“What are the animals called in their country”: Science, disenchantment, and world travel in Ḥannā Diyāb’s Book of Travels

Friday, October 14th, 2022 9:00 am

In this guest post, Matthew Chovanec explores how The Book of Travels by Ḥannā Diyāb, translated by Elias Muhanna, relates to modern world travel and disenchantment.

Reading old travelogues would be more enjoyable if it wasn’t also a reminder of how thoroughly unenchanted travel has become in the modern world. What Ḥannā Diyāb describes as an epic, year-long journey across an entire continent in his account The Book of Travels can these days be done in four hours on a cheap flight from Paris to Beirut. Rather than hear the source material for some of the most famous tales in the Thousand and One Nights from a native informant as Antoine Galland did from Diyāb, now you can stream the new live-action Aladdin while sitting in economy class. And rather than risk the shipwrecks and lice and deadly winter storms that Diyāb endured on his trip to France, the most bodily harm you are likely to risk nowadays is a crick in the neck from trying to sleep on the plane.  

One particular moment in Diyāb’s travelogue shows not only that the world has become unenchanted but also how he himself contributed to this change. Once he arrives in France, Diyāb is granted an audience with King Louis XIV. At the palace in Versailles, he and his travel companion Paul Lucas present a number of curios to the court, including a strange looking rodent with large ears never before seen in Europe. (more…)

[PAUSED] Call for Pitches: Library of Arabic Literature Blog

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022 1:56 pm

This call for pitches is currently paused. We will announce when submissions have reopened–stay tuned!

We’re looking for writers who are enthusiastic about Arabic literature to contribute to the Library of Arabic Literature blog. We welcome ideas for posts on a variety of topics. Previous blog posts have included reflections on how LAL books fit with a broader theme, such as the Global Middle Ages or disability studies, as well as surprising comparisons (e.g. ‘Antarah and Cardi B). Blog posts should be 800-1200 words long, written in English, and must feature at least one LAL book, preferably (but not necessarily) one published within the last two years. We offer an honorarium of $400 for each post.

Please email your pitch and a short bio to [], and include the phrase “LAL Blog Pitch” in the subject line of your email. Pitches will be considered on a rolling basis.

“The bird of my soul flew back to its nest”: An excerpt from The Essence of Reality

Friday, May 6th, 2022 10:18 am

The Essence of Reality was written over the course of just three days in 514/1120, by a scholar who was just twenty-four. The text, like its author ʿAyn al-Quḍāt, is remarkable for many reasons, not least of which that it is in all likelihood the earliest philosophical exposition of mysticism in the Islamic intellectual tradition. This important work would go on to exert significant influence on both classical Islamic philosophy and philosophical mysticism and is now available in a new edition and translation by Mohammed Rustom. In this excerpt, the author describes his journey toward mystical knowledge.

Chapter 82: The Annihilation of My Metaphorical Identity

When I got to writing this chapter, the splendor of majestic beginninglessness shone forth: knowledge and intellect became naught, and there remained only the writer, but without himself. Rather, the real identity enveloped me and drowned my metaphorical identity. When the beginningless beauty returned my intellect, knowledge, and self, my tongue began to ring with the words of the poet:

What happened, I will not mention.

Think well, and ask no more! (more…)

A Tale of Two Jackals: An Excerpt from Kalīlah and Dimnah

Wednesday, January 12th, 2022 10:19 am

Like Aesop’s FablesKalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice is a collection of stories that offers both moral instruction and entertainment. The stories, which originated in the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Mahabharata, were adapted, augmented, and translated into Arabic by the scholar Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ in the second/eighth century, and here have been translated into English by Michael Fishbein and James E. Montgomery. In this excerpt, we meet the titular characters, who are jackals, and learn of Dimnah’s plan to become an advisor to the king.

"Kalila Upbraiding Dimna", Folio from a Kalila wa Dimna, Ink and opaque watercolor on paper

“Kalila Upbraiding Dimna,” Folio from a Kalila wa Dimna. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

…Nearby there lived a lion. As king of that region, he had an entourage of many wild animals: wolves, bears, jackals, foxes, and so forth. He was proud and given to relying only on his own judgment, which was far from perfect. When he heard the ox bellowing—he had never seen an ox or heard one bellow—he grew frightened, but not wanting his soldiers to notice, did not leave his place.

Among the animals in his entourage were two jackals, one named Kalīlah, the other Dimnah. Each was clever and intelligent, but of the two Dimnah was greedier, more ambitious, and less contented. The lion had not yet made their acquaintance. Dimnah asked Kalīlah, “Brother, what do you think is wrong with the lion? Why is he staying put, not stirring or showing his usual liveliness?”

“Why are you asking?” replied Kalīlah. “It’s none of your business. Our situation here is good; here at the king’s gate we find enough to eat. We’re not the sort of people who converse with kings, discuss their affairs, and inquire into unknown matters. Enough of this! Anyone who interferes in things that are none of his business will suffer the same fate as the monkey.”

“And what was that?” asked Dimnah. (more…)

In Memoriam: Humphrey Davies

Monday, November 15th, 2021 11:55 am

We note with sadness that Humphrey Davies passed away this weekend. He was a gifted translator who had translated more than twenty-five works of Arabic literature. He contributed ten volumes of translations to the Library of Arabic Literature series, of works spanning the thirteenth to nineteenth centuries:

  • Leg over Leg by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq (four volumes)
  • Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded by Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī (two volumes)
  • Risible Rhymes by Muḥammad ibn Maḥfūẓ al-Sanhūrī
  • In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its People by Muḥammad al-Tūnisī (two volumes)
  • The Book of Charlatans by Jamāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Jawbarī

Leg over Leg was the first translation that garnered widespread attention for the Library of Arabic Literature series: it received reviews in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Times Literary Supplement, among other outlets, and was longlisted for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. Many interviews with him about his work for LAL appear on this blog, including, most recently, “Humphrey Davies and the ‘Tabloid Touch’ Demanded by Translating a 13th-century Charlatan.” The ArabLit article “Celebrating Humphrey: 10 Translations, 11 Interviews” features several more. This week, ArabLit will be opening up a digital memorial space for people to share remembrances, so keep an eye on the ArabLit website for more.

We are forever grateful to Humphrey Davies for his immeasurable contributions to the Library of Arabic Literature. He will be sorely missed.

“Like a séance with the dead”: An excerpt from the translator’s introduction to A Physician on the Nile

Friday, October 29th, 2021 11:39 am

In this excerpt from the introduction to A Physician on the Nile, editor-translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith describes an earlier translation of the book (titled The Eastern Key), completed in the 1960s by means of séances with the author ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī, who died in 1231.


“The medium Marthe Béraud with an ectoplasmatic structure (materialization) on her head.” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

…There is, however, one extraordinary aspect to The Eastern Key, unparalleled in the history of translation and confirming Robert Irwinʼs view that “translation is like a séance with the dead.” For Zand and the Videans, it was literally a séance with the dead.

The West in the early twentieth century had seen a growth in the popularity of spiritualism, the idea that it is possible to communicate with departed souls. The trend accelerated with the Great War, and the resulting massive loss of human life—and of traditional faith. It was around this time that ʿAbd al-Laṭīf became known in spiritualist as well as Orientalist circles; he was even the subject of a book entitled Healing Through the Spirit Agency: by the great Persian [sic] physician Abduhl Latif, “the man of Baghdad”, and information concerning the life hereafter of the deepest interest to all inquirers and students of psychic phenomena. He was—perhaps still is—regarded as “a Universal Master who leads and directs a band of workers on and around the earth.” Here is Ivy E. Videan, in cold print, in her introduction to The Eastern Key:

“Our first meeting with ʿAbd al-Laṫīf was in August, 1957, when he spoke to my husband and to me during a conversation with a sensitive, Mrs. Ray Welch, in London. Since then we have had very many long talks with him, through Mrs. Welch and also through Mr. Jim Hutchings. (more…)

Humphrey Davies and the ‘Tabloid Touch’ Demanded by Translating a 13th-century Charlatan

Tuesday, July 20th, 2021 9:26 am

Jamal al-Din ʿAbd al-Raḥim al-Jawbari’s thirteenth-century Book of Charlatans is not only a comprehensive guide to trickery and scams as practiced in that period in Syria and Egypt—with tricks all the way from India and Morocco—but also a delight to read. It’s full of the wiles of false prophets, quacks, prestidigitators, cat burglars, money changers, pedophiles, horse copers, false alchemists, and—worst of all—women:

The author, al-Jawbarī, was well versed in the practices he describes and may well have been a reformed (or unreformed) charlatan himself. Divided into thirty chapters, his book reveals the secrets of everyone from “Those Who Claim to be Prophets” to “Those Who Claim to Have Leprosy” and “Those Who Dye Horses.” Some read like elaborate short stories, raunchier and more sexually daring versions of Arsene Lupin or Sherlock Holmes. Others read like short puzzle mysteries, of the sort that might have appeared in the detective magazines popular in 1940s Cairo.

Translator Humphrey Davies talked with ArabLit editor M Lynx Qualey about trickery and translation.

You really get some of the best projects. How did this one come to you, or how did you come to it? Was there—I hope—trickery involved? (more…)

“Gaping Jaws, Sharp Fangs”: An Excerpt from A Physician on the Nile

Wednesday, April 7th, 2021 8:00 am

“Egypt is a land of wondrous monuments and strange stories.” So begins the seventh/thirteenth-century work A Physician on the Nile by ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī, edited and translated by Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The work begins as a description of Egypt written for the Abbasid caliph al-Nāṣir before becoming a harrowing account of pestilence and famine; it is also one of the earliest works of ancient Egyptology. In this excerpt from the chapter on the animals of Egypt, the author describes the ferocious “river horse,” or hippopotamus.

…Another characteristic animal is the “river horse.” It is found in Lower Egypt, and particularly in the branch of the river at Damietta. It is a creature vast in form, mighty to behold, and highly aggressive. It goes after boats, sinks them, and kills any of the passengers it can get hold of. It is actually more like a buffalo than a horse, even though it lacks horns and emits a sort of grating sound that does in fact resemble the neighing of a horse or, rather, of a mule. It has a massive head, gaping jaws, sharp fangs, a broad chest, a great pot belly, and short legs. It attacks savagely and suddenly, charging with great force, and is terrifying in appearance and menacing in its destructiveness. (more…)

Race-Conscious Pedagogies through the Library of Arabic Literature

Thursday, February 25th, 2021 9:00 am

In this blog post, Rachel Schine (postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder) offers guidance on how to teach about race and racialization using texts published by the Library of Arabic Literature.

In a recent article discussing the biases of job ads—and therefore of support, credentialing, and platforming—in the field of Islamic studies, Ilyse R. Morgenstein-Fuerst explains that, from the outside, most view “Islam” as meaning “Middle East + Arabic + texts.” Morgenstein-Fuerst makes clear that this perception has racist roots. Rudolph Ware speaks to how similar distortions reverberate within the field when he notes that scholarship on sub-Saharan African Muslims often treats them as heterodox latecomers to a foreign religion, saying, “Many late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century colonial authorities and ‘Orientalists’ (often one and the same) thought of Islam as the property and proper expression of Arab genius,” a trend situated in “colonial racial assumptions” (Ware, The Walking Qur’an, 2014, 19). Morgenstein-Fuerst’s and Ware’s focus is on the contemporary academy, but the disturbing paradigms they identify would have been perfectly agreeable to the ninth-century polymath Ibn Qutaybah. One sees shadows of these biases in his remarks in The Excellence of the Arabs:

God subsequently brought Islam, and from the Arabs elevated the Prophet (God bless and cherish him), chief of all prophets […]. God caused the Arabs to multiply, put an end to dissension among them, supported them with His angels, and strengthened them with His power. He established them in the land and enabled them to tread upon other nations’ necks. He endowed them with the caliphate, with succession to prophethood, and then with the imamate […] It was then, when there were no Easterners present, that God addressed the Arabs, saying: “You are indeed the best community that has ever been brought forth for mankind.”

The similarities between Ibn Qutaybah’s articulation of Arabness and those of Morgenstein-Fuerst’s and Ware’s academicians are not coincidental; many field-making Orientalists imbibed traditionist Arabic histories. But was this conception of Arab superiority—couched in being Islam’s social and spiritual core—racialized when Ibn Qutaybah wrote it? How might we use primary sources like this one to teach the historical contexts and modern implications of racial thinking? The Library of Arabic Literature has a trove of volumes that facilitate conversations on premodern race and identity construction. Here I focus on three: Ibn Qutaybah’s Excellence of the Arabs, the dīwān of ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād translated as War Songs, and Two Arabic Travel Books featuring the writings of Ibn Faḍlān and Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī. I also include some reflections on using these items in my own classroom. (more…)

A Connected World: Exploring the Early Middle Ages with Ibn Faḍlān

Thursday, February 4th, 2021 9:50 am

In this blog post, Mohamad Ballan, Assistant Professor of Medieval History at Stony Brook University, writes about his experiences using Ibn Faḍlān’s Mission to the Volga to teach about travel in the medieval world.

Travel was a central feature of the medieval world. Whether the motivation was exploration, piety, diplomacy, knowledge, survival, or profit, the act of travel involved the travelers in larger processes of interaction and exchange between cultures and contributed to the diffusion of ideas between Europe, Africa, and Asia. These travelers’ surviving writings and accounts illuminate the realities of the medieval world and provide windows into the travelers’ own worldviews, providing students with the tools to question assumptions about a “clash of civilizations” and the supposed uniformity of either Latin Christendom or the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.

For the Early Middle Ages, in particular, an emphasis on interconnectedness, mobility, and exchange undermines and problematizes antiquated notions of “the Dark Ages.” This endeavor to better understand medieval travelers and their world has been facilitated by the translation and publication of medieval texts over the past several years, which has contributed to the emergence of the field of the “Global Middle Ages.” One such text is Mission to the Volga by Ibn Faḍlān, translated by James E. Montgomery, which I have used in courses with my students at Stony Brook University over the past two years. (more…)