Why Does Shahrazad Succeed?: Disrupting the Scapegoat Cycle with Cold Hard Cachet

By Samer M. Ali
Submitted to Session P5022 (Competition and Social Practice in Early and Medieval Islamic Poetry, 2017 Annual Meeting
Scholars have recently noted the power of Arabic discourse (khitab) to serve as a commodity in a gift exchange, and with that power comes the capacity of the poet to serve as intermediary in releasing self or others from captivity, harm, or even death (Stetkevych, Buergel, and Ajami). One might think of the cases of Ka’b Ibn Zuhayr, Sha’s (Brother of Alqama and subject of Mufaddaliyya 119), and most famously, Shahrazad in the _1001 Nights_, all of whom gain their freedom by virtue of someone’s khitab, be it poetry or narrative or a hybrid. Intercession also seems to be the leitmotif of works like K. al-‘Umda (The Pillar), al-Aghani (Songs), and Yatimat al-Dahr (Orphan Pearl of Time). In fact, Arabists understandably take this pattern for granted. However, a comparison with medieval Icelandic sagas, like that of Egill Skallagrimsson, shows how delicate these intercessions can be in the face of power. Consider the moment when Arinbjorn intercedes on behalf of Egill in the face of King Eirik’s anger and Egill is shamed publically and denied reconciliation. So, we come back to Arabic sources a bit wiser and ask: why does intercession seem to succeed so broadly? This paper examines cases of intercession on behalf of scapegoats before and after the tenth century to show that structural changes in performance and patronage then cause intercession to become much more popular and in a sense democratic. Before the tenth century, we find most cases involved elite poets and patrons, however, after the tenth century (and al-Mutanabbi) the subjects redeemed by intercession seem more humble, often chancery workers, Qur’an teachers, Qadis, as well as merchants. This paper engages specific theories of psychology and economics (Heilbroner, Marx, and Freud) to show that khitab had such cachet in performance culture, it functioned much like monetary currency. By delicate convention, khitab enjoyed three states of fungiblity: as (social) capital in the moment, as a costly commodity, or as promissory note for future benefits. Moreover, the bare utility of currency, whether monetary or verbal, cannot account for the indefinite amassing of resources. The amassing of wealth invites us to face the human drive for dominance-submission games within the primate hierarchy. The paper will develop a model of literary intercession, and it will draw on intertextual readings from the poetry of al-Mutanabbi, proverbs from al-Tha’alibi in al-Tamthil wal-Muhadara (Sayings and Salon Performances), and K. al-Tatfil (Party-Crashers).