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  • Market Values, Holiday Mayhem and the Parody of Official Culture in Ibn al-Murābiʿ al-Azdī’s “Maqāma of the Feast”
  • Alexander Elinson

The maqāma genre developed by Badīʿ al-Zamān al-Hamadhānī (d. 1007) emerged out of a context in which Arabic poetry, though still a very powerful and important form, no longer held a monopoly of artistic expression. As Abdelfattah Kilito writes, “the ‘modern’ poet found himself in competition with the historian, the jurist, the ḥadīth scholar, the commentator, the theologian, the polemicist, etc.” (Les Séances 77).1 This “competition”, to use Kilito’s marketplace terminology, is one of the key factors in the development of the maqāma in that the genre encompassed and exploited multiple discourses, including variations on poetic themes as well. The early maqāma, considered one of the first fictional forms in Arabic, was written in rather ornate rhymed prose and utilized and manipulated a wide variety of rhetorical themes and styles, while depending on the anti-heroic, roguish protagonist’s exploits and [End Page 139] his reporting of them. By eloquently expressing and combining themes of a scholarly or religious nature and more common or popular themes involving deceit and trickery that often took place in public squares, inns, or markets, the maqāma represents an intersection between “high” and “low” cultures. It is a hybrid form in which the different speech and stylistic levels speak and react to one another, calling to mind Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s notion of “dialogized” speech.

This means that the languages that are crossed in it relate to each other as do rejoinders in a dialogue; there is an argument between languages, an argument between styles of language. But it is not a dialogue in the narrative sense, nor in the abstract sense; rather it is a dialogue between points of view, each with its own concrete language that cannot be translated into the other.

(The Dialogic Imagination 76)

These dialogic “points of view” in the maqāma result in a text that speaks at multiple levels; when these levels attempt to speak at the same time, chaos may ensue, and the parodic potential of this literary form comes to the fore. When a “regular” person speaks in the language of a cultured adīb (litterateur), the “high” culture is debased, the “low” culture is raised, and the stability of each category is called into question. Ismail El-Outmani considers the maqāma a subversive genre:

Su actitud como género consiste en subvertir géneros tradicionales de la literatura árabe. Como manifestación cultural, la maqāma pretende esencialmente rechazar la cultura oficial árabe a través de las formas discursivas que la representan. La estrategia subversiva de la maqāma consiste en invertir los valores y cánones literarios, morales, jurídicos, politicos, etc, representados por/en géneros y formas discursivas oficiales. Así, el lenguaje, el contenido, el estilo, son parodiados, burlados, ridiculizados.

(El-Outmani 106)

In his seminal work on Rabelais and medieval popular culture, Bakhtin discusses the tolerated, even sanctioned relationship between “high” and “low” literatures in the development of medieval parodic genres. He points out that in the early Christian period and into the Middle Ages, medieval culture was dominated and shaped by “[an] intolerant, one-sided tone of seriousness” (Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World 73). However, this “tone of icy petrified [End Page 140] seriousness” (73) gave way to popular forms of expression such as “gaiety, laughter, and jests which had been eliminated from the canonized ritual and etiquette” (74). It is important to emphasize, though, that this officially sanctioned laughter represents a paradox in which “parody’s transgressions ultimately remain authorized–authorized by the very norm it seeks to subvert. Even in mocking, parody reinforces; in formal terms, it inscribes the mocked conventions onto itself, thereby guaranteeing their continued existence” (Hutcheon 75). Parody is both subversive and conservative as it depends on the survival of that which it seeks to challenge.

The parody of official culture that occurs especially during festival seasons can be seen in Ibn al-Murābiʿ al-Azdī’s (d. 1350) maqāma written on the occasion...


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pp. 139-161
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