Friday Finds: Muhammad al-Tunisi’s 19th-c. Account of Darfur

Earlier this week, the Library of Arabic Literature published the two-volume In Darfur: An Account of the Sultanate and Its Peopleedited and translated by Humphrey Davies, with a foreword by R.S. O’Fahey. Although the author is Muhammad al-Tunisi, who wrote the text is somewhat more complicated:

The text is fascinating for any number of reasons, not least of which is was taken on by Davies, which immediately puts it in the company of Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg over Leg and Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Brains Confounded. Indeed, although In Darfur was published after al-Shirbini’s time, it did catch al-Shidyaq’s eye. His Leg over Leg ends with a denunciation of French Arabists, which takes him to In Darfur, which was assembled by al-Tunisi’s Arabic student and boss, Nicolas Perron.

Al-Shidyaq complains that Perron “freighted the whole book with misspellings and mistakes,” and goes on to note twenty-seven of them.

Perron’s relationship to In Darfur — which appeared in French translation before it appeared in Arabic — has fore-echoes of the Bowles-Choukri production of For Bread Alone. Indeed, in Davies’ estimation, some of the errors and colloquialisms come because al-Tunisi is speaking the book aloud from notes, which his Arabic student (Perron) is taking down. But, unlike For Bread Alone translator Paul Bowles, Perron takes charge not only of the French translation, but also the Arabic “original.” As Davies writes in his “Note on the Text”:

No manuscript copy of the work exists. Its earliest recension is a lithographic edition, in the hand of Nicolas Perron, the author’s institutional superior and student, published in Paris in 1850. An annotated edition, based, of necessity, on Perron’s lithograph, was published in 1965.

Indeed, Davies further suggests that Perron — who we should remember was al-Tunisi’s superior at work — printed up the Arabic edition and presented it to al-Tunisi as a fait accompli, with no opportunity to redact spelling or grammatical infelicities. However, Davies convincingly brushes aside claims that a beginning Arabic student (who had never been to Darfur) such as Perron could be considered the “real” author of the text.

There are also interesting differences between the French and the Arabic text. Davies’ note:

On occasion, Perron goes so far as to alter al-Tunisi’s text in the interests of political, perhaps specifically Saint Simonian, correctness. Thus, al-Tunisi’s statement “Rarely, though, is a chaste woman to be found among the Blacks. . .” (3.2.46) has no equivalent in Perron’s translation except in a backhanded form: in its place, we find a passage extolling the purity of Arab women (El-Tounsy, Voyage au Darfour, 262-63).

From the book.

As with the Bowles-Choukri book, the idea of the text is attributed to the foreigner, Perron. Al-Tunisi writes (in the Perron lithograph), “He studied Kalilah and Dimnah with me in Arabic, and I told him some of the splendid and amazing things I’d endured on my travels. He then urged me to ‘adorn the face of my copybook’ with an exposition of the marvels I’d seen and to tell him of the strange things that had befallen me on these journeys.'”

The book itself is plainly composed, perhaps because al-Tunisi was making things straightforward for his student. From the preamble of In Darfur: “Likewise, I’ve spared no effort to make it clear, and not gone diving after arcane words, to make it be plain to every ear.”

That is not even to mention the book’s interest as a traveler’s account of nineteenth-century Darfur — and an account of one man’s youth — which it certainly also is.

Over at the Library of Arabic Literature site, they’ve posted an excerpt taken from the middle of the first chapter, “The Reasons That Led to My Journey to the Land of the Blacks.” It opens:

My uncle therefore went to the Hejaz, leaving me in Cairo to continue my studies at al-Azhar with enough money to last four months, but he stayed there longer than that. I ran out of money and could accomplish nothing—I was in the prime of my youth at the time—and found myself at a loss, not knowing what to do and scorning the idea of abandoning my studies and learning a craft. While thus at a loss and surviving in straitened circumstances due to my lack of wherewithal, I heard that a caravan had arrived from the Land of the Blacks, from Darfur—for which, we had heard earlier, my father had left Sinnār, accompanied by his brother. When the caravan had settled itself at the Caravanserai of the Jallābah, I went there to ask after my father, to find out if he was still alive and might yet arrive, or had been placed in the bare-walled vault on his demise. By coincidence, I came across a man—elderly, imposing, and dignified—called Sayyid Aḥmad Badawī, who was with the caravan. I kissed his hand and stood before him for a while, until he asked me gently, “What do you want?” I replied, “I’m looking for a man I know who has disappeared into your country. Perhaps one of you knows him and can guide me to him.” “Who is he?” he asked, “and what is his name?” “His name is Sayyid ʿUmar al-Tūnisī, and he is a man of learning,” I replied. “It so happens that you’ve come upon one who knows him well!” he said. “He is my friend and no one knows him better than I. I see a resemblance in you to him. I think you must be his son.” “I am,” I answered, “though my outward appearance is changed, my inner self deranged.” “Then what prevents you, dear boy,” he next asked, “from setting off to seek your father and finding, when you meet him, joy?” “Lack of means,” I replied, “and of provisions and the necessary gear.” “Your father,” said the man, “is regarded by the sultan as a very great man and is among those to whom he is most generous, more than any other at his court. Should you wish to go to him, I’ll take care of your provisions, your mount, and your comfort till you reach him and stand before him.” “Do you really mean that?” I asked him. “By the life of the Messenger, I do!” he replied. “Your father once did me a favor I could never repay were I to spend all that I own, every penny I possess.” “I am your obedient servant,” I said, “and will follow you in everything.” I therefore made a pact with him to that effect, and gave him my word then and there, and took to visiting him often until he was ready and told me, “Tomorrow we leave. Spend the night with us, if you like, so we can make an early start!” to which I replied, “That will I do, with all my heart!”

Continue reading at the LAL website.