“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient.
One of the most fascinating and mysterious literary phenomena is the process by which one author, Shakespeare, Pushkin, Dante, or in this case, Hafez, comes to loom so high above all their talented and successful contemporaries. Most poetry lovers outside of Iran will not recognize the names of any of Hafez’s rivals and colleagues, and would be surprised to learn that they once enjoyed reputations equal to his.
When the 11th-century poet Ferdowsi reaches the reigns of the Parthian Kings in his epic chronicle of the kings of Iran, he admits,
کزیشان جز از نام نشنیدهام
نه در نامهی خسروان دیدهام
“About them I heard nothing but their name,
I saw nothing about them in the book of the Khosrows”
The title of this book is the first “imposture”, flouting the venerable approach of calling this 12th-century Arabic classic the “Assemblies” or the “Seances of Hariri”. Maqamat means a halting place, where an audience might sit around and tell stories. It can, at a stretch, mean “to get up”, focusing on the storyteller standing before his audience. With “Impostures” as the title, Michael Cooperson, a professor of Arabic literature at UCLA, puts us on notice not to expect a traditional translation. The Maqamat recounts in 50 episodes the impostures of the protagonist Abu Zeid, posing as beggar, poet, plaintiff, scholar or sufi, in order to con money out of his appreciative and affably gulled assembly of listeners. He succeeds in opening their purses by deploying the most dazzling verbal gymnastics imaginable. Acrostics, palindromes, rhymed verse, rare words, this does not even begin to describe the extent of Abu Zeid’s rhetorical arsenal.
The world-weary Giuseppe Lampedusa introduced us to the cynical formulation “for everything to remain as it was, it’s necessary for everything to change.” Empires rise and fall, sometimes swiftly. The papers in Short Term Empires in World History, delivered at a conference held in Germany in 2017, raise the issue of continuity and discontinuity in the context of characterizing empires.
“Historians”, wrote Simon Schama, “are painfully aware of their inability ever to reconstruct a dead world in its completeness however thorough or revealing their documentation,” but Amy Stanley succeeds as well as anyone could hope in her masterfully told and painstakingly researched evocation of an ordinary Japanese woman’s life in Edo on the eve of the opening of Japan.
Adeeba Shahid Talukder, a translator of Persian and Urdu poetry into English, makes an audacious attempt to invoke the sensibility of the ghazal in her contemporary American verse. That a young, first-generation American writer can have such a feel for the ghazal is not a given, for the genre is full of traps, arising from gender, from the audience, from the poet’s voice, to the poet’s relationship to the tradition. Talukder escapes, successfully, from each of these in turn.