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An Invitation: Calling All Literary Baghdads

From Ibn al-Nadim’s Kit?b al-Fihrist to Al-Mutanabbi Street

Marginalia | baghdad, open call
February 24, 2014

In late 10th-century Baghdad, a book-seller named Ibn al-Nadim (d. c 998) created a catalog of his holdings. His collection was extensive, covering a vast world of literary output, with texts on Arabic grammar and lexicography, history and biography, law and tradition, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, romances, magic, and alchemy, to name just a few. His list, named Kit?b al-Fihrist (Book of Lists), contained some 7,000 titles with bio-bibliographic information about writers, poets, and literature. Al-Nadim kept meticulous notes on the comings and goings of the literary world. (His Book of Lists, for example, is where we learn about Hazar Afsana, which becomes 1001 Nights.) It was in his world that there lived the great poet (and neo-prophet) of Arabic, al-Mutanabbi (d. 965).

In 1258, Baghdad was plundered and burned by the Mongols, marking the end of an era in which cultural and scientific programs of collection and translation had flourished. The leading scholars, writers, poets, sufi masters, jurists, and historians would leave Iran and Iraq and create new centers of learning and new literary diasporas across Asia and Africa and Europe. Delhi or Istanbul or Damascus or Cairo would become other Baghdads, sites of translation and research and poetry for the centuries that followed. Most of the volumes catalogued by al-Nadim were lost. Yet the index remains.

for they are gone…

Let us ask you to remember March 5, 2007. On that day along Al-Mutanabbi Street, the historic book-selling district in Baghdad, a bomb detonated, killing 27 and obliterating the cultural and literary heart of the city. Baghdad has not stopped burning. For the past half a decade, while Baghdad has been blowing up in solitary columns of our print newspapers, we—we, Americans—have moved on. We read something else. We fight about something else. We shrug in futility about something else. We retweet something else.

We at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop want to face our collective political and cultural shrugging off of Baghdad. We want to create a conversation that remembers the literary Baghdad—without which we could not imagine contemporary philosophy, sciences, or arts. We want a conversation that recognizes in our selves, and our literary productions, the seeds of all Baghdads, past, present, and future.

We also want to be neo-futurists. To take a page from Borges’ imagination, and bring into being that which already exists. To commemorate Ibn al-Nadim, and to remember Mutanabbi Street, we call on you, our fellow writers, to help us reimagine al-Nadim’s literary world. Left with the skeleton of his collection, we solicit brief imagined reviews of the titles in al-Nadim’s Book of Lists. Join us as we take a small step in reconstructing the heart and history of literary Baghdad, and to tie us all in knots closer and tighter than we acknowledge elsewhere.

We’d like to invite you to write a brief, imagined review (100-500 words) of any of the following titles from Ibn al-Nadim’s Kit?b al-Fihrist. Feel free to choose more than one. We also welcome visual artists to submit illustrations inspired by the titles—think book cover or illustrated manuscript page.

We’ve extended the deadline. Send your piece to by August 1, 2014. We’ll be publishing the pieces as an anthology on AAWW’s The Margins.

Kitab cover, 1460s
Kitab cover, 1460s

A selection of titles from Ibn al-Nadim’s Kit?b al-Fihrist:

  • The Love for Striking with Bent Sticks, by the Persians
  • Freckles by Menes the Greek
  • Twitching, in three aspects, by the Persians
  • Drawing of Lots by Ibn al-Mutahil
  • The Delightful Book of Cooked Food by Jahzah
  • Youth, Preferable to Old Age by al-Hakimi
  • Superiority of the Aged by al-Suli
  • Cooked Food by Ahmad ibn al-Tayyib
  • Cooked Food for the Sick by al-Razi
  • Compendium of Foolish Things and the Origins of Follies by al-Kutanji
  • Intoxication during the Day and Incessant Wine Drinking by ‘Ubayd Allah
  • Varieties of Snake by Baqil the Indian
  • Varieties of Creeping Things by Ibn al-Batriq
  • Passions, Affections, Freeing, and Binding – by unknown
  • Coming on Objects Unexpectedly (verse) – by unknown
  • The King of India, the Murderer and the Swimmer
  • The Righteous King of Babylon and the Devil, How He Tricked and Deceived Him
  • The Lover of the Picture
  • The Lover of the Hand
  • The Youth and the Woman Who Threw The Pebble
  • Swallowing the Sword, the Rod, Pebbles and Shells, and Eating Soap and Glass, with the Trick for That by ‘Ubayd al-Kayyis
  • Women: What Fell to Them of Fame and Good Qualities and What Was Said of Them in Poems and Beautiful Speech by ‘Abu Abd Allah Harun
  • Books by al-Saymari (the Judge from Kufa):
    • The Excellence of Wine Flask Wonders of the Sea
    • Aids to Digestion and Treacles
    • Preference of the Ladder to the Stairway
    • Women Used for Unnatural Sexual Intercourse and Whores
    • Masturbation
    • Interpretation of Dreams
    • Rare Anecdotes about Pimps
    • The Surnames of Animals
    • The Camel Seeking Aid from Its Master
    • Superiority of the Rectum over the Mouth
  • Books by al-Tahiri:
    • Summons of the Sea
    • The Glory of Combing at the Mirror
    • The War of Cheese and Olives
    • The War of Meat and Fish
    • The Food Vendor
  • Books by al-Khiraqi:The Book of Western Dawns containing thirty stories: ten about the wonders of land, ten about the wonders of dawn and ten about the wonders of sea
    • The Light
    • Red Tincture
    • Big Book of Fermented Liquors
    • The Blood
    • The Hair
    • The Animals
    • Urine
    • Semen
    • Odor, the pleasant book
    • Transmutation
    • The Desire
    • Penetration
  • The Names of the Fables Known by Nickname Alone:
    • The Bone of a Giant Lizard
    • Lover of the Cow
    • Bird Droppings
    • The Reproach of Divorce
    • Happiness
    • Cotton
  •  The Names of Books Composed about Sexual Intercourse – Persian, Indian, Greek, and Arab Books in the Form of the Story of Passionate Love:
    • Martus the Greek, about a story of sexual intercourse;
    • Jaded Harlot and Adulterers, by Ibn Hajib al- Nu’man;
    • La’ub the Head Woman and Husayn the Homosexual
  • The Names of Books Composed about Morals, and Wisdom by the Persians, Greeks, and Indians, and Arabs:
    • The King with White Hair and the Dialogue Between Him and the Viziers and the People of His Kingdom
    • The Story of Despair and Hope and the Dialogue which took place between Them
    • The King and the Woman Whom He Hung between Heaven and Earth, So that a Thousand Horseman Found Shade beneath Her
    • The Philosopher Who Paid Attention to the Handmaid of Qaytar and the Story of the Philosophers Connected to Her
    • The King, One of Whose Viziers Advised Him to Sleep and another to Awake
    • The Two Wives of the King, One of Whom Preferred Slave Boys and the Other Slave Girls, with the Remarks of Philosophers about the Matter