Saturday Summer Re-runs: On Translating ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, Perhaps Arabic’s Most Prolific Premodern Woman Writer

You can read men talking about women, and historians have used these. AL: So that wouldn’t have been unusual, to educate a daughter of the family exactly as the sons? This is “lover” in the sense of her beloved, but not necessarily in any kind of passionate sense. We’ve got a number of people who’ve been interested in women in Islam, and ‘A’ishah’s work is an amazing resource for looking at a woman scholar, and issues regarding women and religion, certainly in classical Islam, but I would also say Islam and religion in general. There are parts of it in another manuscript in Cairo, but it’s not complete. There are stories of pious women, but there are no quotations from other women, because this may be the first Sufi guidebook written by a woman. Certainly her poems would’ve been recited among men. How did you come to these works? ArabLit: Before translating   The Principles of Sufism,   you worked on translating a collection of ‘A’ishah’s poetry,   Emanations of Grace. He was always an optimist, and he was living in trying times up there in Anatolia in the thirteenth century. Her uncle, Ibrahim, was considered one of the best Arab poets of his generation. Although ‘A’ishah quotes a range of authors, overall though, in the end, she’s got that positive aspect. The Principles of Sufism   is important for two additional reasons. Both men and women? So they’re writing poems back to each other. Th. TEH:   Sometimes the meaning of the words, or she’s using obscure forms. She’s very careful to quote her sources, and almost all of the sources are books by men. TEH:   I don’t think I’d know that, no. TEH:   I would think, too, that you do have a lot of men and women who are looking to their own self-help or spiritual development. We know for a fact it was exactly the same as her five brothers. But she probably recited these poems to other women, and that could’ve included the sultan’s wife, because they had mutual friends when she was in Egypt. Why? This is “lover” in the sense of her beloved, but not necessarily in any kind of passionate sense. What part of the tradition is she tapping into? He said, “This is the card catalog from the 1920s.” And I said, “You don’t use the catalog by title?” And he said, “Yes, I use that too, but this one sometimes is better, but I hate to tell you this, it’s by author.” And I just smiled and said, “Thank you so much.”
And then I start writing down women’s names in Arabic. It’s a kind of educated pastime among the elite, sharing poems. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t issues there that I didn’t have to go through and work over. That’s where we usually can bring in contractions and more American English to translate. TEH:   That was probably something that attracted attention to her. I’m not one who’d want to translate the blues all the time. TEH:   I would hope that those interested in feminist literature would read it. Then I started reading, and I found out it’s Sufi verse, and that’s my specialty, and I thought, “This is great.” And then I found her guide book, and I thought, “Good Lord, I’ve got the ability to read what her mystical doctrines are and compare them to her poetry.” Because so many mystical poets never wrote a guidebook, or anything in prose; you’re always trying to tease out what they may or may not believe, or what school of Islamic mysticism they belong to, and so forth, according to their poetry. And then I went into the card catalog, and after a while, lo and behold, I find ‘A’ishah. Emil Homerin
In a Skype interview originally published on the Library of Arabic Literature, Homerin talked about how he found al-Ba’uniyyah’s manuscripts—which was like finding “a needle in a haystack”—and what changes when you can read Sufi poetry alongside the author’s own spiritual guidebook. TEH:   ‘A’ishah is one of the very few women mystics in Islam who wrote and spoke for herself prior to the modern period. Why do you suppose? AL: Growing up in Damascus in the fifteenth century, would her education have been different from her brothers’? Because ‘A’ishah was a scholar, she is writing for other scholars, but she’s also writing for the spiritual novice who wants to understand what to do in order to let go of selfishness and find grace. When she’s in Cairo and she’s having these exchanges, she’s a widow. He was always confident of God’s mercy, of God’s love, and we see that in ‘A’ishah’s work as well. That’s not totally surprising, because they have more Turkish than Arabic, but for a while they controlled Cairo. Because she quotes her sources, we know that she’s reading the classics of Islamic mysticism, like the epistle by al-Qushayri and reading contemporary poets, or poets who were nearly contemporary with her, and quoting them. The one exception would be that, in many of her mystical love poems, she assumes the role of a woman with God or the prophet Muhammad as her lover. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The person who I would compare her to is Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet. I had read about women poets, I had their names—hers I did not have—but of others. TEH: No. The one exception would be that, in many of her mystical love poems, she assumes the role of a woman with God or the prophet Muhammad as her lover. Certainly somebody’s going to take exception, you’re always going to have conservative elements, but we don’t know of it. AL: Do you read ‘A’ishah’s writing as somehow gendered? Emil Homerin, editor-translator of the recently-published The Principles of Sufism, has long been interested in the work of ‘A’ishah al-Ba’uniyyah, who is perhaps the most prolific and prominent woman who wrote in Arabic prior to the modern period. That gives us some important perspectives from the viewpoint of a woman on her society, on Islamic mysticism, and on Islam in general. But here you have a woman talking about herself. Certainly her poems would’ve been recited among men. TEH:   Well, I can only speculate. Again, she came from a family that did that. There’s also one by Wallada [bint al-Mustakfi], who was a Muslim in Andalusia who wrote in the eleventh century. So that’s another teaching mechanism. TEH:   We don’t know that much about what women were doing at this time–this is why she’s very important. I went over and asked him, ‘Sir, what is this?” And he was kind of surprised, here’s this blond kid talking to him in Arabic. TEH:   When I was working on Aisha’s poems, I had to edit them first, because they were still in manuscript. And I think that’s important for seeing, at least in her case, how that tradition is manifesting and developing itself in Cairo and Syria in a very important time in Islamic history. We know for a fact it was exactly the same as her five brothers. And I think that’s very important. Her father was the chief judge of Damascus, so this was a very prominent family. The person who I would compare her to is Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Persian poet. We know for instance that merchants and artisans could read, not just the scholarly cadre. So you can see what she’s reading. She is a singular source, for if you want to understand an educated woman, who are you going to read? AL: But in general, ‘A’ishah wrote for a broad audience? What’s noteworthy about   The Principles of Sufism   is she’s very careful to quote her sources. And they basically viewed her as they viewed a male Sufi master—using the same epitaphs and so forth, only in the feminine form. She’s probably in her fifties. There’s a nice ambiguity there. That’s oftentimes the trend, when you find learned women—and there are a quite a few of them throughout Islamic history—most of them come from elite families that could afford to give their daughters the same education, or an education, as they did their sons. So I think that her poetic ability, and it comes over into her prose, was very attractive to her contemporaries. AL: But, in   The Principles of Sufism,   there’s really no way to see that she’s a woman. AL: What’s sustained your interest in ‘A’ishah’s work? Secondly, in terms of Islamic mysticism in general,   Principles of Sufism   is a valuable book for showing us what sources and resources were available. AL: Is that positivity part of what made her popular in her time? TEH:   The short answer is: No. Whereas her poetry, we have quite a few copies of those. AL: You were working with a number of other poets at the time. AL: And there’s no reference to men writing or saying,   ‘A woman shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing.’
TEH:   Oh no. We don’t see any sign of anyone being upset about this in the circles in which she operated in Cairo and Damascus. Oftentimes poems of praise, and they’re being clever with their plays on words and names and so forth. It still may be one of the only ones by a woman in Arabic. And, to be blunt, there could be things out there by other women and we just don’t know it. TEH: I believe so, yes. This is telling you something about social relations. And if they’re concerned with Islam, this is an invaluable resource. AL: Are there other audiences who would be interested? AL: So   The Principles of Sufism,   her guidebook: Do we have a sense of how many people read it and used it and how readers used it? Because of the civil war in Syria, I haven’t been able to get there to find out what they might have, because she spent most of her life in Damascus. We don’t see any sign of anyone being upset about this in the circles in which she operated in Cairo and Damascus. So basically I was spending time at Dar al-Kutub and its manuscript collection in Cairo, and I would just go through the titles list, looking though books of poetry and hoping that I could find one by a woman. According to some sources, she studied with him. So we do have poems for sure. Or you might find one or two poems, or a few verses in a death notice. Would you find a similar positivity in a work by a male mystic? Th. AL: And historians? Are there particular markers that tell you “this is a woman”—stylistically, tonally, word choice? I want to be able to come back and work it over and think it through. I did look when I was in Istanbul, and they have some books by her father and her uncles, but they don’t have this one either. The manuscript collections are immense. TEH:   What I like about the Library of Arabic Literature is that we’re editing and translating the text and it’s in its complete form. Then I saw an elderly gentleman walk over to a wall I hadn’t really noticed before. TEH:   No. Did they have the ambition? It depends on the mystic. She exchanged poems with male scholars when she was in Cairo; we have the exchanges. And so she will keep, in her better poems, an ambiguity, so you don’t know if she’s talking about her husband or her Sufi master or Muhammad or God. AL: You wrote elsewhere that it wasn’t usual for women to teach and be scholars in the Mamluk regions, but that they rarely—as ‘A’ishah did—composed their own original work. But you focused on ‘A’ishah. Also—she’s interacting with men. ‘A’ishah comes off as a very strong, very confident person who was not afraid to write and put things down. That might tell you that it wasn’t used that much, because we don’t have that many copies. More often men? But it really shows her skills. People would say, ‘Oh, such-and-such a woman wrote poetry,’ but you could never find it. We’re not dumbing it down, we’re not editing it out, we’re not eliding certain elements a general readership wouldn’t like or appreciate. Now, this is also rare. So right up until the time of publishing, as it went to the press, I was still tinkering with translations. Another thing that really attracted attention to her is that she is a very fine poet, and she really understands the Arabic poetic tradition. AL: It took you around ten years of working on and off on the translation of ‘A’ishah’s poems,   Emanations of Grace. Homerin, a professor of religion and former chair of the Department of Religion & Classics at the University of Rochester, previously translated a collection of al-Ba’uniyyah’s poems as   Emanations of Grace, and likens her work to that of the famous Persian poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi. TEH:   First of all, I had a collection of poetry by a woman. TEH:   In terms of history, you have an educated woman, and here’s what she studied, and here’s who she interacted with. I was looking for all sorts of poets, but part of my concern was to see if I could find women poets. And that led me to the manuscripts. TEH:   No, her education was not different. AL: What about the encouraging positivity in which the book is suffused? You can have other male mystics who are not nearly as optimistic, who are maybe a little more droll or concerned with divine chastisement. Advertisements

Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintLinkedInRedditGoogleTumblrPinterestPocketLike this:Like Loading…‹ Friday Finds: A Conversation with Jehan Bseiso and Filmpoem ‘No Search, No Rescue’Categories: #WITMonth, women Part of it may be that she’s writing a little later than many others who wrote Sufi guidebooks. Other times she’s using colloquial elements, which can be fun. There’s a nice ambiguity there. And we do have some bits and pieces of poetry from other women, but just not complete collections. But also, people would read these things out loud. That’s a showing-off, too. She exchanged poems with male scholars when she was in Cairo; we have the exchanges. So they’re writing poems back to each other. AL: In translating the work, were there parts you found particularly challenging? Does translating her poetry take more time that translating ‘A’ishah’s prose? One, here we have a woman writer, so you can at least get some idea of what she believed, and what her background and sources were. What is the line? And so she will keep, in her better poems, an ambiguity, so you don’t know if she’s talking about her husband or her Sufi master or Muhammad or God. So in some of her other works, for instance one of her poems called “The Clear Inspiration,” she quotes or refers to fifty other classical poets. It’s a kind of educated pastime among the elite, sharing poems. After I translate a poem, I don’t really want to publish it for two years. AL: Or even for those who aren’t specifically interested in spiritual guidance, it is certainly uplifting. AL: Who read ‘A’ishah’s work during her lifetime? AL: Beyond specialists, who do you imagine as the audience for this book? No, her education was not different. And I really can’t say that I see any particular emphasis that I ascribe to gender. Oftentimes poems of praise, and they’re being clever with their plays on words and names and so forth. That’s usually less of a problem. Originally published in 2014, this interview is a re-run for Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth). TEH:   Sometimes. Her son is with her, and he’s working as a secretary for the Sultan, and she’s living in the quarters of a family friend with his wife. So far, the manuscript I use is the only complete manuscript I know about. And looking at her work, for instance   The Principles of Sufism,   it is very much in the classical mode of a Sufi guide. So I think she saw herself as having a broad audience. If you didn’t know her name, would there be something about her work that you’d find particularly female? Th. The prose is more straightforward. Emil Homerin:   One of the times I’d gone over to Egypt, I was working on the poetry from the Mamluk period, basically 1250-1517. That can be enjoyable. Also—she’s interacting with men. But here I had sources that told me exactly what she believed. Did they have the time? Literacy was probably fairly high in Cairo and Damascus because of Qu’ran schools and so forth, so that people could read. And there was an old card catalog over there. And I think that’s another thing that made her endearing to me to spend time translating. But that could just also be chance. In one of the articles that I have written, I took a look at how Aisha was viewed by her contemporaries.