but too difficult to shove aside callously. 

How you just pervade my garden table setting and then seat yourself so comfortably at tea. 
Know that it's my affair; it's my garden social. How you just come and take over the whole party, 
commandeer all the conversation, just talk and prattle on with your crude, brazen audacity. 
Then all the guests start speaking and acting like you, talking your talk and affecting your airs rudely

I cop a new lingo. I change my whole wardrobe; get a whole new set of friends, a new start really. 
I invite guests whose language you cannot fathom, but you sit under a shade tree sipping my tea. 
Slowly, you learn the jargon and start chatting up the guests again. So infectious you are, truly, 
that you quite soon have won them all over to you; even my servants you charm and evade slyly. 

I change my strategy, learn from you, ape your ways, confiscate your looks, your smell, your  tenacity. 
My guests can recognize what is me from you now, and moreover I know my own identity. 
I target your ploys, your social graces, your clothes, and I mock you and I sneer at your quaint savvy. 
You are in my blood; nowhere is safe for you now. The whole atmosphere has soured with enmity. 

Yes, my tea party it is, and I am the host. Now you spit in my fountain and spit in my tea. 
Oblivious, my guests drink you up with teacakes, snacks, and savouries; and smirking, you turn away. 
My guests are mine now, yet you are still in my blood, and as I look in the fountain, your face I see. 
Still, it is my own face that I see there; yours though is in mine, in every feature and quality. 

There is no way for me to be rid of you now without ridding my own life, and my thoughts, of me. 
Since I'm my party's host, I guess it's your party as well; but my guests are mine, and it is my tea. 

Finally, the following poem is based on a loose interpretation of the Arabic bahr known as madîd. It rhymes on the sound “air”. However, in this case, I chose to lineate the poem differently as a guide to recitation. The bahr repeats itself eight times (essentially eight couplets) but my lineation makes it a poem of 21 lines. In one case—line 16—the bahr ends in the middle of the line on the word “lair”. This approach gives the poem a feel quite similar to some modern Arabic poetry based on the smaller metrical unit known as the taf`ilah.


Staring down an Arabian road, 
A dusty, hot and dry Arabian thoroughfare—
Sandy desert, 
Sterile pale brown, 
No tree or greenery discernible anywhere—
I can see ahead on the asphalt
A piece of paper catching the morning glare. 
Perched on top
I see quite distinctly
A mottled frog, contentedly sitting there. 
I approach. 
The scrap of old paper is just some refuse
Discarded without care, 
But the frog reveals itself for a leaf, 
The sort of leaf you find
In its dark wooded lair of late autumn
On the ground
In frosty northern forests, 
Stirring in mists so rare, 
Tossing through the chill morning breeze
As an earthy, cool humidity fills the air. 


DAVID JALAJEL is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. His works on Arabic language include Expressing I`ràb: A Handbook on Arabic Grammatical Analysis (2001: Cape Town), and Safahàt fï al-Balàghah (unpublished), an elementary textbook on Arabic rhetoric for non-native speakers. His poetry has recently been published in Amaze: The Cinquain Journal and Forgotten Ground Regained: Alliterative and Accentual Poetry and Astropoetica.