Reading Ibn Hajjaj After the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Shootings

This week, in the Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate WorldRula Jurdi Abisaab has a review of Sinan Antoon’s The Poetics of the Obscene in Premodern Arabic Poetry: Ibn al-Ḥajjāj and Sukhf.

51KpbshaQYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Antoon’s 2014 scholarly work — a chapter of which can be read online — deals with some of the neglected forms of Arabic poetry, eased out of the canon for their grotesque humor, anti-piousness, and unabashed scatology. In short, for being obscene.

As Antoon asks, early in the book, “What made Ibn al-Ḥajjāj and his sukhf so successful, accepted, and popular in premodern times, yet virtually unknown nowadays?”

One of the reasons Antoon cites is that, in Abisaab’s words, “poetic modernity, despite its local shape and color, could not disentangle itself from colonial legacies and Eurocentric commentaries on the Arabic literary tradition. There was a tendency to ‘reform’ and modernize, and hence, to perceive this brand of sukhf or mujūn poetry as crude, decadent, and not suitable for civilized audiences.”

In her review, Abisaab writes about the difference between the fate of sukhf poetry and the maqama prose form:

Antoon sufficiently demonstrates that Ibn al-Ḥajjāj’s choice of the sukhf mode was deliberate and that sukhf poetry is anything but sakhīf (trivial). It is entertaining but noncompliant, funny but thought-provoking. Ibn al-Ḥajjāj’s parody of the icons of the Arabic poetic tradition evokes some of the features of the maqāma with its antihero. Even though the maqāma had caught the attention of modern critics and novelists like Emile Habibi, as I noted in one of my articles, the antihero of sukhf does not make it into the modern world of fiction or poetry.

But what Abisaab says she finds particularly exciting and vital about the book is “unearthing of new trajectories for the Arabic literary tradition.”

At the end of her review, Abisaab turns to the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, as, she writes, ” I could not help but think about other conversations which Antoon’s study of sukhf can start.”

It can indirectly address the tiresome comments and ill-conceived statements made by numerous liberal Arab intellectuals, not to mention Western scholars, about the lack of an appreciation for humor and grotesque satire in the Arab-Islamic literary tradition. It was astounding to find that some of the same intellectuals and public figures who had condemned Sa`dī Yūsuf’s poem “`Aisha bint al-Bāsha” (`Aisha daughter of the Pasha) for its obscenity and blasphemy, hailed the daring and artistic qualities of the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo. These intellectuals were arguing that the cartoons reflect a long normative tradition of grotesque humor in France, which Arabs, being backward and non-secular, lack.

In the end, Abisaab writes that this is a work that “must be taken seriously and built upon.” And one reads this relatively rarely in scholarly reviews: “I had to put this book down several times just to laugh.”