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from the June 2008 issue

from “Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded”

Yusuf al-Shirbini wrote his primary work, Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded [Hazz al-Quhuf bi-Sharh Qasid Abi Shaduf], in or shortly after 1686. His only other known work is a homily written entirely with those letters of the Arabic alphabet that do not have dots. Little is known of the author's life, though he appears to have studied at al-Azhar, Cairo's religious university, and to have worked as a bookseller and perhaps, at some point, as a weaver.

Brains Confounded consists of a poem supposedly written by a peasant (but in fact written by the author or someone of his milieu) and the author's voluminous introduction to and line-by-line commentary thereon. The structure allows the author to provide both a witty and highly jaundiced satire of rural life in his age and a parody of the then much favored text-and-commentary genre.

This passage, which occurs apropos of a reference in the ode to rice pudding, parodies the kutbat al-naèt, the second and more standardized of the two sermons delivered during the Friday prayer service, including all its main elements and much of its typical phrasing, and may be compared with E. W. Lane's translation of a sermon of this type from the second decade of the nineteenth century (Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1860, pp.87-90). It is written mostly in rhyming prose (sajè).

Praise be to God, to whom for sure all praise is owed, who hands out ease and care in measured load, who has adjured us to be pilgrims to His Ancient House,1 and who has made honey companion to the ghee of cows! Him I praise as one by hunger waylaid, whom God with a basin of basisa2 (made with fine pastry) saved, one who thereon ate his fill, and thought of Him with no ill will but slept in God-given ease and reconciliation. And Him I thank as a mortal slave who has made renunciation of all things sour plus cheese well-aged after fermentation, bearing witness that there is no god but God alone, companionless—testimony that spares its maker deprivation! And I bear witness that our Master and Prophet Muhammad, God bless him and grant him peace, is His slave and messenger, speaker of sooth, endowed with truth and revelation! God, bless and grant peace and benison to Our Master Muhammad, his Kith and Companions, the people of disclosure and confirmation, and make this blessing abundant!

My people, why do I behold you of sweet rice with honey all unaware? Showing for fluffy rice with mutton never a care? Baqlawa3 on its platters shunning? From fat geese and roasted chickens running? What are these, my brethren, but the doings of the indigent and the deeds of the financially incontinent? Apply yourselves then, God have mercy upon you, to acquiring cash that you may carry off dishes precious and victuals delicious!

Our Master the Imam èAli, master of knowledge and understanding, God honor his visage, has said that the joys of this world are three: the eating of flesh, the riding of flesh, and the insertion of flesh into flesh. So he to whom God has given much, let him be thankful, and he to whom God has given little, let him be stoical. To eat rice pudding you are commanded, for it is a dish both excellent and commended, and the day that starts with it is the most blessed day, to the peasant especially—when he goes to his cow and milks it, and his wife brings the basin and hangs it, and pours the milk in and lights a fire beneath and stirs it, with white rice, and cooks it, and into dishes spoons it, and the aged shaykh comes and crooks one leg and sits upon it—at this, my brother, the vessels are set out next to one another, and each man draws close to the other, and nothing can be seen but hands tearing and tongues at work, epiglotti jumping and throats a-jerk. Eyes water at the size of the bite, and the belly from excess of passion grows ever less tight; nay, it gets ever more flighty, exclaiming, "Glory to Our Lord, the Almighty!" If your brother Muslim beats you to a munch, go knock his head off with a punch! And seize, God have mercy on you, upon this edifying discourse, and have nothing to do with foods that are coarse, such as lentils and bisar (which is beans with mallow brought to a boil), or stewed beans and beans with linseed oil, or kishk4 with beans and peas, and stuffed oven-cheese—all these cause gas, and eating them is truly crass. Next, to the use of sumptuous foods, such as Mutton, you are bidden, for he is Lord of Foods in This World and the Hidden, and to drinks that are sweet and cold, for of these a Tradition from the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) is told,5 and praise God, you who are rich and blessed, and be patient, you who are poor and hard-pressed! We beseech God to bestow upon us all such sumptuous foods and provide us all with ease both before and after our decease, and to number us all among the blessed, and save us all from the haunts of the ravenous hard-pressed, and forgive our sins and yours and those of all who Islam have professed. Amen. èSeek forgiveness of Him'6 and He will grant you forgiveness, and how great is the triumph of those who seek forgiveness!

It is related on the authority of Sahlab, who had it from Mahlab, who had it from Zintah, son of Nattah, son of Qalil al-Afrah,7 that he said, "A certain Bedouin arose from his slumbers and sweet dreams and ate a two-year old camel for breakfast, then endured till the middle of the day, ate forty chickens stuffed with mutton and roasted in clarified ghee, drank two skins of wine, went to sleep in the sun and died, thus meeting his Maker sated, intoxicated, and irrigated!"

Praise be to God, embellisher of rice with milk and dispeller of grief! I bear witness that Mutton is Lord of Foods and the body's relief! And know that clotted cream is not something to shun or of which to be suspicious, and that blancmange is better still and even more auspicious! Prepare yourselves, then, to eat and drink, knowing that soon in God's sight you'll stand and that by your works you'll be saved or damned, and that the Lord of Might will soon review what you have earned, and that those who went hungry will come to know "by what a great reverse they have been overturned."8 Be pleased, O God, with the four leaders great,9 by the Almighty in the Qur'an designate—the fig, the olive, the peach, and the pomegranate!10 And be pleased, O God, with those that remain of the ten,11 in number six, of foods deluxe, namely blancmange and rosewater jelly, and fattened squabs with vermicelli, and fluffy rice stuffed with mutton and fried, and bee's honey, almonds, sugar, and kunafa12 drenched in butter clarified, and little pancakes that in syrup and butter swim, and squash that's stuffed with meat and onions to the brim, as well as the baqlawa earlier described, and stall-fed sheep, and hot-pot and qirmiziyya13 with fatty meat—may God bestow them on us all to eat! O God, bring us after dispersal all together, and grant victory, support, and safety to Sultan Sugar-Candy, may he rule for ever—son of Flagon, Mallawi14 sugar's noble scion! Aid him, O God, with sugar-cane spears and thrusters, and sticky dates and grapes in clusters! And unite us with him at day's beginning, middle, and end, and to him and to his soldiers victory send, that we may benefit from him in This World, O Lord of All. And destroy, O God, the reprobates three, namely, bisar, lentils, and the pea! Slaves of God, whoever wishes to wrap himself in the robes of God's pleasance, let him eat bananas with sugar in his parents' presence! Before eating, unwind, and follow the example of the Best of Mankind.15 Neither fight one another nor fall to blows, O Slaves of God, but brethren be! God commands you to eat of what your minds desire only what His religion declares to be good, and forbids you to eat what is forbidden, though it be the tastiest of food, and [forbids you] "wickedness. He exhorteth you that you may reflect!"16


1I.e., the Ka"ba at Mecca. 2A sweet pastry. 3I.e., èbaklava.' 4Wheat groats and sour milk formed into balls and dried. 5A Tradition: a record of an act, saying, or expressed opinion of the Prophet. No doubt the author has in mind the statement of A'isha, a wife of the Prophet, who said that "the favorite drink of the Prophet, peace and blessing upon him, was what was sweet and cold." 6 Qur'an XI, 61. 7 Parodies the "chain of authority" (isnad) that establishes the reliability of a Tradition. 8 Qur'an XXVI, 227. 9 In a real sermon, a reference to the first four caliphs of the Islamic state. 10The fig and the olive are mentioned in Qur'an XCV, 1 and the pomegranate in Qur'an VI, 99 and elsewhere; the peach (khawkh) is not mentioned in the Qur'an. 11 Compare a conventional sermon: "And be Thou well pleased, O God, with the six who remain of the ten noble and just persons who swore allegiance to Thy Prophet Mohammad . . . ." 12Fine noodles baked with sugar or honey. 13From qirmiz, "cochineal," hence "the scarlet (dish)." 14 Mallawi is a town of Upper Egypt, south of al-Minya. 15I.e., the Prophet Muhammad. 16Qur'an VI, 90.

From Humphrey Davies' annotated translation of Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded (Leuven: Editions Peeters, Orientalia Lovaniensia Annalecta 166, in press). By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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