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The Arab Aristophanes

From: Comparative Drama
Volume 47, Number 2, Summer 2013
pp. 151-166 | 10.1353/cdr.2013.0019

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The Arab Aristophanes

The thirteenth-century Egyptian playwright Ibn Dāniyāl is slowly coming to Western attention as one of the most important dramatists of the Middle Ages. The fact that he wrote for the puppet theater, a form often thought of as artistically inferior by both Arab and Western scholars, and the fact that he wrote in Arabic, a language that most Western scholars incorrectly think produced no drama before the colonial period, have doubtless contributed to his long eclipse. In the Arab world, poetry has always been regarded as the highest literary form, and since Ibn Dāniyāl was one of the most honored poets of his time it is as a poet that he has been remembered in that world, while the three plays written late in his career have received comparatively little attention.

Clearly this situation is now changing. Thanks largely to the efforts of a few dedicated twentieth-century German scholars, led by Georg Jacob, the plays have been reconstructed from manuscripts spread across the medieval Arab world—from Istanbul to the Escorial in Spain—and published in complete form for the first time as recently as 1992.1 Thus [End Page 151] even scholars with a working knowledge of Arabic have had access to these remarkable creations only for the past two decades. Gradually, word of them has spread, however, and the first book-length study of Ibn Dāniyāl in English appeared in 2012, also with a translation of one of his three plays.2 Western scholars are now beginning to realize that this hitherto almost unknown dramatist produced some of the most complex and literate dramatic works of the Middle Ages, rivaling or surpassing almost every known dramatic work in the Arab or Western world for several centuries before and after him.

Ibn Dāniyāl was actually a native of Mosul (located in today's Iraq), who fled to Cairo in the 1260s when still in his teens to escape the Mongol invasion of his home city. In Cairo he supported himself for a time as an eye doctor, but soon established a reputation among that city's bohemian population as a wit, a gifted poet, and an active pursuer of a libertine lifestyle. His poetic gift, however, became more and more widely recognized. In the manner of young impecunious poets throughout the ages, Ibn Dāniyāl sought a degree of financial security by producing poems, often panegyrics, for influential and well-to-do patrons. At the top of the social pyramid was the sultan, and just at the time Ibn Dāniyāl arrived in Cairo, the sultanate was undergoing a momentous shift. The powerful warrior named Baybars, who in 1254 defeated and captured King Louis IX of France, ending the Fourth Crusade, and, even more importantly, defeated in the following year the Mongol general, Hugelu, stopping the Mongol advance into the Middle East, married the widowed queen of Egypt and established a new, non-Arab dynasty—the Mamluks—which dominated Egypt for the next several centuries.

On their march toward Cairo, the Mongols had captured and sacked Baghdad and Damascus, leaving the Egyptian city as the undisputed trading and intellectual center of the Arab world, a role it has maintained ever since. The new sultan, Baybars, built upon this situation, proving himself as successful an administrator as he had been a general. He had much less interest in the arts, however, and indeed in his campaigns to improve the city put strict curbs on such matters as drinking and the sex trade, earning him little respect from the bohemian community among whom the young Ibn Dāniyāl first settled. Baybars's son Barakah, who succeeded him in 1277, was equally uninterested in poetry and the arts. A [End Page 152] weak ruler, he was deposed two years later by his father-in-law, Qalāwūn, who after a number of lean years again turned royal interest toward the arts and brought leading singers and poets to entertain and grace his court.

By this time Ibn Dāniyāl's reputation among the upper classes was such that he became in...