Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Camel poetry

Dr C - see Caravelles of the Desert - just posted a link about an unusual poetry competition: Abu Dhabi opens doors for poetry competition in camel beauty ("Poetry competition seeks best descriptive poems of camels as part of Al Dhafra Festival 2010"). The deadline being past is the least difficulty here. The skillset to tackle an entry is pretty specialised, the ability to write in a particular poetic register of Arabic:

Nabati poetry is frequently used to describe camels.

Regarding the conditions for participation, poems must describe camels using the Nabati rhythm, rhyme and style of 'Al Wanna', 'Al Radeha', and 'Al Taghrouda'.

(Al Wanna is essentially a reflective form used for love poetry or recollection, and Al Taghrouda is a riding form imitating the rhythm of the travelling camel - see Traditional songs. These are Bedu (i.e. Bedouin) forms with roots in pre-Islamic tradition.  Despite the competition being open to all nationalities, it's unsurprising that the winners tend to come from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, where these forms are best known.

Ask MetaFilter had a thread a while back with pointers to classical Arab poetry about camels, and the probably the definitive classic is The Ode of Tarafah by the great pre-Islamic poet Tarafa (aka Tarafa, or Tarafah ibn al 'Abd ben Sufyan ben Malik al Bakr). An excerpt:

Perfectly firm is the flesh of her two thighs--
they are the gates of a lofty, smooth-walled castle--
and tightly knit are her spine-bones, the ribs like bows, her
underneck stuck with the well-strung vertebrae,
fenced about by the twin dens of a wild lote-tree;
you might say bows were bent under a buttressed spine.
Widely spaced are her elbows, as if she strode carrying the two
buckets of a sturdy water-carier;
like the bridge of the Byzantine, whose builder swore
it should be all encased in bricks to be raised up true.
Reddish the bristles under her chin, very firm her back,
broad the span of her swift legs, smooth her swinging gait;
her legs are twined like rope untwisted; her forearms
thrust slantwise up to the propped roof of her breast.
Swiftly she rolls, her cranium huge, her shoulder-blades
high-hoisted to frame her lofty, raised superstructure.
The scores of her girths chafing her breast-ribs are water-courses
furrowing a smooth rock in a rugged eminence,
now meeting, anon parting, as though they were
white gores marking distinctly a slit shirt.
Her long neck is very erect when she lifts it up
calling to mind the rudder of a Tigris-bound vessel.
Her skull is most like an anvil, the junction of its two halves
meeting together as it might be on the edge of a file.
Her cheek is smooth as Syrian parchment, her split lip
a tanned hide of Yemen, its slit not best crooked;
her eyes are a pair of mirrors, sheltering
in the caves of her brow-bones, the rock of a pool's hollow,

It's hard not to disagree with the assessment that the tone is "weirdly erotic".  I'm not sure about that one. But another poster at Ask MetaFilter cites the poet Labīd's ode in which an old man praises his elderly camel:

Break ... with a lean camel to ride on, that many journeyings
have fined to a bare thinness of spine and shrunken hump,
one that, when her flesh is fallen away and her strength is spent
and her ankle-thongs are worn to ribbons of long fatigue,
yet rejoices in her bridle, and runs still as if she were
a roseate cloud, rain-emptied, that flies with the south wind

Outside Arab poetry, the camel isn't terribly valued, and tends to attract humorous verse and doggerel. It's not necessarily as low as

The sexual life of the camel
Is stranger than anyone thinks

but Ogden Nash's The Camel, Kipling's The Camel's Hump, and the certain Camel in Lewis Carroll's "The Pig-Tale" are par for the course.

So, given inability to write anything up to the Al Dhafra Festival's requirements, at Caravelles of the Desert we just went down the easy path in adding to the humorous genre. My effort (slightly copy-edited from the earlier version):

I don't need no elephant's trunk,
Or do gas warfare like a skunk,
I'm a ship that can't be sunk,
And I don't mean no Chinese junk.
My humps, my humps, my humps, my humps,
My lovely camel lumps.
(Check it out).

I've got an adaptation,
Controls my urination,
They love my ungulation,
To reach their destination,
On barchan and in wadi,
Across the Rub' al Khali
Without a drink of water,
Across the Empty Quarter,
My humps, my humps, my humps, my humps,
My lovely camel lumps.

A dromedary's lacking,
You send that creature packing,
The Bactrian is true-o,
Because it's got a duo.
My humps, my humps, my humps, my humps,
My lovely camel lumps,
In the back and in the front.

Admittedly I must be among the few doggerel writers in the known world who haven't previously done a camel-referencing parody of the Black-Eyed Peas' My Humps, but then again its title and simple rhyming scheme are bound to attract parody (perhaps undeservedly, as its role-reversed scenario is definitely a riposte to the sexist stance of rap). Talking of parodies, the Alanis Morissette spoof cover is lovely.
- Ray


  1. Almost impossible to beat, but stay tuned for further efforts.

    Camels can lead to very interesting things (said the Three Wise Men). Actually I am referring to another ungulate, the
    Guanaco. In addition to having a name reminiscent of bat droppings, it is one of four such beasties in the high altitudes of South America, including Mr. Nash's two-l llama. (with much dispute about the three-l lama but one now assumes it is a
    Brooklyn conflagaration.)

    Because they live at high altitudes Guanacos have 68 million red blood cells per 5ml (a teaspoon) of blood (actually it is 5 microliters, but, close enough). Humans have about 25 million per 5 microliters. Now it doesn't say how large a Guanaco rbc is, but if it is the same size as a human (or bigger as could be hypothesized, then the hematocrit (percentage of rbc in blood) of a Guanaco might be well over 60-70%. In a human, such a level would be called polycythemia, a condition that would, untreated, lead to serious problems including stroke (polycythemia vera, the idiopathic disease in humans, is absolutely
    fascinating . Full disclosure, Jerry Spivak old friend.)

    We have not heard of stroked out Guanacos on the pampas of Peru. But then, we haven't looked.

    This brings up the interesting situation with Vampire Bats but that is another story....

  2. Guanaco

    Aha: that's the name of the one in that group whose name I can never remember. Llama, vicuña, alpaca, guanaco. We have a few alpacas (must get out of Arabic context - I'm thinking of them as Al-Pacas) at a mini petting (one hopes not spitting, given the tendency of that bunch) zoo a few minutes from here.

    Because they live at high altitudes Guanacos have 68 million red blood cells per 5ml

    Oddly enough, people in the Andes have the same adaptation, whereas those in the Himalayas handle low oxygen by breathing faster. Just looking this up, I find Adapting to High Altitude and Andean, Tibetan, and Ethiopian patterns of adaptation to high-altitude hypoxia. As you say, fascinating.