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3-min read

Meet Abu Nuwas, the Arab Poet Who Held a Glass of Wine Close to His Heart and Poetry

Poet Abu Nuwas born in 786 AD was made of different stuff. He wanted to sing in praise of wine (though at times when he knew he had ruffled enough nerves, Abu also sang in praise of rulers).

Manu Remakant |

Updated:October 20, 2019, 12:43 PM IST
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Meet Abu Nuwas, the Arab Poet Who Held a Glass of Wine Close to His Heart and Poetry
Image for representation.

News18 Tippling PointCould Islam tolerate a hedonist poet, who wallowed in the world of wine and women with abandon all his life, with its stringent stance against alcohol and carousing?

Come to the 8th century Persia, during the time of the great Caliph Harun-al-Rashid (That rings a bell, doesn't it? Well he is the Caliph who got immortalised in many of those stories in the supreme Arabian work - One Thousand and One Nights aka The Arabian Nights).

There had been poets who earned their bread by singing paeans about the ruling Caliphs. There would be poets who would make their living praising the ruling emperors.

Poet Abu Nuwas born in 786 AD was made of different stuff. He wanted to sing in praise of wine (though at times when he knew he had ruffled enough nerves, Abu also sang in praise of rulers).

Abu's childhood was steeped in religious learning. As the son of a seamstress and a soldier, he memorised Koran at school and moved on into Islamic law and prophetic traditions - everything that would make a growing boy a pious Muslim. But destiny took a turn for him when Abu came to Basra to seek a fortune.

Reprobate poet Wallah Ibn al-Hubab took the young scholar under his wings. Abu Nuwas could have met his match.

History does not tell us when exactly or what prompted Abu Nuwas to turn a deviant. Soon his poems began to reflect and refract the gleam of those sensuous wines that common people drank during the time.

"Drink the wine," he wrote in a poem, "though forbidden/ For God forgives even grave sins." Eyebrows were raised, but few were appalled, as there were many streams within the religion those days, some too broadminded to see someone like Abu Nuwas as a good Muslim amidst the wine he held close to his heart and poetry.

The poet drew his inspiration from the Jewish taverns of Basra and also from the Christian ones in Egypt. A modern-day student of Oenology would be taking down copious notes about the greatest wines that existed in Persia from the poems of Abu Nuwas (though separating facts from the poet's passion could be a laborious task).

The poet waxed eloquently about a red variety that shoots out sparks like rubies leaving behind bubble trails that shimmer like shooting stars.

It was not just the sparks of wine that lured the poet, but the ones who served it also stoked the fire within.

“Forget all of that! Get on with yourself, and drink a fine vintage instead:

Golden-hued, it mingles with water and froth

As it pours from the hand of a slim-waisted beauty,

Who resembles a willow branch, flaunting its graceful bearing.”

See, it was not only the sparkling fruit in the glass, but also the fruit-bearing and luscious willow branch behind that knocked the planets out of Abu Nuwas's orbit.

Cause for alarm?

Not a bit. Abu Nuwas led a peaceful life as the greatest wine poets from Arabia, for Islam in its fledgling days knew how deep-rooted the love for wine was among the people.

Khammariya, what Abu Nuwas perfected as wine poetry, had ardent readers and listeners around the world. Whenever his excesses got to the wrong side of someone like the powerful caliph Harun-al-Rashid, Abu's sense of humour and satire helped him prevail. The caliph, on the other hand, was equally shrewd enough to keep the drunkard in Abu Nuwas at an arm's length and sagacious enough to not hurt the poet in him at any cost. Perhaps that could be one of the ways he resorted to, to become the stuff of the legends, compiled later as 'the Arabian Nights.' Even as his contemporary, he wished to ignore, was rapturously singing in the street about wine and women, to become the greatest wine poet of the Middle East.

"So antique is the wine that were she to have

The gift of an eloquent tongue

She would sit like an elder among the people, upright,

And regale them with tales of ancient nations.”

Who could resist that!

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog - A Cup of Kavitha - introducing world poetry to Malayalees. Views expressed here are personal)

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| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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