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The Politics of Literary Disputations and Debates in Classical and Medieval Arabic Literature

Panel VIII-10, sponsored byJournal of Arabic Literature, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel will explore the multi-thematic Arabic (sub)genre known (among others) as musājalāt or munāẓarāt (disputations, debates) as penned by classical and medieval Arabophone authors of both poetry and prose from across the vast territories in which Arabic has historically been a literary language. By engaging with this understudied (sub)genre, and others related to it such as epistolary refutations, poetic mufākharfāt (boasting matches) and naqāʾiḍ (flytings), we aim to show that beyond the traditional matrices of literary polemics and/or earnest/jest, literary disputations and debates offered authors from diverse ideological backgrounds and with different tastes and convictions, an opportunity to subtly negotiate dominant literary conventions and discursively subvert (or consolidate) hegemonic socio-cultural and political norms and practices.
  • In the magisterial Tarīkh al-Jazāʾir al-Thaqāfī, Abū al-Qāsim Saʿd Allāh (d. 2013) hailed Bakr Ibn Ḥammād al-Tāhartī(d. 909) as one of Algeria’s most iconic cultural figures and portrayed the peripatetic fils natif of Tahart (modern Tiaret) as one the Maghrib’s greatest poets of all time. Although controversial and ‘machiavellianist,’ at times, a few coeval poets could claim that they made name, fame, and controversy, in Rustamīd Tahart, Aghlabid Qayrawan, Abbasid Baghdad, and Idrīsid Fes/Kart. With this comes an intellectual studentship and scholarly experience at the famed learning center of Basra as well as a brief stay in Cairo and possibly al-Andalus. In my contribution, I will briefly examine the life, career, and poetry of this largely forgotten premodern Maghribi poet —dubbed the “Abū ‘l-ʿAtāhiya of the Maghrib.” Related to the main topic of this panel, I will give special attention to young Bakr Ibn Ḥammād’s poetic jousting at the court of al-Muʿtaṣim (r.833-842) namely his poetic taḥrīḍ (incitement ) against Diʿbil ibn ʿAlī al-Khuzāʿī (d.860) which led to a poetic musājala (disputation) with Abū Tammām (d. 845). Finally, I will briefly present a fascinating contemporary poetic ḥiwāriyya (conversation) with Bakr Ibn Ḥammād penned by ʿAbd al-Qādir Rābḥī, a contemporary Algerian poet and academic famed for his poetically and politically sophisticated (dis)connecting of Alegria’s turāth (heritage) with Algerian postcolonial modernity(ies).
  • Thievery Disputation in Literary Theory This paper looks upon several disputations throughout classical and medieval Arabic literature as pivotal intersections in a literary and historical formative process. What could be traced as response to gossip in pre-Islamic and early Islamic odes was bound to gain momentum in a growing corpus of written treatises, books, and interventions that focus on sariqat. Whether incited or provoked by a sincere philological concern or driven by malice or tribal there had been a growing semantic field over time that enlisted the contributions of the most recognized authorities. Although the term sariqah recurs quite often in books and epistles written in support of a specific poet and method or another, it has never got established as the right one for an intertextual space that rather demonstrates ongoing processes of memorization, reading, contrafaction, and anthologizing. As a contentious space, this semantic field is bound to spill into other fields that are delineated as a cultural marketplace that witnesses both dependency and freedom. Apart from the commissioned works to indict a specific poet from a pretentious philological robustness, there are many contending or compromising ones that express ongoing affiliations to one camp, like the ancients, or another like the modernists. The paper intends to show this raging competitiveness as central to marketplace economies where cultural production is another term for a displayed merchandise. The analogy is not farfetched, as the most famous market in pre-Islamic times was also the place for poets to recite and display their Odes, and also to reject accusations of thievery or lack of originality in poetic meanings. Formative processes can also be traced in the lexical field as lexicographers for over five centuries contributed to the buildup of terminology around the term sariqah or thievery. Critics, rhetoricians, grammarians, and certainly poets happened to be active participants in this field, driven and motivated by one factor and anxiety or another, and thus exhilarating disputation as a rigorous dynamic in a literary history and theory.
  • Although Arabic literary and historical sources from both ancient and modern times have affirmed Ibn al-Muʽtazz’s (d. 908) inestimable legacy as a scholar in poetics and rhetoric during the height of the Abbasid caliphate (8th – 10th centuries), less scholarly attention has been paid to his political and social attitude that must have been behind a number of disputations that were obscured by his poetry and poetics. Ibn al-Muʽtazz’s longstanding literary fame and distorted readings of his stormy biography have led to a decontextualization of the “fair doomed prince” devoted to belle lettres, neglecting to observe his keen political thought in its historical context. To date, few attempts have been made to pursue an interdisciplinary reading of al-Muʽtazz’s works to paint a comprehensive picture of this unconventional intellectual figure. Ibn al-Mu’tazz is more compelling in light of his comprehensive knowledge of languages of learning (e.g., Greek, Persian), expertise outside of literature and rhetoric (e.g., medical learning), and development of new categories for conceptualizing Arabic literary aesthetics, however, imbued with political and ethical considerations. Using a holistic methodology that draws on Arabic rhetorical analytical tools as well as the sociology of literature, this intervention aims to briefly provide the first critical inquiry into caliph Ibn al-Muʽtazz’s Fuṣūl al-tamāthīl fī tabāshīr al-surūr [Examples and Similes on the Pleasure of Sharing Joy], a small treatise on wine and courtly amusement. Notably, my research investigates al-Muʽtazz’s decision to use the introduction of his charming, brief treatise as the staging ground for his political manifesto. Arguing Fuṣūl as a ʿliterary artifact,ʾ this study explores this work as a stage to vindicate positions polemically or the trench from which it is possible to boost the last mufākharāt about languishing Abbasid caliphate. Merging poetry and wine, Fuṣūl is a unique place where munaẓārāt and nostalgia interact in a very subtle and original way offering a keen insight into ninth-century Abbasid society, culture, and politics.
  • Coffee and Tea are relatively late comers to the Middle East compared with wine. However, they have established themselves as prized beverages quickly and developed an elaborate social and literary life. They are subject to love poems and panegyrics, including their cooks and servers, their equipment, such as the pots and cups in which they are cooked and served, their garnishes, such as milk and mint, and the ceremonies through which the social rituals of gathering around coffee and tea are performed. In these, the classical wine song is revived and refashioned, and aesthetics (as well as ethics and politics) of coffee and tea emerged to reflect on the times and places of their consumption. This presentation takes as its subject the disputation (mushājara and khiṣām) between tea and wine, and tea and coffee in Arabic writings from the 18th through the 20th centuries, to ponder the role of commodities, such as tea, coffee and wine, as well as their paraphernalia, such as pots and cups, and their ritual consumption in informing an alternative method of doing comparative literature and world literature. It brings intercultural life of things into the fabric of both the social life and literary life of things and suggests that aestheticism can travel around the world outside translation.