Waddah al-Yaman: national poet

by ABDULLAH AL-UDHARI

Waddah al-Yaman, whose real name was Abdul Rahman b. Isma’il al-Khawlani, was born in Yemen in the second half of the seventh century. His father died when he was a little boy and, after the prescribed period of mourning, his mother remarried. Waddah grew up in his stepfather’s home and when he was in his teens his paternal uncle and his grandmother claimed their right to have him with them, but his stepfather declined to hand him over. As a result, a legal battle ensued and the case was finally resolved in favour of Waddah’s paternal relatives. The judge, struck by the exceptional handsomeness of the teenager, called him Waddah al-Yaman (Radiance of Yemen).

Waddah led a pleasure-loving life, but the girl he loved most was Rawda. Waddah celebrated his love for Rawda in a series of poems which were set to music and became popular songs. Rawda’s parents were not happy that their daughter was being ‘songed’ about all over the town and when Waddab asked for her hand they turned him down and married her off to another man.

Waddah moved to Mecca and Medina, which were the liveliest cities of their day. The queen, who was in Mecca on pilgrimage, met Waddah, fell in love with him and suggested that he moved to Damascus. In 709, the Caliph al-Walid I received a gift of precious stones which he sent to the queen with a page. When the page reached the queen’s room, he saw the queen hiding Waddah inside a trunk. The page asked the queen to give him one of the gems, but she refused. The page then rushed to the Caliph and told him the queen was hiding a man in a trunk. The Caliph ordered the beheading of the page for interfering in royal matters, then went to the queen and asked if he could have the trunk as a present. The queen told him he could have anything he liked but not the trunk as she kept her day to day things in it. The Caliph insisted on having the trunk and so the queen gave it to him. The caliph had the trunk buried under the floor of the audience chamber and then said that if it had been empty, he had only buried wood, but if there had been a man, that was the end of the affair.

The stories of Waddah and Rawda and the Caliph’s wife captured the imagination of the Ummayyads and the Abbasids so much that it was turned into a book of hikayat (stories) which unfortunately has not yet been found. Also Waddah’s diwan has not yet been discovered and only a handful of his poems are extant.

Waddah is one of the finest Ummayyad poets and what makes his poetry distinct is its mirthful and irreverent Sana’ani wit. Waddah is now regarded as the national poet of Yemen.

* * *

1
She said: "Don’t come to our home, my father is deadly jealous."

2
I said: "I’ll pluck you before he knows it, my sword is razorsharp."

3
She said: "There’s a whole castle between us."
I said: "I’ll fly my flag over the castle."

4
She said: "There’s a whole sea between us."
I said: "I’m a strong swimmer."

5
She said: "My seven brothers keep an eye on me."
I said: "I’m a match for them all."

6
She said: "Allah is watching us."
I said: "My lord is Merciful and Forgiving."

7
She said: "I have run out of words, so come tonight when everyone’s floating in dreams, and fall on me like dew, undisturbed."

WADDAH AL-YEMEN (d 709)

This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, November 1997