Asian and African studies blog

206 posts categorized "Middle East"

10 May 2021

The many names of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

Following the publication, in December 2020, of my blog ‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’, we received some interesting feedback from Dr James Onley, Director of Historical Research at the Qatar National Library, who are the British Library’s partners in producing the Qatar Digital Library. The blog discussed a particular treaty, which it referred to as the General Maritime Treaty, but Dr Onley suggested that this was not the historical name, and was instead of more recent provenance. This came as something of a surprise, as ‘General Maritime Treaty’ is also the name used in QDL catalogue descriptions. So I decided to investigate it further.

The treaty was produced in 1820 and was given the title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. However, it is common for treaties to become known by a shorter, more memorable title. If this was the case for the treaty of 1820, then what was the short title that was used? A delve into the QDL shows that this is not a simple question to answer.

Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire
Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire, IOR/R/15/1/21, ff. 4-12.
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The image above shows part of a letter, dated 16 January 1820, from William Grant Keir, who signed the treaty on behalf of Britain. He wrote: ‘I have now the honour to transmit the accompanying copy of a General Treaty into which I have entered with certain Arab tribes’. He then added that ‘All matters of a temporary or individual nature have been included in Preliminary Treaties… with the several chiefs, that the General Treaty might be reserved exclusively for arrangements of a permanent nature or such as are common to the whole of the contracting tribes’.

Keir therefore called his treaty a ‘general treaty’ (the name is not consistently capitalised in the records) in order to distinguish it from the preliminary treaties he had concluded with individual rulers. In correspondence from the time it was sometimes referred to by this name, but also simply as ‘the treaty’.

By the 1830s, officials in the Gulf were also calling it the General Treaty of Peace, as the following extract shows:

‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’,
‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’, IOR/R/15/1/732, p. 314. This part is from a historical sketch covering the years 1819-1831 by Samuel Hennell, who was Assistant Resident in the Persian Gulf at this time.
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This title increasingly became the accepted one. It was used in volume one of Charles Rathbone Low’s History of the Indian Navy, published in 1844. And this is what it was called by John Gordon Lorimer in his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, produced in two parts in 1908 and 1915.

However, around the same time, another long-form title for the treaty began to appear. Specifically, the second edition of Charles Umpherston Aitchison’s A Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries, produced in 1876, contained a copy of the 1820 treaty, but referred to it in the contents page as: ‘General Treaty with the Arab Chiefs for the cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea’. This title would appear in subsequent editions of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties, and would be replicated in other contexts as well.

From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries
From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries [...] Vol XI containing the treaties, & c., relating to Aden and the south western coast of Arabia, the Arab principalities in the Persian Gulf, Muscat (Oman), Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province’, compiled by C. U. Aitchison, IOR/L/PS/20/G3/12, f. 5v. This is from the fifth edition, published in 1933.
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Over the course of the twentieth century there was no consistent way of referring to the treaty, and individual writers would sometimes use more than one name. In 1970 Donald Hawley, a former British Political Agent in the Gulf, published a history, The Trucial States, in which he referred to the agreement variously as the General Treaty, the General Treaty of Peace, the 1820 treaty, the General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy, and the General Treaty of Peace for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy. In fact, the only title Hawley didn’t use was the original one!

And what about General Maritime Treaty, the title used in my earlier blog post? Apart from one appearance in a historical memorandum produced in 1934, this title doesn’t seem to feature in the records or other material currently on the QDL. Furthermore, it seems to have come into wider use only after the turn of this century. It possibly has its origins in a Wikipedia article about the treaty which, according to the article’s history, was created in 2009.

It may be true, as this blog indicates, that there has never been a single, accepted way of referring to this treaty. However, the near absence of ‘General Maritime Treaty’ in the historical records means that we have taken the decision to remove it from our catalogue descriptions. Instead, as there is no consistently used short-form title, we have replaced it with the treaty’s original title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. This is also what you’ll see now if you look at my earlier blog post.

But does this have any wider significance, beyond a cataloguer’s concern for getting a name right? Admittedly, it was unlikely to cause major confusion among users of the QDL. Nevertheless, I think this exercise has highlighted something important about the treaty, and about British imperialism in the Gulf more generally.

The treaty was created following a major British military intervention, and it reshaped the political map of the region in a way that is still evident today. Yet, from the start, the British were keen to downplay the extent and significance of their involvement. For example, just prior to the launch of the military campaign in 1819, the Government of India stated, ‘we are anxious to avoid all interference in the concerns of the Arab states beyond what may be necessary for effecting the suppression of piracy’ (IOR/F/4/650/17854, f. 386v - soon to be added to the QDL). Before and after this campaign, British officials insisted that their intervention was a limited one, aimed simply at restoring order and not at establishing British control in the region.

It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that the treaty created in 1820 was given an innocuous title, one that belied the force that lay behind it and the unbalanced relations it established with the rulers who signed it. It was, in fact, a watershed moment, marking the beginning of British imperial dominance of the Gulf. As this hegemony was strengthened over subsequent decades, it is telling that Britain’s preferred title for the agreement that formed its basis was the General Treaty of Peace.

The confusion, now and in the past, over the name of the 1820 treaty owes something to the indistinctiveness of its title. This, in turn, is a reminder of how Britain sought to frame its involvement in the Gulf, and of the need to look beyond this appearance to gain a more complete view of this history.

 

David Woodbridge, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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26 April 2021

The View from a Hill: Making Sense of Ras Dharbat Ali in the Archive

On 20 November 1933, John Gilbert Laithwaite, a civil servant at the India Office, received a letter from Trenchard Craven William Fowle, the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, in response to Laithwaite’s request for clarification on the spelling of a landmark in Dhofar known as ‘Ras Dharbat Ali’. In his letter, Fowle defers the matter to the Political Agent in Muscat, Major Claude Bremner, and encloses a note from him that is interesting for its moderate digressions.

Extract of a letter from Major Claude Bremner  Political Agent at Muscat  to Trenchard Craven William Fowle  Political Resident in the Persian Gulf  dated 18 October 1933
Extract of a letter from Major Claude Bremner, Political Agent at Muscat, to Trenchard Craven William Fowle, Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, dated 18 October 1933 (IOR/L/PS/12/2962, f 61r)
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Bremner’s note gives some background detail to the spelling, discussing the pronunciation and grammar of the Arabic name as well as different methods of transliteration. He continues by examining in detail the translation of the name, too, which he renders as ‘The Cape of the Blow of Ali’. Significantly, Bremner continues, going further than this and delving into the meaning behind the name. By doing so he allows us, by way of a rocky hill on the south Arabian coast, a view of the world that is strikingly unusual within the India Office Records:

In the early days of Islam the Imam ‘Ali, with a devoted band, was wandering in the vicinity of Ras Dharbat Ali, where he encountered a local chieftain whom he wished to proselytize. This individual refused to embrace Islam whereupon the Imam ‘Ali fell upon the chief and his tribe and, chasing the former up to the top of the headland, he hewed him in two with a blow of his sword. This mighty blow cleaved not only the victim but the hill also. From thence onward the headland was known as the “Cape of the Blow of Ali”

'Ali and his followers leading the army of Islam against Khavar and the sorcerers
Imam ʻAli and his followers leading the army of Islam against Khavar and his army of sorcerers, from the Khavaran namah by Ibn Husam (d.ca.1470). North India, 17th century (IO Islamic 3443, f. 136r)
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Laithwaite’s interest in Ras Dharbat Ali and its spelling did not derive from any linguistic curiosity on his part, at least not solely, but was tied up with matters of administrative and political boundaries. In 1930, the Air Ministry had been keen to establish a secure air route along the South Arabian coast from Aden as part of the flight to India, and this had given rise to questions of territorial sovereignty and administrative jurisdiction. Travelling eastwards, where did the Sultan of Qishn and Socotra’s authority end and that of the Sultan of Muscat begin? How did that match up with the boundary between the spheres of responsibility of the Aden Residency (which answered to the Colonial Office) on the one side, and the Persian Gulf Residency (under the India Office) on the other?

The matter spawned a great deal of consideration and correspondence between the Colonial Office, India Office, Air Ministry, Admiralty, and the Government of India, as well as the political offices in the region. Reference is frequently made to maps of the area and surveys carried out in recent decades. Even in July 1933, after the boundary between the jurisdiction of the two residencies had been officially changed and set at Ras Dharbat Ali, investigation into the exact line of the boundary continued into 1935 and beyond.

Extract of a map showing a proposed RAF air route between the UK and India  via Southern Arabia
Extract of a map showing a proposed RAF air route between the UK and India, via Southern Arabia (IOR/L/PS/12/2054, f 134r)
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While the question of sovereignty was too often trivialised by British officials as the inconvenience of ‘personal squabbles’ among ‘chiefs’, the two rulers whose sovereignty was in question in this case were not ignored. From the beginning their claims concerning where their authority lay were sought. Bertram Thomas, explorer and political officer, had warned that ‘dotted lines on maps [are of] little interest to Arab rulers’, arguing that it was the ports that mattered more to them, and divisions beyond these ports fluctuated with relations between tribal groups and centred around watering holes.

While sweeping and somewhat dismissive, Thomas’ theory held some truth. Both the Sultan of Muscat and that of Qishn and Socotra were reported to be ‘rather vague’ about the exact line of the boundary but were much more assured about the allegiances of the inhabitants of the area. The response of Ahmad ibn `Abd Allah Afrar al-Mahri, Sultan of Qishn and Socotra, to the Aden Resident’s probing on the subject are revealing, not only of this confidence but also of the sometimes limited understanding the British had about such matters. When asked about the Mehri people, historically loyal to the Sultan, who inhabited places to the east of the proposed boundary and outside of his territory, the Sultan observed wryly: ‘I understand that many English people live in the south of France, but that the British Government nevertheless does not claim that territory.’

A tracing of a map of the western boundary of Dhofar  Oman  originally drawn by Bertram Thomas  circa 1930
A tracing of a map of the western boundary of Dhofar, Oman, originally drawn by Bertram Thomas, circa 1930 (IOR/L/PS/12/3838, f 68r)
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The Sultan’s concern was less to do with drawing a line through the landscape in order to define relationships between people and land, and more about the fluid, ever-changing network of such relationships that run through a landscape, defying such static notions as hard physical boundaries. As such, the hill at Ras Dharbat Ali was of no great significance to the Sultan in terms of administration or sovereignty, though when pushed by the British both he and the Sultan of Muscat were happy to accept it as the boundary between their territories.

Bremner’s note on the history behind the name of the hill offers an alternative significance, one of religion with a moral message embedded within. It also places the hill, and the land that surrounds it, within the larger story of Islam, making it part of the whole. Bremner goes on to write that ‘there are many spots in the countryside connected with [Imam ‘Ali’s] fabled presence at them.’ The hills ‘Qabb ‘Ali’ and ‘Musallah ‘Ali’ are both mentioned, translated by Bremner as ‘The Stick of ‘Ali’ and ‘The Praying Place of ‘Ali’, respectively. It becomes possible to imagine a map very different to those produced by the British.

'Ali attacking the dragon of the Kuh Billaur watched by Zinhar
Imam ʻAli attacking the dragon of the Kuh Billaur, from the Khavaran namah by Ibn Husam (d.ca.1470). North India, 17th century (IO Islamic 3443, f. 180r)
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The British themselves were not done with defining terms within the landscape. The question of the exact line of the boundary was raised again in 1947, this time in light of oil exploration. Petroleum Concessions Limited (PCL), a subsidiary of the multinational Iraq Petroleum Company, were keen to explore southern Arabia in search of oil. Travel in remote areas required guarantees of a degree of security, and so the question of whose authority held sway where was an important one. The extractive nature of what the oil companies wanted to do also meant that mapping with precision was essential: who needs paying for the natural resources extracted?

A 1947 geological report on the Dhofar region by Cyril Sankey Fox, a consultant mining geologist employed by the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, Said bin Taimur, epitomises this perspective. When discussing the findings of the report in a letter to Rupert Hay, then the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, he effuses about the potential of Dhofar, which he found ‘astonishingly attractive’, advising that ‘enterprising people’ were needed. Such people, he regrettably adds, ‘the Arabs are not’. This sort of racism was not a universal part of this way of understanding the land, but it was not uncommon, and it fitted nicely within the dominant colonial perspective that viewed the ‘West’ as technologically, intellectually, and, often, morally more advanced and thus superior.

The report on the geology and mineral resources of Dhofar  by Cyril Fox
The report on the geology and mineral resources of Dhofar, by Cyril Fox, published in March 1947 (IOR/L/PS/12/1422, f 6r)
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Fox goes on to state his belief that, apart from oil, cement, chemicals, and sugar ‘are obviously possible industries’, and that the cultivation of ‘olives, etc.’ could also be worthwhile. He advises that ‘a detailed map is necessary’, noting that none are available on a scale larger than even four miles to an inch, which, he adds, ‘is a little on the small side for geological details’. The land is seen for its economic potential, and a specific way of representing the land is required to facilitate the extraction of that potential. The hill at Ras Dharbat Ali becomes a point at which the terms of that extraction can be defined.

By reading the archive from one place such as Ras Dharbat Ali, we are able to see and better understand the different interpretations, meanings, and stories that are connected to that place, and the land around it. The India Office Record reveals one particular way of viewing the world, one guided and reinforced by maps and the process of map-making, and concerned with matters of imperial strategy and administration or with economic exploitation. This view demands a certain kind of precision and a representation of the world that works to impose a set of relations on the land it represents, rather than working with those that are already implicated within it.

Every now and then, however, alternative ways of thinking about the land are glimpsed at, such as in the reported responses of the Sultans to the question of boundary definition. Rarer still do we find narratives like those of Bremner’s translation work, in which Ras Dharbat Ali speaks of a religious history, a moral matter, and ties itself and the people around it into the community of Islam. These narratives, dismissed by the British and swamped by the dominant colonial discourse, become quiet, significant notes of resistance.

Primary Sources

IOR/L/PS/12/2962, Coll 20/10 'Muscat: S. W. Boundary of (Muscat-Aden): Spheres of Responsibility of the Air Authorities in Iraq and Aden'
IOR/R/15/6/439, 'File 14/5 Mineral deposits in Dhufar'
IOR/L/PS/12/1422, Pol Ext 8303/49 'Geology and mineral resources of Dhofar: request for reports of A L von Krafft and R P Oldham 1900-01'
IOR/L/PS/12/3838, Coll 30/110(4) 'Trucial Coast Oil Concession: Muscat Oil Concession. Hinterland Exploration & Survey.'
IOR/L/PS/12/2054, Coll 5/87S ‘United States: Request for Military Air Transit Rights in India and Burma.’

Further Reading

Barbara Bender, ‘Subverting the Western Gaze: mapping alternative worlds’. In The Archaeology and Anthropology of Landscape: Shaping Your Landscape by Robert Layton and Peter Ucko (eds), London, 1999. 
Matthew Edney, Mapping an Empire: The Geographical Construction of British India, 1765-1843, London, 1990.

John Hayhurst, Content Specialist, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership
 ccownwork

01 April 2021

Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Between April-June 2021 the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will co-host Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

Two-ring binder open with black and white page of illustrations, atop a green open-topped box with obscured items
From the collected archive for the project Borrowed Faces by Fehras Publishing Practices, Berlin, 2018-2021.

© Ferras Publishing Practices

The series has been co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

The series has been organised in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and the Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Video still showing a white board with writing in black ink and lines in blue ink, with a hand at the bottom holding a writing instrument
Video still from Past Disquiet.
© Past Disquiet

Engaging with a variety of artistic, design, archival, curatorial and academic research projects, this series will reflect on the multiple and overlapping worlds of publishing and on the contemporary efforts to reconstruct and reimagine them.

Learning from the leading practitioners in the field, the series examines past and present practices of publishing in Arabic. It explores questions of scale of operations and reach; mediums and formats; audience and language; and the social and political context that gave rise to the practices in question. The series also explores contemporary collecting practices of publishing archives. It highlights collections’ capacity to foreground publishing archives not merely as a signifier of other historical processes but as a historical process in its own right.

 

Split image, with colour and black and white covers of books and pamphlets on the left, some in Latin script and some in Arabic script, some with titles blacked out, laid out in an overlapping fashion, and on the right a headshot of a woman with chin-length curly hair standing against a white textured wall, with shadow obscuring part of her face
Left: Image courtesy of Kayfa ta.
© Kayfa ta

Right: Hala Auji. 
© Hala Auji

 

How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics

The first session in the series on Tuesday 27 April at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) brings together artists and curators Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun, in conversation with art historian Hala Auji, to talk about Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. In 2012, they founded Kayfa ta as an independent publishing initiative that emerged from a need to break out of the limited readership and distribution of alternative books: books that cross genres, engage a mixed range of writers and readers, and are not driven by restrictive market values that control who and what is publishable. Their project is also interested in identifying the mechanisms of “gate-keeping”, be they in art or publishing, that shape and limit the voices and practices that have access to a wider public. In 2019, Kayfa ta expanded its interest into understanding the wider field of self and independent publishing and distribution, as well as the new challenges facing access of the private to shared public platforms, and the space left to maneuver the mounting obstacles therein. Their talk explores the expanded fields of contemporary publishing and distribution – modes of making-public and of public–making, as developed through quotidian as well as artistic strategies – as a revealing entry point to understanding contemporary efforts to limit and expand the space of the commons.

 

Split image with colour photograph of seven books standing up in a line on the left, and a black and white photograph of a man wearing spectacles on the right
Left: Arabic Design Library by Khatt Books.
© Khatt Books

Right: Moe Elhossieny.
© Ahmed Othman

 

Archives of design and designing the archive

On Tuesday 11 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers, will speak on The Arabic Design Library: Alternative Narratives from the Arab World. She will address the importance of documenting and presenting an alternative design history from parts of the world that are rarely covered in main-stream design publications. She will present the series of design monographs, The Arabic Design Library, published by Khatt Books since 2016. The series covers the work of some of the Arab world's design pioneers (including the likes of Hilmi al-Tuni, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Dia Azzawi, Nasri Khattar and Abdulkader Arnaout) who were practicing in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s and who in their own way, engaged with design as a tool for political emancipation and socio-cultural progress.

She will be joined by Cairo-based multidisciplinary designer, researcher and writer Moe Elhosseiny who will speak on Arabic Cover Design Archive: Digital Archives as Design Activism. Through engaging with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, he takes a critical approach to history, archival practices and access in relation to collective memory in South Western Asia and North Africa. With archives being suppressed, neglected, avoided, or locked away, there is an urgency to support collective memory building. Consequently, forms of digital archiving may take on the role of design activism. Elhosseiny founded the Arabic Cover Design Archive which seeks to surface and record book design practices throughout the history of Arabic publishing, providing an accessible digital extension to an often inaccessible physical archive. By making the archive visible through digital means, this project multiplies the instances where engagement with this material can occur. It thus aims to increase the potentiality for creating meaning and greasing the wheels of knowledge production while simultaneously alerting the public to the existence of their history.

 

Split image with a photograph of three men, one bare-headed and two on left with hoods, standing in a close group, and right side showing a woman with medium length hair facing the camera with her shoulders and head centred
Left: Fehras Publishing Practices: Sami Rustom, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas.
© Fehras Publishing Practices

Right: Zeina Maasri
© Zeina Maasri

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War

On Tuesday 25 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Zeina Maasri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton, will speak alongside Berlin-based artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices (Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich) about their respective projects on Arabic publishing during the Cold War.

In her talk The Visual Politics and Poetics of Arabic Publishing, Maasri will explore Beirut’s development from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, intellectual debate and political contestation, which was marked by anticolonial struggle and complicated by a cold war order. Central to this nodal configuration was the city’s infrastructure of printing, Arabic publishing and distribution that sparked creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. These transnational circuits have materialised in some of the pioneering modernist Arabic cultural periodicals of the period, as well as in politically radical publishing projects that summoned revolutionary change and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Her talk centres the visuality and materiality of Arabic publications as important sites of aesthetic experimentation and as reproducible and mobile artefacts of print culture. She argues that the translocal visuality of such Arabic printscapes helped articulate political imaginaries, mobilize cross-border identifications and shape aesthetic sensibilities in and through the disjunctive flows of the global sixties.

Likewise, through their project Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices focuses on the Cold War era as one of the most fertile and critical periods in the history of Arab culture and publishing because of the entanglement between politics and culture. Their ongoing project researches cultural policies, and intellectual hegemony pursued by the bipolar power, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their establishment of institutions to fund international networks, conferences and projects. It observes the transformation of culture and publishing in the region from within, where new literary styles and ideas started to emerge. At the core of these movements were publishers, writers, poets, and translators, some of whom established collectives and seminars or who launched initiatives, publications, and publishing houses. Borrowed Faces looks into this period by observing the common denominators between cultural practices then and today. Pursuing these lines of inquiry, the project digs into print archives from the 1950s and 60s, such as books, magazines, memoirs, personal letters, newspaper articles, and photographs.

 

Split image showing on the left a colour photograph of an exhibition space with free-standing black stands, movable orange walls, and cream and green structural wall, all with artwork on them; on right hand side, headshot of a woman with hair to her jaw, smiling
Left: Exhibition view, Past Disquiet, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27-October 1, 2018.
Photograph: Christopher Baaklini, Courtesy: Sursock Museum.

Right: Refqa Abu-Remaileh
© Refqa Abu-Remaileh

 

Fragmented archives and histories of solidarity

The final session in the series on Tuesday 8 June at 17:00 (register via Zoom) brings together Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri to speak about their respective archival and curatorial projects.

In her talk  A Database for Palestinian Literature, Abu-Remaileh will share the work-in-progress of the ERC project PalREAD-Country of Words. Focusing on PalREAD’s use of digital tools, the talk will discuss the challenges and joys of tracing and mapping a highly fragmented and scattered history of Palestinian literary production in Arabic from the early 20th century to the present spanning a multiplicity of geographical locations around the globe.

Researcher and writer Kristine Khouri’s talk Reflections on the (Digital) Future(s) of Past Disquiet focuses on her decade long research project conducted with Rasha Salti which took the form of an archival and documentary exhibition, publication, and seminars and other discursive events. The project investigated the histories of art collections and museums built in solidarity with political causes for Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and South Africa as well as unearthed histories of transnational artistic solidarity networks of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the exhibition presented the research in the form of text, digital surrogates of archival and other materials, video montages of interviews with participants and other testimonies and film and other footage, the exhibition did not exhibit any artwork. Today, over a decade later, the question remains on how to treat the digital archive which has been built throughout the project, gathering surrogates of documents held primarily in private homes or difficult to find ephemera of histories that have yet to be properly written. The talk will explore some of the reflections and challenges in thinking about the digital (and other) afterlives of Past Disquiet and ways to imagine encouraging further research.

Full abstracts and speaker biographies for the series can be found here. For any further enquiries please email Hana Sleiman and Daniel Lowe.

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator, Arabic Collections
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29 March 2021

Tomayto, Tomahto: Identifying Azerbaijani Manuscripts in the British Library Collections

Manuscript page with half-page painting in full colour of a man and woman in traditional Azerbaijani dress seated on the grass amidst various lively flora and fauna, with two columns of Arabic-script text above and below, surrounded by a thin red border with a thick gilt border around the entire page
An illustration of a dream sequence featuring two individuals seated in a garden from a 16th-century recension of the story of Layla and Majnun in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 97r)
CC Public Domain Image

As a Canadian in London, one thing that makes me roll my eyes is being asked to say the word “about”. Everyone expects me to exhibit what’s known as Canadian raising, where those of us from Southern Ontario say the word as if it were spelled “aboot”. People have a good chuckle, and I grumpily insist we don’t do that in Toronto, and then we go on our merry ways. It’s not really all that important, but it does make me think, sometimes, about the assumption that English words are meant to be read one and one way only. Perhaps “about” should sound like “aboot”; and “caught” and “cot” should be distinct from one another; and “think” and “fink” really ought to be homonyms. What about going the other way, from writing into speech? If I write “about”, how do you know I didn’t mean for it to be pronounced “aboot”? For London to be heard as Lundon? Or that “breed!” is actually an instruction for you to breathe? In truth, our assumptions about these choices say more about our own backgrounds and prejudices than we care to reveal. The same can be said about many other linguistic communities, both historic and current, around the globe. In the Turkic collections, a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon appears in our holdings of Azerbaijani manuscripts.

Page of printed text primarily in Arabic script with some Cyrillic script, arranged in three columns beneath a large black-ink masthead featuring Arabic calligraphy
The first page of the newspaper Nicat (Salvation), published in Azerbaijani in Arabic script during the Tsarist period. (Nicat, 1:1 (Baku: Nicat Qiraatxanǝsi, 20 November 1910). ORB.30/342)
CC Public Domain Image

It wouldn’t be one of my blogs if it didn’t start off with some sort of caveat. So, let’s get it out of the way. I use the term “ Azerbaijani” broadly in line with Euro-Atlantic linguistics: to denote a Turkic language of the Oghuz sub-branch that is closely related to Istanbul Turkish , and that is spoken in the Caucasus (especially the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in northwestern Iran. In English, we also have recourse to the shortcut Azeri, which usually means the Turkic language Azerbaijani. But Azeri might also mean Old Azeri or Azari, a now-dormant Western Iranian language from the same region that might be linked genetically to Tati or Talysh. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the official name of the language is Azərbaycan dili (“Azerbaijan language"), but it can also be called Azərbaycanca (making use of the -ca/cə language suffix), or, less frequently, Azəricə. In this region, Azerbaijani was largely written in the Arabic script until the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities first imposed the Latin-based Uniform alphabet in the late 1920s, and then a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. In 1991, the year in which complete independence was achieved, the Republic of Azerbaijan officially adopted the Latin script for the language.


The world-renown Iranian singer Googoosh performing the Azerbaijani folk song Ayrılıq in Azerbaijani. 
(©VestiKavkaza, uploaded to YouTube). 

South of the border, in Iran, the term “Azeri” usually refers to the old Iranian language and not the Turkic one. Here, the preferred terminology is Torki (ترکی, in Persian) or Türkçǝ (تۆرکجه, in Azerbaijani), and the dominant script is a modified Arabic one. While the varieties spoken in the Caucasus and Iran are distinct dialects, they do form a single linguistic grouping, relying on many common grammatical and lexical features, and share a common linguistic history. Speakers of the language in Iran vastly outnumber those in the Caucasus (perhaps 13 million to just over 9 million in the Republic, according to the CIA World Factbook as quoted on Wikipedia). Azerbaijani is not an official language in Iran, but can be found fairly frequently online and in printed media. Turkic-speakers have long been integrated into broader Iranian society, and many notable personalities in Iranian history come from Turkic backgrounds: Shah Ismail I; Ahmad Kasravi; and yes, even the world-renowned singer, Queen of contemporary Persian pop, Googoosh.

Stylized image of soldier in Soviet infantry uniform in red, gray, black and white, which detail in his face only, an colour blocking for rest of the image. Bold black text in Latin script is found on the left and top margins of the page
The cover of a periodical produced in Baku, Azerbaijan in the 1930s featuring the Latin alphabet imposed by Soviet authorities between 1927 and the late 1930s. (InqilaB vǝ Mǝdǝnijjǝt, 1-2 (Baku: AzǝriNǝshr, 1934). ITA.1986.c.18(9))
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As always, there are considerable political implications to the choice of terminology. My intention here is to mirror common Anglophone usage of the terminology, not to promote a particular movement or point of view. That said, the question arises: what makes something an “Azerbaijani” manuscript? The British Library holds some 7 manuscripts that can be described as containing texts in Azerbaijani. All of these are in an Arabic orthography that mirrors Ottoman Turkish quite closely, leaving Arabic words in their original spellings and marking only some vowels in non-Arabic words. This might make it seem as though telling Ottoman and Azerbaijani apart would be impossible, but there are a few clues. One of the easiest is the use of a syllable final -x (like the ch in loch) where Ottoman Turkish would have a -k. Çok “many” or “very” in Turkish becomes çox in Azerbaijani, and bakmak “to look” in Turkish is baxmaq in Azerbaijani, for example. Turkish employs the suffix -iyor for the present continuous, while Azerbaijani uses -ir. And, after the 16th century, Turkish uses only the suffix -miş for the perfective, while Azerbaijani has both -miş and -ip (in the 2nd and 3rd persons). There are, of course, other tells in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, but these are usually the easiest. And they help clue us in, broadly speaking, to how to pronounce those undifferentiated spellings of Arabic words I mentioned up above.

Zoomed image of painting of bare-chested man seating among a collection of different animals in a river-side setting, in full colour. Above and below the image is Arabic-script text in black ink arranged into two columns with a thin red border inside a thicker gilt border
An illustration of Mǝcnun amongst animals from an illustrated 16th-century manuscript in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijani, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 73r)
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So what, exactly, do these manuscripts comprise? Usually literary works, but there are also a few historical items as well. Undoubtedly, the most awe-inspiring item is Or 405, Füzulî’s Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, copied in 1075 AH (1664 CE). This is Füzulî’s own recension of the classical tale, and one that he admits to having translated from a Persian source on the behest of his friends in Istanbul. This bit of information is important, as it shows how Azerbaijani functioned as a literary medium independently of Ottoman (or Istanbul) Turkish, permitting the translation and adaptation of texts from other languages in its own right. The copy held by the Library is a spectacular specimen of the tale, as it is accompanied by vivid and bright illustrations that relate to the stories found within the text. There are some lovely examples of Leyli in a graveyard and Mecnun among animals, all of which combine a simplicity of line and feature with motion and bright colours. And Or 405 also contains more than a few examples of the linguistic features that help us distinguish dialects, whether the presence of çox and yox (written چوخ and یوخ ), or the preponderance of -ip forms throughout.

Page tinted salmon with gold flecks, featuring an ornately decorative sun motife in gold, red, blue, black and pink, with geometric and floral illumination on its interior, and thin, ornate rays in black emanating from the sunSalmon-tinted page with gold flecks featuring two columns of Arabic-script text inside a text box, with ornate geometrical illumination in a semi-circle pattern atop a thick band, at the top of the page. Illumination features gold, blue, red, black and green inks
The şemse or sun motif (left) and opening text with unvan (right) of the Divan-i Xǝtai, exemplifying the lush illumination found throughout the volume. (Xǝtai, Divan-i Xǝtai, Iran or Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 3380, ff 2r-v)
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Or 405 is the only illustrated manuscript in Azerbaijani held at the British Library, but it is by no means the only beautifully constructed volume in the language. Or 3380, the Divan-i Xǝtai, is a 16th century copy of the collected poetry of Shah Ismail I, whose poetic pseudonym or mahlas was Xǝtai/Khaṭā’ī (خطائى). The work’s imperial connections are made apparent by the beautiful gold artistry and calligraphy employed throughout the volume. Shah Ismail was of mixed heritage and grew up speaking both Azerbaijani and Persian. Supported by various Turkic communities, he rose to power by defeating the Aq Qoyunlu confederation, and established the Safavid Empire, becoming Shah of Iran in 1501 CE. Ismail I is famous for many different reasons, including the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of his Empire, but he was also a renown poet in his own right. This confluence of political and literary prestige is undoubtedly the reason why his mahlas is written in gold throughout the work. Its entire construction is impressive; an example of luxury bookmaking in Safavid Iran. But so too is the poetry, which addresses both temporal and sacred love.

Page of Arabic-script text in black ink arranged in two columns
A folio of text from another recension of the story of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun in Azerbaijani, not composed by Füzulî. (Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Iran?, 18th century CE. Add MS 7936)
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The rest of the Azerbaijani items in the British Library’s holdings are not nearly as spectacular as Or 405 and Or 3380, but they do merit attention. The fourth text of Add MS 7936 is another version of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun copied in the 18th century CE. This piece was written by an unnamed poet (not Füzulî), who appears to have made use of some of the Persian versions of the story to craft their own work in the 16th century CE. While the calligraphy and lack of illumination makes this a rather plain and run-of-the-mill text, the copyist’s alternation between one and two columns, prose and poetry, does provide an additional element of interest for those curious about the Azerbaijani literary set-up of the period.

Page of text in Arabic script in black ink with occasional words written in red ink
The densely packed script of the Tarix-i Sam or Samname, with the addition (?) of punctuation and Persian text in red. (Tarix-i Sam, Iran?, 1265 AH [1848-49 CE]. Or 11130, f 236v)
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The other three texts in the Arabic script are all translations, glosses or paraphrases of earlier Persian works, once again highlighting just how closely linked the history of Azerbaijani literature is to that of its Iranic neighbours. By and large, these are historical texts revolving around the lives and experiences of notable people, real or imagined. Or 11130, Tarix-i Sam İbn-i Nǝriman, also known as the Samname, for example, is an Azerbaijani rendition of a legendary history prepared for a meddah, or traditional storyteller, based on an earlier Persian version. The Samname derives from the Shāh-nāmah (and so includes stories of Rustam) and can be found in its Persian original in other British Library manuscripts, including Or 2926. The opening of the work is in Persian, but then continues into an Azerbaijani dialect in an orthography that departs slightly from what we would normally expect based on the other texts found in the British Library collections. I have banged on about this before (particularly when looking at Chagatai manuscripts), but it remains to be seen whether these idiosyncrasies reflect dialectal differences, or just the personal choices of Muhǝmmǝd Rıza İbn-i Mǝrhum Molla Abdurrıza, the manuscript’s copyist.

Or 5772, in contrast to the Samname, deals with the life and miracles of Şeyh Safi, a 13th century CE Kurdish Sufi mystic and poet from Ardabil, a city that has long had a heavy concentration of Turkic speakers. This 16th century manuscript also provides a fairly thorough account of the rules and precepts of the Safavid Order of Sufis. This particular text raises a different set of questions, ones not related to language. Translations in many of the Ottoman and Azerbaijani works can create issues of citation and attribution. Some translators make clear reference to their source text, while others don’t. Perhaps text compilers might have sampled heavily from a number of different works by the same author, or maybe they constructed paraphrases or compilations of various works, all with the same title or dealing with the same issue, but by different authors. Whatever the case, these items, among which Or 5772 should be classed, cannot always be matched to an original source text. The item in hand, for example, might be related to the Persian work Maqalāt va Maqāmāt by Şeyh Safi, but we will only know for certain when greater research is conducted on it.

Page of text in Arabic script written in black ink arranged in two columnsPage of Arabic-script text in black in with geometric illumination band in centre, flanked by two triangles, under text in red ink
Initial text (left) and the colophon (right) from the Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, along with the start of a Persian-language text at the end of the colophon. (Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, Iran?, 1199 AH [1784-85 CE]. Or 9839, f 2r and f 95v)
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We have a bit more luck with Or 9839, Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, which, as you might have guessed, is an Azerbaijani gloss of the 12th-13th century Persian work Bakhtiyār-nāmah. This tale, which follows a familiar pattern of a captive telling stories in order to delay their eventual execution, can be found in a variety of versions. Further investigation is needed on Or 9839, therefore, to determine the source text of the translation, and the Azerbaijani gloss’ connection to other recensions. This process is eased by the fact that the text of the Baxtiyarnamǝ also contains occasional interlinear glosses in Persian, which might be the original source text. These follow a pattern seen in other bilingual or multilingual works, in which one language (Azerbaijani) is written using nesih, while another (Persian) can be found in nestalik. The beginning and end of the volume feature much more wear and tear than the body of the text, and a number of smudged ownership seals can be found on f 98r. Combined with the fact that someone appears to have added ᶜUbayd-i Zākānī’s mesnevi Qiṣṣa-i Sangtarāsh on ff 95v-98r (maybe the copyist of the manuscript, Molla Muhamməd Rəsul vələd-i Muhamməd, himself?), it’s clear that this manuscript created in 1199 AH (1784-85 CE) was well-used, if not also well-loved, by its owners and readers.

Manuscripts are fascinating sources for the study of literature, history, language, religion and politics. They are also documents that link past generations with current and future ones, and help to preserve cultural heritage. The Azerbaijani-language manuscript collection at the British Library is small in number, but it does present an opportunity to fulfil both aspects of manuscripts’ potential usefulness. By identifying and describing them sensitively, these treasures can be made discoverable to scholars from around the world. They also become more accessible to Azerbaijani-speakers not engaged in scholarly research, and more amenable to be reintegrated into the evolution and articulation of their identities, wherever they might find themselves. Thanks to these processes, we might finally figure out just how the gilded words they contain were really meant to sound.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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For more information on the characteristics of various Turkic languages and dialects, see:

The Turkic Languages, ed. Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
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Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King,
And praised you among all the rulers,
In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied
It has spread silver on the ground.

Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.[3]

The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.[4]

The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:

Mahsati sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
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In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.

The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
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The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.

A drunken Pir Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
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Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.

Mahsati at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
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The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
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There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.

The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual.[5] Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.
[5] For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.

22 February 2021

Patchwork for a Prince: Exploring Persian Anthology British Library Or.13193

Many Persian poetry anthologies – particularly those produced during the 15th and early 16th century - display a kaleidoscopic use of decorated papers, and reveal an engaging celebration of color with every turn of the page. This ‘patchwork’ approach calls to mind the patched garments worn by ascetic figures in some Persianate paintings. Traditionally worn to signal their renunciation of material wealth, these patched robes and shawls are similar in spirit to the pieced kasaya cloths sometimes worn by their Buddhist ascetic counterparts. Ironically, a number of these patched kasaya cloaks are made from extremely luxurious materials – including silk textiles, sometimes given to monasteries by wealthy donors seeking favor. This translation of a modest patchwork into one composed of sumptuous materials transforms their original ‘recycled’ intention into an elegant transmutation. When viewed as works of art (instead of works of piety), these robes become refined visual ‘allusions’ to the idea of poverty and renunciation, rather than actual reflections of it. They are markers of asceticism, but elevate the original idea of patching by necessity, to one of luxury.

Marbled decoration Silvered decoration
Examples of so-called  ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) and  ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) pages (Or.13193, ff. 13r and 13v). Public Domain

We can detect a similar visual conceit at work in many of the ‘patchwork’ Persian poetry anthologies produced in the 15th and early 16th century. These manuscripts exhibit a ‘patched’ appearance, but often not from necessity. Rather, it is achieved only through a highly labor-intensive process of multi-layered artistic collaboration that transforms the manuscript into an elaborate and luxurious visual pun. This kind of  assembled ‘patchwork’ occurs in both upright-format manuscripts and albums as well as oblong-format manuscripts in 15th and 16th century. These oblong format manuscripts typically comprise anthologies of poetry and are referred to in contemporary texts as safina. The term safina is often translated as ship or boat - but it may be better understood as vessel or ark – that is, as a carrier of disparate cargoes.

An example of this type of safina poetry anthology is held today in the British Library, it contains 144 folios that measure about 8 x 20.5 cm, bound along their short side. The textual content is primarily ghazal-form poetry by about twenty poets. Two folios bear the name of the Aq Qoyunlu prince ‘Abu’l-‘Izz [Yamin al-Din] Yusuf Bahadur Khan. Yusuf was one of the sons of Sultan Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, and brother to Sultan Ya’qub Aq Qoyunlu. In the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty controlled much of Persia, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. A distinctive style of manuscript production emerged under their reign in centres including Shiraz and Tabriz; a number of surviving safina manuscripts may be connected with their patronage. Given the inscription naming Yusuf ibn Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, the production of the British Library safina has been dated sometime between 1470 and 1480 CE - prior to his death around 1490 CE.

Horizontal view of a 'black' page
Fig. 3: Horizontal view of a black coloured page (Or.13193, f. 3v). Public Domain

Although ‘patched’ in appearance, this manuscript would have been very costly to produce. Multiple layers of work were involved in the production of its multicolored paper supports – which often involved the application of various decorative techniques – including stencilled designs. The papers in the British Library safina are of various hues, some with additional painted elements. Some pages have been described as ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) – although not technically accurate. Some are entirely or partially ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) and subsequently tarnished - a feature seen in other safina manuscripts of the period.. A few folios are coloured black (fig. 3) or deep blue, but most folios exhibit softer pastel tones. The British Library safina also features a broad range of stencilled folios, which are among its most engaging aspects. With almost each turn of the page, one encounters a new motif or color combination. It seems that the artists who created these books derived pleasure in creating new and captivating juxtapositions.

Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif
Fig. 4: Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif (Or.13193, f. 27v). Public Domain

Looking closely at some of the stencilled and painted pages in the British Library safina, one notes folios that display figures of animals – flying ducks, swimming fish, and even wonderous creatures, such as blue dragons (fig. 4). Sometimes, human figures are playfully inserted within the stencilled designs.

In figs. 5 and 6, the figures are juxtaposed with calligraphic designs. In the scholarly literature, such stencilled and painted imagery in anthological manuscripts often has been overlooked or dismissed as mere ‘decoration.’ But, what significance could this imagery have held for the contemporary reader - and to what sources did the artists look for their inspiration? What relationship does this imagery have with the manuscript? In short - what is the function of these images, if not mere decoration?

A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages, Or13193 f16r A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages,Or13193, f15v
Figs. 5 & 6: A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages (Or.13193, ff. 15v and 16r). Public Domain

Turning to the stencilled calligraphy of these pages (figs. 5 & 6), the individual letters are written against swirling golden vine scrolls, making it somewhat difficult to decipher. Yet, if one is already familiar with these well-known lines from a poem by Hafez, the text is relatively easy to read:

Dar īn zamāna rafīqī kih khālī az khalal-ast
Ṣurāḥī-yi may-i nāb u safīna-i ghazal-ast

This may be translated as:

These days, the only friend[s] without fault[s]
are a bottle of wine and a safina of ghazals…

The decision to highlight this verse within the manuscript is, of course, to create a punning reference back to the manuscript – which is, itself, a safina of ghazals and the reader’s companion at that moment. The placement of these lines evokes the very act of reading the anthology at hand. It is as if the book itself is speaking directly to its reader.

In addition to such ‘meta-textual’ references, we find other stencilled imagery which alludes to well-known works of Persian literature located ‘outside’ of the manuscript. That is, these stories are often not mentioned in the surrounding text of the anthology but are easily recognized by those who are conversant with the popular literature of the period. Another stencilled folio – for example – shows a painted figure gesturing towards a strange tree with branches terminating in human and animal heads (fig. 7). The appearance of this so-called waqwaq tree is likely a reference to the story of Alexander the Great (Iskandar), as related in Firdausi’s Shahnama. In this portion of the Shahnama epic, Iskandar encounters the waq waq - or talking tree – a tree which bears the fruit of human heads. The tree speaks to Iskandar, foretelling of his death. In this stencilled depiction, however, the tree is shown not only fruiting with human heads, but also with a diversity of animal heads – a bull, a horse or donkey, a dragon, and others.

Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r) Ouseley MS: Iskandar and the talking tree
Fig. 7: Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r). Public Domain
Fig. 8: The same subject from Firdausi's Shahnama (Bodleian Library MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f.311b). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. F

If we compare this stencilled page with a manuscript folio in the Bodleian library collection, the similarity becomes clear. In a painting (fig. 8) from a Shahnama dated to the 1430s (Ms. Ouseley Add. 176), Iskandar raises his finger to his lip, in a state of surprise and likely dismay. The figure in the British Library safina, by contrast, seems to reach out and tickle the chin of the face in front of him. While the stencilled image is likely an allusion to the story of Iskandar found in the Shahnama, there may be more significance to this image. The tree with multiple talking heads might also be seen as a reference to the anthology itself. That is, the book as a gathering of many and diverse voices into one vessel - each of which speaks to us individually as we read through the pages of the manuscript.

Finally, returning to the double page in the British Library safina mentioned above, we see two small painted figures – a male figure above and a female below – within the stencilled designs (see again figs 5 & 6). Both hold books in their hands. The female figure – appearing to be a young girl – looks up across the empty space of the open book towards the boy above. Their placement activates the space – with one figure gazing at another across the open book – only made possible when the book is held in the hand. It may be that the two figures represent the young Layla (or Layli) and Qays – at their first meeting at school – according to the poet Nizami’s telling of their love story. While this identification may seem tenuous, further examination of the surrounding poem by the poet Ashraf reveals a reference to someone not going mad – or becoming ‘majnun.’ Accordingly, the small female figure – likely Layla - gazes up at the figure of the boy - who would later in their love story come to be known as Majnun. This placement may be coincidental, but if we imagine that these two figures do represent Layla and Majnun, this alignment of verse and image suggests an extremely sophisticated orchestration of the elements contained within this safina. Such coordination would allow for these small painted elements to reflect the text on the page, and the surrounding folios. The ‘shorthand’ appearance of the painted elements also requires that the anthology’s reader be familiar with not only Layla and Majnun’s story, but also with the imagery connected with illustrated manuscripts of Nizami’s text.

These types of representational references – the visual equivalent of intertextual allusions - are frequent in these safina manuscripts. Other paintings and stencilled imagery within this and other anthologies display similar connections between the ‘internal’ image and ‘external’ texts - demanding that their viewers possess a sophisticated familiarity not only with the popular literature of the period, but also with its common visual vocabulary. As David J. Roxburgh has noted in discussing the numerous surviving Persian anthologies created for the fifteenth-century Timurid ruler Iskandar Sultan: “The anthologies offered Iskandar Sultan…a range of visual idioms that equaled the textual genres in variety and complexity; reading and looking demanded of him a series of shifts in perceptive and cognitive engagement…in order for the visual puns, these subtle games and inventions to be discerned… This assumed a fair degree of visual literacy on the part of the viewer because the visual events are in fact a series of extremely subtle mutations and hybrids…” (Roxburgh, “Aesthetics,” 130). Rather than mere decoration, the visual elements of these safina anthologies approach the multivalent complexity of the texts that they accompany. Furthermore, many of these safina manuscripts function on the whole as a visual conceit – a patchwork translated into pages – perhaps making reference to the multicoloured, patched cloaks of Sufi adherents. How appropriate then, that their poetical content often embodies the works of this same group.

Denise-Marie Teece, Assistant Professor of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi
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Further reading

Meredith-Owens, G. M. “A New Illustrated Persian Anthology” British Museum Quarterly 34 (1970), pp. 122-125.

Richard, Francis. “Un manuscript méconnu, l’anthologie poétique de la Bibliothèque nationale illustreée et signée par Behzad,” Studia Iranica 20 (1991), pp. 263-74.

Roxburgh, David. “The Aesthetics of Aggregation: Persian Anthologies of the Fifteenth Century,” in Islamic Art and Literature, ed. Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001): 119–142.

Teece, Denise-Marie. “‘Compassionate Companion, Familiar Friend’: The Turin Safina (Biblioteca reale Ms. Or. 101) and its Significance,” Muqarnas 36 (2019), pp. 61-84.

——— Vessels of Verse, Ships of Song: Persian Anthologies of the Qara Quyunlu and Aq Quyunlu Period, Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2013.

11 February 2021

An Earl, a collection, and a shopping list: Mail-order military manuscripts

A lithographed wish-list of titles on Arabic military science testifies to the frustrated literary ambitions of a king’s son.

Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī, p.76
Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb. London, s.n. 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
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Shopping for books in the early nineteenth century

In these days of home delivery, we are used to the concept that (almost) whatever we wish to acquire, from takeaways and groceries to toys, clothes, and books, may be obtained without leaving the comfort – or confines – of the home. But two hundred years ago, for those with very specific literary interests, the acquisition of books or hand-written manuscripts could necessitate great dedication to the cause: months or years of foreign travel, tireless enquiry, and great expense.

Nonetheless, for those in possession of power, good contacts, and deep pockets, the pursuit of rare books could be conducted remotely, to a degree. And just as today’s shopping websites allow users to compile their ‘wishlists’, one remarkable document compiled at the behest of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster (1794-1842), tells a nineteenth-century tale of mail-order manuscripts.

The life and literary interests of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster

Eldest illegitimate son of Prince William (1765-1837, William IV from 1830), FitzClarence devoted much energy to appealing for funds and honours from his father, from whom he became estranged. Prone to drinking and gambling, publicly mocked in satirical sketches, and afflicted with depression, he has gone down in history as an unfortunate figure, committing suicide in March 1842 at the age of 48.

Caricature of FitzClarence as Bum Puff
Unflattering caricature of FitzClarence as ‘Bum Puff’, wearing Oriental slippers and accompanied by papers bearing pseudo-Arabic characters  (British Museum 1868,0808.9395.
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However, there was another side to FitzClarence, one overshadowed by his sad end.

After military service in India (1815-17) he travelled home via Egypt, later publishing his account of the journey. Pursuing his developing interest in Asian history and literature, FitzClarence became a founder member and from 1828, Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, in which role he supported the publication and translation of Arabic texts via the Society’s Oriental Translation Fund, still operational today.

Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence  Earl of Munster  c. 1810-20 (1918 0107.70)
Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, c. 1810-20 (British Museum 1918,0107.70)
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Subsequently, FitzClarence combined his interest in military matters with his scholarly and literary passions, initiating an ambitious project to author a comprehensive history of the military sciences in Muslim societies.

Military science in the Arabic written tradition

Hundreds of Arabic treatises on military science have been composed, re-arranged and translated into Turkish, Persian and other languages since at least the ʿAbbāsid period (750-1258). They are often categorised under the general label of furūsīyah (horsemanship), encompassing equestrianism, the mastery of mounted manoeuvres, polo, shooting at targets, and horseback hunting (a luxurious illustrated example of this genre is this copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah (Add MS 18866).

Horsemen in combat Add MS 18866 f135r
Illustration of two horsemen wheeling around, with a sword in each one's hand on the horse's back. Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah by Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, dated 10 Muḥarram 773/25 July 1371 (BL Add MS 18866, f. 135r)
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However, the Arabic military sciences also include subjects such as the manufacture and use of weapons like the bow and arrow, sword, mace, lance (Add MS 14056, ff. 1v-10v; ff. 11r-18v) and spear; equine medicine and horse-training (Add MS 14056, ff. 19r-123v, Add MS 23416); tactical theory and skills for the battlefield; war machines (Add MS 14055) and explosive devices; military management and bureaucracy (Or 9016), and the etiquette of engaging the enemy and dividing the spoils of conquest.

Many texts take the form of didactic, practical manuals, with many surviving manuscripts today dating to the highly militarised Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) as well as its Ottoman successor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Add MS 20736).

Wishing to gather as many of these primary sources as possible towards his magnum opus, FitzClarence purchased extensively (Add MS 14056 and 14055). Not mastering the necessary linguistic skills, he enlisted the promising young Austrian Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (1813-93), who had recently relocated to London, as secretary and research assistant in his quest.

Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v
Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v)
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In addition to FitzClarence’s acquisitions, he and Sprenger borrowed and compiled all that the libraries and private collections of Britain had to offer on the subject, as a note inside a copy of three treatises on military science (Or 3631) borrowed from the antiquarian and astronomer John Lee, Né Fiott (1783-1866), attests, its melancholy codicil ‘Returned August 1842’ hinting at the tragic event to come.

They also travelled across Europe together, visiting libraries in search of relevant texts in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian and Hindustani. During this period Sprenger also obtained a medical degree ‘on the side’ with a thesis on the development of Arab medicine.

The ‘Wishlist’ of military texts

But FitzClarence wanted still more, and in 1840 issued – with Sprenger as ghost-writer– a 160-page Catalogue of books that We desire to purchase and subject matter clarifying the type of books We desire to obtain – the titles and details of which We do not know – on the study of warfare (Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb).

Title page  Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī
Title page, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb, London, 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 1)
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Written in Sprenger’s Arabic hand and lithographed, this veritable shopping list opens with a preface in ornate classical Arabic literary style (p. 1), followed by an explanation of FitzClarence’s aim in writing the list, and a long description of the subjects of interest (pp. 1-83). The latter range widely, from Qurʾānic and legal precepts relating to war; jihād; armies and warfare throughout the history of Islam from the early caliphates to the Seljuqs, Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals; military management and financing; terminology; different styles of warfare (mounted or on foot); horses; apparel; weaponry; armour; training; parades; manoeuvres; famous teachers; desired qualities in a soldier, and numerous other fields of enquiry.

Then are listed hundreds of known titles on warfare, horsemanship, and weaponry (pp. 84-106) and military and political history (pp. 106-156), followed by an author index (pp. 156-160). The titles, often cited alongside biographical details of the authors, testify to Sprenger’s exhaustive research and vast knowledge of the field. In a sense, this remarkable compendium saw the Sprenger/FitzClarence team take an unlikely honorary place in the rich history of Arabic bio-bibliographic writings.

Layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub
Diagram (left) of the layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah  (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎209v), and (right) the copy of the central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
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The work also contains examples of diagrams sometimes found in the Arabic treatises sought, labelled images of weapons apparently functioning more as a terminological inventory for the author or reader’s benefit than as faithful reproductions from the manuscripts, and as some drawings apparently taken from European military texts.

‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l ‘winged’ insignia
Diagram (left) of ‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎214v), and (right) copies of this and other insignia in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 61)
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An untimely end

This document was clearly aimed at Arab book dealers and agents with access to Arabic manuscripts, but further research is needed to establish whether FitzClarence’s wishlist directly resulted in any acquisitions. His suicide only two years later stopped the project in its tracks, and the planned History of Military Science among the Muslim Peoples which by now had mushroomed into a vast account of warfare including the pre-Islamic societies of Persia, China, and Indian, never came to fruition.

Having lost his patron, Sprenger sailed to India as a surgeon, later continuing his scholarly career as principal of various colleges in Delhi and Calcutta, and researcher-cataloguer of Indian collections including the Imperial libraries of Awadh (Oudh). He also amassed a manuscript library of his own, at least part of which now forms the Sprenger Collection at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

FitzClarence’s son William, the second Earl of Munster (1824-1901), inherited his father’s debts but not his interests, and certain of FitzClarence’s manuscripts were soon auctioned on 6 April 1843 (Add MS 14056, Add MS 14055). The British Museum purchased some volumes, while others were obtained at a later sale on 27 March 1855 (Add MS 20736).

Although FitzClarence’s book never came to be, copies of the wishlist remain in many libraries as a testament to his thwarted literary ambitions. One can only wonder what he would have made of the digital, virtual libraries of today in which his dream of access to ever more of the world’s Arabic military texts – and millions of others – is increasingly coming to pass.

References

Chaghatai, M. Ikram, ‘Dr. Aloys Sprenger (1813–1893): His Life and Contribution to Urdu Language and Literature’, Iqbal Review, 36 (1995), pp. 77–99.

FitzClarence, George Augustus Frederick,  Journal of a Route Across India, Through Egypt, to England, in the Latter End of the Year 1817, and the Beginning of 1818  (London: John Murray), 1819.

The Earl of Munster's obituary in 'Proceedings of the nineteenth anniversary meeting of the society' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 7 (1843), pp. i-xxi.

Sprenger, Aloys and George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb (London, s. n., 1840). British Library copy 14598.c.1. Digital copy at Princeton University Library, digitised by Hathi Trust

Sprenger, Aloys, A catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindu'sta'ny manuscripts, of the libraries of the King of Oudh, Vol. 1 (Calcutta: J. Thomas for the Baptist Press), 1854.

Wright, Jo, 'Sir Thomas Reade: Knight, ‘Nincumpoop’ and Collector of Antiquities', Asian and African Studies Blog (2014).

— , An Earl, a Collection and a Gun: the Curious Provenance of a British Library Manuscript', Qatar Digital Library (2014).

Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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08 February 2021

Boys, Boys, Boys: Enderunlu Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname

In June 2019, I shared with you the British Library’s beautifully illustrated copy of the Hamse-yi Atayi, which included copious illustrations of same-sex desire. In that post, I had the opportunity to tease out how we see and interpret homosexual love and sex in pre-modern Ottoman literature, and what that says about our worldview today. Of course, Atayi’s Hamse is far from the only work of Ottoman literature that speaks to this topic. I would be remiss if I did not make use of LGBT+ History Month to highlight another item that helps queer our collections.

Painted image of a park scene inside a palace with women and men in 18th century Ottoman dress engaged in various leisure activities, including conversation and music, with a body of water in the background
A view of Palace activities in the late 18th century taken from an illustrated copy of Enderunlu Fazıl Bey's Zenanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Zenanname, 1190 AH [1776-77 CE], Turkey. Or 7094, f 7r) 
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Frequent readers and fans of our blog might remember Dr. Sunil Sharma’s particularly popular post from November 2016 on the Zenanname, an Ottoman Turkish book on the women of the world penned by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey. The Zenanname is far from a work of women’s lib or a celebration of female feats and triumphs. Rather, it encapsulates an essentialist take on the characteristics of various women, their weaknesses and strengths, and constructs rigid typologies around class and country. Exceptionally misogynist at times, this literary piece was clearly destined for male readers. As Dr. Sharma points out, the Zenanname is actually a companion piece to the Hubanname, an earlier work by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, which discusses the qualities of the beautiful young men of the world. This latter poem falls into a category of literature known as the şehrengiz, works on the beauties of various cities.

Who was Enderunlu Fazıl Bey? Although no definitive date can be found for his birth, he is believed to have been born in the 1750s or 60s in the city of Akka, Liwa of Safad, Ottoman Palestine (today Acre, Israel) to a family both well-placed in the Ottoman bureaucracy, and with a rebellious streak against central authority. His given name was Hüseyin, but he took the mahlas or poetic pseudonym Fazıl, as well as the qualifier Enderunlu or Enderunî because of his education in the Enderun. This was the interior court of the Ottoman imperial bureaucracy, destined to service the imperial family, and was located inside Topkapı Palace. He was ejected from the Palace in 1783-84 for his behaviour and spent more than a decade in destitution in Istanbul before seeking out Selim III’s beneficence. He wrote poetry to curry the Sultan’s favour, and also took positions in Aleppo, Erzurum and Rhodes. It was in this last location that Fazıl Bey lost his sight, which eventually resulted in his return to Istanbul, where he died in 1810. His grave can today be found in the municipality of Eyüp.

A page of text in Arabic script written in rık'a calligraphy in two columns in black ink
The opening of a combined version of the Hubanname and the Çenginame, a work on the male dancers of Istanbul. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7093, f 1v)
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What was the behaviour that resulted in Fazıl Bey’s expulsion from the Palace? Sabahattin’s article in the Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi claims it was “addiction” or "fixations" (“düşkünlük”) and "love affairs" ("aşk maceraları"). Love and eroticism, indeed, are key themes in his poetry, and large motivators for his fame today as a poet. This history of same-sex desire is part of the reason for the poet’s appropriation today by some LGBTQI activists in Turkey, as well as the interest of various Ottoman literary scholars in Turkey and abroad. The Hubanname is perhaps the best example of this orientation in Fazıl Bey’s work.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The opening text of Fazıl Bey's Hubanname. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7095, ff 47v-48r)
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The British Library holds three copies of the Hubanname text. It can be found in Or 7093 and Or 7095, both of which are collections of Fazıl Bey’s works, as well as Or 7083, a mecmua also containing the works of Atıf Mustafa Efendi and Hazık Mehmet Erzurumi. Sadly, none of the British Library’s holdings are illustrated, which provides a disappointing contrast to both the exquisite illustrations of the Zenanname (Or 7094), and to the paintings in copies of the Hubanname in other collections. For those readers who understand Turkish, there is a wonderful video from December 2019 of Dr. Selim S. Kuru describing and analyzing a number of images from the copy held at the Library of İstanbul Üniversitesi. The text-heavy works present in the British Library collections were all bequeathed by E. J. W. Gibb, whose six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry has long been a foundational text for Anglophone studies of Ottoman literature. As Sharma has pointed out, Gibb was not a fan of Fazıl Bey’s skill as a poet, but he did give him credit for the originality of his work, and for the use and adaptation of popular poetry within his own oeuvre.

Gibb’s lack of appreciation is far from surprising, especially when we consider his disdain for Atayi’s bawdy tales. This disapproval, nonetheless, is hard to square with our own sensibilities or, perhaps, those of Fazıl Bey’s contemporaries. As Dr. İrvin Cemil Schick explains, homoerotic themes were far from rare in Ottoman literature, including descriptions of sexual acts, which are absent from the current work. The author’s decision to depart from the usual şehrengiz template and to describe the young men of the world by ethnicity and characteristics, on the other hand, is both his claim to fame, and the area in which Fazıl Bey might have found himself in hot water today. For several years, intense discussion within the gay community, as well as other groups under the LGBTQI umbrella, have focused on the prevalence and impact of implicit and explicit racism. Some of the descriptions included in the Hubanname would be sure to raise eyebrows, even if the ridiculousness of the broad brush strokes employed might also elicit a few chuckles.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The end of the description of Jewish men, and the one on Roma youths, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 54v-55r)
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In his presentation, Kuru focuses on the Hubanname’s exposition of the young men of Istanbul, where Greeks, Armenians and Jews are the first up for examination. Fazıl Bey is much taken with Greek men, claiming that they are the most beautiful of their peers. Nonetheless, these “roses” have peculiar accents, and their pronounced sibilants and confusion between sīn and shīn leave much to be desired. Armenians come next, charming Casanovas of the capital, followed up by Jewish men, who feel the poet’s particular wrath. While some light-skinned Jews take his fancy, our wily and fickle ways, and, apparently, horniness, make us “enemies to all nations”. Afterwards come the Roma, whose young men, with their dark features, are pretty, lithe, musically-inclined, commercially-oriented, and totally untrustworthy; which is why, Fazıl Bey tells us, they are unsuited to love. The list of Istanbul’s communities continues: Rumelians, Tatars, Bosniaks, Albanians, Georgians, and Circassians. These are surrounded, both before and after, by descriptions of men from other communities outside of Istanbul: Persians, Baghdadis, Damascenes (faces white as wax), Hejazis, Moroccans, Algerians (iron-hard, whether young or old), Ethiopians (lusty, strong, and charming), Black men (diamonds, coral, eyes of love), Frenchmen, Englishmen, Russians, Germans, Spaniards (each one exceptional in his beauty), and even the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (big-mouthed and wide-faced).

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
Description of Black men and Ethiopian ones, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 43v-44r)
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Fazıl Bey’s sharp-tongued review of the gifts and flaws of the world’s most beautiful young men feels like a late 18th-century Ottoman drag act, complete with the zingers you’d expect from a vicious queen taking hold of the stage for an evening’s roast. They could be dismissed as mere fun, or even as personal preference. But the truth is that some of his phrasing and stereotyping cuts close to home for those of us who have been both victims and guilty of the typecasting and casual racism of the gay dating scene. As much as Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname is a testament to the forms of same-sex desire in different times and places, it’s also a showcase of how sex, stereotype, and prejudice can easily blend into one hot sticky mess.

This LGBT+ History Month, revisiting the Hubanname lets us delve into the history of same-sex desire in the Ottoman Empire. It can also help us reflect on the power dynamics encoded in our own gaze. Enderunlu Fazıl Bey might have been maligned for his sexuality, but he was also still part of the Ottoman elite. His work, and others like it, is an opportunity for us all to problematize the boundary between predilection and prejudice, preference and persuasion. At the end of the day, love is love, and sex is sex, and they should be available to all, without detriment to one’s dignity or human worth.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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Further Reading and Listening:

Çil, Okan, “Osmanlı'nın eşcinsel şairi: Enderunlu Fâzıl”, Duvar Gazete, 21 October 2019. Last accessed: 10 January 2020. <https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2019/11/21/osmanlinin-escinsel-sairi-enderunlu-fazil>

Kücük, Sabahattin, “Enderunlu Fâzıl: Mahallîleşme eğilimini ileri bir safhaya götüren divan şairi”, Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Last accessed: 6 January 2021. <https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/enderunlu-fazil>

Schick, İrvin Cemil, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, 28:1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43383697>

For the Ottoman History Podcast based on Schick’s study of eroticism in Ottoman literature, see here.

Yılmaz, Ozan, “Enderunlu Fazıl Divanı’nda Yahudilikle İlgili Unsurlar ve Andnâme-i Yehûdî-Beçe”, Türkbilig, 22 (2011), pp. 1-30. <https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/990142>

The Hubanname was most recently published in translation into modern Turkish by SEL Yayncılık. The work was translated by Reşit İmrahor, an alias that has been employed by a number of authors and translators for more than 30 years.

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