All 1,000 Songs

A poem after an Arabic fashion


Ali ibn Nafi Ziryab has memorised
all one thousand songs from beginning to end.
He has added a fifth string to his lute;
he has taken to using eagle’s talons
to pluck the strings.

Without his music, Beauty would be mute;
the Jinn would have nothing to sing.

The Jinn teach Ziryab music every night.
When thus awakened, he calls for his friends;
his slaves Ghazzalan and Hinda rise
and take up their lutes, and the three
pass the night deep in talk, with music, and sighs,
after which they retire to sleep.

In this manner, Ali ibn Nafi Ziryab has memorised
all one thousand songs from beginning to end.

He is proud of his agility; he writes and sings
of nomads and vagabonds, and death and desire.

If there is an end to his ability
it lies beyond his descriptions of deserts
and his satire.

In this manner, Ziryab has entertained and surprised
all of society; of his fame and wealth there is no end.


A Princess arrives, she bears ultimata
from her father in the North.

A train of camels bears her,
their faces turned to the sea.
Ziryab and she will talk as they walk forth
upon the shining surface of the sea.

A gift of Isis — a waxing moon — rises

The moon embraces the mouth of the water,
and the mountains and the valleys bend —
where Ziryab and the Princess lay their feet
upon the water,
it floods with light without an end or centre.
In the Princess from the North, Isis has her daughter.

Delicious were those those days they spent together
while Fate slept!

She binds him in chains
more firmly every second he beholds her.
The universe folds upon itself;
the earth is echoed in the sky,
she is reflected in the stars;
the plants and animals alone
know the secret of her.

This magic is not some cheap box
of courtesan tricks or weighted die,
nor some religious manual
on how to suffer or to die;

and when her work of state is done and ends,
she is gone before the morning light descends
and as she leaves, her father’s army descends,
and the Caliphate in al-Andalus ends…

Fire spreads and feeds on blood
and beds are steeped in blood
and in their beds are killed for love
all the friends that Ziryab thought to love
and the soldiers of the Northern King
do not spare a single thing;

Ziryab climbs the hill beyond his city,
and alone with the plants and animals, he cries:

‘What have you done?
What have you done?
Is there no pity?’
The world does not reply.


Now Ziryab is false gold
that does not survive the assize.
The gold-tester is no friend of his;
he throws Ziryab aside;

Ziryab stands before the sunrise,
shattered into pieces;
and he is content to die,
for love may enter lightly, but its end is serious,
and now he is bound in chains,
and is content to die.

From the silence of the ground,
Isis roars at the rising sun; at the sound
Ali ibn Nafi Ziryab unfolds
and falls to the ground.

The cripple’s stick becomes a sword,
the gazelle, trembling,
a lion that roars and eats the world;
but today a heart is all that will be carved.

The heart of Ziryab has taken many forms;
a field for a grazing beast,
a jungle for a hunting one,
a temple for an idol,
a book for a visiting scholar,
a bed for a lover;
but now it takes just one…

Ali ibn Nafi Ziryab and the Princess of the North
will meet by tunnelling,
as mines in the same ground wordless meet —
for carrier pigeons lose their way and forget all sound,
as the sky shifts beneath their worded feet —

As for unrequited, refined love — let others have it!
‘Give me contentment,’ Ziryab says.
‘Kiss me, embrace me, give me the rest…
I am dead to the world, just give me this…!’

In this manner, Ali ibn Nafi Ziryab has forgotten
all one thousand songs from beginning to end.