300 years before Ngugi wa Thiongo or Binyavanga Wainaina became monuments of East African literature, men like Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nasir were writing very beautiful things in Swahili.
The fact that Sayyid Abdallah is not well known among lovers of African literature shows just how much we’ve come to see African literature a 20th-century phenomenon—something invented by Chinua Achebe’s generation.
But Sayyid Abdallah, who wrote Swahili poems in Arabic script, is one of the earliest known pioneers of classical Swahili poetry. That’s why we’re so delighted to share with you an excerpt from Abdallah’s most popular work, Al-Inkishafi, sometimes translated as “The Soul’s Awakening.”
As a muslim theologian, Abdallah wrote poems using Islamic ideas to think about history, power, and the transitoriness of life and human institutions.
The poem, “Al-Inkishafi”—written after 1749— is a fragment of a longer work that Sayyid did not get to complete. But even in its unfinished state, it is a 308-line meditation on the decline of a powerful East African sultanate.
Much of the poem is evocative of ruin and decay. It gives account of a poet addressing his own heart. Confronted with the rise and inevitable fall of human empires, the poet tells his heart to refrain from seeking power, wealth, and other vain things.
Here is a tiny fragment of the poem for your enjoyment!
The Inkishafi by Sayyid Adballah
What keeps you from awakening, my heart?
That thing that works upon your vanity
Whatever face it wears, I will agree
To meet it, if you show me.
My heart, why have you not yet grasped the stakes?
We say that you are clever at decisions,
But you ignore the folly in the world,
The paths of doubt that follow,
Till all creation seems a storm-roughed sea,
Shoaling everywhere and full of reefs.
Take whoever rides it for a rogue,
And watch his losses mount.
It is like a well without a bottom,
Nearby the horned and pawing bull that strikes
The one who goes to draw his water down.
No one gets his drink there.
Or think of dust that tumbles in the light
At the moment daybreak fills the window;
Who approaches it and tries to seize it
Finds nothing in his fist.
Imagine a mirage seen at the hour
The cresting sun has set it shimmering;
The thirsty will insist that there is water
And run at it to reach it,
And on arriving feel the sun ablaze,
The water they desired dissipated.
All their efforts ransom only doubt.
Regret will not soon leave them.
Every wretchedness and shortcoming,
The faltering that has you in its clutch,
These make up the world that you revere
In all of its abasement.
A corpse, this world. Do not go near it.
It bears a greater love for dogs than men.
Tell me, clever one, what good has come
Of squabbling with jackals?
Translated from the Swahili by D.H. Tracy, published in Poetry journal.
Image source: SOAS Digital Library
Post reference: What-When-How