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Session C5120 (Thematic Conversation-Global Histories of Slavery in the Premodern Middle East and Beyond), 2018
My work to date on slavery/’unfreedom’ in medieval Islamic and Middle Eastern society has focused on two particular social categories: elite courtesans and commanders (of the well-known Abbasid ‘slave military’). Despite divergences in the histories of the two communities, there is every reason to take stock of singers and commanders together: my contribution to the Thematic Conversation will situate the two ‘collective’ histories against the wider backdrop of Abbasid-era slavery (ninth and tenth century of the Common Era). My emphasis will fall on two patterns that characterize the careers of singers and commanders alike: the achievement of prominence (upward social mobility) and the creation of households (personal and professional networks).

I will address the connections of Abbasid-era slave trading with that of the wider early/medieval Mediterranean world, that is, as it relates to Abbasid Iraq and the ‘consumption’ of slaves by elite urban society. But my contribution takes up the question of social mobility more specifically. By what means did particular slaves, men and women alike, overcome the obstacles strewn in their path? These comments will point to the considerable legal, social and cultural barriers that stood in the way, and the ways in which singers and officers alike learned to negotiate (but were often victimized by) these same barriers. It also attempts to contrast their relative success in achieving social prominence with that of the vast numbers of their more ‘ordinary’ counterparts about whom we know far less although the papyrus record, alongside valuable references in the written sources, offers important clues.

I then return to the participation of singers and commanders in elite society, culture and politics: these final comments concern the respective careers of members of each group. I will consider, in the case of the singers, for example, their production of poetry and music; performance as singers, dancers and the like; relationships with male peers from across Abbasid elite society; and their accumulation of prestige, position and wealth. In organizing these comments, I have borrowed from Mamluk and Ottoman historians a richer idea of the ‘household’ (= the socio-political network), underscoring its value to the study of Abbasid social history. If much evidence suggests that singers and officers alike succeeded in creating households, it also indicates that in most cases these households lacked sufficient strength to withstand the considerable social and political pressures to which they were subjected.