The Book of Charlatans

The Book of Charlatans

300 Pages

May 2022

ISBN: 9781479813247




Jamāl al-Dīn ʿAbd al-Raḥīm al-Jawbarī (fl. early seventh/thirteenth century) was born in the Ghouta region near Damascus. He was the author of three texts, of which only The Book of Charlatans survives.

Humphrey Davies is an award-winning translator of some twenty-five works of modern Arabic literature, among them Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building, five novels by Elias Khoury, including Gate of the Sun, and Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg. He has also made a critical edition, translation, and lexicon of the Ottoman-period Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abū Shādūf Expounded by Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī, as well as editions and translations of al-Tūnisī’s In Darfur and al-Sanhūrī’s Risible Rhymes from the same era. In addition, he has compiled with Madiha Doss an anthology in Arabic entitled Al-ʿāmmiyyah al-miṣriyyah al-maktūbah: mukhtārāt min 1400 ilā 2009 (Egyptian Colloquial Writing: selections from 1400 to 2009) and co-authored, with Lesley Lababidi, A Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo. He read Arabic at the University of Cambridge, received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley, and previous to undertaking his first translation in 2003, worked for social development and research organizations in Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Sudan. He is affiliated with the American University in Cairo.

S. A. Chakraborty is a speculative fiction writer from New York City. Her debut, The City of Brass, was short-listed for the Locus, British Fantasy, and World Fantasy awards.

Uncovering the professional secrets of con artists and swindlers in the medieval Middle East

The Book of Charlatans is a comprehensive guide to trickery and scams as practiced in the thirteenth century in the cities of the Middle East, especially in Syria and Egypt. Al-Jawbarī was well versed in the practices he describes and may have been a reformed charlatan himself. Divided into thirty chapters, the 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.”

The material is informed in part by the author’s own experience with alchemy, astrology, and geomancy, and in part by his extensive research. The work is unique in its systematic, detailed, and inclusive approach to a subject that is by nature arcane and that has relevance not only for social history but also for the history of science. Covering everything from invisible writing to doctoring gemstones and quack medicine, The Book of Charlatans opens a fascinating window into a subculture of beggars’ guilds and professional con artists in the medieval Arab world.

An English-only edition.


  • "A mesmerising account of...quacks and tricksters."

    The Spectator

  • "Provides us with an unusual glimpse into the street life of medieval Islamic societies rarely captured in more elevated Arabic literary sources."

    New York Review of Books

  • "As insightful and entertaining in the 21st century as it was when it was first written… Offers a unique window into the lives of everyday and marginalized people in the Middle East, Northern Africa and West Asia."


  • "The Library of Arabic Literature’s production of al-Jawbarī’s unique volume and Davies’s brilliant translation boast of a substantial 'behind-the-scenes' meticulousness that results in a most rewarding reading experience, not only in capturing the underworld of Arabic literature and culture but also in introducing us to the 'stray, less common, words and adding to [our] eloquence' as the protagonists of the maqāmāt do in their wanderings. This edition also showcases Davies’s deceptively effortless style that we also observed in the Library of Arabic Literature’s production of al-Shidyāq’s Leg over Leg."