Dinner With al-Jāḥiẓ
At the root of classical Arabic prose is the Word of God, and then the works of Abū ʿUthman ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Kinānī al-Baṣrī (c. 776 - c. 868), better known by his nickname al-Jāḥiẓ (supposedly, “bug-eyes”). None of his work found an English version until the mid-twentieth century, and then only by way of a French detour; the Orientalist Charles Pellat chose a selection worthy of translation into a European tongue, and introduced it with the very faintest of praise.
Arabic literature in the ordinary sense of the word includes much that is of doubtful literary merit. Qualitatively, however, it is extraordinarily rich… One of the few medieval Arabic writers who deserve (from the standpoint of the ordinary reader) to be rescued from total obscurity [is] Abu Uthman 'Amr b. Bahr al-Jahiz.
Presumably we are meant to feel relief that Pellat has winnowed out such a qualitative mountain of chaff in performing his rescue. His method was to pick from the dozens of surviving texts by al-Jāḥiẓ a hundred-odd extracts for translation, most no more than a page and all scrubbed clean of anything that Pellat thought digressive or indecent.
The problem with this approach is that (to say nothing of indecency) al-Jāḥiẓ is all digression. His ostensible topics wander from natural history (a bestiary in seven volumes) into human character (The Book of Misers is sometimes called the first work of Arabic fiction), philosophy and theology (a Muʿtazili, he maintained that the Qur’an was created rather than co-eternal with God, and therefore accessible to rational inquiry), poetry, politics, moral conduct and anything else that caught his interest. But his real subject is always rhetoric. His genre is ’adab, a word that means “etiquette” or “good manners” and in a literary context might be rendered “works of culture” or “works of entertainment.” If his style seems oratical, or conversational, or just plain disorganized, it is worth remembering that he comes from a culture of raconteurs in which nothing but oral evidence was admissible in court, stories were expected to come with authenticated trains of mouth-to-mouth transmission and a patron would commission a book much as he might hire a drinking companion to tell him stories in the evening.
In a sense al-Jāḥiẓ is an essayist, and in a rather more distant sense he might be a maker of fictions. But comparisons to Montaigne or Boccaccio are all wrong. There might be a bit of Castiglione in his habit of advice and his concern for getting ahead, or something of Robert Burton in his all-consuming heaps of quotation and catalogue. But naming names doesn’t bring him closer to us, or make it any easier to triangulate the English versions we have.
There is the English retranslation of Pellat’s excerpts, which is simply unsatisfying; then there is a 2000 volume translated by R.B. Serjeant and including The Book of Misers (al-Bukhalā’) in its entirety. The edition is tirelessly annotated, and certainly the most scholarly of the English texts available, but it opens a narrow window on our author. We do get a bit of his personality in the opening dedication:
Had you not asked me for this book I would certainly neither have gone to the trouble of writing it nor exposed my words to ill treatment and retaliation. So if there be reproach or weakness in it, it is your fault, but if there be success it is mine not yours!
Having cleared that up, al-Jāḥiẓ goes on to produce not a fiction but a collection of anecdotes and character sketches. Miserliness doesn’t hold his attention for long, and he soon broadens his satire to cover anyone who seems to betray the social grounding of ’adab.
When we were on our way to Baghdad there was a man of the Khurāsān people in the boat with us, one of their intelligent individuals and lawyers. He was eating by himself so I said to him: “Why do you eat by yourself?” To which he replied: “In this situation I am not responsible for answering a question. Replying to a question is the responsibility of a person who eats with the group. For such questionings would be unwarranted inquisitiveness into hidden things. Eating by myself is Fundamental Principle and my eating with others is something additional to Fundamental Principle.”
Students of any society will not be surprised that discussion of social mores can’t be held apart from discussion of food, and that the second half of the book is mostly about table manners.
“A young man may not be a snatcher (nashshāl),” this latter… is a person who takes from the cookpot hot and eats before it is ready, or the pot set down and folk completely assembled.
The sponger (nashshāf) is a person who takes a piece out of the edge of a jardhaqah round of bread, opens it up, then dips in the top of the cookpot to make it mop up the fat, taking it all to himself to the exclusion of his fellows.
The swallower (mirsāl) falls into two categories of person—one of these, when he puts in his mouth a bit of harīsah-paste or of a tharīdah, a piece of ḥaysah-date cake or a rice dish, gulps it down straight into his pharynx without chewing it. The other type is a person who, when walking in a tangled thicket of palm-slips or bushes, grasps hold of the end of a palm-frond or branch to push it away from his face, and, when he has done what he has wanted, lets it go from his hand and inevitably it hits the face of his companion following him, but he takes no heed of this and does not even know what has happened to him.
Concerning the crammer (lakkām)—he is a person who has a piece of food in his mouth, them crams another in on top of it without having chewed the first piece properly and swallowing it.
The sucker (maṣṣāṣ) is a person who sucks at the medullary cavity of a bone after extracting the marrow from it, taking it all to himself to the exclusion of his fellows.
Concerning the scatterer (naffāḍ)—he is a person who, when he has finished washing his hands in the basin, shakes his hands free of water, splattering his fellows with it.
The hollower-out (muqawwir) is a person who hollows out the centre of jardhaq bread rounds, taking the middle parts all to himself and leaving the outside edges to his fellows.
The finger-licker (laṭṭāʿ) is notorious—a person who licks his finger and then puts it back in folk's broth, milk or gruel of parched barley and ghee, etc.
The shifter (muḥawwil)—he is a person who, when he sees a lot of date-stones before him, contrives to mix them with his neighbor's date-stones.
Here and there the author’s eccentricity comes through; the translation suggests a style of parallelism and hyperbole. But the English book that gives the best picture of al-Jaḥiẓ’s singularity, and the most pleasure in reading, is Sobriety and Mirth, a miscellany of shorter works carefully rendered by Jim Colville, published by vague Routledge affiliate Kegan Paul International and now gone to pasture in academic libraries (though a copy can be yours for $250). Among the selections are an argument for the superiority of black races to white; an extended joke (which went over Charles Pellat’s head) in which the exoteric “front” interpretation of the Qur’an is preferred to the esoteric “back” interpretation as if presenting a denunciation of sodomy; a refutation of Christianity; a bragging contest between a pederast and a fornicator that degenerates into a grab bag of dirty jokes. The title piece “Gravity and Mirth” is assumed by internal evidence to have been written late in life for a fickle patron, and its uneasy relation to its own jocular tone implies an uneasiness with the society of patronage at large.
I would ransom you with my own life! Can it be because I would rather farm palm trees than wheat that you have frozen me out and because I prefer giving charity to paying the land tax that you are punishing me? Is it really because I resent paying the property tax and believe that the non-Muslim poll-tax is sufficient that you have declared me persona non grata? I simply do not understand why you now loathe my presence and prefer not to have me around or why you find my company tiresome and think my life has gone on long enough. Why do you rejoice at my bad luck and troubles and lament my successes and good fortune? As my happiness distresses you, so my misery appears to delight you. You wait for one wrong word from me to use as a pretext to drive me away. If I do you a good turn, it fills you with dread, since you will then be obliged to invite me.
Good God, even if I had kissed the shrine of Babak, spread lies throughout the land, committed every sort of atrocity, violated all the tenets of the faith, corrupted all your offspring, captured all your chessmen, deprived the world of horse racing, turned every meadow into a breeding ground of fever, passed on leprosy to beardless boys and pleurisy to infants, disfigured every slave-girl I could find and left her face like Abū Ramla’s, compared your stature to the midget, Abū Hatha, been the first slave trader to set up shop and been the man who opened the door of darkness and let the evil ones come in, converted you to Abū Dīnār’s thinking or been the mouthpiece of Manichaeism, conspired in the murder of al-Muʿtasim and grieved at the fate of al-Afshīn, been a closet atheist or Sālih ibn Hunayn’s apologist, put you in debt to Hātim al-Rīsh, been a good friend of Abū Shammakh and had Farisi as one of my followers—even then your accusations would still be excessive and your criticism over the top.
Another presumed late text, likewise dedicated to beating up a patron, is Risālat al-tarbīʿ wa al-tadwīr (translated as “Squaring the Circle,” or “Book of the Circle and the Square,” referring to the addressee’s physical shape.) The tone bounces between sarcasm, flattery and abuse, and the most remarkable section, which evokes the patron’s decrepitude, is packed with allusions whose meanings have not survived. The only possible approach is the opposite of Pellat’s, a lengthy, faithful, undigested transcription. As Colville suggests: “Let the reader make of it what he will.”
In the Name of God, the Merciful & Compassionate
Ahmad ibn Abdulwahhāb is a very short fellow who believes he is exceptionally tall. Square-shaped and squat with a broad chest and spreading waist, he could be mistaken for a ball. His hands and feet are pudgy and his fingers short and fat. Still, he maintains that he is a model of elegance in the peak of physical condition and blessed with a trim waistline, fine bone structure and classic facial features. Despite an enormous backside and short, stubby legs, he claims to have long legs, a tall and straight back, balanced bodily proportions and a large head. He is convinced, too, that he has been naturally endowed with knowledge and physical prowess, He is old–very old–but claims to be still in the full bloom of youth. His pretensions to knowledge exhibit an ignorance of all fields of learning and his efforts to display it are matched by a staggering incomprehension.
Still, I could perhaps relent and let you off the hook. “The old man has gone senile,” I might say, “but he is, at least, trying to be serious. He talks nonsense, but at least it’s funny.” After all, senility sometimes afflicts much younger men than you, while many older men remain perfectly lucid. Oh, but is there anyone as old as you? Who but the stars and Satan have gained experience like yours? Who but the Creator of heaven and earth knows the answer to that? If scavenging vultures, mountain eagles, wood pigeons, wills asses, sand snakes, the old-timers of Yamāma and the geriatrics of Farghāna knew that you thought Noah was merely a stripling and that the stars are still in their infancy, that you have transcended ordinary time-keeping and surpassed the reckoning of ages, that you care nothing for eras and epochs and have left the chronology of India behind, they would never believe that their lives are so long or take pride in the length of their days. How are you this morning, you power of primordial matter! Good afternoon to you, eagle of Luqmān! Good evening, you centrepiece of the firmament! You are more ancient than the tribe of Daws and pre-date even Labd. You are eternal serenity, you potentate of Sind!
Tell me, what was the Flood like? When did the Ma’rib dam collapse? How long ago did ʿAwaj die? When did human language divide into so many different tongues? What held Noah’s raven back? How long did you stay in the Ark? When did foot and mouth disease destroy the camel herds? How long ago did tuberculosis decimate the population? When were the battles of Khazzāz and al-Bayda’ fought? Where are the lost tribes of Ād and Thamūd? Where did Tasm and Jadīs, Umaym and Wabār go? Where were Jurhum and Jāsim when stones were soft as dates and everything could speak? When did the mountains appear and the seas pour from the bowels of the earth? Which river is oldest—the Balkh, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Jayhān, the Sayhān or the Indus? Where is the silt of these rivers deposited? Where does all the soil washed from the mountainsides go? In which seas does it end up? Which valleys has it filled? How much land has been created and how many new springs have appeared? Who was Jurhum's father? Who were the lackeys of the Antichrist? Are there others like him? Where did Tuways go? What is the story of Ibn Sa`īd? Where did the Mahdi recruit his gang?
Tell me, are Hermes and Idrīs one and the same? Is Jeremiah actually Elias? Is John the Baptist Elijah? Did Alexander the Great really have two horns? Who were his mother and father? Who were Qayra, ʿAyra and Julanda? Where are the children who were fathered by ogres? How many camels does it take to make a herd? Was Qahtān originally a Hebrew tribe or descended from Ismaʿil? Is Qudhāʿa descended from Maʿadd ibn ʿAdnān or Mālik ibn Himyār? When did the tribe of Khuzāʿa disintegrate? When did Tayy hide their wells? Who was Ibn Binsur and what path did he follow?
What is the story of Venus? What happened to Canopus? What has been said about Hārūt and Mārūt? What happened to Irbīyāna, the thriving seamstress? What is the story of Fa'ra, the miller's wife? What was the crime of the gecko? What was the dove's good deed? How was the lizard so careless? What is the status of frogs? What is the song of the sparrow-hawk? Why are the cockerel and crow such implacable foes and genii and worms such good friends? Where does their water come from? How clever is the hoopoe, really? Where is its mother buried? Why does it have such a terrible smell?
Tell me about those bygone tribes who were transformed into something else then made to disappear for ever. Where did they come from and what were they turned into? Were they taken away by land or by sea? If by land, were they changed into lizards and if by sea, were they turned into eels?
Who fathered the jackal, the chameleon, the weasel and the hyrax? Where do cockroaches come from? What is the origin of phallic mushrooms? Why is the purpose of cats and why were pigs created? How can flies by both harmful and medicinally useful? Why is the viper not poisoned by its own venom? Why does the sun not burn itself out?
Now, my prayer for your long life is not a petition for your actual longevity: it is an appeal for your piety and humility. Now you know! Likewise, when you hear me beseeching God not to leave your seat empty, I do not mean it literally.
You know, I am only poking fun at you because I want to see you smile. I have no other wish than to breathe my last breath beside you.
Do men's gazes fall on anyone but you? At whom do people point if not at you? What deed of yours is not the summit of achievement? What act of yours is not the final word? Is there any quality of yours that outshines any other, is itself outshone or of which it might be said, “If only it were not quite so, it would be finer still. If only it were otherwise, it would be more complete”?
Where do perfect goodness, supreme good looks, dazzling wit, unaffected charm and grace and consummate perfection lie if not in and with and all around you? Indeed, do beauty, stature, virtue, charm and grace exist anywhere on earth save in you and because of you? They are yours exclusively, befitting no one else but you. You have the whole of which other men have only part. You have it pure and unalloyed; what others have is flawed. Additionally, you have unique and marvellous qualities that I cannot even guess at.
The very last word—which stops further debate and speculation—is that I have never seen you without thinking of paradise and have never thereafter looked at the most handsome of men without being reminded of hell-fire!
Dear reader, do not be surprised at this. I am inadequate for the task and, if you saw him, you would know how derelict I am in giving him his due.