Friday, 25 March 2016

Mr. William and the Golden Ode


Years ago, during my stint at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, I came across a book “The Golden Ode” of Labeed ibn Abi Rabee’a. The book was a visual anthology tracing the whereabouts of Labeed and his conversions as recited in his poem. I asked about the author to learn that he is a descendent of a family which gave the United States of America one of its presidents. Since such books always emit the impression that their authors did live in earlier eras, I legitimately wondered if the author was still alive, I was told he is. I had the desire to invite him to the foundation but was informed that the man’s convictions had changed and he became more of a Zionism and wasn’t supportive of Arabs anymore.
Four years later, I received a call from my friend at the Central Bank Abdulmalek Al Hamar, he seemed to be having a sort of predicament: his day was full to the brim but he had a guest in turmoil and Abdulmalik feared that turmoil is contagious; the guest name was William R. Polk. I immediately connected the dots: it was the author of the book in the flesh. The man needed someone to listen and carried with him a supply of thoughts to aid him through the lonely road of old age, yes, the man reached an age where he banished patience giving an unremitting impression of haste.
Abdulmalik told me about William’s intention to work on a project tackling “Imra’ ul-Qais” with the same approach he used with Labeed. But William was weary trying to find someone to sponsor the project. Indeed, it was a greater endeavor than Labeed, since Imra’ ul-Qais was more versatile when it came to poems and places since several narrations indicate that he traversed the Arabian Peninsula starting from the south where he first dwelled in Kindah passing to the north where he met Al Samaw’al ibn Adiya’a in Taima’a then reaching Ankara in Turkey.
Personally, I consider what the sources circulate and what was narrated about Imra’ ul-Qais are originally a set of stories and folk epics that were distorted by the centers of power and tribal strongholds during the inscription period. Throughout the Islamic conquests that followed the Orthodox Caliphate, such stories coupled with the emergence of Tribalism spread in new lands. The tribes felt compelled to narrate their past highlighting their glorious deeds and powers and how that glory was reflected in their present. To achieve that, the tribes invested in the new state via being rulers of newly invaded provinces or leaders in the military.
I am confident that Imra’ ul-Qais did not go to Ankara seeking the assistance of the Roman Emperor and that his life did not come to an end as a lonely stranger on top of Mount Asseeb. Even his entanglement with Al Samaw’al was not as described in several stories: if we are to assume that Imra’ ul-Qais had really reached Taima’a and met Al Samaw’al to begin with; it is more probable that Al Samaw’al did not surrender Imra’ ul-Qais armor to Al Harith ibn Abi Shammar Al Ghassani not out of observing Imra’ ul-Qais’s trust but because he was planning to keep the armor to himself. In addition, there is no mention of Al Samaw’al in those narrations following the murder of his son and nothing is to be found about Al Samow’al fate as if the stories were severed from many contexts just to give evidence of the man’s fidelity. I find that such distortions were part of the power struggle following the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate were many parties were keen on dividing its inheritance during the reign of the Abbasid Caliphate with its vast influence and inflated institutions.
Back to Abdulmalik (God bless his soul) who was eager to introduce Mr. Polk to relieve himself from the burden of listening to resilient William, I told Abdulmalik: “Send him to me”, I felt sorry for Abdulmalik, he sounded quite distressed. But once I met William and starting talking to him, I immediately related to Abdulmalik anguish.
I was surprised that contrary to what I had been told, the man did not swap convictions, on the contrary; he was more committed, and at his age he had cemented his priorities. According to William: “Nothing should precede my project: A visual anthology about Imra’ ul-Qais, this project needs a budget somewhere between one and half to two million dollars”. I felt bitter since those days the Foundation cannot entertain such huge amounts and the whole budget was barely covering the pre-scheduled activities so I kept thinking of someone who can adopt Mr. William’s ideas and capable of funding the man’s dreams. Following a pleasant day of versatile stories, Mr. William left for his retirement home in Paris.
For many years to follow, I never fell out of contact with William and at the same time kept thinking that it is essential to undertake a project about the first Lost King. Towards the end of 2000, the idea was still roaming in my mind so I decided to sponsor the project myself and to publish the book with the same high quality of “The Golden Ode”. I was in London, and it was exhilarating to call Mr. Polk in Paris, I said: “Good news Mr. Polk, the money needed for Imra’ ul-Qais project is available”; alas, his voice over the phone seem to have faded by the years: “Oh Mohammad, you have to relieve me of that duty”. The man I had known a decade ago became much older and couldn’t do more than wishing that a younger man could carry the torch. That was the end of another “Golden Ode” and its astray king.