ابن زيدون – Ibn Zaydun, the ‘nice guy’ from the 11th century

Lewis, John Frederick, 1804-1876; An Oriental Interior (A Startling Account, Constantinople)
Lewis, John Frederick; An Oriental Interior (A Startling Account); I see this and think of him saying ‘All I did was flirt with her servant, why is she haughtily refusing explanations, healthy from sincere love, yet weak of body?’

My interest in Ibn Zaydun was born from this epic performance by the el-Arabi ensemble of a duet between a male and a female, re-enacting the love between Ibn Zaydun and Wallada.  Both were  poets in the courts of Cordoba and Seville at the height of Muslim Spain’s artistic output. Though they were both in love for some time, the bulk of their poetry is about grief, solitude, the distress of rebuttal. 

What’s so funny about his poetry is how he always blames the object of desire for the failure of their love, rather than look at his own faiblesses (Wallada refused him because he was caught making out with her servant). Reminds me of some nice white guys. The guy was probably a total jerk in real life, but he does make some lovely metaphors, even though all the ‘because of you’s (بكم, عنكَ) seem facetious to me. They actually interrupt his poetry:

 أيامنا فغدت  سودا وكانت بكم بيضا ليالين: Our days became black and because of you our nights became white.

Why not ‘our days became black and our nights became white’, or ‘our day became black and because of us our nights became white’? The entire Nunniya is in first person plural, until blame is apportioned, when it becomes second person.

One lovely spiritual poem where Ibn Zaydun doesn’t play ‘nice guy’:

An hour for a day: 

بِاللَّهُ خُذْ مِنْ حَيَاتي                                   يوماً وصلْنِيَ ساعَهْ
Oh god, take from my life  /  a day and connect with me for an hour

كيمَا أنالَ بقرضٍَ                             مَا لَمْ أنَلْ بِشَفَاعَهْ
For what I gain from a loan / I cannot gain through his intercessor.


From here on, though his language is rich, he gets kind of annoying:

Wherefore have you cut your rope from connection?

علامَ صرمتَ حبلكَ من وصولِ،                   فديْتُكَ، واعتززْتُ على ذليلِ؟
Wherefore have you cut your rope from connection, / have you ransomed yourself and exulted over your servant?

وَفِيمَ أنِفْتَ مِنْ تَعْلِيلٍ صَبٍّ،                          صَحيحِ الوُدّ، ذي جسْمٍ عَلِيلِ؟
And why have you haughtily refused to pour explanations, / healthy from sincere love,  yet of weak body?

فَهَلاّ عُدْتَني، إذْ لَمْ تُعَوَّد                   بشَخصِكَ، بالكتابِ أوِ الرّسُولِ؟
Will you visit me, would you not visit / in person, in writing, or through a messenger?

لقدْ أعيَا تلوّنُكَ احتيَالي،                        وَهَلْ يُعني احْتِيالٌ في مَلُولِ؟
Indeed your changing color has exhausted my tricks, / and what do tricks mean for the weary one?

علامَ: dماذا+على,  on what reason
فدى : فديْتُكَ, second person past, with second person object pronoun. to ransom, grant, sacrifice.
ذليل: humble, servile, degraded, humiliated
فِيمَ: d ماذا +في, for what reason
أنِفْتَ: second person past, to haughtily refuse (from أنفْ, nose!)
عُدْتَني: dعاد، يعود, archaic meaning, to render visit to a sick person (nowadays: to return)
احتيَال: artfulness, deception, trick, dishonesty. the art of ihtyal was mechanics in medieval times.


Oh my torturer in love:

يا غزالاً ! أصَارني                      موثقاً، في يد المِحنْ
Oh gazelle! I became / fettered in the hand of tribulations

إنّني، مُذْ هَجرْتَني،                         لمْ أذُقْ لذّة َ الوسنْ
Indeed, since you abandoned me / I do not taste the sweetness of  rest

ليتَ حظّي إشارة ٌ                      منكَ، أو لحظة ٌ عننْ
If only my fortune were a sign / from you, or a moment of (your) appearance

شافِعي، يا مُعذّبي،              في الهوَى ، وجهُكَ الحسنْ
My intermediaries, oh my torturer, / in love, your face is perfection

كُنْتُ خِلواً منَ الهَوى،                       فأنَا اليَوْمَ مُرْتَهَنْ
I was empty from love, / indeed one day I mortgaged myself.

كانَ سرّي مكتًّماً،                        وَهُوَ الآنَ قَدْ عَلَنْ
My secret was hidden / and it has now been declared

ليسَ لي عنكَ مَذهَبٌ،                     فكما شئتَ لي فكُنْ
Because of you, I have no sect,  / so what you will for me shall be.

أصَارني: from صار, to become. Reflexive.
أذُقْ: from ذاقْ, to taste
ليتَ: if only
حظّي / لحظة: gorgeous internal rhyme between fortune and moment
مُرْتَهَنْ: a mortgage
مكتًّماً: from كتم, to hide, to be silent, keep in one’s mind.
ليسَ لي عنكَ مَذهَبٌ: literally ‘there is no for me due to you a sect’.


The First Verses of the Nunniya 

The end of each verse and half-verse is marked by ‘na’, the first person plural object pronoun ‘us’. The musicality is impossible to translate into English; in Arabic ‘tdanina’ will rhyme with ‘tjafina’ (our decline/our estrangement); furthermore, because of complex meaning being encapsulated in grammatical forms (mutuality by form 6 of a verb, which can easily be nominalized ), long words are necessary in English where Arabic takes two syllables. The poem was written to win back the love of Wallada, the princess-poet who refused to forgive his infidelity. 

ضحى التنائي بديلاً من تدانينا                   وناب عن طيب لقيانا تجافينا
The distant morning was an alternative to our decline/ and a substitute to our accidental meeting, to our estrangement.

بنتم وبنا فما ابتلت جوانحنا                      شوقا إليكم ولا جفت مآقينا
Our achievement didn’t dampen our wings /(my) yearning was concealed and our tears were not dried.

يكاد حين تناجيكم ضمائرنا                   يقضي علينا الأسى لولا تأسينا
When our consciences nearly conversed  / grief interrupted us, oh if not for our grieving.

حالت لبعدكم أيامنا فغدت                        سودا وكانت بكم بيضا ليالينا
Our days went by, since you were far, and thus became / black and because of you our nights were white.

ضحى: morning, incidentally, also the word for ‘to sacrifice’. the etymology probably goes back to pagan times and carnal myths on the origin of the day.
تجافينا: form six (mutual) of جافى، يجافي, to abandon, form one جفى means to repel, estrange, alienate
بنتم: bi+1st person plural+ تم (to complete, accomplish, finish)
ابتلت: past ابتل to be wet
إليكم: from يكم, hide, keep secret
جفت : normally بجفاء, to dry out
يكاد: a verb acting as an adverb, meaning ‘to almost be’, hence ‘almost’
الأسى/ تأسينا: the noun grief/the verb to grieve (2nd person+أسي +object pronoun)
لبعدكم: L +بعد+ object pronoun: due to your being far away
فغدت: f + past of verb  غدا، يغدو to become
بيضا ليالينا: white nights, sleepless.


  1. Hello, I´m desperately looking for Zaydun´s poems in bilingual versions (possibly even with a transliteration of the arabic text). Do you know any publications or do you have translated other poems?


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