From 'al-Khansaa, Inniy ariqtu fa-bittu-l-layla sahiritan


Originally translated May-June, 1981 by C. E. W.; revised slightly May, 1985; I just added one more tweak or two, 2008

'al-Khansaa was from Arabia, during the time of Mohammed []; she wrote this poem upon the death of a half-brother which occurred before her conversion to Islam; women poets' wrote poems of grief apparently which is what it is.¹ The meter and rhyme scheme and part of the theme in this poem is echoed in Bertran de Born's Planh or 'lament' for the 'young king'². [Sorry for any roughness in the phonetic transcription; I'm obviously limited in my knowledge of Arabic & do need to get some help with the voweling--since vowels are not normally written in Arabic texts all my vowels are inferred from the vocabulary in the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary (ed. Cowan) and the grammar in Abboud et. al.'s Elementary Modern Standard Arabic, vols. 1 & 2.]


Sleepless I kept the night vigil,
Eyes khol-blackened ruts.
I watched the stars, though no watchman,
Me, wrapped in wragged robes.

For I had heard news--and no news for joy--
Word of you:
'Here is Sakhr,
hurled to the ground, skirted by stones.'

Go then, to God's care,
You whose heart quickened at wrong,
You like the spear-tip
Whose bright shape lit the night,
You, bitterly resolved, free-born,
and the son of the free*--Go!

I will weep for you
So long as the ring-dove wails
And stars brighten
The road for the traveller.

And I will not make peace with a people you were at war with,**
not till the good host's black pot whitens.

Phonetic Transcription from 'al-Khansaa's Arabic

'in-nii 'ariq-tu fa-bit-tu l-layla saahirit-an/
ka-'anna-maa ''ayn-nii bi-''uwwaar-i//

'ar''iy{! ? or 'ar''iyu or 'ar''ayu or 'ar''aa ?? } [']a[l]n-nujuum-a wa maa kullif-tu ri''ya{! still unsure of vowels }-tu-haa/
wa ta'art-an 'ataghashsha{! need to ask wordreference if this a a form V verb and its exact meaning } [']at.maar-i//

wa qad sami''-tu wa lam 'abjuh. bi-h-i xabar-a-n/
muh.addith-a-n jaa'a ya-nmii{! or form II verb 'yu-nammii' still unsure why it is in the imperfect indicative ???} rajja''a{!? or raja''a form I??} [']axbaar-an//

ya-quul-u S.axr-u-n muqiim-u-n thamma fii jadath-i-n/
ladaa [']a[l]d.-d.ariih.-i s.arii''-u-n bayna [']ah.jaar-i //

fa-[']adhhab fa-laa yu-ba'' ''id{! ? a ?}-na-ka{! ?? did God in these days take a feminine plural form; alternately this is yu-ba''id{!? a ?}-n-a-ka form IV ? but what about gender?} 'allaah-u min rajul-i-n/
taraak{! ? still unsure think this is a form I verbal noun but not one I know ? }-i{! ?-n?} d.aym-i-n wa t.allaab-i{!?-n?} bi-[']awtaar-i//

qad kunta ta-h.mal-u(indicative){! that is a form I imperfect indicative, 2nd person singular; alternately maybe ?tah.ammul-a-n(verbal noun, form V) ?} qalb-a-n ghayra{! ?}/
murakkib-a-n fii nis.aab-i-n ghayra xawwaari//

mithla [']as-sinaan-i tu-d.i'-u [']ul-layl-a- s.uwrat-u-hu/
murr-u [']ul-mariirat-i h.ur-u-n wa 'abn-u [']ah.raari

fa-sawfa [']abkii-ka maa naah.-at mut.awwaqat-u-n/
wa maa [']a[']d.aa'-at nujuwm-u [']ul-layla li-s-saarii//

wa lan 'us.aalih.-a qawm-a-n kunta h.arba{! ?}-hum/
h.ataa tu-''uwdu bayaad.-a-n ju'nat-u [']ul-qaarii


'Indeed'-'I' 'sleepless(perfective)'-'I' 'thus'-'spend['the night'](perfective?)'-'I' 'the'-'night' 'vigil keep'-'ing'/
'as(or 'like')'-'I'-'one' 'were painted(NOTE: as with kohl)'-'they(non-human)' 'eyes'-'my' 'with'-'pus' {Or 'like-blackened ruts'??}//

'I keep watch(present stem){or 'I shepherd'}' 'the'-'stars'-(accusative) 'and' 'not' 'be charged(perfective)'-'I' 'to watch'-'them'(perfective is infinitive here)/
'and' 'sometimes' '?' 'remnants' 'rags(idaafa--genitive)'.//

and (perfected action) heard(perfective)-I and not(past) 'I rejoice(present stem)' 'in-it(genitive)'/
'one who tells/one telling'-[accusative]-[indefinite] 'came(perfective, 'he')' 'he-'advances'{? or an 'assimilated' 3-root verb but I can't figure out which, or why the ending appears to be of the 'defective' class ?} 'carried(perfective, 'he')' 'news'.//

'he'-'says' 'Sakhr'-[nominative]-[indefinite] 'one who'-resides('dwells,' 'lives')-[nominative]-[indefinite] 'there' 'in' 'tomb'-[genitive]-[indefinite]/
'in front of' 'the'-'grave'-[genitive] 'thrown to the ground'-[nominative]-[indefinite] 'between' 'stones'.//

'then'-'go'(imperative) 'then'-'not'(present) 'he'(?)-'keep far'(or 'banish')-[? (is this just a 'nuun' indicating a special tense, or does this 'nuun' indicate a plural feminine verb?)]-[jussive or subjunctive?]'-'you' 'God'-[nominative] 'being one of the type' 'man'-[genitive]-[indefinite]/
'leaver-behind'-[genitive]-[indefinite] 'harm'-[genitive]-[indefinite] 'and' 'seeker'-[genitive]-[indefinite] 'for'-'revenge'(?)-[genitive]//

[perfective] 'you were' 'you'-'carry'{!? or 'one who bears/carries' ?} 'heart'-[accusative]-[indefinite] 'not' 'doing injustice'-[accusative]-[indefinite]/
'one which is set'(participle)-[accusative]-[indefinite] 'in' 'self'(or 'nature'? 'origin')-[genitive]-[indefinite] 'not' 'weak'//

'like' 'the'-'spear'-[genitive] 'it'(fem 3rd person, referring to 'its shape')-'lights'{! ? form IV or II verb }-[indicative ending] 'the'-'night'-[accusative] 'shape'-[nominative]-'its'
// ?('manly virtue'?? 'bitter'??)-[nominative] 'the-'resolution'-[genitive--idaafa] 'free-born(singular form)'-[nominative]-[indefinite] and 'son'-[nominative] 'free-born(plural form; idaafa, so that the phrase means 'son of free men')'//

'then'-'I go' 'wail for'(or 'lament')-'you(accusative)' 'just as' 'cried(perfective)-'it'(or 'she') 'ringdove'/
'and' 'just as' 'illuminate(form IV, perfective)'-'it'(or 'she') 'stars' 'the'-'night(accusative)' 'for'-'the'-'traveller'{! ? something to do with travelling, a noun}//

'and' 'not(future)' 'I pray with'( or 'I make peace with' )-[subjunctive] 'people'-[accusative]=[indefinite] 'you were' 'at war with'{! ? this looks like a form I verbal noun?}-'them'/
'until' 'it'-'turns'-[indicative] 'whitewashed' 'gulf'{! 'gulf-shaped' or ? ? } 'the'-'doing hospitality'-[genitive](idaafa)

Original Arabic

ٳني أرقت فبت ٱلليل ساهرة*
كآنمآ كحلت عيني بعار

أرعى آلنجوم و لم كلفت رعيتها
و تاره ٲتغشى فضل آطمار

و قد سمعت و لم أبجح به خبرا
محدثا جاء ينمى رجع آخبار

يقول صخر مقيم ثم في جدث
لدى آلضريح صريع بين آحجار

فاذهب فلا يبعدنك آلله من رجل
ترك ضيم و طلاب باوتار

قد كنت تحمل قلبا غير مهتضم
مركبا في نصاب غير خوار

مثل آلسنان تضىء الليل صورته
مرّ ألمريرة حر و إبن احرار

فسوف آبكيك ما ناحت مطوقه
و ما أضاءت نجوم آلليل للساري

و لن أصالح قوما كنت حرهم
حتى تعود بياضا جؤنة آلقار



(Regarding the honor feuds of men and the lament-writing of women, Mark Twain, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, makes fun of a similar 'custom' his hero Huck Finn observes upon landing his raft in Kentucky.)
'al-Khansaa has addressed this poem to her dead half-brother; although she does not use the word 'brother' explicitly.
Women's status in Pre-Islamic Arabic was varied apparently; I'm not an expert on it (see the following URL's for more: , , , , ).
For more on 'al-Khansaa, including the lovely translation by Omar S. Pound of another elegy for 'al-Khansaa's brother, see religion prevailed? Judaism flourished around Medina (Madiynah/t), where also some Christianity may have been practiced. Judaism may have been spread from the Mediterranean (the inscription on an early synagogue was Greek) to Yemen by the fifth century A.D. by way of the Red Sea (The Red Sea During the Long Late Antiquity). 'al-Khansa was from the plateau that stretches along the center of present-day Saudi Arabia and includes the region near Medina.

1. Grief: this was apparently an ongoing feud between neighboring tribes. All this sacrifice for religion or vengeance seems strange, but the same thing took place during the Christian Crusades. Islam came about as a religion of 'peace' through submission to God's will--an idea that was meant to include in it peace between the Christians and Jews--the relationship between these two was more than on the rocks in 6th century Spain; Christianity similarly had come to birth as a religion of 'peace' where the Romans valued war (but people are people I guess).

2. Bertran de Born's lament: Bertran's 12th century poem begins (Bergin and Hill's edition): "Si tuit li dol e.l plor e.l marrimen/E las dolors e.l dan e.l chaitivier/Que om anc auzis en est segle dolen/Fossems ensems, sembleran tot leugier/Contra la mort de.l jove rei engles,/Don rema pretz e jovens doloros/E.l mens oscurs e teintz e tenebros,/Sems de tot joi, ples de tristor e d'ira" (Literally, 'If all the grief, the tears, and the bitterness,/the suffering, and hurts, and wretchednesses/That any man has gone through [lit. 'had'] in this painful century/were put together, it would all seem light/[weighed] against the death of the young English King,/Worth mourns and sad youth,/and the world obscured and dark and tenebrous,/Void of all joy, full of sadness and distress.') I've translated this--a bit poetically and not quite perfectly literally--as: 'All the grief, the tears, the distress,/the sufferings that weigh/on this unquiet earth, weighed together,/would weigh less/than the death of the Young king./Worth mourns, and Youth, the light hurled/from them and the outworn world--/all is joyless, all bitterness' (see trobadors/Bertran_Planh.html). The 'young king' was--according to the biographies and 'razos' introducing the poems--Henri, the son of King Henry II and brother of Richard Lion Heart, and had been killed in battle with his father Henry, for which Henry blamed Bertran de Born, who had inspired the 'young King' to go to war.) With the stanza in which the 'young King' is set next to God coming at the poem's end rather than middle, Bertran de Born's lament seems perhaps a bit less vengeful than 'al-Khansaa's (but of course 'al-Khansaa's was composed before 'al-Khansaa's conversion to Islam). All the same, vengeance was always in the air in Christendom too!

(In my phonetic transcriptions of the Arabic, a '.' after a letter indicates that this sound is 'pharyngealized'--that is pronounced down in the pharynx) in Arabic; A 'pharyngeal' /h/ is indicated as /h./. Also Arabic has voiced pharyngeal and voiced velar fricatives--which I have no way to distinguish here--I'm using (1), /''/ to indicate the pharyngeal (or to me 'softer') fricative [ع], and (2), /gh/ to indicate the velar fricative [غ]; (3), the /'/ is used--for now--for glottal stops [ء & others]. (4), I use doubled (two) vowels to indicate long vowels although in the title I indicate long /i/ with /iy/--a vowel plus a glide. (5), /th/ indicates a voiceless interdental fricative [ث]; (6), /dh/ indicates a voiced interdental fricative [ذ]; (7), /sh/ indicates a voiceless palatal fricative [ش]; (8), /j/ indicates a voiced palatal fricative/affricate [in Levantine Arabic dialects it's a fricative; elsewhere it is an affricate actually] [ج]; (9), /q/ indicates the voiceless [? to my ear at least it's voiceless] uvular stop [a pharyngealized or uvularized k?; ق]. My phonetic transcription may have errors as my text from Arberry does not indicate vowels, or have any diacrtic marks. I am now getting some help with my transcription at, which I desperately need--as this is my third attempt to get the vowels and diacritic marks right; I first attempted to get this right in May of 1982 after a year of Arabic, when I started working on this translation; in 1985 as I was preparing to finish my M.A. I tried again & thought I finally had it all right; now one more try! The original poem appeared in A. J. Arberry, 1965, Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]. For more on Arabic phonology, please see, Arabic Online (

(The Arabic lines are longer than my English lines, and have a 'falling' rhythm at the end; English verse, as Fitzgerald has noted in his translation of the Odyssey, may work better in shorter lines than some classical verse does.
To what extent could I preserve 'al-Khansaa's rhythm ("basiit tetrameter," described in Arberry, 1965: 9)? In my opinion, sometimes a slightly falling rhythm works in English; sometimes it does not; I did half-half here; it's the best I can do with this poem. In 'al-Khansaa's poem, the rhymes with /aari/, that is the lines ending in 'uwwaari ('pus' + genetive ending), 'atmaari ('tattered garments,' 'rags') . . . 'al-quaari ('the-host'), sound to my ear like spondees. Of course, the lines ending in /atan/, for example, the line ending in sahiratan, might be considered 'strong' as well because the final syllable is a vowel plus consonant (and are thus long; a single vowel is short; like in Classical Latin and Greek, the 'length' of the syllable is important in the music)--but the stress of the line is generally weakening at the end of words ending in /atan/. Thus it seems to my ear--and is suggested by Arberry's analysis of 'al-Khansaa's rhythm, that more stressed endings alternate with weaker in 'al-Khansaa's poem. In any case, some of my line endings have a falling rhythm (an unstressed final beat); some are stressed (the final beat is stressed).
'al-Khansaa's rhymes are rich and include internal rhymes, such as the internal rhyme between 'ayn in 'ayn-iy ('my eyes') and bayn in bayna ('between'). In my translation of 'al-Khansaa's poem, I have, to the extent that I could, used internal rhyme and half-rhyme, and alliteration (alliteration, the use of words beginning with the same initial sound, for example, what I did with the 'w's in the last couplet of my translation, was very popular in Old English and seems to work o.k. here in English).
Finally, one of the rhymes changes in the last few lines; my last couplet is a bit longer than the rest of my lines, but I did not change rhythm at the exact same point the 'al-Khansaa changed her rhyme.

You, free-born,/ and the son of the free:
(This is translated this line more literally as 'Free, and the son of the free.') I've inserted the word 'You' in this case to address 'al-Khansaa's dead brother (who is after all, being addressed here; I've also broken this phrase over two lines or half-lines or whatever; in the original poem, both parts of the phrase occur in the same half-line). I think this insertion works well here, both rhythmically and in terms of wording/style. (In spite of the fact that my Arabic is lousy; I have to look most everything up and do not pronounce or spell as well as I should without a dictionary), h.urr-un wa 'abnu 'ah.raari, 'free, and, son, {of} the-free-[plural ending],' 'free and the son of the free' (alternatley 'a free man and the son of free men'). My original translation rendered the Arabic couplet as a single phrase which combined the meanings of both parts of this 'lexical couplet' in it--because in Arabic, even to some degree to this day, such 'lexical couplets' (where two phrases, often with some grammatical parallelism, are lexically similar, that is they are similar in meaning) are often produced (as Koch, Beeston, and others have noted) are frequently produced (in modern English, we have a few 'frozen' or 'cliché' couplets we use, such as 'aid and abet,' 'ways and means,' but do not generally produce fresh ones). At first I thought the shortened couplet worked better in terms of rhythm and style here; it's much 'stronger'--and it does work in some cases, but I've now changed my mind (I've shortened a number of 'lexical couplets'--will have to list all eventually; some definitely need to be shortened).

** And I will not make peace with a people you were at war with:
Apologies for my typing "who" here for you; the original Arabic is: "Wa lan 'u-s.aalaxa qaw maa kunta h.arbahumu" "And, not, I-make peace with, a people, whom, you were, at war with-them," but I mistyped my translation online which may have caused some confusion; also messed up in my memory the Arabic--I could remember the rhythm but not the exact words. (Sorry for all my mistakes. This is my third time I've tried to get the vowels and diacritics right; and I've still not got Arberry in front of me, just my typed copy of the poem from Arberry--which I just dug out; till then I put this up from memory; a few of these forms are neither in my grammar or my dictionary either) (This line and indeed the entire final couplet make the tone of this poem less than 'forgiving,' but of course the final couplet is an expression of grief, and is quite eloquent.)


* As noted this is from A. J. Arberry, 1965, Arabic Poetry: A Primer for Students [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press]. The display of the unicode characters is turning out o.k. so far; I am surprised; there do seem to be slightly different 'first' 'middle' and 'last' displays for each connected letter, so, it looks more like the typed copy I have than I really expected. (NOTE: the manuscript here deviates in one way from Arberry's because I've made a change; I've opted [someone please correct me if I am wrong] to indicate when an 'aleph' plus glottal stop has been elided with a previous vowel and become lengthened; to do so I use the unicode character for the long 'aleph' [U 0622]. If this is not correct, please correct me. It's to be noted that the Arabic character 'aleph' [ا] (without a seated hamza on/under it, or a long vowel mark on it) may be pronounced either as a vowel (as in the suffixes haa' 'her,' naa, 'our') or as an (which is the accusative indefinite ending after a noun, adjective, or participle--other case endings are not written in Arabic; case endings are not normally pronounced in spoken dialects but they are important in establishing the meter of classical odes). Regarding the first line, 'in-nii 'ariq-tu fa-bit-tu l-layla saahirit-a-n/, "saahirit-a-n," 'vigil-keeping,' 'keeping watch,' is a verb participle; I've transcribed it in Latin script as "saahirit-a-n," and not "saahirit-u-n," thus treating this as an accusative instead of as a nominative, largely for rhyme, as it seems more likely that it is the speaker (the nominative case subject of the verb) and not the night (the accusative case object) who is keeping watch, and that "saahirit-a-n" modifies.