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A Spiritual Almanac: Al-Khansa

Feb 1, 2021

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The Arab poet, Tamadir bint Amr, is better known by her pen name, al-Khansa. Born around 575, she was the daughter of a tribal leader in Najd. Over the course of her life, she lost two brothers and four sons to violent deaths — losses that heavily influenced her outlook and writing. She was also a contemporary of Muhammed and converted to Islam in her mid-50s.

Al-Khansa’s poetry focuses on the themes of lament and departure, and her poems frequently speak to the despair over the loss of life. Even in her own day, she was famous for her skills as a poet and writer — and she knew it. When one of the leading male poets of the day commented she was “the greatest poet among those with breasts,” she replied, “I’m the greatest poet among those with testicles, too.” Today, al-Khansa is revered as one of the greatest Arab poets that ever lived — man or woman.

Our inspiration for ths day in the almanac comes from one of al-Khansa’s classic poems of loss, written after the death of her brother. It’s a short piece titled, “Lament for a Brother.” 



By Al-Khansa

What have we done to you death 
that you treat us so, with always another catch
one day a warrior 
the next a head of state
charmed by the loyal 
you choose the best
iniquitous, unequalling death
I would not complain 
if you were just
but you take the worthy 
leaving fools for us.


FOR ADDITIONAL READING: See The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal.

More spiritual nuggets for today …

On this day in 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years in exile.

Khomeini was a devout Shiite cleric. He was expelled from the country for condemning the shah’s international relationships and his program of westernization. When he returned, Khomeini was named the leader of the Iranian Revolution and he immediately set out to convert Iran into a religious state. Nine months later, in November, students invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. Backed by Khomeini, the radicals held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

On this day in 2009, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was elected the first female Prime Minister of Iceland, also making her the world’s first openly gay head of government.

Earlier in her life Sigurðardóttir had worked as an office manager and a flight attendant at Icelandic Airlines. But she eventually made her way into politics and became an advocate for trade unions. Among her list of accomplishments as prime minister, her government banned strip clubs and made it impossible for businesses to profit from their employees’ nudity — it was the first ban of its kind in a Western democracy. Speaking of the ban, Sigurðardóttir said: “The Nordic countries are leading the way on women’s equality, recognizing women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale.” When same-sex marriage was legalized in Iceland in 2010, she became one of the first to take advantage of the new law, formally marrying her partner, the playwright, Jónína Leósdóttir 

Today is also the anniversary of Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction in 2004 during Super Bowl XXXVIII.

It happened during Jackson’s halftime show with Justin Timberlake. As part of a dance routine, Timberlake tore away a piece of Jackson’s clothing, exposing her bare breast to the viewing audience for approximately half a second. The event launched a media firestorm and inevitably became a fixation for conservative groups. The right-wing media watchdog group, the Parents’ Television Council, condemned the halftime show and filed indecency complaints against the FCC, while conservative commentators like Phyllis Schlafly expressed their moral outrage to whoever would listen. But it wasn’t all bad. Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction provided weeks of fodder for late-night comedians. The day after the Super Bowl, late-night host, David Letterman, said, “I was happy to see this thing happen … because it meant for one night, I wasn’t the biggest boob on CBS.”

I’m not going near that one. So, that’s today’s Spiritual Almanac. For additional reading, see The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal. 

Be kind, take good care and we’ll see you soon. 

“Lament for a Brother” by al-Khansa. Public domain.

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