The Humor And Wisdom Of Ibn Sabir Al-Manjaniki

Ibn Sabir Al-Manjaniki’s full name was Abu Yusuf Ibn Sabir Ibn Hauthara Al-Manjaniki; we note it here for completeness, and will not repeat it again.  He was also known in some circles by the surname Najm Al-Din, which means “star of religion.”  He was born  in Baghdad in January 1159, and spent his early life there.  He is nearly unique in having achieved enduring fame in two completely separate disciplines:  military engineering and poetry.

His name announces his notoriety as a builder of engines of war:  “Al-Manjaniki” is not an Arabic word, but was imported into the language from the Greek word for “engine” or “machine” (μηχανή).  The archaic English word mangonel (a ballistic device for throwing stones and other projectiles) is probably traceable to the same source.  A corresponding English nickname for him would be “The Engineer.”  “The word manjaniki is of foreign origin,” says his biographer Ibn Khallikan, “for the letters jiim (ج) and qaaf (ق) are never found together in any Arabic word.”  This is true; perhaps the Byzantine Greeks gave him this nickname out of grudging respect for the ballistic machines he deployed against them.  We do not know the details of the epithet’s origins.  During the early part of his career, he served in the regular army as a common soldier; when his construction and mechanical talents became apparent, he was promoted to Chief Engineer of the city of Baghdad.  “He labored assiduously with the sword and the pen,” says Ibn Khallikan, “and became noted for his studies and for his military exercises.  None of his contemporaries could cope with him in the knowledge of these last matters.”

His major work of military science is called, in a splendid example of the smoothly rhyming titles that were standard in his era, اعمدة المسالك في سياسات الممالك (‘Umda Al-Masalik fii Siyasat Al-Mamalik), which may be loosely translated as Signposts Revealing the Paths to the Proper Governance of Kingdoms.  As we have found with so many other titles of medieval Arabic works, translation cannot reproduce the poetic balance and allure of the original.  Ibn Khallikan says of this masterpiece that “this fine work, which remains unfinished, treats of everything relating to war:  orders of battle, taking fortresses, building castles, horsemanship, engineering, blockading strongholds, sieges, equestrian exercises, war horses, the management of all sorts of arms, the construction of military engines, close fighting, [and] the different sorts of cavalry and the qualities of horses.”  If this book has been preserved, I have been unable to locate it.  He did not neglect his physical appearance or sense of humor; for his biographer described him personally as a “good humored man, well-looking, pleasant and lively, agreeable in his conversation, noble-minded and modest, [and] in his manners conciliatory, kind, and tranquil.”

But it was as a poet that his fame achieved true immortality.  He was prolific, and gifted in all aspects of the art, able to compose spontaneous verses as well as classical qasidas; in him we find a true embodiment of the warrior fused with the man of letters.  He was the approximate contemporary of his biographer Ibn Khallikan, who tried to meet him during his life; unsuccessful in this, he sought out and interviewed men who knew Al-Manjaniki personally.  An early specimen of his verses is the following, which shows his ability to convey sensual themes:

I kissed her cheek and she, in her confusion, turned away her neck and inclined from me her pliant waist.

From her cheeks trickled down upon her breast drops of respiration like the dew upon the myrtle.

It was as if the breath of my sighs had obliged the rose of her cheeks to shed its dew-drops.  [IV.369]

The following lines show Al-Manjaniki’s sense of humor, as he reflects on his experiences in the professions of engineering and in poetics:

I was engaged in studying ballistics, and in employing machines

Fitted to destroy castles and to breach redoubts.

Then I turned, through poverty, to the composing of verses;

And so, in both cases, I have been always aiming at a wall.

The metaphor in the last line is a play on the dual meaning of “wall”:  it is meant in the physical sense, as a target for military effort, and also in the sense of “stomach,” meaning that he took up the pen to feed himself.  Consider also the following lines, which convey a timeless bit of worldly wisdom about human relations:

Trust not to him who restrains his anger through perfidy; fear the arrows of the deceitful.

The sharp lances are never more killing than when

Their water [i.e., their sharp blades] sinks into the bosoms.

Here are some interesting lines that Al-Manjaniki wrote about a girl in Baghdad who was learning to swim in the Tigris.  She was wearing blue-colored trousers, and was using an air-filled bladder as a flotation device.  The poet wrote:

O you men who hear me!  My affliction proceeds from that bladder

Which holds closely to her whom I desire to possess and whom I love.

It is filled with air as I am filled with love, but it floats where my passion

Would weigh me down and drown me.

Those drawers excite my jealousy whilst they embrace her charms;

They are really a blue enemy.

This phrase “blue enemy” requires some explanation.  Ibn Khallikan says it was an expression among the bedouin given to an especially fierce opponent; someone would call another a “blue enemy” if he was especially implacable.  So are all men conscious of the fact that their unbridled passion is an enemy to be feared.  The poet grew reflective with the passage of time, frequently composing verses on the brevity of life and youth’s flower.  He mournfully writes:

They say that hoariness [grey-white color] is a brilliant light which clothes

A man’s face with brightness and dignity.

But when its grayness invaded the summit of my head, I wished I had not been

Deprived of darkness [i.e., dark hair].

I began to cajole the marks of youth, so that they might remain,

And I dyed them with a tint of black.  If the beard of the gray-haired man were,

On the day of the resurrection, the book of his actions,

Its whiteness would displease him.

Al-Manjaniki died in Baghdad in January of 1229.  His tomb, we are told, was placed near the mausoleum of Musa Ibn Ja’afar.  We will end on a ribald note that would have pleased the poet.  One of Al-Manjaniki’s names was (as noted in the first paragraph above) Hauthara; this word originally indicated the head (glans) of the male penis.  Eventually, according to Ibn Khallikan, the word became a respectable name.  How this came to be is explained as follows.  The word’s first use as a nickname is explained by the writer Ibn Al-Kalbi.  He relates an anecdote about a traveler who was making a long journey, and desired to buy a cup from a woman who was selling various implements.  She asked a high price for it; the irritated traveler balked at paying what was quoted, thinking the cup too small for the price.  “By God, I could fill it up with my hauthara,” he is supposed to have said.  From that point, the word came to be used as his nickname; and time eventually gave it respectability as a name for others.  As for the authenticity of this story, I will retreat to a formula often used by Ibn Khallikan in such situations:  “Only God knows whether this be true!”



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