Explore Iraq’s Ninth-Century Literary Salons

Professor Samer M. Ali‘s Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages: Poetry, Public Performance, and the Presentation of the Past is newly out from University of Notre Dame Press. This is particularly notable because, while the popular media has caught onto the “Golden Age” of Arab science (as in reviews of Jim Khalil’s Pathfinders), one rarely hears about the era’s literary culture.

So the book’s promotional materials had me at “Arabic literary salons.”

Arabic literary salons emerged in ninth-century Iraq and, by the tenth, were flourishing in Baghdad and other urban centers. In an age before broadcast media and classroom education, salons were the primary source of entertainment and escape for middle and upper ranking members of society, serving also as a space and means for educating the young.

I have not read the book, to which Ali refers by the acronym ALSIMA. But, until I can ferry a copy out to Cairo, Ali was gracious enough to answer a few questions about his work.

For the scholarly and well-traveled among you, the book is currently on display at MESA, at the Scholar’s Choice table. More from MESA at bottom.

When you say “Arabic literary salons emerged in ninth-century Iraq…” do you mean they emerged here first in the Arabic-speaking world?

Literary salons existed in many cultures prior to Islam as royal or elite institutions and, in chapter 1, I discuss that development from 3000 BC to the ninth century, but in the ninth century they became an egalitarian phenomenon. They became widespread and convivial. That was new in the Middle East and ALSIMA addresses the implications of those gatherings on the formation of identity, literary canon and cultural memory of shared past.

You say they were “the primary source” of entertainment for the middle- and upper-ranks of society. Did people go nightly? How did gender play out in this nightly entertainment?

From my sources, I got the sense that an individual litterateur (adib) would have multiple invitations during the week to literary salons and he might host one or two himself, so if not every night, then almost every night of the week was booked. There’s a similar institution in Kuwait called the diwaniyya, though it’s generally devoid of literature now, it offers men and women an opportunity to get together and socialize, and of course socializing offers political opportunities for attendees to share analysis of current events and political opinion. I think the medieval salons offered a similarly opportunity.

As for gender, throughout ALSIMA I return to the issue of  how, where, when and why women participated, and it seems that women did participate, though probably in smaller numbers demographically, because we have many anecdotes of women participating in adab culture, that is, the culture of the salons. In the Arab east, women’s salons
tended to be separate from men’s, but we have traces of their existence if we look for them. In Andalusia, we have some indications that they were mixed, since many a love story begins in the salon when the lovers’ eyes meet.

What literature—and which authors in particular—were popular in these salons?

There are thousands, but the general rule is that the older the literature the more consensus forms about it’s value and import, but the salons were not limited to “heritage” poetry. There are many cases of performers reciting fresh contemporary poetry. What I try to show though in ALSIMA is this: A canon does not just form out of nothing.
Literary salons were the testing ground for proving the social and emotional value of literature in face-to-face performance. The criteria for selection were stringent, since there was constant competition between new and old literary forms and texts. ALSIMA explores the pragmatic consideration of how a literary canon, not to mention identity and memory, formed through usage.

You talk about the interplay of the oral and the written: Were pieces performed before being written down? How did the oral inform the written (generally speaking, or anecdotally)?

After the introduction and widespread use of paper in ninth-century Iraq, litterateurs had options to use written or oral modes as technologies for preserving and presenting verbal art. Writing had the advantage of stability, but orality had the advantage of face-to-face intimacy in group performance. From the sources I found, there does not seem to be any dichotomy between the two; they are interdependent modes for promoting culture and transmitting it the the next generation.

So, the interplay can be seen in several ways throughout ALSIMA: The oral culture of Arabophone society was written in the 8th and 9th century, but then in salons we see indications that performers used books to shore up their memory before heading out on stage to deliver their performance. We also see indications that many of the sources about salons claim to record materials heard in salons. So any impromptu oral composition in performance at the salons would have an afterlife in written form, which ironically might then be used to bolster memory later in live, face to face performance events. In my archival research, I found many manuscripts, judging by the marginal notes, that were used as mnemonic devices to prepare for stage performance.

Why was it surprising that religious and secular knowledge blurred? Or was it the way in which they blurred?

It’s surprising because in contemporary America we tend to see sacred and the profane as being separate or even binary, but in early Arabo-Islamic culture they seemed to start off as opposite but complementary discourses. There was definitely a tension between these two discourses, but I found it interesting how people in their lived experience interwove them to give meaning to their lives.

Could you give an anecdote about one particular salon that made an impression on you?

There’s no one anecdote, but perhaps the most surprising thing I learned in writing this book was this: There were several indications I note that suggest that the literary salons were tied with mortality and the vulnerability of life. If life is finite, and one comes to terms with that, then the salons offer a community where one can celebrate life. Unfortunately, in this era, we don’t see many books that focus on Arabs or Muslims celebrating life.

Missing the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) 2010 Conference?

Go to Twitter and follow @krisrich, @martyn50, @Hayder_alKhoei, @Martijn5155 and search on the tag #mesa2010.

A few of the posts include:

Martyn Smith (@martyn50) You heard it here: winner of Albert Hourani prize *Desert Named Peace: Violence of France’s Empire in Sahara* by Benjamin Brower. #MESA2010

Martyn Smith (@martyn50) “risk taking necessary in translation”.. goal of translator should not be to surround readers with familiar. #MESA2010

Kristina Richardson (@krisrich) Picked up an advance copy of Classical Arabic Stories by Salma Khadra Jayyusi http://t.co/SI2QDnW #mesa2010