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The Hikaya of Abu al-Qasim al-Baghdadi: The Comic Banquet in Greek, Latin, and Arabic

  • Author(s): Selove, Emily Jane
  • Advisor(s): Cooperson, Michael
  • et al.
Abstract

This study centers on an unusual medieval Arabic text, probably from the 11th century, called Hikayat Abi al-Qasim (The Imitation of Abu al-Qasim). The Hikaya tells the tale of a Baghdadi party-crasher crashing a party in Isfahan, and the author informs us in his introduction that this party-crasher is meant to represent a microcosm of the city of Baghdad. The author also tells us that this text can be read in the same amount of time that the events portrayed take to occur, creating a real-time depiction of time passing perhaps unparalleled in literary history. In analyzing this work, I draw from the ample scholarship on other ancient and medieval portrayals of banquets and dinner conversation, and especially those written in Latin. The Satyrica of Petronius, likened by several scholars to the Hikaya, features prominently in this analysis.

In portraying Baghdad as an old party-crasher who not only demands to be fed but who dominates the conversation with his overabundant speech, the Hikaya paints the city as an entity who, although its physical power may be dwindling, continues to dominate the literary conversation with overbearing arrogance. Abu al-Qasim himself is part of a literary tradition of party-crashing characters. Although these characters, as outsiders to the feast, typically act as guides to the reader, Abu al-Qasim does not describe the Isfahani feast that he is crashing, but rather drowns it out with his words. The tension between language and food is a theme in banquet literature that often serves to problematize the representational qualities of language.

The use of language in the Hikaya highlights the power of words to confuse or deceive, thereby calling into question the didactic value of the text even when it claims to be teaching us something. I show that the style known as mujun (which often involves a kind of nonsense language) might be compared to playing a game. I conclude by showing that Abu al-Qasim, as a microcosm, is a playful Doppelgänger of the prophet Muhammad. Like Muhammad, he represents both a real human being and a cosmic symbol, and the Hikaya can be seen as his Qur'an.

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