Imr Al Qais, who lived in Arabia about 150 years before the emergence of Islam was a sort of cross between Prince Hal and Hamlet: A never-do-well prince who ran away from home in order to seduce young Bedouin women and get drunk, riding his camel from battle to battle, he was forced to settle down and avenge the death of his father after his father was killed by a rival chieftan, the king of the Banu Asad. According to the legend, when he was told his father was killed, he was in the middle of a game of backgammon. He told his fellow player to "roll the dice" and then, after his companion had moved his pieces, looked up at the messenger and said, "He left me to rot as a boy, and now I am a man he's loaded me with his blood." Finally, he added, "Today I won't be sober, but tomorrow I won't be drunk..." After a week of one final bout of drunken debauchery, he went to consult the local oracle...The oracle warned him several times not to proceed with the vengeance, to which Imr Al Qais is said to have responded, "Damn you, if your father had been killed you wouldn't have tried to stop me..." As you can imagine (is their any other outcome?) he took a brutal revenge on the Banu Asad, and then, with no father (and no more enemies), went off to become an expert in Arab affairs, in Justinian's court. (Much as a current day kinglet, avenging his fathers death, and fleeing his country of origin, may well end up in the London School of Economics teaching Political Science - an ending even the greatness of Shakespear had not anticipated.).

Imr Al Qais was also a poet, and wrote one of the Seven Odes, which hung, written in golden letters in the center of Mecca when Mecca was the home of Arab pagan worship. These poems are also called The Suspended Poems because they were suspended from the walls of the Ka'aba before Mohammed put a stop to paganism on the Arabian Peninsula.

The poem itself - the only poem of Imr Al Qais to have survived - is quite an achievement. There have been a number of attempts to translate it into English, Latin, German, and Italian, the most well known probably being the attempt of A.J. Arbery, to whom I send anyone wishing to read the poem in his entirety.

Al-Qais was in many ways the typical noble scion of a warrior clan reduced to penury through his many vices...He liked his women loose, his battles bloody, and his drink hard. It all shows up in the poetry, sections of which I now quote:

Ive enjoyed myself with many women, a number of which
few others would dare to trifle with
and I didn't hurry it, either!
Though the whole tribe was screaming for my blood
every male just itching to kill me
while the stars shone all night through
glittering like the jewels in some rich girl's scarf
I came to her when she was already naked
except for a single flimsy strip of cloth
She shouted, "you won't get away with this!"
You stupid boy, I see you're as faithless as you always were!"
She put on her gown, and it trailed through the sand
covering our footprints as we made our escape
but when we were well away from her tribe
covered by the leaves of a convenient tree
I pulled her to me by the hair; she leaned over me
oh, was her waist thin...

And here we pull the curtains over Al Qais for the sake of the family viewer. (Go and find the Arbery translation, it's worth it.)The poem meanders on, without any purpose, the poet bragging about amorous exploits, complaining about not having any money, and ending with one of the tour de force nature descriptions in Arab literature:

Brother, do you see the lightning over there? Look at it, it's shining
Like two jeweled hands clapping each other deep in the bowels of the stormcloud
That's the way I sat, with all my friends,
as we watched the storm gather between Darij and El-Odheib
Its right side pouring rain on the hills of Al-Katan
Its left side pouring rain on the peaks of Yadhbul
It attacks the slopes of Kutaifa and knocks down all the Kanhabal trees
the goats all flee down the slopes of El-Kanan
On Taima peak not one tree was left standing;
no nor the fortresses there, save those built with rocks
And mount Tabeer looked just like an old man
covered with the grey mantle of the passing storm
It sweeps up everything from the peak of Mogaimir
and drops it down again on the peak of Ghabeit
Just like a Yemenese unbundling his goods
The next morning the birds sang - they were drinking spiced wine!
for all the animals, drowned, floated at the edge of the lake

An engimatic ending to a poem mainly concerned with love, seduction, and riding off with the King's Daughter in the middle of the night.

Main source: Arberry, A.J., The Seven Odes, MacMillan, 1957

The translation is (more or less) my own - the arabic is too archaic for me so I pierced out what I could using several other translated sources to help, all of which are referenced in the Arberry book.

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