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(543 - 569 / Bahrain)

Biography of Tarafah ibn al Abd

Tarafah ibn al 'Abd ben Sufyan ben Malik al Bakri of the tribe of the Bakr ben Wa'il was born in 543 AD in Bahrain on the Persian Gulf. His father died when he was still a child. His maternal uncles, bound by law and custom to take him in, were greedy and scornful men who neglected his education and robbed him of his rightful inheritance. Tarafah took to women, wine and gambling as soon as he was old enough angering his tribe so much with his excesses that they ordered him to leave.

After leaving the tribe he wandered from country to country perhaps venturing even as far as Abyssina (present day Ethiopia). Most of the truth of his life is obscured by stories and legends. Tales have it that he alternated between wild sprees of womanising and drinking and meditating on the meaning of life in the desert. Once he attempted albeit unsuccessfully to reintegrate with his tribe. After this he went back to his nomadic ways and began to write poetry as well, though according to some stories he wrote poetry from the age of seven.

One day he came upon the city of Hira which was ruled by Amr ben Hind. Hira at that time was rich and opulent and like all great cities drew people from all over. The King Amr bin Hind heard that Tarafah was a poet and received him at court and treated him with respect. At the court Tarafah met his uncle Al Mutalammis and his brother-in-law, Abd Amr ben Bichr (who was married to his sister the poetess Al Khirniq) both poets. Tarafah though had been a nomad too long to have the diplomacy and manners required at the court. He was not afraid to speak his mind and his outspokeness ruffled many feathers at court, and antogonised many important people. He angered his brother-in-law, by accusing him of ill treating his sister. Then he composed a satire on king Amr himself and on the latter's brother, Prince Qabus. The enraged brother-in-law used the occasion to turn the king against Tarafah. The royal revenge against the poet was not long in coming. Tarafah and his uncle received letters from the king to be taken to the latter's governor in Bahrain. On the road Al Mutalammis became suspicious, broke the seal and read the letter: it was his death warrant. He tore it to pieces and told his nephew to do the same, but Tarafah refused to even open his letter. When they reached Bahrain they went to see the governor who happened to belong to the Bakr, Tarafah's own tribe. The governor read the letter and told Tarafah to get out as fast as his camel could run. The nomad-poet refused so the governor has him thrown in jail and he wrote to the king to name another governor as he refused to have the young man executed. The king complied with this request, naming a new governor who belonged to the tribe of the Beni Taghli who had long lived in enmity with the Bakr.

The new governor told Tarafah that he had to have him killed but he could choose the way he preferred to die. Tarafah's answer was to fill him with wine all the way up to the throat. Then to bleed him to death. Which is what happened. That was in 569 AD, and Tarafah wasn't thirty yet. His tribe bemoaned his death and his sister, Al Khirniq, composed a glorious ode in his memory.

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The Ode of Tarafah

A young gazelle there is in the tribe, dark-lipped, fruit-shaking,

flaunting a double necklace of pearls and topazes,

holding aloof, with the herd grazing in the lush thicket,

nibbling the tips of the arak-fruit, wrapped in her cloak.

Her dark lips part in a smile, teeth like a comomile

[Hata Bildir]