On Asparagus: 

We have spears with crooked ends

     that stand tall and proud

With most agreeable sleek shafts

     and heads that crown their stalks,

In form like soldiers, bold and stout,

     in posture straight like sturdy staffs,

Clothed in raiment of green sarcenet

     inwrought with a flaming blush,

Like a tinted cheek flushed

     by an irritated hand

Or a hand turned red

     in a silver bowl filled with ice,

Elegantly arranged on platters

     like neat embroidered goldwork

Adorning the hemline of the finest silk –

     o if only we had a bottomless well!

They are dressed with an oily relish

     that ebbs and tides like seafoam

When drizzled onto the stalks

     like nets of cast silver and gold

And pearl rings with gemstones adorned,

     adding beauty to their beauteous form.

A sedulous ascetic would break his fast

     and yield before such a repast.


On Mushabbak:

 A most agreeable food

     that brings about joyful glee

Is plaid and knit sweetmeat

     oozing with honey

Laid out on silver platters,

     yielding before me

Like joined cross-bars of gold

     scented with amber and camphor tree.


On Khushkanānaj:

Lo, as powdered sugar,

     pounded soft almonds,

And semolina are kneaded together

     with musk-sweet rose water,

Crimped, rolled, and stuffed

     with every scrumptious foodstuff,

And shaped like a string of crescents

     rising in timely succession before sunrise.

Never in my life have I seen Khushkanānaj

     that fell short of gratifying the senses.

Whose heart does not long for it?

     Whose hands are not enticed by it?

It would be discourteous if you ever were

     to deny me my share,

For my mouth cannot help but water

     whenever I hear its name.


On Pomegranates:

The pomegranates’ beauteous forms appeared,

     some whole, some cleft pouring forth

With seeds in yellow and saffron-red hues

     in beauty that surpasses all attributes,

Like glistening rubies safely casketed

     in an ivoried jewelry box.


 عن الهليون:


لَنَا رِمَاحٌ فِي أَعَالِيْهَا أَوَدْ          مُفَتَّلَاتُ الْجِسْمِ فَتْلًا كَالْمَسَدْ

مُسْتَحْسَنَاتٌ لَيْسَ فِيْهَا مِنْ عُقَدْ          لَهَا رُؤُوسٌ طَالِعَاتٌ فِي جَسَدْ

مَكْسُوَّةٌ مِنْ صَنْعَةِ الْفَرْدِ الصَّمَدْ            مُنْتَصِبَاتٌ كَالْقِدَاحِ فِي الْعُمُدْ

ثَوْبٌ مِنَ السُّنْدُسِ مِنْ فَوْقِ جَسَدْ          قَدْ أُشْرِبَتْ حُمْرَةَ لَوْنٍ يَتَّقِدْ

كَأَنَّهَا مَمْزُوجَةً حُمْرَةُ خَدْ          قَدْ فَرَصَتْ حُمْرَتَهُ كَفٌّ حَرَدْ

فَخَالَطَتْهُ حُمْرَةُ خَدٍّ وَيَدْ          كَأَنَّهَا فِي صَحْنِ جَامٍ أَوْ بَرَدْ

مُنَضَّدَاتٌ كَتَنَاضِيْدِ الزَّرَدْ          نَسَائِجُ الْعَسْجَدِ حُسْنًا مُنْتَضَدْ

كَأَنَّهَا مُطْرَفُ خَزٍّ قَدْ مَهَدْ          لَوْ أَنَّهَا تَبْقَى عَلَى طُولِ الْأَبَدْ

كَانَتْ فُصُوصًا لِخَواتِيْمِ الْخُرَدْ          مِنْ فَوْقِهَا مَزْىٌ عَلَيْهَا يَطَّرِدْ

يَجُولُ فِي جَانِبِهَا جَزْرٌ وَمَدْ          مَكْسُوَّةً مِنْ زَيْتِهَا ثَوْبَ زَبَدْ

كَأَنَّهُ مِنْ فَوْقِهِ حِيْنَ لَبَدْ          شِرَاكُ تِبْرٍ أَوْ لُجَيْنٍ قَدْ مَسَدْ

فَلَوْ رَآهَا عَابِدٌ أَوْ مُجْتَهِدْ            أَفْطَرَ مِمَّا يَشْتَهِيْهَا وَسَجَدْ


عن المشبك:


أَطْيَبُ مَا نِلْتُ مِنَ الَّلذَّاتِ          وَمِنْ سُرُورٍ مُعْجِبِ الْأَوْقَاتِ

مُشَبَّكَاتٌ وَمُفَصَّلَاتٌ            فِي عَسَلِ النَّحْلِ مُشَرَّبَاتِ

كَأَنَّ مَا صُفِّفَ فِي الْجَامَاتِ            إِذَا تَرَاءَتْ لِيَ مَاثِلاَتِ

قُضْبَانُ تِبْرٍ مُتَرَاكِبَاتِ            مُعَنْبَرَاتٍ وَمُكَفَّرَاتِ


عن الخُشْكِنَانِكَ:


مَنْ لِذَاكَ الطَّبَرْزَذِ الْمَسْحُوقِ            وَلِذَاكَ اللَّوْزِ الطَّرِي الْمَدْقُوقِ

وَدَقِيْقُ السَّمْيِذِ يُعْجَنُ بِالْمَا            وَرْدِ عُلِّى بِمِسْكِهِ الْمَسْحُوقِ

ضُمَّ أَجْزَاؤُهُ وَأُلِّفَ أَجْسَامًا            حَوَتْ كُلَّ مَطْعَمٍ مَوْمُوقِ

ثُمَّ صَفُّوهُ كَالأَهِلَّةِ لاَحَتْ            لِمَوَاقِيْتِهَا حِيَالَ الشُّرُوقِ

مَا رَأَيْنَا كَخُشْكِنَانِكَكَ الْمَوْصُوفِ            رَعْيًا لِحَقِّهِ فِي الْحُقُوقِ

أَيُّ قَلْبٍ إِلَيْهِ غَيْرُ مَشُوقٍ            أَيُّ طَرْفٍ إِلَيْهِ غَيْرُ عَلُوقِ

غِبْتَ عَنِّي فَغَابَ عَنِّي نَصِيْبِي            أَنْتَ عِنْدِي بِذَاكَ غَيْرُ خَلِيْقِ

لِيْسَ لِي مِنْهُ غَيْرَ أَنِّي إِذَا مَا            عَنَّ لِي ذِكْرُهُ أَغَصُّ بِرِيْقِي


عن الرمان:


وَلَاحَ رُمَّانُنَا فَزَيَّنَنَا            بَيْنَ صَحِيْحٍ وَبَيْنَ مَفْتُوتِ

مِنْ كُلِّ مُصْفَرَّةٍ مُزَعْفَرَةٍ            تَفُوقُ فِي الْحُسْنِ كُلَّ مَنْعُوتِ

كَأَنَّهَا حُقَّةٌ فَإِنْ فُتِحَتْ            فَصُرَّةٌ مِنْ فُصُوصِ يَاقُوتِ

Artwork by Hassân Al Mohtasib


Translator's Note

Whereas Kushājim’s contemporary al-Mutanabbī has received considerable attention from modern English-speaking scholars – cementing genres like madīḥ (panegyrics) and malāḥim (epic war poetry) in classical Arabic literary studies – Kushājim’s unique and equally-influential poems are yet to be translated into English. Though a poet of considerable range, Kushājim is best known as a pioneer of maqtuʻāt al-waṣf (ekphrastic epigrams): short yet highly-complex monothematic poems on carnal and earthly topics. In his poems, Kushājim vividly chronicles culinary, social, and intellectual aspects of court life under the Hamdanid dynasty (944 – 1002), detailing numerous native and exotic foodstuffs and recipes; the social etiquettes of sharing wine and food; the various musical instruments used at the time to entertain the caliphs and their guests; the harem with its cross-dressing male and female dancers, concubines, and odalisques; the wide variety of plants and geometric designs found in courtly gardens; indoor pastimes and outdoor sports; the art of gift-giving; and the traits of coveted courtiers and boon companions.

I have carefully selected the four poems at hand both for their aesthetic grace and sensuous intensity. Each of the four monothematic poems presents hyper-realistic sensory depictions of a particular foodstuff, be it a vegetable (“On Asparagus”), dessert (“On Mushabbak” and “On Khushkanānaj”), or fruit (“On Pomegranates”). In his gastronomic poems, Kushājim not only details the preparation methods and ingredients needed for certain dishes but also the impact that their elegant presentation has on the banquet guests. Mouths water and eager hands cannot keep their distance; even “[a] sedulous ascetic would break his fast / and yield before such a repast.” Kushājim’s writing is never short of striking, fascinating metaphors to describe the appearance of the different foods, comparing the crimson asparagus tips to “a tinted cheek flushed / by an irritated hand / Or a hand turned red / in a silver bowl filled with ice,” baked Khushkanānaj to “crescents / rising in timely succession before sunrise,” and pomegranate seeds to “glistening rubies safely casketed / in an ivoried jewelry box.”

Although the original poems were written in accordance with the fixed feet and rhyme schemes often used in classical Arabic poetry, I have chosen to prioritize aesthetic grace and readability over meter without completely eliminating musicality. In Arabic, Kushājim wrote “On Asparagus” and “On Mushabbak” in rajaz meter, where the musicality is abrupt, supposedly mimicking the kind of laboured convulsions a camel makes when it wants to rise, and where the endings of all hemistiches (half lines) and verses rhyme; while “On Khushkanānaj” and “On Pomegranates” were written in the simpler khafīf and munsariḥ meters respectively, where the musicality is ‘light,’ ‘smooth-flowing,’ and where only the ending of each verse rhymes. For instance, in “On Asparagus” (in rajaz), Kushājim writes

كَانَتْ فُصُوصًا لِخَواتِيْمِ الْخُرَدْ            مِنْ فَوْقِهَا مَزْىٌ عَلَيْهَا يَطَّرِدْ

يَجُولُ فِي جَانِبِهَا جَزْرٌ وَمَدْ            مَكْسُوَّةً مِنْ زَيْتِهَا ثَوْبَ زَبَدْ

كَأَنَّهُ مِنْ فَوْقِهِ حِيْنَ لَبَدْ            شِرَاكُ تِبْرٍ أَوْ لُجَيْنٍ قَدْ مَسَدْ

فَلَوْ رَآهَا عَابِدٌ أَوْ مُجْتَهِدْ            أَفْطَرَ مِمَّا يَشْتَهِيْهَا وَسَجَدْ

This transliteration of the verses above gives a sense of their musicality, for those who do not read Arabic:

Kānat fuṣūṣan likhawātīm alkhurad            Min fawqihā maziun ʻalaihā yaṭarid

Yajūlu fi jānibiha jazrun wa mad              Maksuwatun min zaitihā thawab Zabad

Ka’annahu min fawqihi ḥīna labad            Shirāku tabarin ’aw lujainin qad masad

Falaw ra’āhā ʻābidun ’aw mujtahid            ’Aftara mimmā yashtahīhā wa sajad

Where the musicality of these lines is arguably impossible to relay exactly as is in English translation while still conserving the semantic and metaphoric aspects of the poem, I have chosen to render the translation in free verse with an irregular rhyme scheme to recreate Kushājim’s verse in English translation in a way that is still both graceful and euphonious.

They are dressed with an oily relish
     that ebbs and tides like seafoam
When drizzled onto the stalks
     like nets of cast silver and gold
And pearl rings with gemstones adorned,
     adding beauty to their beauteous form.
A sedulous ascetic would break his fast
     and yield before such a repast.

Thanks to the freedoms found in free verse translation, I was able to offer an honest translation of the source text that is true to all the meanings and metaphors used, at the expense of trying to relay the exact musicality of the Arabic text in English translation.

It is also worthy of note that Kushājim’s “On Asparagus” has particular historical significance. In Muruj al-Dahab wa Ma’adin al-Jawhar (Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems), the Arab historian and polymath ’Alī ibn al-Ḥussain ibn ’Alī al-Masʻūdī (c. 896 – 956) documented in detail how the poem was received by a 10th century Abbasid caliph during a courtly banquet. One day, the anecdote goes, the ruler of Baghdad held a lavish banquet where men of letters vied to present their best verse and prose on food and drink. The ruler, Al-Mustakfī bi’llāh, immediately fell in love with a poem by Kushājim – recited by one of the attendees – on asparagus. After hearing it, he eagerly said: “We do not have any [foodstuffs] of this description in this country, and we shall request that Muhammad ibn Tughj al-’Ikhshīd brings us some of this delight from Damascus,” (al-Masʻūdī, p. 292, my translation). This is but one of many historical records that show the far-reaching influence of Kushājim’s gastronomic poems on court life and culinary choices in the Abbasid era and beyond.


Works Cited

al-Masʻūdī, ’Abū al-Ḥasan ʻAlī ibn al-Ḥussain ibn ʻAlī. Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʻādin al-jawhar. [Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems], IV, edited by Kamāl Hassan Marʻī, al-Maktaba al-ʻAsriyyah, 2005.

Salma Harland


In the Classroom

Gastronomic DiversionWrite an ode to your favorite food in the style of Salma Harland’s translations of Kushājim’s Gastronomic poems. Specifically, imagine which foods connect you to a sense of tradition, family, heritage, religion, history. Some questions to consider along the way:

  • What foods have been passed down to you?
  • What foods connect you to a sense of your past? 
  • Which of your favorite foods can you imagine being cooked and eaten more than a century ago by your ancestors?
  • What foods might have been miraculous or wonderful to them, like the asparagus described in Harland’s Translator’s Note?
  • Conversely, what foods that you love today can you imagine your future descendants enjoying and continuing to make?

Bonus points if you make the dish(es) fresh and include photos!