Category Archives: Literature

Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

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Sam Liebhaber with Gregory Johnsen in Sanaa, 2004, having an evening cup of shay halib at Ali al-‘Imrani’s café in Sana’a, next to the Qubaat al-Mahdi, overlooking the Sayla.

by Sam Liebhaber

It is a daunting task for me to list the ways that the AIYS has guided and supported my research in Yemen; they are almost too many to count.  Indeed, my experience in learning about Yemen and developing proficiency in its languages is inseparable from my relationship to the AIYS, which has stood as one of the few constants in a changing – and often tumultuous – landscape.

My first encounter with the AIYS dates back to my earliest steps in learning Arabic at the beginning of my graduate career in 1998. I spent the summer studying Arabic at the Center for the Arabic Language and Eastern Studies (CALES) in the Old City of Sana’a and a colleague brought me to the AIYS, which at the time was located on al-Bawniya street.  During that summer, I spent many pleasant hours studying and reading about Yemen in the AIYS library – a lovely, glass-enclosed space that looked out onto a courtyard garden.

When I returned to Yemen the following year for further language study, I was once again welcomed to the AIYS by the resident director, Marta Colburn, who offered me guidance and advice on future research and studies in Yemen. On a side trip to Asmara in 2000, I befriended Bob Holman, New York-based poet/performer and founder of the Bowery Poetry Club, at a conference and cultural celebration marking Eritrean independence.  Bob was gathering information for his TV documentary, On the Road with Bob Holman, and when I told him about Yemen’s vibrant poetic culture, he returned back with me to Sana’a.  Marta Colburn graciously arranged for Bob and myself to attend the weekly gathering of literati in the home of Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih, Yemen’s “poet laureate”, who was impressed by Bob’s extemporaneous composition and performance of a poem about the beauty and elegance of Sana’a.  This led to an offer to Bob and myself to translate Dr. Abd al-Aziz al-Maqalih’s Book of Sana’a – myself an Arabic neophyte and Bob a Nuyorican slam poet.  Marta Colburn wisely engaged a friend of hers, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Mansur, to help us with the translation.  Muhammad Abd al-Salam remains a close friend and served as a frequent mentor to me during my subsequent visits in Yemen.  After a few years of work, our translation of the Book of Sana’a was published in Yemen thanks to the effort and support of the AIYS, especially that of Christopher Edens who assumed the role of resident director after the departure of Marta Colburn and who oversaw the final editing and annotation of the Book of Sana’a.

Continue reading Sam Liebhaber on AIYS

Solomon and Sheba in Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan

A new article has been published in the online journal, Mizan.  This is “Solomon Legends in Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan” by

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Introduction

 Sīrat Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan (“The Adventures of Sayf b. Dhī Yazan”) is a late-medieval Egyptian popular epic that recounts the story of the life and adventures of King Sayf b. Dhī Yazan, son of the Yemenite king Dhū Yazan.1 Set against the background of a war with the king of Ḥabash,2 Sayf Arʿad, it tells the story of how Sayf b. Dhī Yazan (henceforth “Sayf”) leads his people into Egypt, diverts the Nile to its current course, and then goes on to conquer the realms of men and jinn in the name of Islam. Set in legendary pre-Islamic time, it rewrites history to present Egypt as born out of a “reverse exodus” led by a proto-Islamic, Yemeni king.3 As is common in Arabic popular literature, Sīrat Sayf draws much of its material from a pool of popular and folkloric story patterns, motifs, and tropes, which are pieced together in a unique way so as to tell its story. It also makes intertextual reference to stories, legends, and other narratives in ways that enrich the thematic subtext and convey meaning. From this perspective, references to the Islamic qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ (“tales of the prophets”) play a significant role in the text. Not only do they anchor the proto-Islamic world of Sīrat Sayf in Islamic legendary world history, but the associations they bring into the text also nuance the characterization of Sīrat Sayf’s main protagonists and help to create subtextual and thematic complexity.

This article investigates a number of direct references made to legends about the prophet Solomon within Sīrat Sayf in order to explore how this particular sīrah uses the “Solomon” intertext and to what end.4 It focuses primarily on two particular episodes in the sīrah, during both of which stories about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are recounted by characters within the text. After introducing these stories in the first section of this article, the second section assesses the intertextual relevance of the Islamic Solomon legend to Sīrat Sayf. It analyses how these stories, and the episodes in which they are embedded, relate to the Solomon legends as found in premodern qiṣaṣ sources, and how Sīrat Sayf uses intertextual reference to Solomon legends to express its own thematic agenda. In a previous study, I have argued that Sayf is, at its core, a discussion of kingship, fitness to rule, and the importance to society of keeping the forces of order and chaos in balance, and that it expresses this struggle largely through the literary use of gender (according to which, broadly speaking, the female embodies the forces of chaos, and the male the forces of order).5 The use of intertextual reference to other narratives is a key element of this discussion. The final section explores the intertextual relevance of the Ethiopian story of Solomon, Bilqīs, and their son Menelik found in the Kǝbrä Nägäst to the Sayf text.

For the full article, click here.