“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…)

Virtual Event: Conceptions of Justice in the 1001 Nights

Friday, November 27th, 2020 8:00 am

Please join us for the Library of Arabic Literature’s annual public event, hosted by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute, on Monday, December 7, 2020, at 6:30 pm Gulf Standard Time/9:30 am Eastern Time.

In this talk, “Conceptions of Justice in the 1001 Nights,” LAL Editor Enass Khansa examines both the meaning and application of justice in The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa-Laylah). She shows that the opening story, or frame tale, as well as the two immediately following stories, “The Merchant and the Genie” and “The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrīt,” engage in a cohesive debate about the coincidence of successful interpretation and just rulership. In doing so, the stories broach a question of ethics frequently encountered in advice literature (nasihat al-muluk).

The event will take place on Zoom. Please click here to register.

Printing Error: The Book of Charlatans

Monday, November 23rd, 2020 10:41 am

There has been a printing error in The Book of Charlatans, which caused the Arabic footnotes to the edition not to print, though fortunately the English translation and its endnotes were not affected by the error. We will be reprinting the books to correct this error, and we will also make the Arabic text, footnotes included, available on the website for free download as soon as possible.

If you have already ordered and received a misprinted copy of the book with no Arabic footnotes, please forward your order confirmation and mailing address (including a phone number for addresses outside the US) to lucie.taylor@nyu.edu. We’ll send you a corrected replacement copy as soon as the reprint has been completed!

Thieves’ Tricks: An Excerpt from The Book of Charlatans

Friday, November 13th, 2020 10:53 am

The Book of Charlatans is a guide to trickery and scams as practiced in the thirteenth century in the cities of the Middle East, especially in Syria and Egypt. In this excerpt, al-Jawbarī explains some of the tricks thieves used to enter houses.

Exposé of the Tricks of the Thieves Who Enter Houses by Making Holes in Walls and Committing Murder

This tribe of charlatans believes that living off ill-gotten gains and taking human life—which God, Mighty and Glorious, has declared sacrosanct—are permitted.

Exposé: If they enter a place and its owner hears them and opens his mouth, they kill him and that’s the end of it. They will take property and life alike and not stay their hands from anyone who may fall into their clutches.

Section One of the Exposé of Their Tricks

Exposé: Those who practice this craft have need of a tool kit. This consists in part of tools for making holes in walls, such as a crowbar, an iron spike, a metal plate, a lock breaker, and an iron hand with iron fingers. A ladder, a bag of sand, and a small turtle are also essential. (more…)

The Eight Limbs of Yoga: An Excerpt from The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali

Wednesday, October 21st, 2020 10:59 am

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is the foundational text of yoga philosophy to this day and is still used by millions of yoga practitioners and students worldwide. Written in a question-and-answer format, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali deals with the theory and practice of yoga and the psychological question of the liberation of the soul from attachments. The book published by the Library of Arabic Literature is a new edition and translation into English of the Arabic translation and commentary on this text by the brilliant eleventh-century polymath al-Bīrūnī. This excerpt from the text explains the eight limbs (also known as ashtanga) of yoga.

Question: What are these limbs and how many are there?

Answer: They are eight in number. The foremost is, generally speaking, abstaining from evil. More specifically, it is not harming any living thing, and refraining from lying, stealing, and fornication, as well as avoiding any association with this world. All these must be relinquished unconditionally, without exceptions such as specifying a time and a place. It is not enough to avoid committing them; one must also not command others to do so or be pleased with their perpetrators. Although there are many types of evil depending on their scale, form, and the quality of their motives, they all arise from greed, anger, or nescience. (more…)

Why Did Humanity So Love This World?: A New Book in the LAL Young Readers Series

Saturday, September 26th, 2020 8:00 am

We are pleased to announce the publication of Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?), which is the second book in the LAL Young Readers series. The book features excerpts from The Philosopher Responds by Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī and Abū ʿAlī Miskawayh, specially selected with a secondary-school audience in mind. The book is available for download as a free PDF worldwide, and copies will also be printed for distribution in the UAE.

Series editors Bilal Orfali and Enass Khansa write, “Our own desire to present selections from classical texts flows from two sources: first, from a desire to share the worlds that we passionately love in our work as academics, and second, from a deep respect for the Arabic literary heritage, a heritage we would like to remain within the purview of contemporary cultural consciousness and a part of our intellectual identity.”

The Young Readers series launched in November 2019 with the publication of Ḥiyākat al-kalām, featuring selections from Deliverance Follows Adversity by al-Tanūkhī. Copies of the book were distributed to students and faculty at several universities in the Middle East and the US, as well as to a Moroccan NGO, and copies will also be distributed to forty schools in the UAE at no cost. For an audio version of some of the stories in Ḥiyākat al-kalām, told by a professional storyteller, please visit LAL’s SoundCloud channel.