I was doing a little research on a course I’m trying to develop on Muslim societies, slavery and race when I came across an intriguing story. As I was looking for some pre-Islamic literature I stumbled across a familiar, but long overlooked historical character–‘Antar Ibn Shadad. Because I tend to be rather long winded, I thought this brief bio would suffice:
Antara (äntär’ä) [key], fl. 600, Arab warrior and poet, celebrated in his own day as a hero because he rose from slave birth to be a tribal chief. His poetry is represented by one poem in the Muallaqat. His greatness gave rise to many legends over the centuries, and he became the hero of the popular Arabic epic Sirat Antar. In it he represents the ideal of a Bedouin chief, rich, generous, brave, and kind. His name also appears as Antar.
There I found this very thorough book by Peter Heath, analyzing Antar’s epic, Thirsty Sword : Sirat Antar & the Arabic Popular Epic. And H.T. Norris has a translation of the epic itself. I love classic epics, but his story was significant because both race and slavery overlapped. His mother was a Black slavewoman and his father a Bedouin who refused to acknowledge him. Since I have long been interested in Afro-Arabs, this rediscovery of Antar really excited me. I haven’t really found the epic in Arabic literature in Africa, but then again I haven’t looked too hard. But what I found so interesting is the fact that his story resonated for so many Muslims over the centuries. ‘Antar’s was told and retold in Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu.
I became intrigued. While being careful not to insert my own projections, I began to think about the meaning of a mixed race young man, the son of a Black slave woman and Bedouin chieftain raising to become the model of Arab masculinity. It raised so many questions for me, many of them I will continue to explore in my own studies. Here is a translation of his poetry. Reminder for the readers, the English does it no justice
The poets have muddied all the little fountains.
Yet do not my strong eyes know you, far house?
O dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa,
Speak to me, for my camel and I salute you.
My camel is as tall as a tower, and I make him stand
And give my aching heart to the wind of the desert.
O erstwhile dwelling of Abla in the valley of Gawa;
And my tribe in the valleys of Hazn and Samna
And in the valley of Motethalem!
Salute to the old ruins, the lonely ruins
Since Oum El Aythan gathered and went away.
Now is the dwelling of Abla
In a valley of men who roar like lions.
It will be hard to come to you, O daughter of Makhram.
* * * * *
Abla is a green rush
That feeds beside the water.
But they have taken her to Oneiza
And my tribe feeds in lazy Ghailam valley.
They fixed the going, and the camels
Waked in the night and evilly prepared.
I was afraid when I saw the camels
Standing ready among the tents
And eating grain to make them swift.
I counted forty-two milk camels,
Black as the wings of a black crow.
White and purple are the lilies of the valley,
But Abla is a branch of flowers.
Who will guide me to the dwelling of Abla?
Grayson, David One Hundred and Twenty Asiatic Love Poems
As I read the poems and more and more of Antar’s life and the prolific renderings of his epic, I began to wonder why his story was largely ignored by many Muslims in the West. I have some idea, but I’ll refrain for now. I spoke with a few Muslims and none of them had heard of him. Many Black American Muslims had heard of Jahiz, but why not ‘Antar? Sure he was born in the Jahiliyya time, but there were many stories from ancient times that were retold. I began to wonder if it was some vast conspiracy. Was I thinking along the lines of a renegade Cheikh Anta Diop student? I began to conjure up some grand Arab conspiracy to conceal their African influences in Arab culture, at least by making sure none of us heard of ‘Antar? But then again, translations of the epic have been around, as well as his verses in the Mu’allaqat.
But last week something happened to further dismiss my conspiratorial hypothesis. After I watched the second half of the Arabic version of “The Message” couldn’t bring myself to sleep. So I flipped through the channels at 1:30 in the morning. I stumbled across a few characters who were surprisingly brown. Some were clearly Arab in brown make-up. But one was a man of clear African descent and dignified bearing.
As I watched, it dawned on me that this was THE story. I saw ‘Antar and ‘Ablah’s romance unfold. I was so excited. It was was serious production with a number of Arab Ramadan serial heavy hitters. And this was the first time I had seen Faisal Ahmad as the lead character, ‘Antar.
Kuwaiti Times reported:
KUWAIT: Historical TV soap operas are popular and have many audiences as they are valuable pieces of art work. These TV soaps are carried out by more than one country, hence making these show multinational shows. Two of the most popular historical TV soaps broadcasted during this Ramadan were ‘Khalid Bin Al-Waleed’ and ‘Antara Bin Shadad’.
Ghassan Zakariya wrote the serial and Rami Hanna directed it. I’ve been trying to catch the show, to watch it unfold. I’m not saying that it is perfect. I have my own critiques. I’ve been researching the show, trying to find out more about the lead actor, trying to get a sense of the mainstream reaction. So far, the reviews in Arab speaking message boards have been favorable. People in general like Faisal Ahmad.
For me, it is a first time seeing an Afro-Arab take center stage. Earlier productions in the Middle East used Arab actors in Blackface, like these pictured below:
As Umm Adam warned, we should not impose our western categories on other people. But clearly, the serial demonstrates a construction of blackness and slave status. IAt the same time, it shows how ‘Antar heroic journey was about overcoming anyone’s negative opinion of his slave heritage to become the model of chivalry and courage. I am going to continue to watch this show. Despite its shortcomings–especially the unfortunate Blackface Arabs (knowing that they could have found more Afro Arabs–such as Sudanese actors) and the unnatural make-up for the Black characters, I think the series is worthwhile viewing. For those who don’t have satellite television and can’t get the Algerian station, the epic is still available. It is part of the literary heritage of the Arab and Muslim world after all. And to me seeing someone like ‘Antar as an archetype is important for many of us who are descendants of slaves. There is nothing to be ashamed about, through courage and and good character we become noble. For that, we should continue to tell his story.