Abu Tayyib al-Washsha and the Poetics of Inscribed Objects.

Author:Klein, Yaron

Kitab al-Muwashsha (The Book of Brocade), also known as al-zarf wa-l-zurafa' (On Refinement and Refined People), is a fascinating handbook on good manners and court etiquette written by the Baghdadi litterateur and grammarian Abu Tayyib al-Washsha (255-325/869-937). (1) In his Muwashsha, al-Washsha recorded practices of a group of courtiers and other members of the elite of his time, known as the zurafa' (the "refined ones," or the "elegants"). (2) The zurafa' (sg. zarif) included members of the Abbasid royal family, secretaries (kuttab), scholars (including religious scholars), and musicians, men and women, free and enslaved. (3) They conducted themselves according to a strict etiquette, known as zarf that governed their dress, posture, speech, and even smell. This etiquette provided members of the emerging urban elite with a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of society, and helped create an elite class that was based not on genealogy or wealth but on mastery of a cultural repertoire. Although the court seems to have been a center for zurafa', zarf etiquette was not practiced only there; rather, it became a model with which many of the urban population wished to be associated. Since the Abbasid court became an example for emerging dynasties throughout the Islamic world, from Samarqand to Aleppo to al-Andalus, zarf etiquette was replicated and practiced over a large region and a long period of time.

Many of the obligations of conduct that the zurafa' took upon themselves were related to communication and speech. They were expected to be eloquent and witty. Special value was accorded to the ability to express oneself in poetry, and to retort in verse to a challenge by a fellow zarif. Some of these retorts would have been improvised, others prepared in advance.

This essay is dedicated to one of the most intriguing ways in which zurafa' used refined speech for self-expression and communication: they would inscribe maxims of wisdom and verses of poetry on a variety of mundane objects that they would either use themselves or present as gifts to fellow zurafa'. We find records of such inscriptions on garments (sleeves, hats, handkerchiefs, sandals, and shoes), fruits (apples, citrons, and watermelons), tools and instruments (drinking cups, writing and musical instruments), and buildings (doors, porches, or walls). zurafa' also inscribed verses of poetry on their own bodies (notably on cheeks and forehead, but also on the heels of their feet). We learn about this practice primarily from contemporary literary works that record such inscriptions as examples of refined speech, at times providing background information about the context in which these inscribed objects were used. Although Kitab al-Muwashsha is not the only source that provides evidence of this practice, the number of examples it documents is without parallel among other contemporary sources.

I propose to investigate this practice of inscribing poetry on objects as a unique way of "performing" poetry. In this "refined" practice, poetry was not recited aloud or read in private from a book, but instead was given voice by virtue of its physical display in space. I would like to argue that this is a third, unique way of experiencing poetry that is very different from the aforementioned more common ways of "consuming" poetry, namely, recitation and silent reading on one's own. I wish to examine the intricate ways in which poems interact with the objects on which they are inscribed and the situations in which they are displayed. The practice is intriguing both for its implication for understanding zarf culture of the ninth and tenth centuries and for its implications regarding the way poetry is experienced in this unusual medium.

My discussion will target the following questions: How does "experiencing" poetry through the medium of inscribed objects differ from experiencing it through recitation or readingr How do the verse, object, context, poet, and owner of the object interact? What effect does the object have on the interpretation of the verse and vice verSam How does the context in which the object is displayed contribute to the reading of the verse? In which contexts and for what functions were inscribed objects used? Lastly, why is this practice so fitting to zarf etiquette? I will address these questions through a close reading of reports of inscribed objects, mostly recorded by al-Washsha in his Muwashsha. The case studies chosen for this analysis reflect a wide range of objects--some perishable, like apples, others enduring, like buildings; some intended for private use, others made for public display.

Many of the poems that will be presented here address the theme of love and are part of the genre of courtly love poetry (shir al-ghazal al-raqiq). In this genre, a vulnerable lover-poet depicts himself in a state of weakness, fragility, and humiliation. The beloved often ignores him or treats him with pride and dismissiveness. The poet spends his days and nights wishing for a (re)union that likely will never happen. (4)


Among the most intriguing objects zurafa' would inscribe upon were ring stones. Al-Washsha recorded a large number of such inscriptions that he either saw himself or heard about from a third party. These inscriptions were usually very short maxims, dictated by the confining medium of a ring stone, (5) but al-Washsha also included a few examples of verses of poetry. Among them is a fascinating "public fight" between two lovers, who conducted their spat by exchanging defamatory verses about each other inscribed on their ring stones. The two were Muhammad b. 'Abd al-Malik al-Zayyat, the Abbasid litterateur and vizier, and an unidentified female slave singer. Al-Washsha recounted that at some point al-Zayyat began to ignore and avoid his lover. The angry singer decided to berate him in public by attacking him in a verse she inscribed on her ring stone. Al-Zayyat was informed and responded with a verse of his own, inscribing it on his signet ring (khatam). When the singer heard about his response she retorted with a new verse, and thus began a series of retorts by the two ex-lovers. The entire exchange was later recorded by al-Zayyat in a poem he transmitted in a more traditional fashion, recording it, luckily for us, on paper:

[phrase omitted] She wrote on her ring stone: "Whoever becomes uninterested in his beloved one is dormant!" Then I wrote on my ring stone, expecting it to reach her: "Whoever sleeps does not notice the sleepless ones!" Then she erased it and wrote on it, expecting it to reach me: "Whoever loves neither sleeps nor dozes!" Then I erased that, and wrote: "I, by God, will be the first to die from heartbreak!" She said: "He who confronts me with his ring, by God, I will never speak to him again!" (6) The interaction in the anecdote is telling. None of this verbal exchange is conducted in the actual presence of the other. The choice of rings as the medium for this exchange agrees well with the zarf etiquette. Because of their small size, rings are not the ideal medium for displaying text, especially poetry, and few people would expect it. As a result, these verses would probably go unnoticed by most people. But for the zarif this is exactly what makes the ring such a splendid medium. The sharp observer--a fellow zarif--would, unlike most people, pick that up. After noticing the inscription and struggling to decipher the small script, the zarif faces another challenge: he or she must figure out what the context is to which the poem refers. Thus, the zarif must be au courant with the latest gossip about one's fellow zurafa'. Lastly, the very limited inscription space on a ring was a constraint that made it extremely challenging for the writer, who had to express him or herself extremely succinctly. (7)

Since al-Zayyat recorded the entire exchange, we also learn about the techniques used: after an initial verse, each participant in the exchange responds, using elements from the opponent's previous verse. Here the slave girl set the tone with the format of conditional sentences. She initiated the exchange and she was also the one who concluded it, ending her last verse with the word "never" (abadan). She also established the theme of sleep and sleeplessness in the exchange, scolding al-Zayyat for being a bad lover (who sleeps, unlike a real lover, awake all night). Sleeplessness is, of course, an essential part of love, and being in love was a necessary requirement for being a true zarif. By accusing al-Zayyat of sleeping, and clearly not a true lover, she also implied that he was not a true zarif. If we can trust al-Zayyat to have recorded the exchange verbatim, it follows that the poetic meter--al-kamil--was also set from the first verse. (8)


Shoes, belts, scarfs, hats, shirts, and cloaks were among the most popular objects to be inscribed by zurafa'. Many of these inscriptions were woven into the fabric in decorative bands on the sleeves and the hems, in what came to be known as tiraz (embroidery). (9) Such decorative fabrics can be seen in miniatures in luxurious manuscripts, especially from the thirteenth century onward. (10) From the inscriptions of poetry recorded by al-Washsha and other contemporary writers we learn that courtiers used their clothes to make statements about themselves in clever and often subtle ways.

The following inscription recorded by al-Washsha is an example of such a personal statement, in which the (unidentified) zarlf relies on his fellow zurafa''s acquaintance with Arabic poetry. The two verses were allegedly inscribed on his silk cloak:

[phrase omitted] A cold northern wind was blowing toward the end of the night. We had no clothes except for her cloak and my robe. My garment preserved the fragrance of her breeze (11) until a year later, when it was worn out. (12) The two verses depict two lovers, naked, covered only by their outer robes, in the...

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