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Monday Book: A secret garden of turnips and killer castanets

Night and Horses and the Desert: an Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature

by Robert Irwin

(Allen Lane, pounds 25)

"I AM known to night and horses and the desert, to sword and lance, to parchment and pen," swaggered the 10th-century poet al-Mutanabbi. Attacked by robbers, he was challenged to live up to his poetic boast, turned to fight - and was murdered.

The incident supplied the exciting title of this collection, though not all the incidents in Irwin's treasure-house of a book have such drama. However, as a taste of new excitements and pleasures, this collection is unequalled for scholarship and entertainment. Many well-educated Westerners will have some general knowledge of European writing, but Arabic literature is a sufficiently strange field to need a guide.

This chronological compilation of translated extracts from prose and poetry ranges from the pre-Islamic age to the 15th century, including philosophy and esoteric texts. Unlike earlier anthologies, which aimed more at using written works to illustrate history, this collection emphasises literary values. The difficulties of translation are indicated by including two widely-differing versions of one poem, but Irwin explains contexts and gives us enough historical detail to appreciate something of this rich culture: one sufficiently similar for us to empathise, yet strange enough to shake up our preconceptions.

Take saliva, for instance. In our world, it's a rather unpleasant secretion; in Arabic love-poetry, something to be savoured, part of the iconography of passion, ranking with lips and kisses. The extraordinary sensuality found in early Arabic verse is a revelation: in the pre-Islamic odes especially, such as one in which a couple fornicate as the woman is breast-feeding her baby, her body twisting round to keep with her lover.

But the collection also includes light verse, a celebrity cookery book (the beauties of the turnip are compared to the moon), animal fables and mystical poetry. The anthology includes a gripping 10th-century crime story, and a moving indictment of the cruelties which man displays towards the animals. All kinds of imaginative oddments appear, such as the joyous abuse of a "flyting" attack by one poet upon another ("Ajad the Flasher jumps on his mother/A sow giving suck to a hog"). I particularly enjoyed the tantalising reference to killer castanets - visions of "Viva Espana" silenced with one blow!

The extracts range geographically from Spain to Afghanistan. Especially interesting to Westerners is the poetry of the lost world of Moorish Andalusia, such as the lyrics of Ibn Zaydun, who loved a learned and aloof Cordoban woman. She herself wrote poetry: inscribed on a sleeve of her robe were the words "I am, by God! fit for high positions/And am going my way with pride!" This section includes some of the poetry literally written on the walls of the Alhambra in Granada: an extraordinary artistic form merging literature and architecture, with no Western equivalent.

And, as one might expect from an expert on The Arabian Nights, there is an excellent section introducing the reader to other fictional cycles and their narrative traditions, with explanations of various genres and canons.

The compilation is not just a splendid collection of scraps for dipping into. It presents a coherent picture of Arabic written culture, in which philosophy was considered a useful subject. Above all, this culture placed an extraordinary premium on literature. We encounter the 10th-century scholar Ibn Abad, who turned down an appointment because moving his library would have required 400 camels; the wandering scholars and the public libraries of Iraq which they frequented; and the multicultural Jewish physician in Cairo who also ran a bookshop including works in Arabic. (Bookshops could double as literary salons and centres of serious debate.)

Many people in the modern literary world would long for such passionate devotees as the bibliomaniac Jahiz of Basra, who paid booksellers to lock him in overnight so that he could read their stock. "Have you ever seen a garden that will go into a man's sleeve, an orchard you can take on your lap, a speaker who can speak of the dead and yet be an interpreter of the living?" That is Jahiz describing a book.

Remember the obscene "turkey-shoot" of fleeing Iraqi troops on the Basra road in the Gulf War? That road once led to Jahiz and his library.