‘Consorts of the Caliphs’: History Through the Writings of 39 Women

Consorts of the Caliphs — a history through the writings of thirty-nine women — is the newest Library of Arabic Literature title, officially forthcoming next month. A consciously non-canonical and collaborative effort, the book was discussed at several points during last Saturday’s LAL workshop, “A Corpus Not a Canon“:

1406056879508While Consorts is a short book, just 144 pages, it was a long time in coming. The project began more than a decade ago with a smaller, pre-LAL group.

After a start, the translation languished. But it was not forgotten: When Philip Kennedy wrote the grant proposal for the LAL, a note was added about a Consorts translation. Yet it was again lost among the proliferation of projects.

Still, the idea persisted: In December 2012, several LAL editors met in Abu Dhabi, along with poet Richard Sieburth, to discuss the writings of Consorts and to talk about the collaborative and reader-focused nature of what they were attempting. Over the last few years, each of the LAL editors has contributed in some way to the project. Now, in the spring of 2015, the book is finally ready.

During his Saturday presentation, LAL Executive Editor Shawkat Toorawa said Consorts could be viewed “not exactly as a manifesto, but as a way of saying, ‘This is what we think.'”

What Team LAL thinks, according to Toorawa, can be seen in part on the book’s crowded cover. It credits Ibn al-Saʿi (d. 1276 AD) with the original composition, but also credits editing by Toorawa, translations by all the LAL editors, an introduction by Julia Bray, and a foreword by Marina Warner.

According to Toorawa, “This is how we feel about the vision, about editing, about translating, about collaboration, and about taking something otherwise little-known and making it part of a conversation.”

Riffing off the workshop’s title, Toorawa added: “Neither a corpus nor a canon.”

The many names on the cover make it clear both that there “are many ways of doing this work” and that the group feels collaboration “doesn’t devalue a text, it adds value.”

The thirteenth-century compilation was well-known in its time, according to Kennedy. But later, Joe Lowry said, it “left less of a footprint in the tradition.” The 2015 editing and translation takes these women’s voices back from a position of relative obscurity. For reasons good and bad, there will almost certainly be of interest from outside the field.

Julia Bray described the volume’s poetry as “one very period-specific kind of women’s poetry,” which “belongs to a very elaborate culture in which lots and lots of luxury objects are produced and traded.” Women slaves lived among, and were among, these luxury objects. The poems represented the “kind of things that a woman poet can produce, and is expected to produce, and does produce in a situation where she is meant to be entertaining, witty, and able to respond as a virtuoso to any situation.”

But the book is not written or compiled by any of these women. “This is a book by a historian…who wrote in many different formats, and I suppose you could say genres,” Bray said. “No doubt, as a historian, he would’ve considered this book a kind of history.”

As a historian, Ibn al-Sa’i is known to have chronicled the academic and political elites of his city, including the lives of women. In Consorts, Ibn al-Saʿi attempts to make a connection between the lives and writings of the powerful wives in his time and the lovers of Baghdad’s “Golden Age.”

“Modern historians, I think, would probably pooh-pooh it as a work of history, and I think they would be quite wrong to do so,” Bray said. “There is a certain mindset about modern historians of the Middle East which is extremely insensitive to questions of genre and mode, and thereby jettisons an awful lot of vital intellectual and cultural history.”

“Although it looks something of a trifle in terms of its number of pages, it is an…intellectual engagement with very diverse material and very diverse purposes for the writing of history.”

For those who are interested, it looks like the book is available now through the NYU Press website.