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Q&A Wednesday: Hebrew maqama poetry meets pop culture, with Michael Rand

T-S Misc. 35.65
T-S Misc. 35.65 (recto): a leaf from the maqama collection Maḥberot Eitan ha-Ezraḥi
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Michael Rand
Wed 15 Sep 2021

Michael, what are you working on at the moment?

I’ve recently finished a book (Studies in the Medieval Hebrew Tradition of the Ḥarīrīan and Ḥarizian Maqama) on what, for lack of a better word, we can call the “classical” maqama. A maqama is a rhymed-prose narrative into which poems are inserted. The sorts of maqamas on which I am working are called picaresque maqamas, as they involve the adventures of a narrator and a hero. Picaresque maqamas went into the makeup of the European picaresque novel, like Don Quixote. By “classical” I mean the tradition of maqama writing that has its origin in al-Ḥariri’s maqamat, which were translated into Hebrew by al-Ḥarizi, who followed up his translation with a Hebrew maqama collection of his own called the Taḥkemoni. Sometime around the 13th century, almost certainly in Egypt, an author who unfortunately remains anonymous composed his own Hebrew collection very much after the pattern of the Taḥkemoni. Fragments of this collection have survived, in the Genizah and in the Firkovich collection. Parts have been edited in the past, but in my book I have edited all the known fragments of the collection, called Maḥberot Eitan ha-Ezraḥi, after their narrator. The Genizah fragments are: T-S Misc. 35.65, T-S NS 245.93 + TS AS 209.181, Ox. Heb. d. 64 fol. 78–79, Ox. Heb. d. 63 fol. 77, T-S NS 277.2 (the symbol + indicates a join).

What topics are covered by the maqama poetry in Maḥberot Eitan ha-Ezraḥi?

The collection follows very much in the footsteps of the Taḥkemoni, at least as far as can be ascertained on the basis of the surviving fragments. So there’s a maqama with riddle-poems, a maqama with tsimmud (homonym)-poems, two in which the hero swindles money out of a judge or an audience with the help of an accomplice who is represented as a family member, one in which there are several pericopes that can either be read forward and backward, or have a consistent double meaning, one on wine, one in which there are pericopes, each of which, respectively, is composed of words that contain a particular letter, one that revolves around a parody of physicians, and one that describes a kind of puppet performance that is built around a precedence debate between a cup and a jug, to determine who is “king.” The last one is probably the most interesting, since it gives a tiny Hebrew glimpse into what we might call “popular entertainment” in Mamluk Egypt.

Who is the audience for these poems? Do we know anything about how they were circulated or what kind of a readership they may have had?

The Taḥkemoni was an enormous success. This is obvious from the fact that there are many fragments in the Genizah, and several copies in the Firkovich collection (which I catalogued in my book on the Taḥkemoni). According to received wisdom, the Hebrew maqama, which appears after the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry, was a more popular genre than the “aristocratic” Hebrew poetry of Spain from the Golden Age period. That’s probably more or less correct. It’s clear that lots of folks were reading al-Harizi’s Taḥkemoni and copying it. That’s a bit surprising if you think about it, since the book is in Hebrew, and in the introduction al-Harizi specifically complains about how Hebrew had fallen into disuse in the East. It seems that he was exaggerating. Clearly, there were lots of “intellectuals,” or semi-intellectuals about who could read and enjoy this stuff.

Ah, so reading literature in Hebrew in the 13th century would mark you out as an intellectual? A bit like going to see Shakespeare today, or art-house cinema?

Yes, and for what it's worth, I love both the Taḥkemoni and Shakespeare! There were clearly folks who knew Hebrew and Aramaic full well, as a matter of professionalism – religious functionaries, rabbis and such. But the maqama, while it makes occasional reference to the rabbinic literature for local literary effect, really presupposes an interest in Arabic adab literature much more so than in rabbinic writing. So, whoever was reading it simultaneously had to know Hebrew and to be interested in literature as a form of entertainment and as “food for thought.” And, as witnessed by the maqamas that I have edited, along with others, there were those who could even compose in this genre. The maqamas I edited were not terribly popular, though. Several copies survive, but there is no textual overlap at all between them. The bottom line is that in Egypt in the 13th century there seems to have been a substantial number of Jewish folks who knew Hebrew well enough to be able to read and appreciate sophisticated original literature in that language – literature that was very much a part of Arabic belles letters. In fact, I think that it can be seen as simply a specialized variant thereof. In other words, whoever was reading Hebrew maqama was doing so because of the popularity at that time of Arabic maqamas.

Were poets churning out these maqamas or are they the culmination of someone’s life’s work?

The Taḥkemoni took about 10 years to compose. It’s a gigantic work, that records a significant chunk of the author’s life and travels in the East. As it was written in the last 10 years of the author’s life, it was very much both a culmination and a literary achievement. In the Genizah, the Taḥkemoni is not only copied, but also clearly excerpted, revealing its popularity – the book was circulating widely enough to be quoted in relatively ephemeral contexts. I have no evidence that this was the case with the maqamas that I edited, and they are too fragmentary to allow any reliable assessment as to their relation to the writer’s oeuvre, especially since we don't know his identity. But my reasonable guess would be that it was his magnum opus. Judging from the surviving fragments, it's one of which a human being can be justifiably proud.

Is the scribe of the Genizah fragments also the author of the collection? Or was a fair copy made by a professional scribe?

Most of the copies of the maqama collection that I have edited are pretty neatly copied, so there’s no special reason to think that they are autographs. One copy has a lot of corrections, so I suppose in that regard we might suppose it to be one. But that would just be a pure guesswork, and I don't think that it would make much of a difference in terms of how we understand the work.

Can you tell us more about the maqama with the cup and jug, and what it reveals about popular entertainment of the period?

The poems and the dialogue in general reflect the well-known precedence debate genre. The popular entertainment aspect is in the setup. You have a duo – an old man (i.e., the hero) and a youth (his “son” and accomplice) who gate-crash (the beginning of the maqama is gone, but this is a reasonable guess) a drinking party, and proceed to set up an improvised stage with drinking vessels for actors. Then they are invited by the revellers to give a performance, and from the context it is obvious that the two playact the roles of the characters, who are represented by the drinking vessels, in particular the cup and the jug. In other words, they basically work them like puppets. That's the cool bit. The poems are pretty standard. As far as I know, this is the only Hebrew evidence for popular theatre in the Medieval Arabic-speaking East. It reminds one of the fascinating shadow-plays of Ibn Daniyal, also from Mamluk Egypt.

That’s really interesting! It brings to mind the 11th century list of proscribed activities for visitors to the shrine at Dammuh, found in T-S 20.117. Among the scandalous and forbidden are chess, instrumental music, clapping, dancing, general merrymaking – and marionette shows.

Yes! Personally, I am fascinated by more popular forms of culture. They're juicier than the formal variety. Because of the way in which Hebrew literature was set up, there was little opportunity for expressions of this sort, or at least expressions that would survive long enough to make their way to us. The maqama is a possible vehicle, since it was an accepted official genre, and moreover one that could house material that is very juicy indeed. There are Arabic maqamas that are unbelievably, splendidly vulgar. Hebrew culture does not seem to have been able to tolerate such things, but occasionally, they just peep through in the maqamas.

Thanks for the peep, Michael!

Michael Rand is Reader in Hebrew and Aramaic at the University of Cambridge.

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