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Tales of a Medieval Cairene Harem: Domestic Life in al-Biqai’s Autobiographical Chronicle
By Li Guo
Mamluk Studies Review, Vol. 9:1 (2005)
Introduction: Among the findings of recent scholarship on medieval Arabic autobiography is a reaffirmation, or redefinition, of the long-held notion that the realm of “private” life was “never the central focus of pre-modern Arabic autobiographical texts.” To address this paradoxical contradiction between the business of “selfrepresentation” and the obvious lack of “private” material in such texts, four sets of recurring features have been identified to help in uncovering the “modes” the medieval Arabic authors used to construct their individual identities: portrayals of childhood failures, portrayals of emotion through the description of action, dream narratives as reflections of moments of authorial anxiety, and poetry as a discourse of emotion. Other related areas, such as domestic life, gender, and sexuality, are largely left out. The “autobiographical anxiety,” after all, has perhaps more to do with the authors’ motivations to pen elaborate portrayals, in various literary conventions, of themselves as guardians of religious learning and respected community members (and in some cases, to settle scores with their enemies and rivals) than self-indulgence and exhibitionist “individuating.” In this regard, a good example is perhaps the universally acclaimed autobiographical travelogue, the Rihlah of Ibn Battutah (d. 770/1368), who married and divorced over a period of thirty years of globetrotting more than twenty women and fathered, and eventually abandoned, some seventy children. However, little, if any, information is provided in Ibn Battutah’s accounts about these women and children, most of whom remain nameless.
Such, however, is not the case with the Mamluk alim Burhan al-Din Ibrahim al-Biqa‘i (d. 885/1480), in whose autobiographical chronicle, entitled Izhar al-‘As˝r li-Asrar Ahl al-‘As˝r (Lightening the dusk with regard to the secrets of the people of the age), various aspects of his private life loom large. In this remarkable, and somewhat odd, work, the author’s colorful life and eventful career, as well as the historical events in which he participated, witnessed, or otherwise learned about, are wrought in a narrative that combines conventional tarikh narration, Quranic exegesis, and dream interpretation, and is constantly switching between the third person voice—that of a chronicler—and the first person—that of an autobiographer. The extraordinarily intimate nature of the text is best illustrated by the author’s tell-all accounts of his own messy domestic life: failed marriages, family feuds, harem melodrama, as well as childbirth, nursing, and infant mortality. The personal nature of the material thus offers glimpses into the autobiographer’s mindset and sheds light on his personality and emotions, a rarity in pre-modern Arabic autobiographical writing.