Tuesday, August 08, 2006

An Old Story

In "The Dove's Neck Ring," written early in the 11th century by our reckoning, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher-poet Ibn Hazm tells of many kinds of love in thirty chapters. In one of them, he writes of the poet Al-Ramadi, who was passing by the Gate of the Perfumers in Cordova one day when he saw a young slave girl and she took possession of his heart. He followed her across a bridge and into a cemetery called Al-Rabad. Then she noticed him, who had left the crowd, and she turned and asked him, "Why are you walking behind me?"

He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." And when he asked where he would see her again, she said she would return to the Gate of the Perfumers, which was a gathering-place for women, at the same hour on Friday. Then they parted.

"By God," Al-Ramadi wrote, "I went assiduously to the Perfumers' Gate and Al-Rabad from that time on, but never heard another thing about her. And I do not know whether the heavens consumed her or the earth swallowed her up, but truly there is in my heart, because of her, a burning fiercer than a glowing ember." And she was the Halwa to whom he addressed his love poems.

And those poems crossed the Pyrenees into Aquitaine, and there taught the troubadours to sing of amor de lonh -- "love in separation, far-away love, love-longing." Before that, all in northern Europe had been warrior-verse, the dear love of comrades in arms. Now we have what we call "the Western canon," via Yeats and Eliot and Billie Holliday, via Dante, via Bernart de Ventadorn, via Al-Ramadi, from Arab slave girl Halwa by the Perfumers' Gate. Otherwise, we'd all still be singing "Beowulf."