THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

101 posts categorized "Middle East"

17 August 2017

Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qur'ans

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A seventeenth-century Qur’an from China in the British Library recently attracted much interest in a belated Eid show-and-tell arranged for the local community. This provides an ideal opportunity to go into more detail about the British Library’s collection of Chinese Qur’ans.

Or15604_f2r copy
The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)
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Visitors are always surprised when we show them a Chinese Qur’an, as they don’t automatically associate Islam with China. But in the eighth century, Muslim merchants were already trading in China and a community is known to have been established in Xi'an, where a mosque was built in 742. The impact of Islam in China was, however, not strongly felt until several centuries later during the Song and Yuan dynasties: the network of routes, known as the Silk Road, became the conduit for the spread of religious and cultural influences as well as for goods and merchandise.

Chinese Qur’ans were often produced in thirty-volume sets rather than in a single-volume codex, and many of our Chinese Qur’ans are sections (juz’) from a number of different thirty-volume sets. The script used was a variation of muḥaqqaq and penned in a way which suggests that the pen strokes were influenced by Chinese calligraphy. This is often referred to as sīnī (‘Chinese’) Arabic. A central panel is a prominent feature of Chinese Qur’ans on their decorated pages, which usually contain as few as three lines of text, with only a few words on each.
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The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)
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The assimilation of local traditions in Islamic manuscripts produced in areas not normally associated with the art of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is evident in Chinese Qur’ans. While the illumination and decoration have the same function in all Qur’ans, the influence of local style and culture is manifest, without infringing Islamic practice in sacred art. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is therefore felt very strongly. In the final opening of a seventeen-century Qur’an, a lantern motif has become the visual vehicle for the text in the diamond design in the centre of the lantern. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by pendulous tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structure.

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The decorated final text opening with lantern motif from a seventeenth-century Qur'an (BL Or.15256/1, ff. 55v-56r)
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In the same Qur’an a decorative leaf, exemplifying the use of local flora, functions as a section marker indicating the halfway point in part six of a thirty-volume set.

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A decorative leaf serving as a section marker (BL Or.15256/1, f. 30v)
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Chinese Qur’ans often incorporate vibrant colours and gold for typical motifs such as crescents and banners. The impression of petals in the shamsah (sunburst) illumination below is produced by the intricate design of overlapping circles.

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A shamsah medallion placed before the beginning of the text (BL Or.15604, f. 1r)
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Chinese influence is also visible in the swirling lettering of the basmalah inscription in this shamsah medallion occurring in an eighteenth-century Qur'an, Or.14758, part ten of a thirty-volume set.

Or14758_2r copy Or14758_binding copy
Left: The shamsah containing the basmalah, and right: the same design used as part of the design of the binding (BL Or.14758, f. 2r and front binding)
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An  unusual Qur’an is a nineteenth-century volume of selections accompanied by a Chinese translation (IO Islamic 3440). The Chinese translations are placed sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of the lines and occasionally between them.

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The beginning of Sūrah 36, Yasin from a nineteenth-century Qur'an with Chinese translation, formerly belonging to the presumably Muslim Admiral at Amoy (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r)
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This Qur’an has an interesting history. It was presented to the India Office Library in 1883 by Hugh W. Gabbett, whose father Lt. (later Major General) William. M. Gabbett of the Madras Horse Artillery was Lord Gough’s aidedecamp when Amoy (Xiamen) was taken in 1841 during the First Opium War. A faded note in pencil on folio 1r by William Gabbett describes it as “A Koran found by me at Amoy found in the Admiral’s House. W. M. Gabbett” and “The most valuable Book yet found in China. W. M. G.”

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007.
Annabel Teh Gallop, “Was the mousedeer Peranakan?: In search of Chinese Islamic influences in Malay manuscript art”, in Jan van der Putten and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales of the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009: pp. 319-339.

Colin F. Baker and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

14 August 2017

Shubbak Literature Festival 2017: Catch-up Audio

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The weekend of July 15-16 saw the return of the Shubbak Literature Festival to the British Library with seven vibrant and engaging panel discussions, interspersed with readings and performances in both Arabic and English. The sessions were recorded and will be preserved for researchers to access through the British Library’s Sound Archive. As with the 2015 Shubbak Literature Festival, we are also making these recordings freely available online through the British Library’s Soundcloud.

Writing Against the Grain
What do we mean by Arabic writing against the grain in 2017? What are the inspirations, and the challenges, for engaged Arab writers today? How do the wider global context, regional events, national regimes, personal stories, and the myriad of other artistic influences shape their work? And what does it mean to be a literary activist? Robin Yassin-Kassab hosts a lively conversation exploring all this and more with three very different writers from across the region: Mona Kareem, Ali Bader and Ghazi Gheblawi.

 

Rasha Abbas: The Seven of Cups
Syrian journalist and author Rasha Abbas has undertaken a month-long creative residency commissioned by Shubbak and the British Library, where she focused on the period of the Arab Union, as part of the research for a planned historical novel. This short-lived union between Syria and Egypt from 1958 to 1961 had a major influence on the subsequent political scene in both countries as well as the wider region. The culmination of her research is presented in a narrative framed by specific tarot cards. The highly delineated lens of each card – Free Will, Forced Fate, Justice, and so on – will provide an idiosyncratic approach to the historical material in question.

Keepers of the Flame: Contemporary Arab Poetry
Celebrated British poet and multi-disciplinary artist Malika Booker returns to Shubbak to welcome four mesmerising poets for bilingual performances of their work: Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail; Syrian Kurdish poet and translator Golan Haji; New York-based poet-writer-translator Mona Kareem; and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi.

The Waking Nightmare: Post-revolutionary Egyptian Dystopias
Six years after the revolution and in the current climate of suppressed dreams, a new wave of Egyptian writers and artists are blending horror, realism and black humour to reflect on this painful phase of their nation’s history. Hosted by celebrated literary translator Elisabeth Jaquette, three Egyptians – Basma Abdel Aziz, Mohammad Rabie and Ganzeer - working in the continuum from nightmare present realism to dystopian futurism read from and discuss their brave work and its troubling context.

Under the Radar: Women writing from outside the Arab literary mainstream
In a global literary market where even the major writers from the best known Arab literary countries – Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon – are not very widely read and translated, how does it feel to be a woman author from Yemen, or Libya? What is it like to write fiction from countries outside of the main literary geographies, whilst also being a woman in a patriarchal world? What are the pressures and the inspirations, the challenges and the opportunities of these multiple levels of marginalisation? Writers Najwa Benshatwan and Nadia Alkokabany were invited to participate in a conversation with Bidisha. However, both authors were denied visas. Instead, they addressed the audience by video and read from their novels. Bidisha was joined in conversation by poet and translator Mona Kareem who spoke about both novelists’ work.

Susan Abulhawa in conversation with Gillian Slovo
Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa is one of the most commercially successful Arab authors of all time. Her 2010 debut novel Mornings in Jenin, a multigenerational family epic spanning five countries and more than sixty years, looks unflinchingly at the Palestinian question – and became an international bestseller translated into thirty-two languages. In 2015 The Blue Between Sky and Water, a novel of family, love and loss centred on Gaza, also met a vast global readership and huge critical acclaim from across both the mainstream and literary media. Her powerful, political and romantic fiction is written in English, yet it is deeply rooted in the land and language of her ancestors. In this special appearance, Susan Abulhawa is hosted by South Africa born British novelist, playwright and memoirist Gillian Slovo, recipient of the 2013 Golden Pen Award for a lifetime’s distinguished service to literature.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections
 CC-BY-SA

17 July 2017

Some bindings from Tipu Sultan's court

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In recent weeks I have been examining bindings of the British Library’s manuscripts which formerly belonged to Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799). The British Library collection probably constitutes about 25% of the original Library as it was in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. The manuscripts originate ultimately from a number of different, largely unspecified, locations, but fortunately there is a distinct corpus (23 out of 242 so far examined) which can easily be identified as belonging to Tipu Sultan's court. These are works bound in his own individualistic style of binding or else were copied or composed at Seringapatam.

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Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an with flap showing inscriptions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 below. This binding is unusual of Tipu bindings for its use of gilt decoration. Note also the diced patterned background which is a feature of several other manuscripts. (IO Islamic 3562
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One of the most lavish is Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (IO Islamic 3562), illustrated above (more on this in a future blog). Decorated heavily in gilt on a diced patterned background, the binding also includes a number of inscriptions. These were described in general terms by Charles Stewart in A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, (Cambridge, 1809), p.v.

All the volumes that had been rebound at Seringapatam have the names of God, Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, and her sons, Hassen and Hussein, stamped in a medallion on the middle of the cover; and the names of the Four first Khalifs, Abu Beker, Omar, Osman, and Aly, on the four corners. At the top is “Sirkari Khodādad,” (the government given by God); and at the bottom, “Allah Kāfy,” (God is sufficient).”

I thought it would be helpful to expand on these inscriptions which are stamped on the outside of the bindings. Typically, but not always, they consist of:

  1. Front top: Sarkār-i Khudādādī ‘God-given government’
  2. Front central medallion: Allāh, Muḥammad, ʻAlī, Fāṭimah, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn
  3. Back central medallion: Qur’an Surah 2:32: Subḥānaka lā ‘ilma lanā illā mā ‘allamtanā innaka anta al-‘alīm al-ḥakīm ‘Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.’
  4. Four corners: Ḥaz̤rat Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUmar al-Fārūq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUsmān ibn ʻAffān; Ḥaz̤rat ʻAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
  5. Pendants hanging from central medallion: Allāh kāfī ‘God is sufficient’
  6. Cartouches: Lā ilāha illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger’
  7. Spine: Qur'an Surah 56:79: Lā yamassuhu illā al-muṭahharūn ‘None may touch it except the purified’

I_o_islamic_3562_fbrig copy  I_o_islamic_3562_fbrigr copy
Left: back board with inscriptions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6; right: doublure; below: flap with inscription 7 which currently, perhaps as a result of restoration, lies on the outside of the front board. (IO Islamic 3562)
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I_o_islamic_3562_fbspi_a copy

A similar binding occurs on IO Islamic 3351, a less ambitiously decorated Qur’an, possibly dating from the 17th century but rebound at Seringapatam. Its small size (16.5 x 10cm) accounts for it only being inscribed in the central medallion, on the spine and with the usual sarkar-i khudādādī. Unlike many of Tipu's bindings, which have been altered during subsequent restoration, this one has been preserved in its original state with the flap designed to go inside the outer cover.

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Back board and flap showing inscriptions 3 and 7. (IO Islamic 3351)
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Less ambitious Tipu bindings show considerable variation and demonstrate that the inscriptions could be stamped quite carelessly as illustrated in the examples below.

IO Islamic 695_binding copy   IO Islamic 491
Left: IO Islamic 695, a late 18th century copy of works by Gīsū Darāz and ʻAṭṭār, with inscriptions 1, 2, 4 and 5 stamped somewhat inexactly on the binding; right: IO Islamic 491, Javāhir al-qur'ān, an index to bowing places (rukūʻ) copied for Tipu in 1225 of the Mauludi era (1797/98) with only inscription 1 at the head.
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Not all of Tipu Sultan's bindings included his characteristic inscriptions. Two examples of comparitively simple bindings are illustrated below.

IO Islamic 464 binding1 IO Islamic 464doublure
This manuscript is a translation into Persian from Dakhni by Ḥasan ʻAlī ʻIzzat of the love story of Lal and Gohar which was commissioned by Tipu Sultan in 1778. The binding is contemporary and still carries the Prize Agentsʼ label dating from when they were first examining the collection in 1799. (IO Islamic 464)
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IO Islamic 713 IO Islamic 713doublure
Another work commissioned by Tipu, his army regulations Fatḥ al-mujāhidīn by Zayn al-Dīn Shūshtarī. The scalloped flap is the only example I have found in the collection and unlike IO Islamic 3351 above, it was designed to lie on the outside. Note also the hole, presumably for ties. (IO Islamic 713)
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Altogether I estimate that the British Library has about 600 volumes from Tipu Sultan's collection. These consist of 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806, further volumes deposited in 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) and a proportion of the 308 manuscripts sent to London in 1837 after the closure of Fort William College in Calcutta and the dispersal of its collections. For more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. I'm hoping that by examining the whole collection I may be able to discover more about the provenance of each volume and establish certain regional binding styles, but this is very much work in progress, so watch this space!


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian
 CC-BY-SA

05 July 2017

Shubbak 2017: contemporary Arab culture at the British Library

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The biennial Shubbak Festival returns to London this year between 1st and 16th July with a range of exciting and engaging events on contemporary Arab culture, with an array of literary events taking place once again at the British Library.

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Shubbak first visited the British Library in 2015 attracting hundreds of attendees with an outstanding line-up of Arab authors and artists. This year sees a more diverse schedule of events that includes: a display of items from the British Library’s collections, outdoor dance performances, literary discussions and readings, and children’s poetry workshops, as well as a number of creative collaborations with writers, translators and literary magazines.

‘Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World’ (13 June-29 October)
Events have already kicked off with the opening a display entitled ‘Comics and Cartoon Art from the Arab World’ in the British Library’s Sir John Ritlbat Treasures Gallery. This four-case display explores the art, history and significance of Arab comics, cartoons, caricatures and graphic novels through original examples taken from the British Library’s collections.

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Left: Abou Naddara supplement (Paris, 1894). BL 14599.e.20
Right: Cover of a 1959 edition of Sindbad (Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1952- ) illustrated by Mohieddin El Labbad. BL ORB.30/8320

ʻSacré Printemps!ʼ (6 July, performances at 13:00, 16:00 and 18:30)
The British Library’s piazza is the venue for three UK premier performances of ‘Sacré Printemps!’ - a dance performance by Cie Chatha and choreographed by Aïcha M’Barek and Hafiz Dhaou. Featuring life-sized silhouettes by seminal street artist Bilal Berreni (Zoo-project), which appeared on Tunis’ main avenue after the revolution. ‘Sacré Printemps!’ celebrates the diverse individuals who fought for their civil rights. Five dancers jostle, fight and compete among over 30 cut-out sculptures but also joyfully unite in their strife to join different voices and individualities into one hope.

Literature Festival (15-16 July)
The Shubbak Literature Festival brings a weekend of talks, readings and performances runs to the British Library’s Knowledge Centre. The festivals kicks off with ‘Writing Against the Grain’ with Mona Kareem, Ghazi Gheblawi and Ali Badr discussing what it means write against the grain in 2017 as an engaged Arab writer. This is followed by ‘A New Confidence: Recent Queer Writing’. Although LGBTQ characters and narratives have always been present in Arabic literature, recent years have seen a new wave of LGBTQ-identified Arab writers taking the foreground in writing their own narratives. Writers Saleem Haddad, Alexandra Shreiteh, Amahl Khouri will be joined by Alberto Fernández Carbajal to discuss their art.

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Left: Ali Badr, Bābā Sārtir: riwāyah (Beirut: Riyāḍ al-Rayyis, 2001). BL YP.2012.a.2086
Right: Alexandra Chreiteh, Ali and his Russian mother (Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2015). Arabic edition at BL YP.2017.a.2689

As ever, poetry is prominent in the festival. On both Saturday and Sunday British-Egyptian poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz hosts a lively, fun and interactive free poetry workshop in which children will be able to weave their everyday experiences into the fabric of Arab folk tales. On the Saturday evening, ‘Keepers of the Flame’ sees Malika Booker return to Shubbak to host bilingual performances of four poets: Iraqi-American poet Dunya Mikhail, New York-based poet-writer-translator Mona Kareem, Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi and Syrian Kurdish poet and translator Golan Haji.

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Left: Dunya Mikhail, Uḥibbuka min hunā ilá Baghdād: qaṣāʾid mukhtārah [I love you from here to Baghdad: selected poems] (Cairo: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, al-Hayʾah al-ʿĀmmah li-Quṣūr al-Thaqāfah, 2015). BL YP.2016.a.5604
Right: He tells tales of Meroe: poems for the Petrie Museum (London: Poetry Translation Centre, 2015.). BL YP.2015.a.7162

Sunday’s opening event is ‘The Walking Nightmare’ which puts a spotlight on the use of horror, realism and black humour in depicting post-revolutionary Egyptian dystopias. Literary translator Elisabeth Jacquette joins writer and psychiatrist Basma Abdel Aziz, IPAF-nominated author Mohammad Rabie and graphic artist Ganzeer via Skype.

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Left: Ganzeer, Solar Grid
Right: Mohammed Rabie, ʿUṭārid : riwāyah [Otared] (Cairo: Dar al-Tanwīr, 2015). BL YP.2016.a.3599

Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq play a dominant role in the Arabic literary scene while writers from outside these countries are not widely known or translated. ‘Under the Radar’ brings Libyan-born IPAF-short listed writer Najwa Benshatwan and Yemeni Nadia Alkokabany in discussion with Bidisha exploring the multiple marginalisation of being a female writer outside the Arab literary mainstream.

The Shubbak Festival closes with Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa in conversation with South Africa born British novelist, playwright and memoirist Gillian Slovo. Abulhawa’s 2010 debut novel, Mornings in Jenin, is a multigenerational family epic that looks unflinchingly at the Palestinian question. It became a bestseller translated into thirty-two languages. Her second novel, The Blue Between Sky and Water, was released in 2015 and also met with global acclaim. Although she writes in English, her work is deeply rooted in the land and language of her ancestors, taking inspiration from the Palestinian literary canon, such as Ghassan Kanafani’s Return to Haifa.

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Left: Susan Abulhawa, Mornings in Jenin (London: Bloomsbury, 20103). BL H.2010/.7013. Also available digitally in the British Library reading rooms ELD.DS.100960.
Right: Najwa Benshatwan, Zarāyib al-ʿabīd: riwāyah [The slave Pens] (Cairo: Dār al-Sāqī, 2016). BL YP.2017.a.2695

Literary Collaborations
Since mid-June Syrian journalist and author Rasha Abbas has undertaken a month long creative residency commissioned by Shubbak and the British Library, where she focuses on the period of the Arab Union, as part of the research for a planned historical novel. The culmination of her research will be presented in an event at the Shubbak Literature Festival in a narrative framed by specific tarot cards. The highly delineated lens of each card – Free Will, Forced Fate, Justice, and so on – will provide an idiosyncratic approach to the historical material in question.

The digital magazine Words Without Borders has published newly translated works including political nonfiction from Basma Abdel Aziz; an extract of Nadia Alkokabany’s new novel about the Yemeni revolution; an extract of Mohamed Abdelnabi’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted gay Egyptian novel; and a short play by seminal Libyan playwright Mansour Bushnaf. This special feature went live on 1 July 2017 on both shubbak.co.uk and wordswithoutborders.org.

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Left: Basma Abdel Aziz, al-Ṭābūr: riwāyah [The queue] (Beirut: al-Tanwīr, 2013). BL YP.2017.a.2687
Right: Mohamed Abdelnabi, Fī ghurfat al-ʿankabūt: riwāyah [In the spider’s room] (Cairo: Dār al-ʿAyn, 2016). BL YP.2017.a.1440

Modern Poetry in Translation’s summer issue will also include a Shubbak focus on Arabic-language poetry, with new work from the poets appearing at the festival, including the festival’s new commission by Golan Haji, in translation by Stephen Watts. A range of podcasts and recordings will accompany the magazine.

For the full programme and booking information, visit bl.uk/events/shubbak. You can also follow Shubbak on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections
 CC-BY-SA

@dan_a_lowe
@shubbakfestival
#Shubbak2017

03 July 2017

Photographic Portraits of Tribal Leaders of the Trucial Coast c. 1939

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In 1939, the Trucial Coast States – the present day United Arab Emirates – were part of Britain’s Informal Empire in the Persian Gulf. Britain had effectively controlled this region since the early 19th century after it destroyed the fleet of its primary naval power, the Qawasim tribal confederation, and then concluded a series of treaties with its rulers. Although these agreements were in some ways beneficial to the ruling Shaikhs that signed them, they were often enforced by a mixture of coercion and intimidation. If a ruler was perceived to not be sufficiently cooperative or subservient, the British authorities had few qualms with ordering a bombardment of his fort or engineering the appointment of a replacement deemed more appropriate. As Britain's most senior official in the region remarked in 1929, the Royal Navy was "an efficacious and prompt weapon to deal with any recalcitrance."

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Left: Shaikh Ahmad as-Salf of Hafit [Jabal Hafeet], Na’im
Right: Shaikh Obaid bin Juma’, Beni Ka’ab
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However, on the eve of the Second World War, this long-standing arrangement was beginning to become unsettled. Colonial officials started to worry whether the combination of Britain’s treaties with the region’s rulers and the threat of the Royal Navy was enough to ensure that its status as the hegemonic power in the region would last. As such, they began to debate between themselves how Britain’s policy in the area – including the Trucial Coast specifically – should proceed and how its dominance could be maintained. Many files that discuss this issue in detail are held in the India Office Records (IOR) at the British Library.

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Left: Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr of Buraimi, Na’im
Right: Shaikh Mohamed bin Rahmah bin Salman of Sumaini, Al Bu Shams (Left) and Mudhaffar, Wali of Sohar (Right)
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One such file from 1939 (IOR/L/PS/12/3747) contains a series of photographic portraits of a number of tribal leaders from this period. Unfortunately, no context or details of the photographs are given in the file; regardless they offer a fascinating glimpse into the appearance and dress of the region’s inhabitants at this time and reveal the extent to which these have both changed to the present day. Each photograph gives the subject’s name and in some cases their position and/or tribal affiliation. It is interesting to note that most of the subjects are not from the most prominent ruling families of the region (who remain in power today), but rather from slightly less well-known branches and locations, including places that now form part of Oman. The final photograph in the series includes an image of slaves that were part of a Shaikh’s retinue, lamentably a widespread phenomenon in the region at the time.

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Left: Shaikh Ahmad al-Haiya’i of Dhank, Al Bu Shams (left) and his son (right)
Right: Shaikh Ibrahim bin Uthman, Abu Dhabi Wali (Centre)
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Left: Shaikh Mohammed bin Sultan of Dhank, Na’im
Right: Sultan ad-Damaki of Gatarah [?] (Left)
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This file is in the process of being digitized by the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership and these photos, as well as the rest of the file’s contents regarding British policy in the region, will appear online in high resolution on the Qatar Digital Library later this year.

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Rashid bin Hamad of Hamasah, Al Bu Shams (Centre); Shaikh Mohamed bin Hamad, younger brother of above (Left Centre); Son of Shaikh Rashid (Right Centre); Shaikh Ibrahim bin Uthman, Abu Dhabi Wali (Right)
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Primary Sources:
British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/3747, ‘Persian Gulf, Trucial Coast: Police of H.M.G., List of Trucial Sheikhs’

Secondary Sources:
Charles E. Davies, An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797-1820 (University of Exeter Press, 1997)
Rosemarie Said Zahlan, The Origins of the United Arab Emirates: a Political and Social History of the Trucial States (Macmillan, 1978)

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist, British Library
 ccownwork

 

26 June 2017

A Rainbow in Stormy Skies: LGBT Writing in the northern Middle East

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On May 28, 2013, a small group of environmentalists gathered at Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest the removal of trees. The police’s brutal response sparked the indignation of the city’s residents, and soon Gezi Park was flooded with ordinary citizens and activists. They voiced a number of grievances, chief among them the government’s refusal to engage with citizens about urban planning. The protests lasted for weeks, and the makeshift camp erected in the Park featured a dizzying array of groups: ecologists, Armenians, Kurds, Zazas, Alevis, Communists, syndicalists, anti-capitalist Muslims and LGBT rights organizations. The diversity of identities on display brought into the open the complex and sometimes confusing imbrications composing individuals’ self-identification in contemporary Turkey. Since the 1980s, sexual identities have played an increasing role in this construction, and over the last decade the stories and struggles of Turkish sexual minorities have been featured in a number of different media.

Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet Women with Mustaches
Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet ©Metis, 2011 and Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards ©University of California Press, 2005.

To be certain, homosexuality, lesbianism, transgenderism and cross-dressing are far from new concepts to Turkish culture. Same-sex intercourse has been legal in Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state) since 1858; 110 years before the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in Britain. The topic of gay and lesbian relations in Ottoman society and its imagining among Orientalist writers  is particularly popular among Western scholars.

While Turkish authors do treat similar subjects within their works, contemporary issues of social, political and economic equality, as well as the battle against discrimination, are more likely to be explored within Turkish academic publishing. Scholars Cüneyt Çakırlar and Serkan Delice, have been particularly active in their writings, whether in collections of contemporary Turkish studies on gender, queer identity and politics or in their participation in the Queer Düş’ün series by *SEL Yayıncılık, which seeks to bring English-language Queer writing into Turkish. Other writers, too, address difficult issues, whether theoretical or practical. Evidence of such comes to us from works such as Neoliberalizm ve Mahremiyet: Türkiye’de Beden, Sağlık ve Cinsellik (Neoliberalism and Intimacy: Body, Health and Gender in Turkey), where we find Cenk Özbay’s study of neoliberal sociology and the case of rent boys, as well as Yener Bayramoğlu’s look at heterosexism and homosexuality within contemporary advertising.

Despite the early legalization of same-sex relationships in Turkey, social stigmas remain. Istanbul’s pride parade has been routinely attacked and/or banned in the past five years. Images of police brutality as a response to attempts at organizing celebrations appear frequently on social and mainstream media. Social and political pressures notwithstanding, those who refuse to conform to gender and sexual norms are still very much visible in Turkish culture and society. The image of the transvestite, in particular, is an exceptionally poignant one in referencing Turkish LGBT communities. The novels of Elif Şafak, one of Turkey’s foremost female novelists, routinely feature LGBT and transvestite characters. Şafak herself has spoken out about LGBT issues in Turkey in the English and Turkish media is filled with the sort of fluid concepts of gender and sexuality that provide three-dimensional, realistic portrayals of LGBT people in Turkey today. Transgendered people find their way into other media, too, including graphic novels, such as Büşra, a wry, satirical look at piety, political power and hypocrisy in the first decade of the 21st century. Even more striking are the novels in Mehmet Murat Somer’s series Hop-Çiki-Yaya, which feature a cross-dressing amateur detective who often interviews her clients in drag. Somer’s works are bold and flamboyant in both their characters and their treatment of a number of topics that would be considered taboo in most countries: transgender sex work; married heterosexual men having sex with men; and the interactions of religion, tradition and sexual identity.

In many ways, Turkey offers the most liberal of régimes with respect to sexual minorities. Among its immediate neighbours, consensual sexual relations between men are permitted in Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia and Azerbaijan, while they continue to be illegal in Iraq, Syria and Iran. Among the former group, only Greece and Bulgaria offer legal protection from discrimination. Despite this, authors, activists and artists producing in Armenian, Persian and Kurdish all continue to address LGBT issues and the struggles for recognition and acceptance across the region.

Mehmet Murat Somer The Prophet Murders Me as Her Again
The Prophet Murders
, the story of two murders at a transvestite club ©Serpent’s Tail, 2008; Me As Her Again, Nancy Agabian’s autobiographical work ©Aunt Lute Books, 2008

While homosexuality, lesbianism and transgenderism continue to be highly stigmatized inside Armenia proper, gay and lesbian issues are nonetheless present in Armenian literary and cultural circles. An example of one pioneer in this realm is the writer Armen of Armenia, whose trilogy Mayrenik’ Drash (Mommyland) tells the tragic story of three LGBT men in Armenia. The novels are unique in their presentation of the complexity of queer existence inside the Republic of Armenia, and the demands placed upon gay and bisexual men by the institutions of the military, the church and patriotism.

An estimated 7 to 10 million Armenians live in the diaspora, and among them are a number of writers who address the complex relationship between sexual and ethnic identity. Nancy Agabian, an American-Armenian author, has been particularly active in this respect. Agabian’s Me as Her Again, published in English in the United States, provides a moving vignette of the life and struggles of lesbians in the Armenian diaspora. In it, Agabian explores issues relating to sexual, gender and ethnic identity, interweaving the trials of a woman expressing her sexuality with those of an Armenian recovering her family’s buried past in Anatolia.

South-east of Armenia, the regional juggernaut Iran presents an even more complex case. Homosexuality remains illegal and punishable by death in the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, gender reassignment is permitted according to a legal decision by the régime’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini. Social stigmas around transgenderism are still rampant, and considerable confusion between gender and sexuality causes no end of distress to a great number of people. Nonetheless, homosexuality, lesbianism and transgenderism appear in many English- and Persian-language publications by authors in Iran and in exile. Academic works about LGBT relationships and the fluidity of gender in Iran are numerous, including the wryly-titled Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards  by Afsaneh Najmabadi. Although this work is a historical analysis of these concepts in Iranian society, Najmabadi has also turned a critical eye on the contemporary period with her study Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-sex Desire in Contemporary Iran. Najmabadi is currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her long history of activism in Iran, the United Kingdom and the United States demonstrates the saliency of issues of gender and sexuality for Persian-speakers throughout the diaspora.

Such topics come up in a myriad of different narrative products. Early 20th century poetry, such as that of Iraj Mirza, featured homoerotic themes similar to those in earlier Persian poetry. To paraphrase Najmabadi, sin was the realm of deeds rather than thoughts, and a man extolling the beauty of another man or boy was not necessarily deemed to be off bounds for Sufi and other poets of the Qajar period. By contrast, the historian Ja’far Shahri claims that it was modernization and the social change of the early 20th century that brought about a conscious “corruption” of the city of Tehran and a gradual hardening of attitudes about sexual and gender norms.

Professing Selves  The Moonlike
Professing Selves, on the complex and often problematic construction of gender identity in Iran today ©Duke University Press, 2013; The Moonlike, Behjat Riza’ee’s fictionalisation of a gruesome murder in Rasht that follows upon a forbidden love affair between two young women ©Bra Books, 1992

Among exile groups and communities, LGBT issues are alive in both magazines and monographs. As early as 1991, Bra Books in London published The Moonlike by Bahjat Riza’i, a barely fictionalized account of a lesbian affair gone wrong, ending in an honour killing near the city of Rasht in northern Iran. The Paris-based publisher Naakojaa most recently released a translation of the French graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Colour, which became a hit movie in 2013. This follows on its translations of Gore Vidal, the legendary bisexual American author. France has also provided us with filmic expressions of LGBT love in Iran with the 2011 movie Circumstance, by Iranian-American director Maryam Keshavarz. The film explores an illicit relationship between two young women in contemporary Tehran, and the various legal, political and socio-economic barriers that come make their love impossible.

Finally, the issue of gender and sexual identity within Kurdish sources is among the most difficult to piece together. Kurdish publishing is largely in its infancy, as the use of the language for mass publications in the regions in which Kurds live became a possibility only in the 1990s. Since then, identity construction, democratization, gender and income equality and the instability of an existence amongst seemly hostile nation-states has loomed large for many Kurdish writers. Despite this, there are instances of LGBT issues coming to the fore among Kurds at home and in the diaspora. In Turkey, Kaos GL has devoted a portion of its activities to bringing Kurdish-speaking members of sexual minorities out of the shadows. Whether endowing their Kurmanji-speaking readers with a new vocabulary to describe themselves and their communities in a positive and stigma-free way, or publicizing the efforts of a film director to bring to the screen the story of a Kurdish trans-woman living in rural Anatolia, Kaos GL has been forceful in bringing issues of sexual identity to the fore within the broader landscape of Kurdish social change.

In Iraq, Kurds have benefitted from more than 25 years of virtual and legal autonomy from Baghdad to build their own cultural institutions. The result has been a new confidence in self-expression, but one that is not always accepting of sexual minorities. Indeed, a number of campaigns regarding LGBT rights in the region – whether initiated by foreign bodies or domestic ones, such as the NGO Rasan – have been met with vociferous opposition. It may indeed still be too early for the publication of Kurdish LGBT fiction and non-fiction on the scale seen in other cultures across the region, but the seeds have undoubtedly been sown.

Among these various movements and trends, the British Library’s Asian and African collections remain committed to reflecting the diversity and richness of expression from across the Middle East. In doing so, we hope to provide students, scholars and the curious with a window onto the struggles and triumphs of a myriad of communities.

I would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance in connecting me to LGBT authors and publishers across the region: Armen of Armenia, Cüneyt Çakırlar, Kyle Khandikian, Hakan Sandal and Ayaz Shalal.

Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Meanwhile don't forget to visit the exhibition Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty which is currently open at the British Library until 19 September 2017.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty

22 June 2017

The Flotilla Tour of 1933: a Demonstration of British Naval Power in the Gulf

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On 29 August 1933 the acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, received a letter from the Political Agent at Kuwait, Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Dickson, informing him that there were strong rumours circulating in Kuwait that a Persian naval officer had hauled down the British flag at Basidu, the naval station for the British Persian Gulf Naval Squadron.

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‘The Coast from Bushire to Basadore, in the Persian Gulf, Surveyed by Lieuts. G.B. Brucks & S.B. Haines, H.C. Marine 1828. Engraved by R. Bateman 43 Hart St. Bloomsbury’ (IOR/X/3630/27)
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On 7 September 1933 Loch sent a circular telegram – addressed to the Senior Naval Officer in the Persian Gulf and the British Political Agents at Bahrain, Kuwait and Muscat – confirming that the British flag had been hauled down by a Persian officer, but that only a few days later, as soon as it was made aware of the incident, HMS Bideford had landed an armed party at Basidu and the flag had been rehoisted. Loch’s telegram further stated that His Majesty’s Chargé d'Affaires to Persia had been informed by the Persian Government that the officer had acted without authority, and that it had issued stringent instructions to its Navy to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

In a second circular telegram, issued on the same day, Loch requested that his previous message be translated into Arabic and distributed to the Arabian coast rulers, ‘who should be requested to give copies to all their notables, and by all other possible means to make it public.’ Loch concluded this telegram by stating – for the Political Agents’ personal information only – that the Royal Navy’s First Destroyer Flotilla was expected to arrive at Henjam on 15 September, for the purpose of displaying the British flag along the Arabian coast of the Gulf. An amended version of the message intended for circulation was issued the following day. In further correspondence with Dickson, Loch stressed that care should be taken to avoid linking the arrival of the flotilla with the incident at Basidu, and to avoid any suggestion of it being a threat to Persia.

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Message issued by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, for public distribution, 7 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 52)
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The fact that the swiftly announced flotilla tour was a direct response by the British to the Basidu incident was tacitly acknowledged in a telegram from Dickson to Loch, dated 19 September 1933, which reported that the circular, followed by news of the flotilla, had had the ‘best possible effect’ on public opinion in Kuwait. The flotilla, consisting of one flotilla leader, HMS Duncan, and eight destroyers from the Mediterranean Fleet, spent nearly a month in the Gulf, visiting Basidu, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar along the way.

It was at Dubai, on 23 September 1933, where the rulers of the Trucial states were invited to a durbar (a public audience held by a British colonial ruler, deriving from the Persian and Urdu word for court), that the purpose of the flotilla’s tour was made very clear. In his address, Loch – alluding to a statement made at another durbar by George Curzon almost exactly thirty years earlier, during a tour of the Gulf as Viceroy of India – told the rulers that the British Navy’s intervention in the Gulf had ‘compelled peace and created order on the [s]eas’ and had saved them from extinction at the hands of their enemies. He reminded his audience that the various treaties between the British Government and the Trucial rulers (beginning with the General Maritime Treaty of 1820) had made the former the overlord and protector of the latter.

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Extract from speech delivered by acting Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Percy Gordon Loch, 23 September 1933 (IOR/R/15/5/173, f 70)
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Curzon’s tour of the Gulf in November 1903 (as discussed in an earlier blog post) was comprised of visits to Muscat, Sharjah, Bandar Abbas, Bahrain, Kuwait and Bushire, and was intended as a demonstration of British naval supremacy, in anticipation of perceived threats in the region from France, Russia and Germany. A photograph of the durbar that took place on board RIMS Argonaut, off the coast of Sharjah, on 21 November 1903, shows the Viceroy elevated on a stage while the Arab dignitaries sit or kneel to his right.

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Lord Curzon’s Durbar aboard RIMS Argonaut, Sharjah (British Library, Photo 49/1(7))
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Thirty years later, the British took a relatively minor act of dissent at Basidu as an opportunity to make a very public display of their continuing naval dominance in the Gulf, in order to make it clear to the Persian Navy and to the Arab rulers that the British Government would not ignore even the slightest affront to its reputation. Loch’s remarks at Dubai were intended to remind the Trucial rulers of their relationship with the British Government and of their treaty obligations, as he warned them that ‘[t]hese engagements are binding on every one of you’.

The flotilla tour and the durbar appeared to have the desired effect. In his intelligence summary for September 1933, dated 28 September 1933, Dickson informed Loch that in Kuwait ‘[t]he general attitude of His Majesty’s Government has been most favourably commented on.’ Dickson went on to report that ‘[t]he hope is now generally expressed that the flotilla will not be withdrawn too soon, and that once for all the Persian Navy will be given to understand that it must behave itself.’ In an express letter to the Government of India’s Foreign Department, dated 19 October 1933, Loch concluded that confidence in the British had returned following the sight of the flotilla and the use of an armed party at Basidu ‘and will remain so just so long as we show ourselves determined.’

Primary sources:
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, 'File 3/3 Persian Navy', IOR/R/15/5/173
British Library: India Office Select Materials, Dane Collection: ‘Photographs of Lord Curzon’s tour in the Persian Gulf, November, 1903’, India Office Records and Private Papers Photo 49/1

Secondary sources:
John F. Riddick, The History of British India: A Chronology (London: Westport, 2006)
Kristopher Radford, ‘Curzon’s Cruise: The Pomp and Circumstances of Indian Indirect Rule of the Persian Gulf’, The International History Review, 35 (2013), 884-904

David Fitzpatrick, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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28 April 2017

A 17th century copy of Saʻdi’s collected works (IO Islamic 843)

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The Persian writer and poet Musliḥ al-Dīn Saʻdī of Shiraz (ca.1210-1291 or 1292) is without doubt one of the best-known and most skillful writers of classical Persian literature. With an established reputation even during his lifetime, his works have been select reading for royal princes and ʻset textsʼ for more humble students of Persian the world over. It is hardly surprising then that a corresponding number of deluxe copies survive of his works. A previous post (What were the Mughals' favourite books?) described some copies of his best known works, the Būstān (ʻFragrant Gardenʼ or ʻOrchardʼ) and the Gulistān (ʻRose Gardenʼ), in the Library's collection. Another sumptuous manuscript, which has also been digitised, is an early 17th century copy of his Kullīyāt (ʻCollected Worksʼ)IO Islamic 843 which was completed in 1034 (1624/25) by Maḥmūd, a scribe of Shiraz (al-kātib al-Shīrāzī), during the reign of Shah ʻAbbas (r. 1588-1629).

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The frontispiece portraying Shah ʻAbbas in a garden surrounded by courtiers and musicians, and accompanied by Turkish, Indian and European ambassadors (BL IO Islamic 843, ff 1v-2r)  noc

Very little is known about the poet’s life. Born in Shiraz, Saʻdī left his hometown to study in Baghdad. After a period of study at the Nizamiyah Madrasah, Baghdad, he set off on travels that lasted over thirty years. His experiences and adventures found their way into his writings, including being a prisoner of the Crusaders in Syria, visiting Kashgar, and killing a temple priest at Somnath in India. Many of these tales, however, have been proved to be anecdotal rather than biographical. Saʻdī returned to Shiraz in 1257, already a widely recognized poet and completed his two most famous works: the Būstān in 1257 and the Gulistān in 1258. These two works of poetry and prose respectively, contain anecdotes from the life of the author, moral teachings, and advices for rulers. Many stories communicate elements of Sufi teachings through their dervish protagonists. Other works reflect the changing political situation in Shiraz. Several of his poems are dedicated to the Salghurid dynasty, which ruled in Fars from 1148 to 1282, while later works are addressed to their successors the Mongols and their administrators.

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The heavenly journey (Miʻraj) of the Prophet mounted on Buraq approaching Leo and led by Gabriel with a green banner and Israfil with the seven-fold trumpet. From the beginning of the Būstān (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 94r  noc

This collection of Saʻdī’s work consists of 16 works that include, among others, the Gulistān and Būstān, Arabic and Persian Qaṣīdas (odes), Ghazals (love poems), Rubāʻīyāt (quatrains), and Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems). It has sumptuously illuminated openings and contains 18 paintings, including two double-paged illustrations (ff.1v-2r and 413v-414r). For details see Basil Robinson's catalogue description available here.

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Illustration from the Gulistān. Here the King, possibly representing Shah ʻAbbas, is travelling with a slave who, never having been in a boat before, complained of seasickness. Following advice on how to keep him quiet, the king has him thrown overboard and ʻrescuedʼ, the moral being that safety can only be truly appreciated by one who has experienced disaster. The ship is based on a European model of the period, with three masts and cannon at the port-holes (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 42v noc

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Illustration from the Khabīsāt (ʻnaughtyʼ poems) depicting a group of dervishes under a tree, one leading a handsome youth by the hand. The Khabīsāt (ff.391r-399r in this manuscript) is often omitted from printed editions of Saʻdī's collected works on account of its risqué nature (BL IO Islamic 834, f. 392r  noc

The illustrations are good examples of paintings of their time, but the illumination is of a much higher standard. Eight works have lavishly decorated openings: ff. 2v-3r, 34v-35r, 92v-93r, 175v-176r, 183v-184r, 223v-224r, 372v-373r, and 405v-406r. These consist of a central headpiece (sarlawḥ) and heading (ʻunvān) encased in ruled and decorated borders and a band containing foliate scrolling or alternating cartouches and quatrefoils. The outer margins are based on a pattern of diamond shaped lozenges or flower heads in red, black, brown and gold on a dark blue or gold ground with arabesque scrolls with pale blue, red and pink flowers. A variant contains flower heads which alternate with human and/or animal faces (ff.35-6, 175-6 and 372-3).

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The beginning of the Gulistān, copied by Maḥmūd of Shiraz (BL IO Islamic 843, ff. 34v-35r noc

2v
405v 34v  
175v
Details of illuminated openings on ff. 2v405v34v, and 175v. The faint grid marks are from gauzing which, regrettably, was regular conservation practice in the early-20th century (BL IO Islamic 843)   noc

This manuscript was purchased in 1807 from the East India Company civil servant Richard Johnson (1753–1807). His collection formed the backbone of the newly established East India Company Library, consisting of 716 manuscripts, mostly Persian and Arabic, and 64 albums of paintings. Johnson left India in 1790 
and did most of his collecting at Lucknow between 1780 and 1782 and at 
Hyderabad between 1784 and 1875. This particular manuscript was no doubt purchased there having been taken to India at some point in the 17th century.


Further reading
W. M. Thackston (tr.), The Gulistan (Rose garden) of Sa'di: Bilingual English and Persian edition with vocabulary. Bethesda: Ibex, 2008.
G. M. Wickens (tr.). Morals Pointed and Tales Adorned: The Būstān of Saʻdī. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1974.
B. W. Robinson, Persian Paintings in the India Office Library: A Descriptive Catalogue. London: Sotheby, 1976.

Wojciech Tworek and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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