Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Accounts from Asia

Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi, Accounts of China and India, trans. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, New York: New York University Press, 2017; Ibn Al-Saai, Consorts of the Caliphs. Women and the Court of Baghdad, trans. Editors of the Library of Arabic Literature, New York: New York University Press, 2017  - Reviewed by 

Accounts from Asia
Accounts from Asia

Two volumes in the Library of Arabic Literature published by New York University Press in Abu Dhabi have recently reappeared in paperback, helping to bring these classical works of Arabic literature to the widest possible audience. The 10th-century Arab seafarer Abu Zayd Al-Sirafi’s Accounts of China and India has reappeared in an English-only version translated by British Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith. Consorts of the Caliphs, a compilation of stories about women at the court of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad by 13th-century polymath Ibn Al-Saai, has also reappeared in a translation led by UK academic Julia Bray.

As Mackintosh-Smith notes in his playful introduction to the Al-Sirafi volume, there can be few readers anywhere not familiar, at least in part, with the stories of the Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights). Accounts of China and India, a sort of mediaeval Arab merchant’s notebook, takes up from the stories of Sindbad the Sailor, a main character in the Nights. Ibn Al-Saai’s anecdotes about the caliph’s court, focusing on the lives of women, provide an intriguing sidelight on the society ruled in Sindbad’s time by the Abbasid caliph Haroun Al-Rashid in Baghdad.

The mediaeval Arab travellers wrote up their journeys to the boundaries of what was then the known world in a literary genre called rihla. This form of travel writing, a cross between strict geography and traveller’s fantasy, may have drawn on earlier classical models. However, the Arab travellers far outdid their Greek or Roman predecessors in the distances they were prepared to travel and in their range of interests. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus claimed to have visited Egypt and at least parts of the Persian Empire. The 14th-century Arab traveller Ibn Battuta, perhaps the best known of the Arab writers, made an epic journey from his native North Africa to Southeast Asia and Southern China.

Al-Sirafi’s Accounts of China and India originally appeared in the New York University series with the 10th-century writer Ibn Fadlan’s similarly ambitious journey to the upper reaches of the Volga River, today in the Russian Federation, now published as a separate paperback in a translation by James Montgomery. (Al-Ahram Weekly reviewed a different translation of this book, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, in July 2012.) Mackintosh-Smith’s translation of Al-Sirafi’s book, done from the only known manuscript in Paris, is the first to have appeared in English in nearly 200 years and the only one from the Arabic. As he explains in his introduction to the volume, even aside from the extravagances of the subject matter the text raises some probably unresolvable problems.

The book appears to be by two authors, since its second volume, apparently written half a century or so after the first, in part takes the form of a commentary. Al-Sirafi says at the beginning of the latter that he has “been commanded to look carefully through the first and to verify the information I find in it”. It is never clear who commanded him to do so or why. There can be little doubt that Al-Sirafi is the author of the second volume, even if we never find out who wrote the first, and he interprets his remit in broad terms. Not only does he verify the information contained in the first volume, but he also adds a great deal to it, raising the possibility that what has come down to modern readers is made up of the “memories of a coterie of Sindbads”, as Mackintosh-Smith puts it, or “a circle of ex-expatriate… old China and India hands.”

Some of the stories are frankly fantastic, or just plain wrong, though in his drily humorous explanatory notes Mackintosh-Smith is prepared to give the author or authors the benefit of the doubt. Discussing ambergris, used in perfume, the author of volume one claims that this grows on the seabed like “mushrooms or truffles” before being cast up on the shores of Indian islands during tropical storms. In fact it is produced in the stomachs of whales. 

The author also claims that the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, even today remote, should be given a wide berth by Arab travellers since the natives will “eat anyone who passes them”. Mackintosh-Smith comments in his notes that such accusations of cannibalism were later made by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo.

 However, just as often the author reveals fascinating details about early maritime commerce between the Arabs and the Chinese. Al-Sirafi’s focus is on the South China port of Khanfu (Hangzhou near Shanghai), which he claims was the home of 120,000 foreign merchants during the height of the Chinese export trade in the early ninth century CE. 

Mackintosh-Smith says in his introduction that Arab merchants based in Basra and other cities in the Gulf, taking their rickety wind-born ships eastwards to India and China in search of trade, had “thrown open an eastward-facing window of trade and travel” for the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. This was very different from the Mediterranean horizons of its Umayyad predecessor in Damascus, and it meant familiarity with a new and fabulous range of goods.

There were Indian rhino horns, Tibetan musk, Gulf pearls, Chinese porcelain, Sri Lankan sapphires, Arabian and East African ambergris, and Abyssinian leopard skins, among other items, as well as a repertoire of remarkable Indian and Chinese tales. The authors of both the first and second volumes also keep a careful grasp of where the centre of the world truly lies. In an interview in volume two of Al-Sirafi’s book, the “king of China” reveals the Chinese outlook by saying that “we count five kings as great,” the greatest being the “ruler of Iraq [Baghdad], for he is at the centre of the world.”


BAGHDAD TALES: A second paperback reissue in the Library, Consorts of the Caliphs, Women and the Court of Baghdad, is a more aristocratic and less rambunctious compilation as befits its courtly subject matter.

Its author, the 13th-century Abbasid polymath Ibn Al-Saai, was a scholar-librarian in Baghdad. According to lead translator Julia Bray, his work is typical of late Abbasid court culture, being as second order as anything from the Byzantine Empire. The book is an “essay in cultural memory”, she says, written during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutaasim, executed by the invading Mongols during the sack of Baghdad in 1258 CE. “It represents the last two hundred years [of the Abbasid caliphate] as a golden age for the lucky citizens of Baghdad,” Bray says, “thanks to the public benefactions of the great ladies of the caliph’s household”, many of whom are remembered here.

The book contains no premonitions of the danger threatening the Abbasid Empire, even as the Mongols under Hulagu Khan massed on the eastern frontiers. Ibn Al-Saai, a “fervent loyalist”, and the author of some 19 works, now mostly lost, recounting the virtues of the Abbasid Dynasty, himself lived through the sacking of Baghdad. His last work, the Brief Lives of the Caliphs, was completed in 1268, 10 years after the last of them was put to the sword. Bray says that this work, like the Consorts of the Caliphs, is best understood as a work of nostalgia, a “reimagining [and idealisation] of the court life of the Abbasid period” from the perspective of someone who had lived through its final years.  

The book consists of brief stories about the wives and concubines, often slaves, of Abbasid caliphs and military commanders. Most of them were “professional poets and musicians” (jariyah), Bray says, who took part in elaborate poetry and singing competitions for the entertainment of their male owners. “There have not been many attempts to make distinctions between the jariyahs as poets and cultural agents, on the one hand, and as romantic heroines and objects of erotic and ethical fantasy, on the other,” she remarks. “Mediaeval contemporaries were alive to the social paradox of the woman slave performer as a leader of fashion but also a commodity.”

It can be difficult to differentiate the women themselves, since though Consorts of the Caliphs (expertly edited by Shawkat M Toorawa) provides useful notes they are praised for much the same talents. They were valued for their partnership in intellectual repartee, whatever their social status. Fadl Al-Shairah Al-Yamamiya, a jariyah belonging to the caliph Al-Mutawakkil (d. 861), is typical. Asked to complete the rhyme “He sought in her a sweet relief / But found her bitter orange,” she came back with “She chewed him out, he died of love / And now I’ve met your challenge.” 

“Al-Mutawakkil was delighted by this,” Ibn Al-Saai says. “And ordered that she be given two thousands dirhams.”


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