Catching the Joke on its Wing: Humphrey Davies on ‘Brains Confounded’ and ‘Risible Rhymes’

This interview also appears on the Library of Arabic Literature website:

humphreyHumphrey Davies, a multi-award-winning translator who works with Arabic literature from the Ottoman period to present, first read Yūsuf al-Shirbīnī’s seventeenth-century Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shādūf Expounded in the early 1970s. Since then, Davies has “only come to further appreciate his originality in inverting and subverting the literary practices of the time.”

Brains Confounded borrows from a wide variety of Arabic literary traditions and includes one-liners, anecdotes, accounts of adventure, and verse—both “high” and “low.” Al-Shirbīnī presents mock-rural poems and subjects them to an over-the-top grammatical analysis. These rural poems may have been borrowed from a slightly earlier work by Muḥammad ibn Maḥfūẓ al-Sanhūrī, which Davies has just translated as Risible Rhymes, or both may have borrowed from a stock of mock-rural verse in common circulation.

In the first part of an interview about the two seventeenth-century texts – al-Sanhūrī’s Risible Rhymes and al-Shirbīnī’s later Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shādūf Expounded – Davies talks about why he values Brains Confounded, how his reading of it has changed since the 1970s, the connections he makes between al-Shirbīnī and nineteenth-century author Ahmad Faris al-Shidyāq, and more.

The second part will address the relationship between the two texts, what we do (and don’t) know about real rural verse in seventeenth-century Egypt, and what scholars, readers, and writers can learn from Brains Confounded.

You once put Yusuf al-Shirbīnī’s Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shādūf Expounded on your list of “5 Arabic Books to Read Before You Die .” Why did this book make your top five instead of the classical standards? Would you still keep it there?

Humphrey Davies: Muhsin Musawi, in his recently published The Medieval Republic of Letters, calls Brains Confounded the “culminating” work of post-classical Arabic literature, so I feel totally vindicated (like, I should be slapped on the shoulders with a sword by Deleuze or something). I think literature buffs have a different take on what is interesting than some others in the field: the “classical standards” (if I understand the phrase as you mean it) include many works that are riveting for religion scholars, fun for philologists, hysterically exciting for historians, but my test for a book is, Would the author be fun to sit in a café with? And the answer in al-Shirbīnī’s case is an emphatic yes. So I would keep it on the shelf.

You’ve sat in cafés with Brains Confounded for quite a while. How has your reading of it — and your opinion of al-Shirbīnī — changed through the process of writing about it, editing it, translating it, editing that translation?

HD: With each reading since the first (around 1973, I think) I’ve only come to further appreciate his originality in inverting and subverting the literary practices of the time. For example, his parody of grammatical exegesis is not without precursors, but al-Shirbīnī’s version is so much more sustained and intense that it takes the joke to another, quite surrealistic, level (as when he argues that body lice cannot jump as high as fleas because the word for the former is grammatically feminine while that for the latter is masculine, and, of course, “the female is weaker than the male.”) This is life imitating grammar, and comes close to undermining the seriousness of the whole text-and-commentary genre. Similarly, at the level of the satire on rural life and its human fauna, few have felt free to be so uncompromisingly rude. Where else is one likely to read, for example, that the pubic hair of the male peasant is “so long that it twists as it grows” or that such people are “shit born of shit”? This text has never staled (in the commoner sense of the word) for me, perhaps because his vision is so outrageous that it remains forever fresh. Okay, fresh may not be the right word. Piquant, perhaps. Ammoniac, like smelling salts, even.

What lines can we draw between al-Shirbīnī and Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, whose 1855 Leg over Leg you also translated? Is al-Shirbīnī also a writer who can’t be considered a “chain man” — even if he might’ve liked to be one? Do you have a particular sympathy for writers who were, in some way, disjointed from time or place? 

HD: You’ve hit the nail on the head: al-Shirbīnī was a non-chain-man who wanted to join the chain and pinned his hopes on this commission from an Azharite worthy to put the dagger into the pretentions to literary culture of non-Azharis and their ilk. However, the mordancy of the satire, its slight over-the-topness, not to mention his parody of the commentary genre itself, hint at a rambunctious, even anarchic personality. In any case, the job was a poisoned chalice: he carried out his assignment for the establishment well, but who gives a medal to a hired assassin? No one recognized him with a biography in any of those generational biographical dictionaries that praise far lesser writers, and his only known later work finds him playing the scholarly merry-andrew by writing a tract that uses only undotted letters and dedicating it to the Ottoman governor in the hope of patronage.

Al-Shidyaq was a non-chain-man at all levels: anti-authoritarianism ran in his blood, or was put there early on, when the Maronite patriarch caused his elder brother’s death by mistreatment. In the end, though, they are very much alike. Someone who met al-Shidyaq in old age described him as vigorous, witty, and “much given to profanity.” I imagine the same would have been true of al-Shirbīnī.

And, yes I do have a sympathy for off-beat writers: they tend not to be dull.

Satire was an important genre in many 17th c. cities in Europe and Asia. Do you see any ties between this work and satires or parodies in other literary languages? Or just in the underlying body of jokes and story-elements in use, that circulated through stories like the Nights?

HD: To assert the existence of the same satirical weltgeist in both European and Asian cities in the 17th century would be a large claim. It would imply a commonality of experience whose roots would have to be sought in what? Early capitalist disruptions of the social fabric? Peter Gran, who has written on the Islamic roots of capitalism, would be better qualified to address that than I. What is unquestionable is that, as you say, the same stories turn up in both Europe and Asia, and eventually even make their way to the New World. Example: al-Shirbīnī’s tale of the debate between the Persian Scholar and the Peasant, which has been recorded in various forms at many places and times, including Los Angeles in the 50s and 60s, where the protagonists have become the Pope and a rabbi. Many of these stories carry a moral, these morals do seem to be universal, and their flip side is satire, in that satire is protest against immorality. I see al-Shirbīnī and his European counterparts as fishing from the same pond but sitting on opposite banks.

How would you describe the author’s talents and temperament? From my vantage, he feels like a box of contradictions: earnest preacher and parodist-satirist; outsider who mocks outsiders; places the city at the top of his hierarchy but writes about the countryside; a grammar nerd who mocks grammar nerd-ism; an author against coarseness who writes with lots of coarse imagery.  

HD: You describe him well. He was a bookseller, or so it seems, thus close to the world of scholarship but not of it. The same books passed through his hands as through the hands of the scholars but didn’t bestow on him the authority, and hence the livelihood, that they had; the early pages of Brains Confounded are devoted to the author’s complaints that “men of wit see of victuals not a whit,” etc. Then, one day, his services were called on by a bona fide scholar to actually write a book! Al-Shirbīnī must have been thrilled. But was he not still the lackey of the establishment, hired to mock the pretensions of those who, having acquired a modicum of education, were perceived as a threat? Was he really appreciated for his mastery of high culture, or just being used to do the dirty work for his betters? No wonder he comes over as conflicted!

How would you describe the author’s relationship to salty language and imagery?  

HD: He revels in it. He may have justified its use as being of a piece with the object of his satire, and it is part of his quiver of invective against “the peasant,” but he also uses it in contexts that are, as it were, peasant-free, i.e., for its own sake.

Do we have some idea of how the text would’ve been read in Shirbīn, Damietta, or Cairo in its time, and how far it traveled? When you say the ten existing manuscript copies indicate “at least a modest popularity,” what does that mean in terms of how many people’s lives it might have touched? Would they have been entirely in Egypt? Would he have seen his audience as Egyptian, not as pan-Arab?

HD: The only reference to al-Shirbīnī before the advent in Egypt of the printed book occurs in an undated, unpublished synopsis of an unpublished, undated work falsely attributed to Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtū entitled The Work of Clarification on the Science of Copulation, in which al-Shirbīnī is quoted as an authority on cuckoldry and pimping, though the quotation is as spurious as the original attribution. Thus, he seems to have had a reputation as an authority on socio-sexual issues, but was not keeping the best scholarly company. How many people that translates into is, I think, impossible to say. The person who thought it was worth his while to pay for it to be printed in Cairo for the first time in 1857 must have assumed that he was going to make a profit, i.e., that the book still had significant appeal then, and it was reprinted several times during the rest of the nineteenth century. I imagine it was read largely for the jokes and the sex. I have no evidence that the work was known outside Egypt; its intense Egyptianness (fellaheen, canals, stewed beans) may have limited its appeal.

You give an explanation for some of the seeming unconnected moments, that have nothing (apparently) to do with the topic at hand. Does this also have to do with the different way in which texts were consumed? Someone wouldn’t sit down and read it from front to back, I imagine. 

HD: I haven’t seen anything that would suggest that people read books in Ottoman Egypt any differently than they did elsewhere or do today, i.e., as Alice said, by starting at the beginning, keeping going until the end, and then stopping. In fact, I think that the book has a fairly tight and logical organization that serves to advance the author’s argument cogently, and that the apparent digressions should be seen as sidebars, or bubbles, that complement and add to the main flow, even if they are not essential to it. If he’d had a computer and a training in graphics, he would have been able to do very exciting things with this.

Some of the humorous tropes (for instance: religious men like their free food) seem to continue to appear in contemporary in Egyptian literature. To what extent can we say this is Egyptian literature vs. being part of a broader Arabic literature? 

HD: I don’t know enough about comparable non-Egyptian literature to answer this beyond saying that, whether or not certain stereotypes are common to different parts of the Arab World, this is a book that could only have been engendered in Egypt: its parameters are those of the Nile, the particular kind of social organization that nearly complete dependence on irrigation gives rise to, and the disconnect between the secular authorities (then as now, the soldiery), the religious establishment, and the rural masses.

How much of the satire and parody do you think we might miss by not being of his time or knowing the tropes and stereotypes in circulation at the time?

HD: Regarding the social satire, I think most of it is self-explanatory and as to the tropes, even if we (non-Arab or modern Arab readers) do not fall about laughing as soon as beards are mentioned, the author will quickly initiate us into their comic potential so that we should quickly learn to “catch the joke on the wing” (as the peasant said of his donkey when it farted every time he clutched his beard).

There’s more about both X and Y on the Library of Arabic Literature website.



Categories: Library of Arabic Literature

1 reply


  1. Meme-Makers, Puzzle Poems, and the Great Unwashed: Humphrey Davies on ‘Brains Confounded’ and ‘Risible Rhymes’ – Arabic Literature (in English)
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