Fine Poetry, Fun Anecdotes, & Life Lessons in Medieval Middle East Monasteries: An Interview with Hilary Kilpatrick

Friday, May 5th, 2023 8:00 am

The Book of Monasteries transports readers to a world of Christian monasteries rarely seen by outsiders. Written in the late tenth century and set across the Arab world—from modern day Iraq through southern Anatolia to Egypt—the book is not of the typical themes of prayer, asceticism, and withdrawal from the world. Instead, you find a rich tapestry of poetry, political intrigue, and even murder. In this two-part series, translator Hilary Kilpatrick sits down with A.J. Naddaff to discuss the content, medieval authors, topography, wine drinking, and pluralism.

AJN: Your expertise and publications range from al-Raghib al-Isfahani in the 10th century to Ghassan Kanafani in the 20th. You have also been one of the first in the Western academy to research Ottoman Arabic literature in the 17th and 18th centuries. What sparked your interest in a book on medieval Arabic monasteries?

HK: I bought a copy years ago. I was a student at Oxford, and there was a wonderful bookshop called Thornton’s, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was on four stories, and they had bookshelves on the top floor  with Arabic books, including The Book of Monasteries, which was a 1962 edition. It sat on my shelf for years. And it was only really when my husband asked me if I could write a paper for a book he was editing on Muslim views of non-Muslims in adab literature [(belles lettres] that I pulled it out. That was around the time when I was working on the Aghani [Book of Songs], and it goes from there.

AJN: I’m curious as well if you can speak to why this text is important to you on an individual level.

HK: One of the key motives for a lot of my work has been to try and correct misconceptions. That’s the reason why I translated Kanafani’s work. And on a more academic level, it was why I got interested in al-Aghani, because when I started working on it, people just thought of it as a useful source for all kinds of information, and they didn’t ask why it was written the way it was. And the same thing, I think, with the monasteries book, because at least since 2000, the situation of minorities in the Middle East has deteriorated so much. When I first went to Lebanon in 1965, the situation like there is now in Iraq and Syria was unthinkable. And I think that of course has stimulated a great deal of hostility to Islam in general. People don’t know this whole history of coexistence, which has been difficult at times, but it is there. And that is one of the reasons why I thought it was interesting to translate this book.

AJN: It seems that there has been more of a push against traditional scholarship of pre-modern Arabic that isolates the text from a modern, or even 21st-century context. Towards this end, we are taught to think of Arabic literary history as a continuum.

HK: Simply, if one is open-minded about historical change, one has to admit that a book like this has a very unexpected take on monasteries. I mean all the authors in the book are Muslims, and already, to have Muslims talking about monasteries is something that not everybody expects. It’s a way of trying to present a very different side of Christian-Muslim relations.

AJN: But then most of the book is not very much about monasteries, right?

HK: What happens is that you have a monastery, and it is described, always in positive terms or else, I mean, it’s in ruins, but there’s never a negative aspect to it. And then you have a lot of poets who compose poetry, and information about the poets or about other things that happened. There are also historical topics, some monasteries associated with historical events or important historical figures. You have one monastery which is associated with a man famous for his jokes. And there is another monastery, which is associated with a buffoon figure. There are monasteries which are excuses to introduce a lot of poetry. So in fact, my conclusion is that it’s really more like a pocket anthology of classical Arabic literature.

AJN: Al-Shābushtī is a striking name to say the least. Who is this character? 

A plan of Fatimid Cairo as reconstructed by Stanley Lane-Poole. Public domain.

HK: He’s a compiler, which is a very common profession in the pre-modern Arabic literary sphere. We don’t know very much about him. The name seems to be Persian and as far as one can tell, he grew up in Baghdad. He had a very good education, and he made this book and also wrote for instance about Islamic law.

He also transferred to Cairo, where he was librarian of the Fatimid caliph. He quotes from a very wide range of books – he obviously knows Arabic literature of his time very well indeed. And one could see him going to the caliph and saying, “you’re looking for a librarian. Look what I can do and all the books I know about.” But unfortunately, not only do we not have much information about him from other texts, but even the preface of the book is missing.

AJN: Back to this idea of thinking of the text as a pocket anthology of Arabic literature. Maybe this speaks to the fluidity of pre-modern Arabic literary genres. Can you fit this text in a generic convention?

HK: Why do you have to fit it, at least as far as we understand it? I don’t know exactly how these books were used. But interestingly, for this particular book, there is just one manuscript which exists from the 13th century and then it was read in the 16th century. It spoke to the readers partly because it is very sensitive to poetry. That is one of the reasons so much pre-modern Arabic literature has both prose and poetry. I do not know if people in the 10th century would have thought about it as a genre.

AJN: What would the people of 10th century likely think of this then?

HK: They would think of this as examples of fine poetry, of interesting anecdotes, of also sometimes lessons about lives.

AJN: Are there any good lessons?

HK: You have this anecdote where there is an important figure, the police chief, having a meal and his favorite dish has been cooked. Then he finds that there’s a hair in one of the dishes. And so, he sends a message to the kitchen and soon after there’s a covered dish brought in with a hand of the cook! Now, later on, we get the same kind of situation with another important figure. The cook is so pleased that he brings a dish in, and he trips and the whole of the dish is dropped onto the person’s lap. This person just gets up, changes his clothes, sits down, summons the cook. The cook is absolutely terrified. And the important man says, “you must have been so worked up, don’t worry, I am going to free you and give you a free slave girl and set you up in life.” The comment then of the person who recounts this is to compare these two ways of reacting to a similar situation: one is merciful and the other is unmerciful.

AJN: There are also the discussions of sexuality and the homoeroticism that comes up a little bit.

HK: All these subjects are in the context of a discussion of a particular monastery. It is not as though there is a section on sex. But there are some interesting anecdotes with sometimes very explicit poetry and sometimes much more delicate poetry about sexual relationships. For one thing, the most interesting anecdote in my opinion doesn’t happen in the monastery. It is about the seduction of a young adolescent against his will. In the end, the attitude of the seducer but also other people in this particular context, it’s so different from the #MeToo Movement today. They are just not interested in the feelings of the young man. They’re interested in how you can sort out the social situation between the boy’s father and the seducer. It’s a very good illustration of how thinking about sexuality in that area was completely different from our ideas now—there isn’t this idea of sympathy for the victim.

You introduced the text by saying that the anecdotes are about Muslims.. What were Muslims doing in these monasteries?

What we have actually, which I think people have would have difficulty believing now, is that in the time when it was compiled Muslims were still not a majority. I mean, there were actually probably still more Christians around, although they were not evenly distributed. There are areas like Upper Egypt with more Christians around, but you still have a lot of Christians in places like Baghdad. There was a process of conversion going on, largely for reasons that were unconnected with doctrine. You might decide that you had a falling-out with your local church and say you became a Muslim, or you thought it would be better for your career. I mean, this kind of reasons is why people became Muslims, but of course, most of them still had Christian relatives. So one of the reasons for going to a monastery would be to accompany your Christian relatives to a festival because most of the anecdotes take place when there are festivals going on.

AJN: Can you talk a bit about the topographical setting of these ancient monasteries and how that influenced Muslim visitors?

HK: Well, another reason Muslims went to monasteries is that they were out of town. Mosques can be very beautiful inside, but they’re all in cities. And if you want to go out of town, you really don’t have many mosques. So a monastery offered a kind of country setting which was really open to anybody, was very attractive. Also because they were not located in cities, when people traveled and they were looking for somewhere to stay the night, there were no hotels, so one possibility is a monastery.

AJN: And what about the fact that they produced wine?

HK: A lot of interesting stuff has been said about how Muslims went to monasteries to drink wine. And it’s true that there’s a lot of wine consumed. But of course, they didn’t need to go to monasteries to drink wine. There are lots of anecdotes about Abbasid princes hosting parties at home, so you could get wine and have your own private gatherings with no problem at all. But I think the difference, or really the main advantage, is that you could meet all kinds of people that you otherwise wouldn’t meet. You’ve got a wider social choice when you go to a monastery.

AJN What you just described is in sharp contrast to the rigidity of religious lines and communities as we think about them in the 20th and 21st century.

HK: I agree that this rigidity is very much a modern development. There’s a very interesting book called The Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, which was written by a journalist [Matthew Teller]. He talks about all the different communities which were living in Jerusalem historically before the 20th century. It’s fascinating. It’s a mosaic. And people did manage to live together somehow. There were some of these attacks on different communities. It wasn’t always fun. But on the whole, people managed to live together. And I think that’s really a very important lesson for today.

AJN: The Book of Monasteries perhaps echoes this plurality in that it does not delve into the theological or doctrinal differences among confessions, although there are four churches in the book: the Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church, Melkites, and Copts. Could you talk a little bit about these communities in the text?

HK: I think it’s important to note these are monasteries in Christian traditions which are pretty unknown to most people in Europe or in North America. Of course, with migration now, the Church of the East has its center in Chicago. But these are rather small communities, whereas where they developed, they are basic Christian communities. And we tend to think when we talk about the Eastern Christians, what you actually mean is the Eastern Orthodox, but in fact, this book takes you out further east. So you really have got a different Christian set up from the one that we’re used to. And I think these are not monasteries where we imagine, for instance, monks living very much apart from the faithful, from the community. In contrast, there was not much of a divide, and it gives a different idea of what a monastery can be.

Stay tuned next week for part two of A.J. Naddaff’s interview with Hilary Kilpatrick.

Between a rock and a high place: Picturing Bedouin geographies in Ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic

Friday, April 7th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog, PhD student Maggie Freeman discusses and illustrates through a series of photographs the landscapes and geographies in Ibn Sbayyil’s Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love. The Arabian desert provided rich imagery for Najdi poets such as Ibn Sbayyil. 19th and 20th century photographs help bring to life the places described by Ibn Sbayyil and the people who occupied them.   

The poetic corpus of Arabian Romantic: Poems on Bedouin Life and Love, composed by ʿAbdallāh ibn Sbayyil during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Saudi Arabia’s Najd province, represents a classic example of what translator Marcel Kurpershoek calls the “romantic school” of Najdi poetry. These romantic poets exhibited what anthropologist Saad Sowayan in turn has called “desert nostalgia…a yearning for Bedouin life.” Poet Ibn Sbayyil was not a nomadic Bedouin himself, but rather the headman of the town of Nifī in central Arabia, where Bedouin tribes would camp during the summer months. Like many sedentary Arabs during this period, Ibn Sbayyil idealized Bedouin lifestyles, his poems expressing both an awareness of his differences from the Bedouin as well as a longing for the mobility and freedom that nomadism seemed to him to entail.

Although he himself is thought to have traveled little, Ibn Sbayyil’s poetry alludes to a vast and varied world beyond his doorstep in the small town of Nifī; a landscape populated by Bedouin tribes whose lives are organized around access to key ecological features such as water and pastureland. They moved through this landscape alongside other people (pilgrims, caravans, merchants) and animals (wolves, birds of prey), migrating between wadis, markets, pastures, and cities. Allusions to landscape and geographical features, and the metaphoric use of such features, are characteristic of Najdi poetry, capturing the extent to which the pastoral nomadism practiced by the Bedouin relies on symbiosis with the natural environment.

There is no doubt that Ibn Sbayyil’s geographical surroundings provided rich fodder for his poems. His lover’s body is compared to rolling hills, his despair at his beloved’s departure to a dried-up well. But more than just a source of literary inspiration, we should remember that these references are inspired by real places in the Arabian desert through which the Bedouin migrated. Photographs of this landscape, often taken by Europeans exploring the Arabia during Ibn Sbayyil’s lifetime, illustrate the natural world that Ibn Sbayyil and his Bedouin counterparts occupied and help us understand how and why certain geographical features were so important in a nomadic context that they were commonly invoked in poetry.

So where were these places – the fertile plains, the deep wells, the bustling market towns, the arid deserts – that served as the backdrop to Bedouin lives? Let’s take a look.

The high place

Prominent features in the landscape, such as mountains, hills, and cliffs, are frequently invoked in Najdi poetry, and also served an important function in Bedouin migrations as lookouts, geographical markers, and sites of religious significance. Ibn Sbayyil describes the use of mountain lookouts in one poem: I climbed to the lookout, a peak marked by cairns / a refuge for love’s devotee who mounts its slopes / A lonely height for one whose heart was shattered / his gaze fixed on silhouettes fading in the distance / But for the shame, I would scale a precipitous high crag.

Rock outcropping in central Arabia, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 52]

The “peak marked by cairns” is a reference to Bedouin practices of erecting stone cairns to mark migration routes, watering holes, or graves of important figures. In the pre- and early Islamic periods, cairns on mountaintops also denoted sacred spaces and served as the focus of religious worship. Although this practice eventually ceased, mountains themselves remained important sites of religious pilgrimages, as this photo of pilgrims encamped at the foot of Mecca’s Mount Arafat exemplifies.

East side of Mount Arafat outside Mecca with encampment of Hajj pilgrims, photographed 1889 by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje [New York Public Library b14215427]

The market

Settlements, from larger cities like Mecca to villages like Ibn Sbayyil’s Nifī, were vital to the Bedouin, especially for trade and commerce. Despite the differences in their lifestyles, nomadic Bedouin and sedentary village-dwellers were closely connected and relied heavily on one another. The Bedouin depended on towns in order to purchase products like grain or raw materials like silver; in turn, they exchanged the meat and dairy products of their livestock or finished products like textiles. Although we tend to associate the Bedouin solely with the high desert, they also migrated to coastal towns, such as the ports pictured below, to trade for fish.

The coastal port town of al Wajh in northwestern Arabia, photographed 1914 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 84]

The coastal port town of Yanbu in northwestern Arabia, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 83]

Ibn Sbayyil’s poems paint a picture of Nifī as a sleepy town transformed and brought to life each summer by the Bedouins’ arrival. How I love the approach of their summer camp, he exclaims; I delight in watching crowds in the market / colorful, like myriad threads woven into woolen cloth. As soon as the nomads’ tents are pitched, they head to the village to trade and shop / if they have friends, they call on them first […] Afternoon, they throng the village square. From such descriptions, we can better understand the milieu in which Ibn Sbayyil’s poems were composed, one based on not only commercial but also social and cultural intermingling between nomad and villager.

The watering place

Water, the source of all life, is an especially important commodity in arid zones, where its availability cannot be taken for granted. References to watering places – wells, wadis, reservoirs – abound in Najdi poetry. Access to towns’ wells was another aspect of sedentary life that the Bedouin relied on, and where nomad and settled would come into contact. When the Bedouin summer camp departed from Nifī, Ibn Sbayyil is lost in memories of their summer camp / and how they used to come and go at our wells / How their young Bedouin women would visit, walking over to greet and chat, each in turn.

Group of women at a village well, photographed 1894 by William Henry Jackson [Library of Congress LC-W7- 148]

Drawing water was not only essential for survival of the tribe but also an important social activity among Bedouin women, as Ibn Sbayyil’s verses and photographs such as the above capture.

Wadi al Hamd in northwestern Arabia, photographed 1910 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 61]

Beyond the towns of Arabia, wadis, springs, and natural reservoirs dotted the arid landscape and constituted the focal points of Bedouin migrations. The image of the wadi, either abundant and overflowing or dried-up and barren, was used to conjure up extreme emotions in Najdi poetry. When the poet is aching with desire for his beloved, he describes her as like a moon rising from the valley of seduction [wādi al-ghayy]. In moments of despair, My heart is like a wadi struck by drought.

Wadi al Aqeeq outside of Medina, photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 73]

The polarities of emotions evoked by references to wadis and wells remind us that for the Bedouin, availability of water was nothing less than a matter of life or death. Arriving at a wadi and finding it verdant and alive with plant and animal life was cause for jubilation, knowing that the tribe and their livestock were safe for the foreseeable future, whereas a dried-up well was one of the greatest calamities imaginable. Poets used the imagery of water to express the vagaries of life, reminding us that for the nomadic Bedouin their own survival and that of their livestock rested entirely on factors of the natural world outside of their control.

The desert

The high desert of northern and central Arabia, in which the Bedouin tribes known to Ibn Sbayyil spend most of their time, appears as the backdrop to most Najdi poetry. The desert is commonly invoked in contrast to the abundance of the wadi. Desert terrains are termed waterless wastes, used to express life’s many hardships. Woe to a heart perplexed by the Bedouin’s departure, Ibn Sbayyil cries, lost like a helpless child cast into waterless wastes. When his beloved has left him, All that lies between her and me are fields of terror / waterless wastes of dread and thirst.

Near Dhat al Hajj in the Hisma desert, northern Arabia; photographed ca. 1915 by Bernhard Moritz [Library of Congress LOT 3704, no. 5]

The fear-inducing image of the “waterless waste” again reminds us of the importance of water in a nomadic context. But at certain moments, Ibn Sbayyil also captures the surprising richness of the desert in which the Bedouin pastured their flocks; the desert green, with its wholesome plains and flowering meadows. Taken together, these poetic allusions, as well as the photographs shown here, of fields and mountains, towns and wells, plants and animals, and the emotions associated with the landscape, from love to fear to hope, illustrate the diversity of the natural environment and the complexities of nomadic relationships with their surroundings.

Maggie Freeman is a PhD student in History, Theory and Criticism of Art & Architecture and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her dissertation examines colonial uses of architecture as a mechanism of control over nomadic peoples during the British Mandate in the Middle East. She also talks about and interviews experts on all manner of topics related to nomadism in her podcast, Nomads, Past and Present.

The Mundane and the Magical: The Book of Travels and Early Science Fiction and Fantasy

Friday, March 24th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog post, writer and editor J.D. Harlock reflects on the influence of Hannā Diyāb on Western literature, especially the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Even though few of us have heard of him, Hannā Diyāb is, without a doubt, one of the most influential storytellers to have ever graced our pages. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, Alī Bābā and the Forty Thieves, The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Perī-Bānū, and The Ebony Horse are but four of the fourteen fantastical tales that Diyāb offered up for inclusion in Les mille et une nuits — the French translation of One Thousand and One Nights — and their impact on world culture is inescapable.

Though he went uncredited for the tales of his that were included in the French translation, scholars of the Nights were aware of the existence of the Syrian Maronite storyteller and his defining role in the creation of the most famous stories in the collection. However, it was not until Diyāb’s Book of Travels was identified in the Vatican’s archives centuries later that tangible evidence of his unique contributions to the Nights was uncovered, and, in turn, his advancements in the field of speculative fiction were finally made clear.


A Journey to Seventeenth-Century Rural Egypt

Friday, March 10th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog post, Tom Abi Samra writes about his journey to becoming a scholar of Arabic literature and his insights from reading a seventeenth-century work.

Once upon a time, not a long time ago, as an undergraduate at NYU Abu Dhabi, I was studying to become a physicist or a chemist. But the uncertainty of lab work and the constant possibility of failure scared me. So, I thought, I’d become a computer scientist; the apparent certainty of computer code was comforting. As I navigated my transition into computer science, I enrolled in a course on modern Arabic literature. “I miss writing essays,” I told myself. In high school, I had read Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, and I had enjoyed textual analysis and essay writing. After reading Elias Khoury’s Little Mountain and discussing the Lebanese Civil War in my college class—after having heard stories of the war from my family—I began thinking that modern Arabic literature is my calling. I wanted to become a Marxist critic of modern Arabic literature. But this urge was suppressed as I fumbled through the writing of my computer code. It was only as I was racing against the deadline to complete my final paper for the literature class, on Emile Habiby’s The Pessoptimist (perhaps Khoury was too close to home), that I finally decided to study Arabic literature. I remember a distinct feeling of pleasure while writing that essay. Despite the pressure of the deadline, I was enjoying myself; the “assignment” didn’t feel like a task to be completed.


Manchester City and al-Mayidi ibn Zahir: The power and prestige of Emirati poetry and sport

Friday, March 3rd, 2023 8:00 am

Soccer ball by jarmoluk. CC0 via Pixabay.

In this blog post, PhD student Rhiannon Garth Jones explores the construction of a national identity and projection of power in the United Arab Emirates by comparing Emirati poetry traditions with the UAE’s involvement in elite international sport. She uses the poem “Intelligent Speech and Borders of the Land” by al-Mayidi ibn Zahir and the Manchester City soccer team to argue that both poetry and sport are languages to project identity and power that are grounded in millennia-long traditions.

Imagine a rich person, eager for prestige. They spend their money to attract the best talent to their city. They flaunt their facilities, brandish their wealth, and make grand claims about the future of their project. A contest is declared; fans and commentators flock to see for themselves. The buzz of excitement builds up, a hush of anticipation signals the start, well-rehearsed jibes fly against the opposition, roars greet a successful shot, the crowd basks in the satisfaction of a victory well-fought and bragging rights secured. Legends are created, embellished, and handed down by word of mouth. Time passes and fortunes change, but the locals remember the glory days.


What Culinary History Can Teach Us: Tracing Dishes Through the Library of Arabic Literature

Friday, February 24th, 2023 8:00 am

In this blog post, Leonie Rau writes about what premodern Arab recipes reveal about the cultures and societies they originate from.

The study of premodern Arabic cookbooks has, happily, received a fair share of attention this past decade, with more and more texts made accessible to scholars and the interested public through new editions and translations, such as that of the 13th-century Syrian cookbook Scents and Flavors. Evolved from “the personal recipe collections that had been fashionable for gentlemen of the pre-Islamic Persian court to keep,” such cookbooks reflect the culinary tastes and trends of their times and predate the first extant European recipe collections by several centuries, as translator Charles Perry explains in his introduction.

These cookbooks lend themselves brilliantly to teaching the premodern Arab world, as they offer multiple angles of engagement. (more…)

An Act of Shared Solitude: Reading The Book of Travels Together on #BookTwitter

Monday, February 13th, 2023 7:00 am

In this post, Reem Adnan Khayyal introduces us to the #BookTwitter community and describes her experience leading an online group read of Hanna Diyab’s The Book of Travels.

On December 1st, we started #Diyab22, in which readers from all around the world were invited to read Hanna Diyab’s The Book of Travels as our #booktwitter read for the month of December, with readers sharing their favorite quotes, thoughts, comments, questions and trivia using the hashtag #Diyab22.

Taking part in online group reads, we have learned to read differently. In an attempt to alternate between the Western canon and Eastern corpus of literature, the translations of the Library of Arabic Literature have played an integral part. If East and West are to complement each other, the East is best experienced by reading the LAL blue books, which make Arabic literature available to the English-language audience.

Each month, we read one, sometimes two books, while sharing quotes and trivia and generally bonding over the books we read together. Very often, it is a transformative reading experience. (more…)

On Gender and Translation: A Feminist Reading of Consorts of the Caliphs

Friday, January 6th, 2023 6:00 am

In this blog post, Professor Leyla Rouhi reads Consorts of the Caliphs and asks what the book can teach us about gender and translation.

What do the study of gender and translation have in common? There are many answers to this question, but one is that both ask us to think more theoretically, while also requiring specific case studies and contextualization to come into focus. Otherwise, their discussion, however well intentioned, will not go beyond generalities. Consorts of the Caliphs: Women and the Court of Baghdad provides a sound case study for the exploration of specificity in both gender study and translation.

The collection, gathered by the Baghdadi author and compiler Ibn al-Sā‘ī (593-674/1197-1276) is “a work of historical biography [that] gives voice to the spirited, learned, influential women of the medieval past in the Abbasid Empire. It unbinds our ears and eyes to some of what they said and did,” as Marina Warner writes in her foreword. It spans five hundred years and narrates the lives, deeds, and special traits of the concubines and wives of generations of Abbasid caliphs. The anecdotes and biographies showcase the beauty, talents, and admirable traits of the women, free or enslaved. (more…)

Reading Two Arabic Travel Books: A Guide for Beginner Students of Arabic

Friday, December 16th, 2022 7:00 am

In this blog post, Adam Bremer-McCollum describes his experience teaching an Arabic reading course at the University of Notre Dame, for which students read selections from Two Arabic Travel Books by Abū Zayd al-Sīrāfī and Ibn Faḍlān. He explains his approach to teaching (and learning) pre-modern Arabic and offers some tips and advice for beginning students.

“Arabic Script” by Nidhi Ranganath. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

We live in a vast and overwhelming world, and one experience that can feel especially overwhelming is trying to learn a new language. In his book The Doors of Perception, the English writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley famously used the image of a reducing valve to explain how the human brain copes with overwhelming sensory input by selectively ignoring some things. Language learners can also use this concept of a “reducing valve” to help them approach new texts. There’s so much possibility in a written text — how to say it, how parts are connected, what individual and joined words may mean — that readers will benefit from tools to help focus the incoming flood of words, forms, and meanings. For Arabic, aids like thorough vocalization and a glossary reduce the noise of additional possibilities and guide readers to the correct pronunciations and meanings as they read a text. (more…)

A Library “Crammed Floor to Ceiling with Books”: An Interview with Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Friday, November 25th, 2022 8:00 am

A Physician on the Nile begins as a description of everyday life in Egypt at the turn of the seventh/thirteenth century, before becoming a harrowing account of famine and pestilence. In this interview about the book, the second of a two-part series (read the first part here), translator Tim Mackintosh-Smith sits down with A. J. Naddaff to discuss uncertainty, cannibalism, ghosts, picnic pies, and more.

AJ: I’ve been interrupted — right after we momentarily hung up, a piercing fire alarm went off sending me running down the stairs. It’s just a drill and I should be back in about 10-15 minutes max. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. This only happens once a year. What timing!

Tim: No problem! It’s all in a day’s interviewing. (Unless it’s a real fireGod forbid.)

The way we are often taught history in the West is that there was the classical period proceeded by a fissure of nothingness and then a renaissance (rebirth) alongside a European scientific revolution. How does ʿAbd al-Laṭīf, perhaps not so dissimilar to other classical Arab polymaths, fit into the flow of history?

ʿAbd al-Laṭīf was part of a continuum that was never really cut off. Among his famous sayings is the one about knowledge passing from nation to nation, from generation to generation, and from land to land. He goes from talking about the pyramids to talking about the Torah, then looks at the Qur’an, and then turns to classical authors. And he sees himself as part of this continuum. You know, if you are going to be Eurocentric, yes, you might look back and think of there being a trough. But of course, there wasn’t as far as he was concerned. Aristotelian scholars went all the way through and had a very rich history. ʿAbd al-Laṭīf thought of himself not only as an Aristotelian but as a kind of primitive Aristotelian who wanted to strip away the Arabic accretions that had been made and get back to the original. So, you know, there’s no point in talking about the Renaissance or rebirth because it really never dies. There’s one of the most famous lines of Latin poetry by Lucretius which goes “like runners they pass on the torch of life.” And I think this is very much how ʿAbd al-Laṭīf saw himself: as a guard of ʿilm—these are the books that are revealed from God—as well as the guardian of all these different canons including the Greeks, the Romans, and the Arabs and those writing in Arabic. (more…)