The Black Knight: ‘Antar and the Arab Epic

antar-document-4a.jpg
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

MOALLAKA

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.

antar-actor-sans-makeup.jpg

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:
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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.

Islam and Hip Hop: Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?

Repost: After a walk down memory lane, I thought I’d repost this entry:
Gangstarr’s 1991 track must have dropped a seed. Three years after viewing this video on the daily on Rap city, there I was, as a Muslim. It was summer of 1994, in Atlanta. I was covered, rockin the head wrap and a printed wrap around skirt. I was so pumped when Guru hit the stage,One of my favorite memories…

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight
Intro:
“Knowledge is power, and knowledge can be the difference between life
or death…you should know the truth and the truth shall set you
free.”

Verse 1
I was raised like a Muslim
Prayin’ to the East
Nature of my life relates rhymes I release
like a cannon
Cuz I been plannin’ to be rammin’ what I wrote
straight on a plate down your throat
So digest as I suggest we take a good look
At who’s who while I’m readin’ from my good book
And let’s dig into every nook and every cranny
Set your mind free as I slam these thoughts
And just like a jammy goes pow [FX: Gunshots]
You’re gonna see what I’m sayin’ now
You can’t be sleepin’
cuz things are gettin’ crazy
You better stop being lazy
There’s many people frontin’
And many brothers droppin’
All because of dumb things, let me tell you somethin’
I’ve been through so much that I’m such
a maniac, but I still act out of faith
that we can get the shit together so I break
on fools with no rhymes skills messin’ up the flow
And people with no sense who be movin’ much too slow
And so, you will know the meaning of the Gang Starr
Guru with the mic and Premier raise the anchor
swiftly, as we embark on a journey
I had to get an attorney
I needed someone to defend my position
Decisions I made, cuz now it’s time to get paid
And ladies, these rhymes are like the keys to a dope car
Maybe a Lexus or a Jaguar
Still, all of that is just material
So won’t you dig the scenario
And just imagine if each one is teachin’ one
We’ll come together so that we become
A strong force, then we can stay on course
Find your direction through introspection
And for my people out there I got a question
Can we be the sole controllers of our fate?
Now who’s gonna take the weight?

Verse 2
The weight of the world is heavy on my mind
So as my feelings unwind I find
That some try to be down just cuz it’s trendy
Others fall victim to envy
But I’ll take the road less travelled
So I can see all my hopes and my dreams unravel
Relievin’ your stress, expressin’ my interest
In the situation that you’re facin’
That’s why I’m down with the Nation
Spirituality supports reality
We gotta fight with the right mentality
So we can gain what is rightfully ours
This is the meaning of the chain and the star
Land is power, so gimme forty acres
Let’s see how far I can take ya
Original invincible
That’s how I’m lookin’ at it
I use my rhymes like a Glock automatic
Any means necessary, I’m goin’ all out
Before the rains bring the nuclear fallout
So let me ask you, is it too late?
Ayo, who’s gonna take the weight?

A young brother noted in Umar Lee’s comments that hip hop taught him some negative things about street life. But for me, hip hop created an opening. It was not uncommon to turn on Rap City and see references to Nation of Islam, 5 percenters, Orthodox Islam, and Afrocentricity. I loved Tribe Called Quest, had a big crush on Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Rakim was the greatest Rapper alive. I was loyal to Poor Righteous Teachers who came from my hometown, Trenton. I thought that KMD’s peach fuzz was way too cute. Public Enemy enemy politicized me. Brand Nubian reminded me that I could throw out a Takbir and be gangsta too.

Mujahideen Ryder wrote about it in his blog entry, Islam: Hip-Hop’s Official Religion. Adisa Banjoko has written two erudite books on the ways Hip Hop artists engage with chess, holistic health, consciousness, and martial arts and address issues that face our communities called, Lyrical Swords.

So, now getting back to Guru’s lyrics.
Last night, as the conversation went on, I began to feel the weight. The burden of a conscious Black Muslim woman has to carry is real heavy. She acknowledged my situation and sadness relating to structural inequalities and systematic forms of oppression. Since these problems are global I felt the weight of the world bear down on me. But just escaping means that I’ll be part of the problem, but I’m trying to be part of the solution. But sometimes, I can’t handle the whole weight and my pessimism takes over. My sister pushed through all my negativity and gave me hope and solace. Her optimism is full of a positivity that grows from a sincere faith in Allah. She reminded me that he’s the light that shines through us and in us and makes us all beautiful. She carried the weight with me. I realized I can only be close to people in my life who are willing to take the weight.

Hip Hop and Culture Vultures

First, let us define culture vulture. This is the definition that I found in the Urban Dictionary:

1. culture vulture
4 up, 3 down
Someone who steals traits, language and/or fashion from another ethnic or social group in order to create their own identity.

Todd just bought himself a Fubu track suit and changed his name to Tyrone. He is such a culture vulture!

by shaniqua2 sacramento Dec 27, 2006 email it
2. Culture Vulture
12 up, 15 down
A scavenger, circling the media, looking for scraps of originality to add to their conceit. They sport eclectic styles and tastes, always recognisable as having been borrowed without adaption or refinement from elsewhere.

David Bowie is probably the best example of a successful culture vulture.

That website was put together by a Culture Vulture

For those of us into Animal Planet or any Wild Animal Kingdom show, we have seen images of these scavengers.They are often the harbingers of bad things about to happen: a sick, weak, or dying animal. They move in once the animal is dead and don’t mind taking their fill of something that is dead and decaying. Fortunately, the many cultures of the African Diaspora are always re-inventing and re-creating, so that the vultures always have fresh meat to feed off of.

My home girl just brought up this issue up in her blog. Her blog really hits home for me, because I feel as if I just “be.” But I was also a B-girl, a back packer, a houser, and breaker. Ultimately, I don’t have to prove credentials to show how my culture influenced the way I lived my life. Having a young mom, I grew up with music all around me. I was a child born in the mid 70s, and my household was alive with disco, R&B, Funkadelic, Soul, and Hip Hop. James Brown was always playing, as well as George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye and so many other. My Uncle Booker-T had mad skills spitting game. Rhyming was a way they spit game. And growing up, we knew smooth talking hustlers and artists. I knew rapping from the brothas spitting game, melodic and rythmic. My dad also was a musician and he played the drums and kill some Congos. My mom and aunts used to throw basement parties (you know the kind with the red or blue light). My mom, aunts, uncles, and their friends would wake me and my cousin up to demonstrate our skills. They’d hoot and holla as we worked it out. Yeah, me and my cousin Corey partying with the grown folks. Many of the songs that are remixed today, I grew up with and they are the soundtrack of my life.

But hip hop had a special appeal. As a little kid, I followed my older brother’s footsteps trying to do everything he did. And I remember him sifting through records trying to find the hottest tracks. We shared rooms, and I remember him getting mad at me when I made a mix tape that included scratches. He had the biggest boom box and the freshest gear. Whatever kicks he rocked, I wanted some too. His boys had a brea dancing crew and they used to perform at Great America. In the mea time, I had a crew of other neighborhood rug rats and we’d pull out our cardboard too. My signature finale move was the suicide. Now that I think about it, I was probably really wack. In the early 80s, my brother used to import records from the East Coast. I can even remember getting the latest Roxanne diss album (why was there so many Roxannes), to BDP, Run DMC, and Rakim. I saw the evolution of hip hop to rap, bass music, and knew all the West Coast flavors. Sometimes when we’d travel to New Jersey we’d visit friends and family from New York.

In the early 90s, I was back at it when breaking made its come back. I remember growing up in Cali and my Filipino classmate saying that Filipinos break better than black people. And of course, I was floored. I could never understand how they could beat out in their Honda Civics, but never bob their head. Me, we wer always bobbin, good music always moves me. Another time, I went to a hip hop show and the artists noted I was the only black girl in the crowd. It was eerie… There weren’t any dance crews in the area that seemed black girl friendly. So, it would be me in the garage with my neighbor Levar on some cardboard. But it was kind of hard to pop and lock while everyone stared at my breasts (even though I wore the baggiest clothes and turtle necks).

For years, I lived hip hop. I was that hip hop Muslim girl in the South Bay. I wore my Adidas with dresses and full hijab. From working on college radio, freestyling, writing, even demonstrating to the music production class the old school 808 and 626 beat machines. It was hot with the boom-clap-boom boom boom-clap. But eventually I felt let down by the whole scene and the way it was co-opted. Years later I still feel hip hop and those hold school joints still move me.
As I write, I hear the women of hip hop play in my head (Miss Melody, One of the many Roxannes, McLyte, JJFad,…) Every once in a while I’ll dance. And I have been known to break fools off. But I forego floor manuevers and acrobatics because I’m way too old and am likely to hurt myself.

The discussion of hip hop reminds me of this MTV True Life documentary that had the nerve to air during Black History Month. Half the documentary was about a Latina sorority breaking into the Black stepping world. Even though the young woman’s attitude was emblematic of the ways non-blacks feel about any of our cultural productions, I’m not going to talk about stepping. I’m going to talk about one for of Black music, dance, language, and style–that cultural complex that we know was hip hop. I want to begin my analysis of culture vultures and critique this pattern of mimicking the cultural expression of subaltern groups. I think that they are particularly detrimental because they co-opt of the arts and culture of a dispossessed people. There are people who wish to control the discourse on black music and culture rendering it something that is no longer Black culture, but more of an urban style or something that they can consume.

I have a serious problem with those who wish to divorce the black cultural production of black from its social/political/cutural/economic context. In the name of a trend, they then adopt it as their own. And often they profess to be better at producing given culture better than the members of the original community that created it. Sometimes they even create their own sub-culture, while maintaining their privilege as members of the dominant culture. The culture that they have adopted is more like an accessory, a way of enhancing their individuality because they see their own culture as homogenous and bland.

I’m not really mad at culture vultures. You see, the co-optation of Black culture for various reasons is not anything new. But rather, it is a pattern that is repeated where ever people of the African Diaspora exist: South America, North Africa, the Carribbean, Central America, and even parts of the African continent that is dominated by Europeans or those of Mediterranean descent.

Here is one example of the problems with such forms:
Black South Americans started Tango, which began with the Buenos Aires, Argentina and Uraguay. Oh yeah, you didn’t know there were black people in Argentina.To me that is the biggest historical mystery: what happened to the tens of thousands of Africans? Well, predominately European dominant group co-opted Tango from the black Argentinians before they tried to eliminate the black population and make Argentina the little Europe of South America (by importing Spanish Basques, Italians, and Germans to the country).

My list of other musical and dance forms that began with African slaves or exlaves that have been co-opted by the dominant groups of a given society:
Samba
Merengue
Rumba
Salsa
Swing
Capoeira

As in Latin America, these cultural forms become national cultures and part of the national pride. The suffering of the people who invented these cultural forms, and the creative ways that they came up with to assert their humanity, find relief, build community, and celebrate life becomes lost. Instead, those who co-opt these expressions often misunderstand the experiences of the people they are imitating.
In a discussion about Jazz, an astute author wrote:

The “white Negroes” of the 1920s projected their own desires onto black Americans, most frequently through music.

In much the same way, individuals who co-opt hip hop project their own desires, insecurities, constructions onto black Americans. There is a strange relationship of power: one of admiration and envy. In their mind, they struggle for authenticity and seek for others to validate their experience of the black sub-culture. Most black people, including myself, are happy that people enjoy our cultural forms. But there are many people of AFrican descent who want to feel as if they have their own culture without it being co-opted and commodified.

So now that I have spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on how these musical forms were so much part of my life and the way I was raised. I want to providea brief timeline of non-black folks imitating and co-oting Black cultural exprssion in North America:

Early 19th century-mid 20th century
Minstrel Shows
Black Face Minstrelsy

1920s-30s
Jazz
Jazz in Black and White


1950s and 1960s
The Blues

White Blues Artists

1950s-
Rock n roll

Rock n Roll Timeline

And now Hip hop….

The history of Hip Hop
Davy D’s Short History of Hip Hop

I still have more reflecting to do on this topic. This is by no means comprehensive. And I’m sure that there are many people who will be pissed off by my analysis. I suggest you study some cultural theory, the history of black cultural expression, black history, and then get back at me. Make sure your intellectual game is tight though…

Khabr Aswad

Khabr Aswad- Black News
Current mood: chipper
Category: Writing and Poetry

I carry with me the khabr Aswad
That dark secret of a dusky Venus
With kinky tendencies
I am a raven bringing omens
An ink blot stain revealing dark visions.
I am the one who is tangled and
Treading murky waters
That dark cloud following you
Reminding you of the blackness from which you came.

(c) Khabr Aswad yadda yadda and all that legal stuff 2006