Carnal Feasting and Literary Scandal – How Ahmad al-Shidyaq Theorized the Literary
By Rana Issa
– In loving memory of Humphrey Davies.
In this essay, I will propose a look at the carnal as a libidial force that permeates Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s understanding of the literary. I argue that for al-Shidyaq the carnal is a method for a critical approach on literary history and literary composition. The carnal is a mainstay of the scandalous, without it, there can be no scandal.
Al-Shidyaq wrote and lived scandalously. His book, al-Saq ala Saq (Leg over Leg) is a 4 volume book of rambling episodes that are intercepted periodically with scandal. The scandal of his wife cheating on him, or his writing an anti-Christian polemic that then lands in the hands of his employers, the Christian missionaries, the scandal of homoerotic desire, and of people in power that cause mass pillage and murder and rape. Above all, this book is a literary scandal. It was published two years before al-Shidyaq’s translation of the Bible was issued, casting a shadow so overpowering to his work on the Bible, thus rendering it useless from the point of view of missionary ideology. The language of al-Saq is so scandalous that editors often intervened to laud and to censor its libertine genius. Al-Saq became for a long time the occasion for a string of embarrassed critics that attempted to tame it. They were unable to dismiss the scholarly force of al-Shidyaq, but they also could not overcome his libertine diction.
His conversion to Islam was his official rupture with the old ways. It freed him from the puritanism that dominated Christian villages and towns where he grew up. He graduated from his youth into the arms of the missionaries who were his first employers. When he broke with them and announced his conversion to Islam, by taking the name Ahmad, he moved on to propose a purpose for literature in his later career, that is at odds with missionary Bible obsessions and Victorian and nahdawi civility ideologies. He found in this conversion the courage to brandish his vast knowledge of the libertine Arabo-Islamic canon of letters, and permissive approaches to the body. Al-Shidyaq is a veritable scholar, who has read through and amassed an impressive library, the remnants of which remain in the National Library of Lebanon. His knowledge supported his courage to break with the Victorian values surrounding morals and literature and celebrate the scandalous irreverence that great Arab authors persistently had towards the norms of their times. His chosen metaphor for the reception of scandalous predecessors and their works is the delectable feast, the ma’duba. This literary feast is devoured through his pen that “[smacks] its lips” at the books of the predecessors. He worked through the carnal impulses of feasting on the literary to produce new approaches to rupture and continuity – binaries that structure an overwhelming approach to tradition since the nineteenth century. In the following I will first lay out the concept of the carnal as literary libido and then I will move to explore the carnal as a fetishization that leads to pleasure. In its literary semantics, the carnal for al-Shidyaq provided him with a technique of syncretism, that allows him to select and elect textual traces to invite to his chambers as he composes al-Saq.
Insomniac Sheddings of the Carnal
Al-Shidyaq was acutely aware that adab was not only the root for politeness (mu’ddab), but also for feast (ma’duba). Staying within the derivations on adab, al-Shidyaq defines the politeness of adab through the latter derivation, framing it through the metaphor of table manners, which allows him to cultivate an intimate awareness of the carnal in order to rhetorically work through it. The relationship to the carnal produces an alternative to the politicized parameters of nahdawi literature and their didactics of national desire. Instead, through the metaphor of literary feast, he roots the literary in the somatics of a carnal and sensory world, where he seeks to constitute a critique of authority and an assertion of the right to poetic joy, sampling language onomatopoeically – here you will encounter the onomatopoeia of English, as I would like to only use Humphrey Davies’ translation of the text of al-Saq. Take the episode when he pays a visit to the emir of the Druze, the effective ruler of Mount Lebanon in the 1850s. Invited by his brother who was the emir’s secretary, al-Shidyaq stays a while and gets “to know these folk through experience and close examination.” He found their customs and table manners intolerant. Too carnal were they when they sat to eat:
Such rumbling and mumbling and teeth-gnashing and lip-smacking was to be heard you would have thought they were wild beasts at a carcass. They are like animals taking huge bites, burying their front teeth in the food, stripping off the meat down to the bone, sucking out the marrow, licking their lips and smacking them, polishing off their dessert, licking the plates with their tongues, and throwing half-eaten food down on the table, all the while seated on the ground with their legs crossed under them at their ease …. When the Fariyaq ate with them, he’d get up hungry from the table and his guts would rise against him, so that till late at night to sleep he’d be unable. (1:111)
The sight of such carnal frenzy over food led him to insomnia. In the duration of time without sleep, he composes an ode of satirical verse that he shared with his brother. The brother agrees with him about the uncouthness of the Druze, but he also tries to gently defend them by saying:
These people are endowed with pride and chivalry, courage and gallantry, and though ill-mannered at board (سيئو الآداب على الطعام), they’re well mannered with deed and word (متأدبون في الفعل والكلام)…. The Fariyaq however, could appreciate no manners (آداب) but those of the dining table (المأدبة).
The ode becomes popular and the prince gets upset, but fearing the reach of the writer’s sharp tongue, he decides to contain his evil by inviting him to an extraordinary banquet, where al-Fariyaq is forced to compose lines of poetry on the food displayed. He does, quick witted as he is, but he swears “never again tie his forlock to any great man’s skirts”, particularly ones that demand he becomes court poet. In this episode where food and feasting become the occasion for literary license, the distinctions of adab appropriate the scene of the carnal to create havoc in the literary canon and cause scandal among his contemporaries.
He dreamt it once. “Behold the Fariyaq, seated on a chair, in front of him a table bearing a large number of books, among them, for all the scraps of paper they contained, not a scrap of food, in his fingers a long pen, and in his hands a pot containing ink as black as tar.” In this digestive dream about tradition, al-Shidyaq makes a metaphoric leap from food to books, and folds tradition into the carnal, only to recuperate the carnal as a literary excess that is cultivated through a voracious appetite for reading.
A Syncretic Approach to the Canon
Al-Shidyaq inverts and converts, he derives and transgresses and creates a book of episodes, genres and stylistic somersaults that turn al-Saq into a literary banquet so voluptuous as to defy total sampling. I chose from the banquet that is al-Saq the character of al-Fariyaq’s partner in crime, al-Fariyaqiyya, who emerges as the main character of the last two volumes of al-Saq. Through al-Fariyaqiyya, al-Shidyaq opens up the possibility to think who is included and who remains excluded from the canon. Freshly arrived in Malta, he makes the couple experiment with their gender presentation, so they exchange clothes and go out to town, he writes:
The passersby and shopkeepers were amazed by them and didn’t know whether his wife was a woman or not, some were asking, “Is it a man or a woman?, some were following behind them, some touching their clothes and staring into their faces and saying, “We never saw the likes of this day–something that’s neither a man nor a woman!” One of the more intelligent English faqihs, whose name was Steven happened to run across them; having looked hard at their faces and worked out that the Fariyaq was a man and the Fariyaqiyyah a woman, he went up to them and said, “You, Man, and you, Woman, will you have lunch at my house next Sunday?”
Arriving for lunch, the English faqih leaves them sitting with his wife, daughter and her lover, as he goes to bring a few of his friends to come and gawp at his guests. He gets drunk on the way and never comes back. Eventually leaving without lunch, the couple begins to discuss gender specific practices. Al-Fariyaqqiya especially goes into great detail to describe the distinguishing characteristics of the male physique that sexually arouses her, let’s listen:
To proceed: a man has numerous charms that women do not. These include the breadth of his chest and of the pelt that’s upon it, the height of his shoulders and capacity of his breast, the straightness of his legs and the thickness of his arms and the number of muscles in them, the massiveness of his hands and the fact of his being strong and hard, stalwart and hearty, stalward and husky, stalworthy and strapping, stalworth, stout, and sturdy, stark and lusty, stith, stour, staunch and shredded, robustous, robustuōius, rumbustious, robustic, wrast, mettlesome, doughty, puissant, potent, rugged, hale, flush, ripped, buff, diesel, beast, built, cut, jacked, yoked out, fine-looking, and loud-voiced. All these attributes we women consider to be among men’s charms, and he has other, intangible, good qualities too, such as when he climbs the pulpit, for example, to preach, or rides a fine horse, or bears arms—and how fine a figure a man cuts when he walks along, his sword grazing the ground!’
From there, on the same page, she digresses into her inability to read and write, and contends to her husband that if she did she would “write more books about men and women than did that shaykh whose name you once mentioned but which I’ve forgotten because he’s dead on all the sciences put together.” Meaning al-Suyuti, al-Fariyaqqiya refers to his volumes dedicated to intercourse and sexual life. In an aside with the reader, the literate husband comments on her wishes by expressing his secret satisfaction that she was not literate, because he is afraid of what she will write about men who do not satisfy a woman if she knew how to operate a pen.
Between an Englishman that cannot serve lunch and a wife in drag that desires the power of writing, al-Fariyaq performs and exposes the author’s abortive pursuit of patronage amongst the English as well as the masculine fear of a writing woman. The Englishman’s intoxication fits with what al-Shidyaq writes elsewhere about Orientalists, as scholars incapable in the languages that they study. Likewise here, their host missed an opportunity to dine with his unusual guests. If food is the canon’s metaphor, then I understand the Englishman as uninterested in the Arabic canon, for he does not even know what he is missing. Al-Fariyaqiyya’s proximity is more complicated particularly in how her desire for writing coincides with her inability to recollect the name of one of Arabic literature’s most prolific and esteemed writers.
On the face of it, al-Fariyaqiyya’s forgetfulness emphasizes to the reader her illiteracy. But this is an illiteracy that does not curtail her reception of a canonical figure like al-Suyuti. Her forgetfulness contrasts with what she actually remembers: that she is dissatisfied with al-Suyuti’s hypermasculinized version of sex. She begins to dream of the various physical attributes in a man that excite her, al-Fariyaqiyya asserts a woman’s right to sexual hunger and from then on digresses to her desire for authorial voice. Undermining the canonical place for al-Suyuti through acts of forgetting functions to ignite her discontent with the persistent exclusion of women from literature in the canon, as well as in contemporary society. This forgetfulness enables a syncretism in the reception of tradition that al-Fariyaqiyya couples with her gradual acquisition of English. Even when she is unable to translate her learning in ways that domesticate it to Arabic, she signals the legitimacy of her move through what Katherine Eggert has theorized in another context, in the concept of disknowledge, or the “the practice of willfully turning from one knowledge template to another.”
Al-Fariyaqiyya’s syncretic attitude towards the canon centers truth in the body and measures up what is read against what is experienced. Her desire to write about what she finds sexy in men lists the body parts, stopping to gaze at each limb, every sinew, on body hair and what’s underneath it. She wants to write scandalously to revise certain established ideas about women’s desire, as envisioned and written about by men. Likewise al-Shidyaq when he writes his episodes, he treats textuality as a body to be tasted. The book digresses and meanders between genres and other authors and lexical lists and poetry and episodes of life lived, between the covers and on the streets. The disknowledge that is required for the articulation of writing by women mirrors al-Shidyaq’s disknowledge of literature that anchors itself in the carnal and all its scandals.
I call this operation syncretic, to return it back to the level of philosophical musings. To explore al-Shidyaq’s literary method. For this, I must let go of the metaphor of the sexual tasting of a man’s body by a woman, and move on to examine how the writer reads and handles texts. Amalgamating themes and forms, al-Saq postulates the literary as a syncretic method of reading and writing, of learning as an eclectic modality that does not always need to follow a coherent method. The only method is taste itself, fetishized to and fetishizing in its approach to body and text. This irreverence reaches its acme in al-Shidyaq’s playful flirtations with the Bible and the Qurʾān. I will just give a small taste of his qurʾānic iqtibas, or quotation, as I have elaborated on his treatment of scriptures elsewhere. Beginning with the title of the book, that resonates with the Qurʾān’s Sūrat al-Qiyāmah (Q 75) “wa-iltaffat al-sāq bil-sāq” which Tarif Khalidi’s Qurʾān translation rendered as “and leg is entwined with leg” and which in the Qurʾān is used to describe the mangled bodies on the Day of Judgment. He quotes this same sūra again in the last prose narrative of book 4, in Chapter 20, making a deliberate rhyme with qurʾānic prose, what Humphrey Davies translates thus:
any who wishes to bless him or curse him shall, when “leg is intertwined with leg” and it is said, “unto thy Lord that day shall be the driving,” receive his wages. As for he who prays for the restoration of his marriage before he breathes his last, I guarantee he’ll invite you to a banquet around and upon whose table will be set out, in proper order, everything this book mentions that the appetite may stimulate or the eye captivate, be it presented on couch or on dinner plate.
He feasts on the Qurʾān to disarticulate it from its stability as a text of scripture, a classic that nourishes his voracious appetite for canonical forms of text like the maqama and the lexicon. His digestive impulse is in equal measure an interest in those books, as well as a form of displaying his intellectual capital, quoting and stealing from the canon “to demonstrate my thorough knowledge of certain high matters.” (2:9) As he plays with the securely canonical texts of the Arabic tradition, al-Shidyaq rejects the treatment of literature as if it is a tool for a higher aim. Marshalling the aesthetic to protect the freedom of literature from purpose, al-Shidyaq carves out literary turf from the larger political reality that it responds to. Literature as he writes in the opening chapter of Book 2, is there for its beauty and not its purpose. Likening literature to the wonder of nature, he writes
Observe, for example, the different types of plants there are on Earth–how many flowers of which we cannot say, brilliantly constructed and amazingly formed though they be, that they serve a specific purpose. And look at the different types of animals — reptiles, vermin, insects, and others: some are beautiful to look at but have no use and some are ugly to look at but are most urgently needed. And look at the heavens, at all their stars…
And look at adab not promising purpose, but also keeping the door open to include it, for to cultivate aesthetic priorities of literature also means the freedom to decide whether purpose is the intention of a particular text. And his work has purpose indeed, as he announces in Book 2; it is a purpose that inverts the myth of Sisyphus.
Unlike the Greek hero’s absurd toil, al-Shidyaq pronounces his book as “a boulder of [precious] material [rolled] down from the topmost peaks of my thoughts to the lowest bottom of men’s hearts.” The purpose of this boulder rolling text is that at its speed, its author will only learn that “the quintessence of all that passes before him is beyond his comprehension and moves too fast for his discernment.” What the text can hope is to lift the world from its familiarity for their “very familiarity leaves us no room for wonder.” Seeking wonder, al-Shidyaq’s carnal starting point extends its spiritual aims beyond the needs of the flesh, of food and sex that has made scholars dub this novel libertine. The carnal is not just a category of human flesh, but in its grind the canon rests, rendered foundational because carnal, trussed in libraries for the compulsive reader whose digestion nourishes their transformation into writers.
 Ahmad Faris. Leg over Leg or The Turtle in the Tree:Concerning the Fāriyāq, What Manner of Creature Might He Be. Trans. Humphrey Davies. York: New York University Press, 2013. Trans. Humphrey Davies. New York: New York University Press, 2013.
 Ibid. vol 2, 9.
 Ibid. vol 1, 111.
 Ibid. vol 1, 113.
 Ibid. vol 1,115.
 Ibid. vol 3, 178.
 Ibid. vol 3, 159.
 Ibid. vol 3, 171.
 Ibid. vol 3, 171.
 Kathrine Eggert. Disknowledge: Literature, Alchemy, and the End of Humanism in Renaissance England. U of Pennsylvania P, 2015, 48.
 Tarif Khalidi, The Qurʼan: A New Translation (Penguin Classics, 2008).
 Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, Leg over Leg, vol. 4, 426.
 Ibid. vol 2, 11.
 Ibid. vol 2, 9.
 Ibid. Vol 2, 11.
Rana Issa works at the balancing point between public humanities, activist engagements, and academic curiosity. She writes in a variety of genres and languages and has occupied leadership roles in various aspects of academic and cultural production. She is Artistic director of masahat.no as well as a fulltime writer and translator. She is currently writing a bilingual (norwegian, arabic) queer memoir on motherhood, with support from the Norwegian Union for Non-Fiction Writers and Translators, The Free Word Foundation, and AFAC. She is co-recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts award for her ongoing translation of 19th-century author, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s travelogue to Europe, Tickets to London and Paris by the Remarkable Ahmad Fares. Her book The Modern Arabic Bible was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2023.
The text is Rana Issa’s manuscript of her presentation on 26 January 2023 at the conference on “Cultures of Scandal” (26-27 January 2023 at ICI Berlin), curated by Tarek El-Ariss (Dartmouth College / EUME Fellow 2012/13) and Rasha Salti, organized by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) in collaboration with EUME and the ICI Berlin. It is published here with the kind permission as are the images, taken at the occasion of the cleaning of the grave of Ahmad Faris Shidyaq in 2020.
Citation: Rana Issa, Carnal Feasting and Literary Scandal: How Ahmad al-Shidyaq Theorized the Literary, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 14.02.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/45305