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Contrapuntal Composition in a Muwashshah Family, or Variations On a Panegyric Theme'

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The unique structural qualities of the Andalusi strophic poem (muwashshah or zajal) lent itself to a type of poetic interaction called muārada, commonly translated as "literary imitation." By composing within the parameters of an already established metrical, rhythmic, and melodic scheme, as well as sometimes sharing the final lines of the poem (the kharja), poets opened up a dialogue with their audience, and/or their fellow poets. However, these "imitations" were more than simplistic copies of of one another composed for virtuosic show. When executed well, a muārada provided a variation, praise, parody, response, or combination of these, of the original work, which would not be lost on the audience familiar with the form. In this paper, I will examine three strophic pocms that share a common kharja, in addition to elements of thematic development, rhyme scheme, and metrical patterns. In our set, we have what appears to be three panegyrics -a muwashshah composed in classical Arabic, a muwashshah-like zajal in Andalusī colloquial Arabic, and a muwashshah in Hebrew. Through a close reading of the poems, I will show that despite their shared features and surface similarities, they are, in fact, quite distinct in language, tone, and purpose, thus calling into question their generic designation as panegyric poems.

Affiliations: 1: Columbia University


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