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Bilingualism in Genizah Arabic poetry: T-S NS 108.601

Mohamed A. H. Ahmed & Benjamin Outhwaite

There is evidence of a shared interest in poetry between Arabic-speaking Jews and Muslims from the 7th century onwards, which has continued down through the ages until modern times. Arabized Jews began to compose poetry in Arabic in the pre-Islamic period, and some Jewish poets of Arabia are fixtures of the Arabic tradition, such as the 6th-c. al-Samawʾal ibn ʿĀdiyāʾ (Bauer 2012). The emergence of secular Hebrew poetry in Andalusia, with its adoption of Arabic verse forms, was a direct consequence of exposure to Arabo-Islamic poetry. The poetic language and models were acquired, as Raymond P. Scheindlin points out, not just by passively absorbing them, but deliberately through ‘concentrated study’:

‘they eventually synthesized [the Arabic literary tradition] with their Jewish literary heritage, creating almost overnight a new Hebrew literature that derived many of its concerns, principles, images and even rhythms from Arabic’ (Scheindlin 1986: 5)

In addition to adapting Hebrew poetry to the forms and patterns of Arabic verse, some Jewish poets also wrote their poetry in the Arabic language. In some cases this went hand-in-hand with conversion to Islam, such as Ibrāhīm ibn Sahl al-Isrāʾīlī from Seville (d. 1259). But it was not necessarily so: Judah al-Ḥarīzī (ca. 1166–1225), a leading Jewish poet, translator and travel writer from Toledo, not only translated Arabic poetry and rhymed prose – such as the maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī of Basra – and composed his own Hebrew maqāmāt (the Taḥkemoni), but also wrote poems in Arabic, and even produced bilingual works in the two languages.

Remnants of this Arabized world can be found in the dozens of fragments with medieval Arabic poetry written in Hebrew script (Judaeo-Arabic), from both known and unknown authors, found in the Cairo Genizah. These represent a significant body of poetic material that adds further evidence of the intertwined nature of Arabic language and culture in the Judaeo-Islamic heritage of a multicultural and multilingual society.

The fragment T-S NS 108.60 gives us a good example in linguistic and graphic form of this intertwining of Arabic and Hebrew, and their respective scripts, in one medieval poetic manuscript. The methods employed in the texts include translation, changing language (code-switching) and swapping between scripts (script-switching), evidence of the interest these fragments hold for the study of bilingualism in the medieval Judaeo-Arabic milieu.

T-S NS 108.60 is a paper bifolium, containing poetry in different scripts. The Hebrew script in the fragment is the product of two different hands (f. 1r is in a different hand to the rest), but, based on the ink, the pen-strokes, and the layout of the pages, one scribe wrote both the Arabic and Hebrew script of ff. 1v–2v.

The fragment T-S NS 108.60 contains a number of excerpts of Arabic poems belonging to iconic Arab poets of the Middle Ages: the Fāṭimid poet Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿrrī (973–1057 CE); the ʿAbbāsid poets Abū Tammām (803–845 CE), Abū al-ʿAtāhiya (747–826 CE), and Ibrāhīm ibn ʿAbbās al-Ṣūli (792–857 CE). It appears to be a page from a personal anthology, perhaps a poetic commonplace book. Literary anthologising was a popular genre in the Arabic-reading culture of the Middle East, often in the service of adab, as an aid to literary refinement (Orfali 2012: 29–32). Aspiring Jewish poets or literati probably did not have the same access to collections of literary models as their Islamic neighbours, and certainly not in Hebrew script, and consequently might be expected to have gathered collections such as these for their own use, assembling them according to theme or style.

The front of the bifolium, ff. 1r and 2v, contains religious Hebrew poetry. Folio 1r contains the end of a poem, rhyming in -hev (הב) and concluding with את גאון יעקב אשר אהב, Psalms 47:5. Folio 2v contains a complete piyyuṭ, in a different hand, prefaced with בשם רחום, and a Judaeo-Arabic rubric, פי מעני אלהי אל תדינני, ‘On the theme of “My God, do not judge me”.’ It appears to be inspired by the famous piyyuṭ of Isaac ibn Mar Saul, אֱלֹהַי אַל תְּדִינֵנִי כְּמַעֲלִי, ‘My God, do not judge me according to my sin’, a baqqaša recited in the morning service of Yom Kippur. Like that one, this poem has a monorhyme, -vi (בי), and begins and ends on the same hemistich, אלהי אם עוני יענה בי. Isaac ibn Mar Saul was a popular Andalusian poet of the late 10th–11th c., whose work reflected the transition from old-style piyyuṭ to the newer themes and forms derived from Arabic (Alfonso 2010).

Folios 1r and 2v of T-S NS 108.60


The internal folios, ff. 1v–2r, are written in the same hand as the Hebrew piyyuṭ on f. 2v, yet contain poetry of an altogether different character. Graphically, they are quite distinct from the previous folio, as the scribe switches script frequently into Arabic. Indeed, he begins with a heading in Arabic script, a Muslim approbation of an extended basmala (‘In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate, He be great’), which introduces the title and authorship of the poem, also written in Arabic script2. Thereafter, the scribe employs Hebrew script for the poem itself. Surprisingly, however, he switches back into Arabic almost immediately in the first verse (line 3) with اذا جئتهم, ‘if you bring them’, before reverting to Hebrew script again. Whether it’s a lapse, or for graphic reasons, or to effect the change into Judaeo-Arabic more gradually, or even to better present the phonology of the Arabic phrase is, at this distance in time, difficult to ascertain.

Folios 1v-2r of T-S NS 108.60


T-S NS 108.60, f. 1v:

Translation Arabic Hebrew Script Line

In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate, He be great.

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم يكون أكبر


“Luzūm mā lā yalzmu”, written by Abū al-ʿAlāʾ ibn Sulaymān

لابي العلاء بن سليمن لزوم مالا يلزم


God curse a people that when you bring them words of truth,

(لحا الله قوما اذا جئتهم بصـدق الاحاديث) 

לֲחא אללה קומאً اذا جيـ[ـتئـ]ـهم

בצדק אלאחאדית


they say “Unbeliever”

(قالـو كَفَر)

קאל[ו] כַפַר ׃



Code switching can be generally defined as the alternation between two languages in the same conversation.3 In this manuscript, we can see frequent code switching between Arabic/Judaeo-Arabic and Hebrew. In some cases, this is straight translation, or, as here, taking inspiration from the Arabic for a line of poetry in Hebrew. Beginning with what is probably a hemistich from the ʿAbbāsid poet Abū Tammām (803–845 AD), in Arabic in Arabic script, the scribe follows it with a Hebrew stanza. One can view this as intersentential code switching, or the act of switching between sentences and clauses or ‘at a sentence boundary’ (Thomason 2001: 132).


T-S NS 108.60 (f. 2r):

Translation Arabic Hebrew Line

He said while singing: ‘He used to extend his hand [give alms] even if’4

وقال يغني تعوّد بسط الكف حتى لو انه


His hand would extend to all who asked and so he was plundered by all who knew him.5


[היתה?] יָדו לכל שואל פרוסה לכן הוא לכל יודעיו משסה




Further down the same page, we have more script switching, as the scribe gives the Arabic poetry in Hebrew script, retaining Arabic script only for the rubrics. For example, under the Arabic rubric وقال الشاعر, ‘The poet said’, he gives two lines from the ʿAbbāsid poet Ibrāhīm ibn ʿAbbās al-Ṣūli (792–857 CE) in Hebrew script, beginning ולו כאן ללשכר שכצאً  (for فَلَو كانَ لِلشُّكر شَخص) ‘and if gratitude were a figure’. Occasional Arabic vocalisation is used to mark grammatical forms, such as the tanwīn on the indefinite שכצאً, ‘a figure, body, person’. This is followed by a loose translation inspired by the Arabic into Hebrew poetry, under a rubric ‘I said’ – i.e., a reply to the original poet. Again, the rubric is in Arabic script, despite this introducing a Hebrew verse: ולוּ היתה להודיה תמונה ותֵרָאה לכל שוקט ושׁוֹלֵו, ‘And had my gratitude a form that could be shown to anyone quiet and peaceful’. The rubrics وقال الشاعر and فقلت reveal this to be a poetic dialogue between the Hebrew poet and the poetry of Ibrāhīm ibn ʿAbbās al-Ṣūli.


T-S NS 108.60 (f. 2r):

Translation Arabic Hebrew Script Line

The poet said:

وقال الشاعر



If gratitude were a figure who could be seen by an onlooker

(ولو كان للشكر شَخصاً يبين اذا مـا تامـله الناظـرُ)

ולו כאן ללשכר שכצאً יבין אדא מא תאמלה אלנאטׄרُ

I would have copied it so that you might see it and know that I am a grateful person.

(لمـثـلته لك حـتـى تراه فتـعـلم أَني امرٌ شاكرُ)

למתלתה לך חתי תראה פתעלם אני אמרُ שאכרُ

I said:



And had my gratitude a form that could be shown to anyone quiet and peaceful [at repose]  

ולוּ היתה להודיה תמונה ותֵרָאה לכל שוקט ושׁוֹלֵו :



Unlike the Hebrew religious poetry on the reverse of the fragment, the poems on this side of the bifolium operate in an Arabic cultural sphere. The poetic dialogue is a playful response to classical Arabic poetry, albeit transcribed into Hebrew script, and the use of Arabic script rubrics clearly signal the cultural domain in which the literary activity is going on. You can contrast the use of a Judaeo-Arabic rubric on the reverse (פי מעני אלהי אל תדינני), with the switch to Arabic-script rubrics on this side of the bifolium, just as you can contrast the religious poetry of the Hebrew cultural realm with the secular verses on this side. Similarly, you can contrast the Arabic-script basmala before al-Maʿarrī’s poem with the Hebrew equivalent, בשם רחום ‘in the name of the Merciful’, before the piyyuṭ. The scribe does not fully adhere to this schema, as the second rubric on f. 2r is in Judaeo-Arabic, פקלת פי [ ]ענאהמא, ‘And I said to both these …’. The best explanation for this is that it is a lapse, and it should have been in Arabic script, فقلت في معـناهما, ‘and I said (replied) to both these themes’, or that the writer is simply inconsistent. Such lapses and inconsistencies are common in pre-modern texts produced for personal use.

To conclude, this fragment, one of hundreds containing Arabic poetry in the Cairo Genizah, is an excellent example of the multivalent nature of written language in an Arabic-speaking world, and of the inventive and fruitful synthesis of Arabic and Hebrew literature. Probably a personal poetic anthology, it also shows the extent of Jewish literary consumption, which in this case encompasses a number of major poets from four centuries of the Islamo-Arabic literary canon. Furthermore, through the use of code- and script-switching, the scribe-owner of this fragment constructs an informative image of the cultural currents that underlie his work and encodes a snapshot of his aesthetic world.



Abū Tammām, Ḥabīb Ibn Aus & Azzām, Muhammad Abdu (1987), Dīwān Abū Tammām.

Al-Maʿarri, Abu l-ʿAla, Geert Jan van Gelder, Matthew Reynolds, and Gregor Schoeler, The Epistle of Forgiveness: Volumes One and Two (New York, NY New York University Press: 2016).

Alfonso, E. (2010) ‘Ibn Mar Saul, Isaac bar Levi’, in Norman A. Stillman (ed.), Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Consulted online on 30 April 2021.

Bauer, Th. (2012) “al-Samawʾal b. ʿĀdiyā”, in P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs (eds), Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Consulted online on 26 April 2021.

Orfali, B. (2012), ‘A Sketch Map of Arabic Poetry Anthologies up to the Fall of Baghdad’, Journal of Arabic Literature 43, 29–59.

Poplack, Sh. (1980), ‘Sometimes I’ll start a sentence in Spanish y termino en español: toward a typology of code-switching’, Linguistics 18, 581–618.

Scheindlin, R. (1986), Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life.

Thomason, S. (2001), Language Contact. Edinburgh University Press.



1 This paper is part of the project ‘Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah’, which has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. Grant agreement No. 851411.

2 The poem in the fragment belongs to Luzūmiyyāt al-Maʿarrī, one of the most popular Dīwāns belonging to Al-Maʿarrī. The term Luzūmiyyāt is a novel poetic style, in which Al-Maʿarrī observes double-consonant, instead of the common one-consonant, rhyme. For more on the poet and his works, see Al-Maʿarri, Abu l-ʿAla, Geert Jan van Gelder, Matthew Reynolds, and Gregor Schoeler, The Epistle of Forgiveness: Volumes One and Two (New York, NY New York University Press: 2016).

3 Poplack’s early research suggested defining code switching as ‘the alternation of two languages within a single discourse, sentence or constituent’ (Poplack 1980: 583).

4 In his Dīwān, Abū Tammām’s line reads(1987: iii 29): تَـعَــوَّدَ بَـســطَ الكَـفِّ حَـتّــى لَو أَنَّهُ ثَـنــاهـا لِقَبـضٍ لَم تُجِـبـهُ أَنامِـلُه

5 Like the Arabic بسط, ‘to stretch, extend [a hand]’, which can have the meaning of ‘giving liberally’, Hebrew פרשׂ/פרס is also used of giving alms or charity, e.g., Proverbs 31:20 כפה פרשה לעני, ‘she extends a hand to the poor’.


Cite this article

Ahmed, M. A. H., & Outhwaite, B. (2021). Bilingualism in Genizah Arabic poetry: T-S NS 108.60. [Genizah Research Unit, Fragment of the Month, May 2021].


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