History, Novel

Writing Jayida and a sixth century pre-Islamic ‘Antarah

Amidst recent (and ongoing) concerns of ‘cultural appropriation’, it’s once again telling that the Middle East hardly gets attention. To be sure, it’s natural if not almost expected for cultures to converge and be influenced by each other, and hopefully for better than worse.

With that said, in researching for Jayida, it was quickly evident that the majority of the sources have a Muslim bias of the pre-Islamic mixed-race poet, ‘Antarah. This is also often the case with pre-Islamic history coming from the Middle East in general.

Whether from lack of facts on the historic ‘Antarah, or to partake in a popular medieval genre—or perhaps both—his life was romanticized centuries later in a narrative called Sirat ‘Antar, translated as the Romance of Antar. It’s obvious that this exceedingly long epic has been used by Muslim sources to bolster their religion. That may partially be explained or even justified—if one believes that ‘Antarah converted to Islam later in his life. My personal short answer to that is: I highly doubt it and rather smacks of convenient invention. 

Dramatically, the Romance of Antar has Antar living across centuries and even present at—you guessed it—the Crusades, because obviously. While that could be a sign of various cultures inserting themselves within the (fictional) experiences of Antar, the Crusades context is bound to be favorable to Islam.

Predictably, there were also disturbing depictions of Antar that any sane person would find sickening. As multi-layered as that may be, it’s telling of what certain audiences find ‘amusing’ and the repulsive views that some cultures have of ‘manliness.’

One of my goals with Jayida was to situate my pre-Islamic characters within a Judaeo-Christian, Zoroastrian, and (for ease of reference) ‘pagan’ context. Like the other two main characters of Jayida and Khaled, my beautiful ‘Antarah struggles with faith but has inspiration in his Christian African mother and the powerful Christian empire of Aksum, in what is today parts of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia.