Ode to Earth, by Hafiz Ibrahim


On May 8, 1902, a violent volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée, in the French Caribbean territory of Martinique, killed 30,000 people and destroyed the entire city of Saint-Pierre within minutes. It has been called the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century.

The popular Egyptian poet Hafiz Ibrahim (1871 – 1932), wrote a 9-line poem in Arabic in response to the eruption, containing some moral reflections. It involves an anthropopathic depiction of the volcano, and of earth as the volcano’s mother. In light of humanity’s long history of bloodshed upon the earth, Ibrahim construes the volcanic eruption as poetic justice.

Below is my quick English translation in blank verse (anapaestic tetrameter).

In their blood did they garb thee, and then yet more blood.
And on thee they played out hideous war after war.
So since Cain thou hast donned human blood as a cloak,
And the slayings of innocents thou hast beheld.
Thou may well be excused, then, if thou art unkind,
Even if thou become a great well-spring of woe.
People lie, the volcano has not done us wrong,
By its spitting out lava and ash in the air.
Nay, his mother it is that they have distressed,
So he showed them a little of her hidden disgust.
For how long have they angered her yet she kept calm,
Until finally she gave them their just deserts.
O ye people, if this be the anger of Earth,
Then imagine how great shall be Heaven's own wrath.
Yea be sure, up above there's for justice a stage,
And on earth, too has judgment concealed well its snares.
So be wary of the earth, and of Heaven as well, 
And beware ye of Hell on the ground and in space.

– Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: New York Public Libraries Digital Collections,  https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/5e66b3e8-70a6-d471-e040-e00a180654d7


God and Parents: Shafii’s Poem

A poem about the importance of God, and then parents (especially mothers), by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi`i (d. 204H / 897CE). Note that the poet dedicates four times more lines to the mother than to the father.

The original Arabic poem can be found here. Below is my literary translation into English, in pentametric rhymed verse.

Obey God as you have been bid
And fill your heart with vigilance.
Religion's true and requisite:
To eyes and heart a luminance.

Take care of it, for its truly
A wondrous bliss to keep in store.
Obey your father for t'was he
Who brought you up, that child of yore.

Show meekness and your mother cheer;
Defying her is wickedness. 
She bore you for well nigh a year
In agony and weariness.

Your mother'd weep when you'd fall ill,
Her tears would fall like endless rain.
So comfort her, and do her will.
Lest you in Hell endure great pain.

– Suheil Laher


PICTURE CREDIT: Clker-Free-Vector-Images, https://pixabay.com/en/ducks-birds-swimming-geese-goose-36101/

Shawqi on Teachers & Education (Full Poem)

Shawqi’s Poem on Teachers and Education: Annotated translation by Suheil Laher

I have previously posted translations of selected sections from Ahmad Shawqi’s famous poem extolling teachers and education. I have now consolidated these into a single document, and added translations of the few lines that remained. The result is a PDF document containing my translation of the entire poem, along with a brief biography of Shawqi, and some brief notes.

– Suheil Laher


PHOTO CREDIT: sunawanghttps://pixabay.com/en/candle-light-fire-flame-dark-hope-2463515/#


The Death of Eloquence

How is modern life changing the way we speak, write and think?

Alvin Kernan, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, observes that literature, since the 1960s, “has passed through a time of radical disturbances,” and “the death of the old literature….has seemed to people who matured intellectually in the ancien régime of high culture, nothing less than the setting of the sun of the human imagination in the evening-lands of Western civilization.”  (Kernan, The Death of Literature (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 1-6.)

The above are words of an erudite Western professor of the humanities, but many of the changes that impacted Western literature in the modern era also took their toll on other languages and regions of the world. I present below a synopsis of a mid-20th century Egyptian litterateur’s observations on the decline of diction and eloquence in the Arab world. Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat (d. 1968) identified three phenomena that threaten balagha (diction and eloquence) in modern times:

1- Speed (السُرعة) : Perhaps partly a side-effect of technology, the faster pace of today’s life promotes superficiality. People’s minds are today less capable of mentally assembling different components of arguments or narratives, and of probing their depths. They lack the patience and effort needed to ponder and appreciate the nuances of good writing, and as a result turn to low-quality literature (“pulp fiction”). Their sense of discernment is dulled, such that they cannot appreciate the nuances of good writing.

2- Journalism (الصحافة) : In today’s world, journalism dominates arena of writing. This in itself is not a problem, but it leads to things being ‘dumbed down’ to reach the widest audience. Speed (mentioned already above) is also a consideration here, for the journalist is often less concerned with eloquence and beauty of delivery than with getting a story out on time. Zayyat proffers that,

“If journalism had had its [own] writers, [leaving] literature [to] its [own] writers, then eloquence would not have suffered harm or injury from [journalism]. But journalism did to the book what the cinema did to theatre. It is better endowed in terms of finances and means, stronger in influence, and broader in scope and dissemination. [Journalism] was therefore victorious over the princes of the pen, who consequently [are forced to] work in [its realm] in accordance with what its circumstances require of speediness of response, aspiration to simpleness, and preference for [inferior forms of] colloquial.”

3- Interloping (التطفّل) : People who occupy high positions, or who excel in a particular profession, are not necessarily skilled writers, but some of them feel compelled to demonstrate that they are, and fail dismally in the attempt. Mere good intentions do not produce artistic ability. The presence of such interlopers causes literary standards to fall. In today’s world, anyone can write what is ostensibly literature without having the requisite artistic qualifications.

Summarized from: Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat, Difa` `an al-Balagha, (Cairo: `Alam al-Kutub, 1967), p. 19-24

– Suheil Laher

PHOTO CREDIT: Monsterkoi, https://pixabay.com/en/book-dusty-forget-old-decay-2805362/

Ahmad Hasan al-Zayyat, Biography

Egyptian literatteur Ahmad Hasan Zayyat was a leading figure in the Egyptian Cultural Renaissance. Born in 1885 into an agricultural family, Ahmad memorized the Quran as a child, and mastered the seven canonical recitations (qira’at) in just one year. He went on to study at the famous al-Azhar (at a time when studies there were less institutionalized), remaining there for ten years, and later earned a law degree from the University of Paris. His lifelong literary predilection was likely influenced by his father. During his Azhar days he, along with Taha Husayn and Mahmud Hasan Zanati, would spend long hours in the Egyptian National Archives perusing poetic and other literary manuscripts. He taught Arabic language and literature for several years, and in 1922 was appointed to head the Arabic department at the American University of Cairo. He left this position in 1929 to become a professor at Baghdad’s Teacher’s College (Dar al-Mu`allimin). During  his stay in Baghdad, he wrote a book,  al-Iraq ka-ma `araftuhu (“Iraq as I knew it”), but the manuscript was apparently destroyed in a fire before it could be published. Zayyat returned to Egypt in 1933, and in the same year founded the Risala literary magazine, which became very prestigious. Budding writers would consider it a major accomplishment if they got published in the Risala, and the magazine was also noteworthy for taking up a stand against Nazi Germany as early as the 1930s. Zayyat authored two important books that have been published – Tarikh al-Adab al-`Arabi (“History of Arabic Literature”) and Difa` an al-Balagha (“Defense of Eloquence”) – as well as numerous articles, and some translations from French into Arabic. A sedate, good-hearted man, who never joined any political party, he died in 1968 a widely respected man.



  • الأعلام, الزركلي 1:113
  • معجم المؤلفين, كحالة 1:121
  • أحمد تمام , الزيات.. صاحب “الرسالة” (في ذكرى وفاته: 16 ربيع الأول 1388هـ),
    https://archive.islamonline.net/?p=6180, accessed 4/18/18
  • محمد سيد محمد, “الزيات والرسالة“, دار الجمهورية للصحافة, القاهرة 2008.
  • علي عبد المطلب الهوني, “الزيات ناقدا”, دار الجيل, بيروت, 1994.
  • Sonja Hegasy, “The Arabs and Nazi Germany”, 2010, https://en.qantara.de/content/the-arabs-and-nazi-germany-collaborators-and-antagonists, accessed 4/18/18

Shawqi: Selfless Teachers

In these lines (l. 32-26 of his famous poem on education), Shawqi praises the selfless efforts of teachers and educators. In particular, he commends the Higher Teachers’ College, which by the time of the poem had for just over forty years (it was established in 1888) been training historians, geographers, politicians and others. A state-run Egyptian university opened in 1925, the year after Shawqi’s recital of this poem at the club of the Higher Teachers’ College, and was indebted to the College.

There is a historical backdrop to these lines of poetry. Shawqi makes a brief but scathing remark about “Dunlop,” and he is not referring to the tire company. Douglas Dunlop, a Scottish lawyer, educator and missionary, was (around 1890) appointed by the British Consul-General to be in charge of the Egyptian education system. He was not popular among Egyptians, probably largely due to his own contempt for the locals and for the Arabic language, and his inflexibility. Education in Egypt may well have stagnated under his mandate, but it was during the same period that Egypt underwent significant modernization. It is perhaps due to the latter point that Shawqi felt the need to point out that whatever strides were made by Egypt during this time are due to the untiring efforts of the Egyptian educators themselves, and that Dunlop and his policies deserve little if any credit.

By God! Were it not for some tongues and brains - 
Those who in raiment fine decked our youths' minds,
Those souls who've been engaged for forty years 
In fighting 'gainst despair, in planting hope,
Who in that arid ground, persistently,
Like clouds and steady streams provide succor,
Who on our land confer nobility,
And yet requital of fine praise decline - 
If not for them, then Dunlop and his scheme 
Would not have helped, in hour of need, one jot.


– Suheil Laher

PICTURE CREDIT: Harish Sharma, https://pixabay.com/en/learning-hint-school-subject-3245793/


  • عبد المنعم الجميعي, تاريخ مدرسة المعلمين العليا, (1995)
  • Goldschmidt, Arthur; Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt; (2000)
  • Long, Charles William Richard; British Pro-consuls in Egypt, 1914-1929: The Challenge of Nationalism; (2004).
  • Reid, Donald Malcolm; Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museums, and the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser; (2015)
  • Tignor, Robert L.; Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914; (2015)


Shawqi : Education, the Path Ahead


In a previous post, I presented a translation of lines 50-59 of Shawqi‘s famous poem on education. In those lines, Shawqi comments on the responsibilities of government and populace vis-a-vis education. I now present the next nine lines, in which Shawqi continues his exhortation to people to elect only trustworthy and educated people to parliament. He praises the youth who were instrumental to the 1919 revolution and the parliamentary and constitutional advances that resulted from it, then calls upon those youths to rise to the responsibilities before them: to lead the country with fatherly concern infused with the vibrance of youth. The path ahead, he cautions, is a long one, but they should perservere and be hopeful that God will produce fruition from their efforts.

Invite to it trustworthy folk, and give
Priority to those with wise insight.
A man who slacks might for the better change
But doltish ignorants will never change.
False criticism often is dispensed,
But will be voided by the pass of time.
Your honor and your yearning brought triumph
To many who before had no succor.
Yes, honor and restraint are frequent still
In our youth's character and attitudes.
Arise to take the reins of fatherhood;
Let youth's dear, welcome voice be raised aloft!
Yes, give a salutation to the throne,
And laud the one true God with joyous praise.
How far indeed the goals! And yet I trust
Persistence shall suffice you 'pon this path.
Entrust success to God and persevere.
Enough is God as trusted guarantor!

– Suheil Laher


PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Moriarty, https://pixabay.com/en/long-road-mountain-sky-dusty-road-993965/


Shawqi on Education and Parliament

Early 20th-century Egyptian poet Shawqi comments on the responsibilities of government and populace vis-a-vis education.


King Fouad I opens Egyptian Parliament

BACKGROUND: The Egyptian Revolution, soon after World War I, led to the Egypt’s independence from Britain in 1922, and a parliamentary representative system, that allowed for balancing of powers, was adopted by the 1923 Constitution. Independent Egypt’s new parliament opened on 15 March 1924, a day Shawqi refers to in the poem as “the Great Saturday.” It was a euphoric day, with widespread celebration, and Shawqi recited his poem in a gathering that took place on the cusp of this momentous event. Shawqi congratulates his countrymen, telling them the fruits of their struggle for liberty and democracy are now in reach. They should thank all those who made this possible : those still living, as well as those who gave their lives for the new liberty. Parliament has a responsibility to help further education, while the populace has a duty to elect only qualified (and hence educated) people to parliament. At the same time, the teachers must continue to serve sincerely and selflessly (as “Unknown Soldiers”) if the newly-found liberty is to produce meaningful results.

Below is my liberal, literary translation (in pentametric blank verse) of lines 50-59 of Shawqi’s poem.


If Egypt should appraise its past, it will
Find no day that can match Great Saturday:
The gallery of parliament shall cast
A welcome shade upon the happy vale!
When education calls to them for help,
We hope they won't be stingy to their land!
O tell the youth: this day your sowing's blessed!
The fruits hang low, suspended for to pluck!
Greet every martyr who has died and left,
And on their gravestones go and place a wreath!
Your gratitude abundantly bestow
Upon those who still live, and those who died.
The constitution won't reach its spirit 
Until as Unknown Soldiers you all toil.
I urge you, while the martyrs' blood's still fresh, 
Elect no ignorants to parliament!
For of the seats it one day shall be asked:
Did they bear heavywights, or mere dead weights?
From actors insufficiently apprised,
Incompetent performance will result.

– Suheil Laher


“Cairo – a panorama from the citadel,” William Henry Jackson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACairo_-_panorama_from_the_Citadel_-_right_half_LCCN2004707270.jpg
“Roi Fouad,” loki11 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARoi_Fouad.jpg

Roses and Arabic Collective Generic Nouns


After apologizing for the pun above, let me present four quick points about a special type of noun in Arabic (plus a fifth for language geeks).

1. The collective generic noun (اسم الجِنس الجَمعيّ) is a noun that looks like a singular (and grammatically is singular), but is plural in meaning, referring generically to a collective (of things or of people)

  • For example, وَرد (‘ward‘) refers generically to ‘roses,’ شَجَر (‘shajar‘) refers generically to ‘trees.’
  • And عَرَب (‘`arab”) refers generically to ‘Arabs,’ عَجَم (‘`ajam) refers generically to ‘non-Arabs.’

2. To produce the singular noun from a collective generic noun for things, simply add ة (“-ah” to the end).

  • So, وَردة (‘wardah‘) refers to “a rose.” (‘The rose’ would be الوَردة : ‘al-wardah’)

3. To produce the singular noun from a collective generic noun for people, simply add ّي (“-iyy” to the end).

  • So, عَرَبيّ (‘`arabiyy) refers to “an Arab.” (‘The Arab’ would be العَرَبيّ : ‘al-`arabiyy‘)

4. As we said, the collective generic noun is grammatically singular, so you might wonder if it can be pluralized. Yes, it can (and in fact in Arabic, even words that are already plural can sometimes be pluralized further to produce a ‘super-plural’ جَمْع الجَمْعِ ).

  • So, the collective generic noun وَرد can be pluralized to وُرود (which would strictly mean ‘types or species of roses.’)


5. For geeks only : William Lane, author of the famous Arabic Lexicon, mentions that the collective generic is also called a ‘lexicological plural.’

– Suheil Laher


PHOTOGRAPH CREDIT : Jolanta Dyr, https://pixabay.com/en/rose-flower-tea-rosarium-2835494/#