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The Performing Arts in Medieval Islam: Shadow Play and Popular Poetry in ibn Daniyal's Mamluk: Cairo.

The Performing Arts in Medieval Islam: Shadow Play and Popular Poetry in Ihn Daniyal's Manduk Cairo. By Li Guo. Islamic History and Civilization. vol. 93. Leiden: BRILL, 2012. Pp. xiii + 240. $136.

Born in Mosul, Mubammad ibn Daniyal (d. 710/1310) ended up in Cairo during the reign of the Mamliik sultan Baybars, having fled from the Mongols in 660/1261 as a boy of some twelve years. He was trained as an eye doctor but became famous as a poet and wit, enjoying the patronage of several sultans. In Arabic literary history his fame rests above all on three "shadow plays," being the only instances of this genre, indeed the only premodern Arabic texts that can properly be called "dramatic."Serious study began a little over a century ago by Georg Jacob, followed by Paul Kahle and several others. A study and edition by Ibrahim Hamadah (Cairo, 1963) is woefully inadequate, not least because it is severely bowdlerized. Kahle's unexpurgated text was published posthumously by Derek Hopwood and Mustafa Badawi in 1992, but a satisfactory edition is still lacking (see reviews by S. Moreh in Welt des Islams 34 [1994]: 126-29, and E. Rowson in JAOS 114 [1994]; 462-66; Amal Eqeiq's entry on Ibn Daniyal in Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, 925-1350 [Wiesbaden, 2011, pp. 142-45] incorrectly claims that this edition includes a translation).

Li Guo's very welcome book is the first full monograph in English on this interesting character and his works (Francesca M. Corrao's 11 riso, ii cotnico e la festa al Cairo nel XII secolo appeared in 1996). As he says, it is an interdisciplinary study involving cultural history, biography, and literary criticism. It is divided into three parts, the first (pp. 1-100) being a biography of Ibn Daniyal, his life presented as a play in three acts: I. Eye Doctor and Street Buffoon; II. Court Panegyrist and Jester; III. Satirist and Shadow Playwright. The main source for his life is Ibn Diiniyal's oeuvre itself, and Guo produces a vivid portrait of him and his times. Part two (pp. 101-51) discusses his place in the history of Arabic literature and the genre of the shadow play; and part three (pp. 153-220) presents the translation (the first in English) of one of the three plays, al-Khayal ("The Phantom"). Manuscripts and sources are listed in two appendixes.

It appears from Guo's study that the composition of the three shadow plays was a protracted and complex process; they recycled many poems composed earlier, sometimes in revised form. Almost all the poetry, like the prose, is in fu, v/ta, even though some colloquial elements turn up; only two poems in the shadow plays are vernacular. Guo takes particular care to point out allusions, instances of paronomasia, double entendre, and other figures of speech, not only in the chapter "The Ornament of the Poetry" (pp. 131-43) but throughout. Tawriya (double entendre) and finds (paronomasia) are so common that Guo adds many notes to his translation, where their occurrence is simply indicated with the abbreviations (t) and (j). There are occasional errors: he confuses tibaq (using two antonyms) with muqabala, a figure involving two sets of antonyms; see pp. 38, 61, 141f. He fails to explain the punning with the words WI and /Jan (p. 131: not only "idle" and "my situation" but also "unadorned" and "adorned with jewels"); he thinks that dirra means "milk," standing for generosity, whereas it means "whip," rather more appropriately, in the poem on p. 138. The pretty boy in the "Monastery of Perfection" (a brothel) called "Sunny" (p. 85) is in fact its shammas or "sexton," a word that offers punning possibilities.

If this book were a film or television program it would come with warnings (and so would this review) of very strong language, adult themes, and explicit sexual references. Ibn Daniyal was a master of nzufan and sukhf, obscene or scatological verse, and Guo offers a fair share of it in appropriately improper English. It may strike us as strange that Ibn Diiniyal was at some stage appointed as "censor" of the literati, but something similar happened to an earlier paragon of the obscene, In al-Hajjaj, who served as muhtasib, responsible for the maintenance of decent behavior in public. Ibn Diiniyal seems to have been on good terms not only with his patrons but also with his fellow poets and with some religious scholars; a jester, after all, is only jesting and can afford to say things that others cannot. Being a jester some of the time is not incompatible with being a serious poet and panegyrist at other times. He was not afraid, however, of attacking sultans. His poem "Elegy on the Devil" satirizes the campaign against vice by Baybars in 665/1267 and another, shockingly indecent "elegy" is directed against Lajin for his similar campaign towards the end of the century. His last recorded poem, however, celebrates his pilgrimage in 702/1303, so when he died seven years later his redemption may have been secured.

Part two highlights the main characteristics of the shadow plays. A prominent feature are the many farcical names of characters, often containing obscene or scatological allusions. Many of these names consist of a sentence including an imperative such as Ulqumlibdri ("Swallowmypoo"), which Guo calls "Ibn Daniyiil's innovative way with verbs" (p. 128), since traditionally "verbal" names, rare in any case, are "constative" (Yazid, Taghlib, Ta'abbata Sharra) rather than imperative. There are, however, some precedents. Ishaq al-Mawsili jokingly reinterpreted the poet al-'Attabi's name, Kulthum, as "Eat-garlic," arguing that Kulbasal ("Eatonion") would be better (al-Aghani, ed. Dar al-Kutub, 13: 112); a fifth/eleventh-century poet Abii Mansur 'A1i ibn al-Hasan was better known as Surradurr ("Putpearls-inapurse") to make up for his stingy father's nickname, Surraba'r ("Putpooinapurse," or "Pack shit" as in the translation of J. T. Monroe and Mark F Pettigrew, JAL 34,1/2 [20031: 169; see Ibn Wafayal, ed. Ihsan 'Abbas, 3: 386). Surraba'r recurs in Ibn al-Khayal as the name of a poet, which Guo translates, slightly less accurately, as "Pile-Up-Dung."The translation of names is tricky. One of the main characters, al-Shaykh WiJ, appears as "Emir Mating," surely appropriately, although Arabic wigii ("union, communion, being together") is less explicitly sexual. Another character is called Shaykh 'Aflaq, or "Shaykh Big Pussy" in Guo's translation. Again, this is strictly correct, but whereas the English is very plain the Arabic word 'aflaq is extremely obscure and almost never found outside dictionaries--so obscure that I would be surprised if many students of modern Arab history would be aware of the oddity of the name of the founder of the Baath Party, Michel Mag.

Ibn Daniyal replied in an epigram to people's queries about how to interpret the shadow images. Guo translates (p. 6): "I told them: It's all illusion (bi-inztithed)."I wonder, however, if imtithal rather means "parable" or "allegory" here: the shadows are not just an illusion but stand for aspects of the real world. In fact, Ibn Daniyal says this in so many words in al-Khaya I: "Behind every shadow image, there is a facet of reality" (p. 161, ed. Kahle p. 4: tahta kull khayal haqiqa). If this is so, then Ibn Daniyal sees the Meaning of Life much as it is put pithily in the closing lyrics of Monty Python's Life of Brian: "Life's a piece of shit / When you look at it," for the shadow plays are redolent, if that is the appropriate word, of scatology. Fortunately, at the end of al-Khayal, Emir Mating declares he has "attained the Truth beyond metaphors" (kharqjtu 'an al-majaz) and he is off to Mecca to wash away all his sins (p. 220).

Translating Tayf al-khayal is fraught with problems: it is surely among the most difficult Arabic texts, with its unusual vocabulary and the many allusions that would have been understood by the original audience but are obscure to us. Guo has done a good job on the whole, ably rendering the racy original into an English equivalent. Perhaps his English is too racy at times: "that I didn't give a damn" (p. 158) is not the same, after all, as anni qasir al-ihtimam ("that I lacked interest"); and he definitely overdoes it when he translates the innocent ma qasadta bi-hadha 1-madhkar ("What do you mean by what you just mentioned?") as "What's that crap you just spewed out?" (p. 179). He sees sexual allusions where even I cannot see them, as when he marks the word qadtb ("branch, rod") as a double entendre where it merely means "branch" as an image for a svelte figure (p. 159), and when he translates it as "Dick" where Qaclib is a girl's name (p. 164; "Twiggy" would have been more apt). It is true nevertheless that Ibn Daniyal's language is riddled with bawdy allusions and it may be wise to be over-rather than under-alert.

Here are some instances where I think I can improve his interpretations. "I jump like a bridled beast (? ibn mu/jam)" (p. 21, ed. p. 67) should be "I pounce like Ibn Muljam," referring to the murderer of 'All ibn Abi Talib. For "He then sings" (ibid.) read "He then recites," for anshada is "reciting" or "declaiming."I suspect that asbaha ka-I-;alim means "he acts like an ostrich" rather than "He then acts like someone who is wrongly accused" (ibid.). but I concede that one cannot be wholly sure. Speaking of a mouth (thaghr) being deprived of its "froth" sounds unsavory (p. 23); but rudab means "saliva" in this context, which in classical Arabic refers to kissing and is always very positive. If horses are called "Abyssininan Yellow" (al-afar al-habashi) and "Indian Fiery" (samsama hindiyya) (p. 41) I would not conclude that they are "new breeds with foreign lineages--Indian, African," for the former simply refers to its colors, habashi meaning "dark" (for habashi asfar said of a horse, see, e.g., al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-dsha, ed. Dar al-Kutub, 8: 88), and the latter is more properly called "Indian Sword."probably on account of its keenness, swords regularly being called "Indian" denoting fine quality. At the beginning of al-Khayal, instead of "Though your screen is still hanging high. I your curtain is hanging low" (p. 159), one should read "May your screen (also: your reputation, satruk) be high and your curtain (also: your 'private space', hijabuk) be impregnable." On the same page, the reading majjat al-asma' ("ears have rejected") is certainly better than dajjat al-asma' ("were getting old for the audience"11). To translate ala tub ("Come on, repent!" or "Mend your ways!") simply as "No!" (p. 163, also p. 4) is rather stingy. The reader may compare Guo's version of the elegy on Satan (pp. 163-65, ed. 5-6) with that by Monroe and Pettigrew (pp. 144-45, not mentioned by Guo). The former is more readable, but I am not sure that "Shit! What fault is it of ours? Our lady's star is screwed by catastrophe!" is a more accurate rendering of esh (alayna najmu sitti qad cakasat'hu I-nulay than Monroe and Pettigrew's "What's come over us? Misfortunes have reversed my lady's star!" However, in the following verse, Guo's "at the seventh try, the butt of the geomancy game is fucked" is closer to the original than "on the seventh geomantic divination there will be a reversal." On p. 166, instead of "I stink worse than rotten fruits," read "I stink worse than a privy (hushsh)." Rather than connecting karfik (-pimp") with a litrkish word for "shovel" (p. 166 n. 488) it should be linked with Aramaic karaa; it was already known to the fourth/tenth-century grammarian Abu (Umar al-Zahid, known as Ghuliim Thdlab (see Lisan al-'arab and WKAS, entry k-r-k). It should not be thought that the lady in the poem on pp. 167-68 (ed. 7-8) is so unattractive that the man has to close his eyes and think of a "truly beautiful woman at the same time" (n. 495): she herself is "sweeter than rose water," and when he says that his heart became band al-'aysh he is not saying, with Guo, "my heart turned drop-dead cold on account of her company," but quite the opposite, for "a cool life" means, well, a "cool" life (see, e.g., al-Zamalchshari, Aslis al-balagha: 'aysh band: na'im). The "chaste daughter" on p. 168 is probably not so chaste, for I believe al-khalqiyya (ed. p. 8, apparently read as al-khuluqjyya by Guo) ought to be read al-halaqiyya ("fond of anal intercourse"), which gives a better rhyme with alifixya and perfectly fits in with the very explicit prose and verse that follow. The meter of that poem requires hiriha ("her cunt") instead of harriha ("[her] heat," Guo following the edition, p. 8). Guo gives rather too much credit to medieval science and technology when he says of a sexual description, "It perhaps ... alludes to white sperms, like worms" (p. 170 n. 508)-1 believe my compatriot Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, in the 1670s, was the first to observe sperms (his own). The translation of the poem on pp. 176-78 (ed. 16-18) again offers an interesting comparison with that by Monroe and Pettigrew (pp. 169-71): a contrast of the demotic versus the stately. What seems to read habhat riyahu dabarin is, in Monroe and Pettigrew's version, "The west winds blew"; Guo, apparently reading dubarin, translates "The wind from an anus blew."Which is right? Both, because the poem soon descends into scatology and coprophagy anyhow; or neither, because the punning is missed by both. The address "0--Habiza!," repeated in the refrain of a strophic poem (pp. 205-6, ed. 41-42) cannot be correct: the rhyme requiresizi (jabizi "my dry bread," khabizi "my baked bread"?). Instead of "If only were a member of the Shayba tribe. I I am not a wild dog- (p. 207) read "Though I may have become a member of the Shayba tribe [here meaning, as Guo correctly surmises, "having gray hairs"], I am at least not a member of the Kalb tribe [I'm not a dog]."Instead of "He read the book on grammar, but up to the letter sin" (p. 210, with a note speculating, incorrectly, that grammar books may be arranged alphabetically), read "He read the book of grammar (nalm.), but with an S (i.e., nahs, "calamity")"; one could try an English pun: "grammar with ST" (stammer).- The "stammering speech of Baqi1" is not "a mock reference to al-Bain-1M* (d. 1013), the theologian" (p. 210), for Baqil is a proverbial figure for inarticulateness predating al-Baqillani by centuries. On the saying "more ill-omened than Tuways" (p. 211), see the proverb collections such as al-Maydani's Majma' al-amthal; it is said that this "effeminate" singer was, with Dalai, among those castrated because of a reading error (ikhsi instead of ahsi), according to a version of the story (al-AghCzni, 4: 273-74, where Tuways is not mentioned); on his shu'rn, see rather al-Aghani, 3: 27-28. Wa-takshifu Can ghali, zi 1-shafri alma (p. 215, in one of the poems on the theme of male sexual impotence) does not mean "Her rough labium feels the pain" but "She reveals thick, deep-red labia."Khadduha 11-1-shaqiqi cu;Ilta shay-flan is not "Here [read 'Her'] cheeks became similar to a brother's" (p. 218, with a note suggesting that she looks like a man) but "Her cheek became a full brother of the anemone (i.e., red)." The spelling Taghan is not "Mocking the common name Tacian" (p. 219 n. 718), because the former is about ten times more common than the latter, judging by a search on the website

A thorough review of the translation would require much more space than an ordinary review can offer. The preceding list of corrections and comments should not be taken as an indication that Guo has done a bad job. On the contrary, he has solved many knotty problems and managed to convey the spirit of a very intriguing but difficult text. He has not given us the definitive translation of al-Khaya/ but offers a worthy first attempt. I would hazard the guess that the textual problems of Shakespeare's works, which still occupy the minds of myriad scholars, pale in comparison with the difficulties of Ibn Daniyal's text, which is not to suggest that Ibn Daniyal is on the same level as Shakespeare, but merely that many specialists will have to scrutinize his works before we solve most of the obscurities.


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Author:Gelder, Geert Jan Van
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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