– The book I’m gonna read from is titled
Consorts of the Caliphs, women in the court of Baghdad by the author Ibn Al-Sa’i.
The Arabic title is Nisa’a Al-Khulafa. It’s a little-known collection of
anecdotes by Ibn Al-Sa’i who was a librarian, prolific author from Baghdad
at the 13th century, he was also a librarian at a time when in fact Abbasid
culture was thriving but it’s a time we know little about. Problem with this
time is that he lived on the eve of the Mongol destruction of Baghdad so
it’s a very important document of that period. What he does in this book is…is
collect 38 anecdotes about important women consorts of important men. Consorts
of caliphs but also other important men, rich and the powerful, both from the
period of Harun al-Rashid – so the great golden age of Abbasid culture when
a lot of women such as those that are described in this book bested men in
poetry, actually in poetic competitions. So, I’m reading from chapter three ‘Inan, daughter of Abd Allah’. Her name probably means something like restraint,
something of a nickname and she was the slave of one al-Natifi about whom
we know not much but we know that it means that he…the word itself means that he was the seller of brittle nut bars. [ Reading ]
Inan was the first poet to become famous under the Abbasids and the most gifted poet of her
generation. The major male poets of the time would seek her out in her master’s
house where they would recite their verses to her and have her pass judgment. When her master died, Inan was freed either because he had bequeathed her
freedom in his will or because she had borne him a child. Citing sources going
back to Marwan ibn Abi Hafsa, Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani in his
great book of songs the Kitāb al-Aghānī, reports that Marwan
said: one day I ran into al-Natafi who invited me to come and meet Inan. We went to
his house and he entered her room ahead of me saying, look I brought you the
greatest poet of all – Marwan ibn Abi Hafsa. Inan was not feeling well
and said, I have other things than Marwan to worry about right now. al-Natafi
struck her with his whip and called out to me, come on in.
I entered and found her weeping. Seeing her tears I extemporized: Inan weeps
tears that scattered like a broken string of pearls.
[ Reads out Arabic verse ] She immediately responded with: may the
tyrant’s right arm wither as his cruel whip unfurls.
[ Reads out Arabic verse ] If any man or jinn alive is a greater
poet than she, I will free every single slave I own, I said to al-Natafi.