A Valentine’s Cocktail: Arabic Poetry, Lust, Calligraphy, and Art

M. Lynx Qualey

Staff Writer

M. Lynx Qualey is the founder of ArabLit.org, a website that brings together translators, authors, publishers, critics, academics, and readers around discussions of Arabic literature in translation. She works as a book critic, reader, editor, and ghostwriter. You can follow her at @arablit.

One gallery in London is responding to the ugly narratives of migrant bans and Islamovilification with a show that opens Valentine’s Day. It’s titled “Radical Love: Female Lust” and features 46 women artists “inspired by Arabic Poetry of Love & Lust,” of which there is no shortage.

Radical Love posterAnyone who wants a glimpse of some of Arabic poetry’s more “obscene” turns should pick up Sinan Antoon’s The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Ḥajjāj and Sukhf (2014). Antoon’s book — a chapter of which can be read online — deals with some of the neglected forms of Arabic poetry, eased out of the canon for their grotesque humor, anti-piousness, and unabashed lusty scatology.

The organizers of “Radical Love: Female Lust,” which opens February 14 and runs through March 5, say, “Frustrated with the burial of female voices across history, we found inspiration in those that rang out loud and proud across the Arab world thousands of years ago.”

One of the featured poems, from Saqi Books’ newly re-issued collection Classical Poems by Arab Women: A Bilingual Anthology, ed. Abdullah al-Udhari, is by Ishraqa al-Muharibiyya:

“All lovers wear my castoff clothes and jewels

And gulp down my overspilt drink.

I have raced with lovers at love’s racetrack

And beaten them all at my own pace.”

The show promises “a mix of emerging and acclaimed female artists from Palestine to Peru, Libya to Lebanon- young Spanish, Egyptian, Latvian, Saudi Arabian and Turkish photographers, painters from Syria, USA, China, British African poets, British Asian illustrators and sculptors from Japan, Egypt and Ireland among many more.”

Calligraphies of love

Hassan MassoudyIf you can’t get to London for Feb. 14, then there is — in addition to Classical Poems by Arab Women — another title from Saqi Books:  Calligraphies of Love, featuring the work of Iraqi artist Hassan Massoudy. The calligraphy within is inspired by, and recreates, a wide range of classical and contemporary love poems and aphorisms. French poems were translated by Sophie Lewis and Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Not all of the love quotes work out of context, but Massoudy’s startling, multilayered calligraphart makes every page worth coming back to, again and again.