At a West-Eastern Divan Orchestra concert three years ago, I heard a piece by the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom; he had called it Ramal, after one of the sixteen poetic meters of classical Arabic literature, which were already found in the odes that were hung up in the Kaaba before the coming of Islam. In a fascinating program note, Roustom transcribed the rhythmic alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables that define the meter into a kind of Morse code; he then translated this notation into time signatures to structure the piece: 8/8, 7/8, 5/8, 7/8. He wrote that the orderly—though syncopated—pulse of ramal reflected the “unsettled state of the world.”
Roustom’s experiment, to adapt the shapes a poem makes to the sounds and shapes of a musical piece—converting prosody into music— reverberates with ancient literary expressions, when narratives were performed, not read, and often involved movement: processions, choruses, dances, mime, formal gestures, all performed both singly and in groups. Scholars and critics usually focus on printed works as the manifestation of literature, but in the longue durée of making up stories and poems, this is a rather recent development; the practice of silent reading takes up only a small corner of the vast edifice of literary transmission. Song, speech, recitation, and dramatic performance do not necessarily imply an oral culture—far from it. Much of pre-Gutenberg literature was written down, but then disseminated by the voice, and the transition from speech to music included different kinds of communication, including the equivalent of chanting, humming, patter, and recitative. But another aspect of the interwoven character of movement, music, and words struck me: A classical Arabic poem on the page often has a diptych shape. A caesura in each line leaves an empty column down the center and the hemistichs form blocks on either side, as if the poem were opening like the wings of a bivalve. This, too, conveys a visual structure—especially to someone who can’t read Arabic—and reminds me of the way a corps de ballet, in a romantic classic such as Swan Lake, will unfurl enantiomorphically from the back of the stage and stream out to fill it in two massed mirrorings of each other, calling attention to their identity in difference. I began to hope that I could maybe put across a story that I couldn’t read by imagining it danced: A sign system of communication rather than an alphabetized code.
A leaf from a Qur'an written in kufic script, Abbasid dynasty, Iraq, c. ninth century.
Caliph panel in nastaliq script by Persian calligrapher Mir Emad Hassani, c. sixteenth century.
As I say, I don’t know any Arabic, though I used to—till the age of six when we left Egypt—and I have always felt a strong tug towards its culture, especially now, when a lack of knowledge and historical perspective strongly contributes to the current political tensions and hostility. I wondered if some stories, unavailable to me or to others as written literature, could be danced?
When I learned the meanings of words with the shared root rawaa, I found the conjunctions marvelously eloquent of an ideal about literature: a storyteller is a raawi, but rawaa also means “to irrigate or water.” We aren’t speaking here of the sea, but of fresh water—known also as sweet in English, while river fish are known in French as poissons d’eau douce. The metaphorical expansiveness of the whole cluster around rawaa, figuring stories as refreshment, fertility, dolcezza, reciprocal sustenance and reinvigoration, seems to me to express an ideal philosophy of civility and a politics of culture.
Alongside this conjunction, another term, not from Arabic but evoking its character, set questions stirring in my mind: arabesque. In English, and in variants in other European languages, the word arabesque is used to describe the characteristic dynamic, curving line of Oriental aesthetics, as well as a pose central to the exacting discipline of classical ballet. How are the two related? The combined effects of arabesque design—profusion, improvisatory exuberance, dynamic efflorescence—are more usually found in visual expressions than in literary usage, but could the interrelationships with dance inspire a ballet that seeks to convey a mode of Arabic literature?
As a term in aesthetics, arabesque enters Western European languages in 1656. It describes a purposeful meander, a scrolling and unfolding line, whose elements are often set one inside the other—honeycombed in the muqarnas, the three-dimensional vaults and niches of Islamic architecture, and labyrinthine in the ornamental tiling of two-dimensional surfaces. Arabesque designs aren’t in motion, but the rhythmic patterns and variations make them seem to be, and the pulse comes to an end only when they meet a border or a frame, strongly implying that otherwise they would extend ad infinitum in space and time.
These propulsive, irrepressibly kinetic qualities helped arabesque to travel without friction from the visual sphere to the lexicon of ballet, where it appears in English for the first time in l828. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a later date, l922, in an example that shows how the term is used to evoke both curvilinear arcs and feats of vertical balance: “The subtler attributes and graces of the old dancing shone in her—in the… keeping of her body in flowing or arrested arabesque.” It applies to the full extension of the limbs in space and to extreme stretching, arching, and balancing of the body, and to such motions arrested in the course of a dance—for example, Bacchantes doubled over backwards in ecstasy. In the modern vocabulary of dance, the term applies to a range of poses, and is used to emphasize vertical equilibrium on one leg as the other leg is held at full stretch upwards at the back (Margot Fonteyn perfected this with a look of easy grace). The connection to ornament and calligraphy springs from the dancer’s implied gliding and soaring, which echo the strokes of Arabic calligraphy as the scribe’s hand dances across the page. Kufic script, above all, captures the balletic term’s earlier character, as it stresses the vertical; the later usage, about stretch and reach, reflects later scripts such as nastaliq, which alights and curvets right to left down the page.
The image cluster of water, music, calligraphy, and dance began to crystallize in my mind. And when I was asked by the editors of the Library of Arabic Literature to write a foreword to Ibn al-Sāʿī’s Consorts of the Caliphs, the lives and the poetry of the book’s dramatis personae struck me as compelling and original subjects for a ballet.
Vestiges of the canal along Zubaydah's Way, on the side of Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia, c. 2011.
In the thirteenth century, as the Abbasid dynasty began to crumble, the court historian Ibn al-Sāʿī set out to gather what records he could about the significant presence and activities of women, many of whom had begun their lives as slaves. His book gives a spare, precious record of the mothers, wives, lovers, daughters, concubines, and “dependents” of the caliphs, viziers, and potentates of Baghdad in the city’s heyday. Many of these women were qiyan—singing girls— and some of them danced, too. They are glimpsed in Consorts of the Caliphs and we see, in some cases, dazzlingly accomplished individuals who survive by their wits, risking all with their sharp tongues; their adopted sobriquets give a flavour of their spiritedness: Ghādir (“Inconstance”), Ghaḍīḍ (“Luscious”), Qurrat al-ʿAyn (“Solace”), Ḍirār (“Damage”), Sarīrah (“Secret”), and even Qabīḥah (“Ugly”). In other cases, the women—august or beggared, full of years or plucked before their time—pass by in a roll of honor, on a pervasive note of reverence and requiem. Ibn al-Sāʿī’s book conveys the women’s social mobility, the complexity of the roles they fulfilled, and their high status. Their circumstances also reveal the intermingling of ethnic origins and faiths: some are Christians, some are ‘dark-skinned’. They were not always beautiful, as their nicknames show, but they were clever and quick-witted; they excelled in the rhyming contests that demanded one boutade (in verse) should be met by another and surpassed—rhymes and rhythms picked up and tossed back as in a joust. The victor was lavished with gifts—hunks of ambergris, gems, gold, or spices. Their poetic exchanges—flytings, in the Scottish term for very similar, later public displays—could be expressed in dance: I imagined a kind of aerial ballet as in Chinese martial-arts fantasy movies.
After reading about the qiyan, I was inspired to try to communicate their surprising stories to a wider audience. I plan a series of danced scenes, perhaps with some of their words set to music and sung from the wings; I will try to capture their range, from yearning love lyrics to sharp retorts to suggestive, comic banter. I began working on the piece with the choreographer Kim Brandstrup, the musician Joanna MacGregor, and the dancer Ingrid Kapteyn in the Fall of 2015 at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts, and we developed a scene that dramatizes how Maḥbubah (“Beloved”), having quarrelled bitterly with her lover— and master—the caliph Mutawakkil, has a dream about him, which she sings in the form of a poem; he, in turn, sees her in a dream, goes to her room secretly, and eavesdrops on the song he had imagined in his dream; this intermingling of their unconscious lives leads to the lovers’ reconciliation. The historical Maḥbubah was sold to another master and died, Ibn al-Sā‘ī tells us, after the caliph’s death. But the story of their romance lived on: in the Arabian Nights, on the 352nd Night, Shahrazad retells the tale of their mutual dreaming.
Another qayna, Fadl al-Sha‘irah al-Yamamiyyah, was “a poet who composed racy verse and was one of the greatest wits of her time . . . dark-skinned, cultured, eloquent, and could think on her feet. Poetry came naturally to her, and she was better at it than all the other women of her time.” The warrior and statesman Abu Dulaf al-Qasim ibn ‘Isa al-Ijli, a fellow poet and musician, issued her a risqué challenge:
They said, ‘You love a girl too young.’
I said, ‘The best mount is unridden, unyoked;
What a difference between a pearl that’s drilled and strung
And one that’s still unpoked!’
To which Fadl flashed back,
Riding is no pleasure till
The mount’s been broken to your will.
And pearls are useless to their owners
Until they’re drilled and strung.
The sexual mores the exchange implies are uncomfortable to contemporary ears (and I think the translation needs reworking), but it is notable that Fadl is defending experience, even if the terms she uses are harsh; other stories in the gallery of eminent consorts that Ibn al-Sāʿī has gathered similarly show that virginity was not especially prized—not beside brilliance and skill.
Similar racy flytings occur in the Tales of the 1001 Nights: when Zumurrud is put up for sale as a slave, she rejects bidders in similar terms to another of Fadl’s daring quips:
He moaned and groaned and whined all night,
And creaked just like a door-hinge.
Fadl, who was nicknamed “Boon,” was born in Basra, date unknown, and died in 870/871; she was the daughter of a dependent of a Yemeni tribesman (from the ʿAbd al-Qays tribe), and an orphan—her mother had died while giving birth to her. When she was still a child, she was sold by her brothers to a court secretary, who in turn gave her to the caliph Mutawakkil (821–861). One of the first great qiyan in Baghdad and Samarra, she was not only celebrated for her brilliance and her tongue, but also for her beautiful handwriting.
This aspect was the most surprising to me: I hadn’t expected these singing girls, often born into slavery and exchanged as chattel, to have somehow—somewhere along the road—acquired literacy, nor to have calligraphic expertise. But this accomplishment, too, seemed to lend itself to dance: I imagined the stage filling with renderings of the scrolling, burgeoning, restless energy of ornamental blazons.
The most famous consort in Ibn al-Sāʿī’s catalogue is Zubaydah (d. 831), “Little butter ball,” who was the daughter of the notorious vizier Jafar and became the legendary favorite wife of Harun al-Rashid. Her real name was Amat al-Aziz bint Jaʿfar, and she was the granddaughter of Caliph al-Mansur. Harun al-Rashid, who appears so often in the Arabian Nights, and embodies the glory of Baghdad in its most splendid and cultivated era, has gained a mythic aura, rather like Alexander the Great. As the mother of another caliph, al-Amin, Zubaydah became rich and powerful in her old age, and a benefactor renowned for her generosity. She built wells and gardens for their subjects; when she travelled to Mecca around 802, she saw the ever-present danger to pilgrims of dying of thirst and had a monumental underground aqueduct built—at her own expense—from Baghdad to Mecca.  In this way, Zubaydah adopted the role of a raawiya, a thirst-quencher. Vestiges of “Zubaydah’s Way” can still be seen in the desert.
Zubaydah’s pious action was echoed, it turned out, in the lives of several others among Ibn al-Sāʿī’s subjects, who, having been favorites and given birth to male heirs, were endowed with fortunes and given houses and prestige. They also turned their attention to the water supply, always a source of anxiety in the region. For example, Banafsha (her name means “Amethyst”), a favorite of the caliph al-Mustadi’, did not merely indulge herself in her famous water gardens, which were supplied by an intricate system of water-wheels from the Tigris. She had “a stone bridge built over the ʿĪsā Canal and a pontoon bridge fixed across the Tigris” so the public could enjoy them, too. Ibn al-Sāʿī quotes a poem he heard circulating about her:
Nothing measures up to the bridge’s beauty:
a beauty unparalleled, without compare.
Banafsha has embroidered her name on the Tigris
like tiraz on a carpet of azure.
"Design on each side for waterwheel worked by donkey power." Folio from Badīʿ az-Zaman Abū l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, c. 1205; copy by Farrukh ibn 'Abd al-Latif dated 1315. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Falaj at Al-ʿAyn oasis in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2008. Photo: Bob McCaffrey
The scientific achievements of the Abbasids included many such wonders of hydraulic engineering and bridge building, and they received a memorable tribute in a fascinating book, compiled around the same time as Ibn al-Sāʿī’s volume: The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices, written circa 1205 by Badīʿ az-Zaman Abū l-ʿIzz ibn Ismāʿīl ibn ar-Razāz al-Jazarī (1136–1206). An engineer with an imaginative magician’s streak, al-Jazarī illustrates numerous ingenious devices for raising water up steep river banks using the kind of camshafts and crankshafts familiar from much later machinery.
From North Africa to Iran, norias, or water wheels, and the underground irrigation systems have remained masterpieces of hydraulic science. When Napoleon took that illustrious team of savants to Egypt on his ambitious colonial adventure, they paid close attention to the machinery on the Nile that brought water high up the banks, making very detailed and precise scientific drawings. It is not always remembered that the French observed closely—and admiringly—the technologies they found in use, and published a splendid volume of the massive Description de l’Egypte recording the culture of “the Modern State.” But this interest has been eclipsed by fascination with Ancient Egypt.
Traces of such irrigation measures can still be seen in the orange and lemon groves of Sicily, also once under Arab rule, and in the vast oasis of Al-ʿAyn (“fountain” or “spring” in Arabic) in Abu Dhabi, which was the source of the ruling families’ wealth before the discovery of oil on their land. The system of water distribution called the falaj still conducts water through the date palm groves.
The harem has been the milieu for so much pejorative and prurient Orientalism that any setting that invokes it runs a serious risk of stirring the same associations. Yet it seems to me that the hitherto overlooked historical engagement of Abbasid women with the needs of their society and their people offers an eloquent way of countering this danger. Shifting the image of singing slave girls away from the stereotypical odalisque could realign our understanding of the past, while telling the story in a dance/musical-theatre form would remain within a much-loved tradition, crystallised by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Leon Bakst in Scheherazade. But instead of lounging about in torpid luxury, the dancers—the qiyan—will move in a constructivist space of water wheels and bridges, pulleys and sluices, which can be modelled on the ingenious designs of al-Jazarī; the scenography will be closer, I hope, to Robert Rauschenberg’s performance pieces at Black Mountain College than to Ingres’s Turkish baths or the Ballets Russes’s torrid dreams of harem life.
But a deeper, symbolic significance also colors the consorts’ interest in water, and it resonates with the spirit of rawaa in both senses, as watering and narration. It flows through everything that is most precious and life-giving: Water is associated with happiness, erotic fulfilment, the joy of children playing. The Qur’anic pictures of the afterlife intermingle with the enraptured love scenes of Sufi poetry, as they tap the imagery of water’s sustaining and cooling flow. Heaven itself figures as a well-watered enclave—indeed the word paradise comes, via French and ancient Greek, from the Old Persian word for a walled garden (paridayda, itself derived from the Indo-European Avestan pairi-daêza). In the Qur’an, the heavenly springs, like rivers, are given names of their own: Salsabil, Kafoor, Tasnim and, at Mecca, the miraculous fountain of “zam-zam” from which all pilgrims must drink. The Arabs in Sicily built retreats that were, in effect, shady pavilions set among fountains and pools: in Palermo, two of these pleasances, La Zisa and La Cuba, have recently been restored. At La Favara, the castle of Maredolce (the name means ‘sweet sea’), the Norman kings also took over a Moorish fortified summer palace, standing in extensive orchards that stretched from the shore to the Monte Grifone; the neglected groves still flourish there in a dense tangle concealed behind the streets and housing of the city’s western district, their vivid luxuriance giving evidence of plentiful groundwater still springing in the valley. These palatial pavilions—half shelters, half open-air dwellings—are ancient traces of a practical, yet also profoundly aesthetic, relation to the heat and dryness of the Mediterranean. The Siculo-Arab writer, Ibn Zafer, who had to flee the island after the Normans took over, compiled a delightful anthology of anecdotes, history, and animal fables, and called it Solwan; or, Waters of Comfort, after a legend that said if water was poured from a certain shell, it had the power to lift the sorrows of a rejected lover.
Matelda immerses Dante in Lethe. Gustave Doré, illustration for Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, The Divine Comedy (1472), c. 1868.
It is interesting to note how involved women are in the development of this imaginary, as their real selves become intertwined with ideal symbolism. Ibn Arabi declared, ”Any place not feminized should be rejected,” and water—in the form of bathing places, garden pools, interiors with fountains—was essential to that process of civilization. The imagery of the well-watered garden as a woman—a bride—derives from pre-Islamic material across the wider region, and it suffuses Greek and Hebrew lyric poetry and wisdom literature. Like the ancient irrigation systems that have conducted the precious liquid since the time of the Greeks, the image of fresh water courses through Christian scriptural metaphors for bliss: The Virgin Mary is prefigured in Catholic symbolism by verses from the Song of Songs, which is a gathering of oriental love poems. Just as in eleventh-century Andalusia, the well-watered garden is imagined as a bride, so in medieval Christian typology the Virgin’s miraculous body is identified with the “hortus conclusus” or enclosed garden (Song of Solomon 4:12). Later, Francis of Assisi, who travelled to Egypt on the Fifth Crusade, composed the Canticle of the Creatures, another rapturous praise poem that seems infused with pastoral imagery to evoke heavenly pleasure. Written in Umbrian dialect, it makes no specific Christian allusion as it hymns the sun and moon, beasts of burden, and “Sister Water”:
Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sor’aqua, la quale è multo utile et humile et pretiosa et casta
(“Praise to You, my Lord, for Sister Water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.”)
The earthly paradise at the summit of the Mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy, includes two rivers, presided over by Matelda, a mysterious singer: one is the Lethe, which wipes away memories of his sin and sorrow, and the other is the Eunoë (“good mind”—the word was invented by Dante), which gives only happy memories.
Tuning in to the confluence of this beautiful imagery around water in the combined traditions of the Middle East, I have decided to use, as a narrative frame, the closing scene of Dante’s “Purgatorio,” when he bathes in the waters of forgetfulness and drinks from the waters of Eunoë. In Rawaa, the qiyan are returning to tell—in dance—certain memories of their past lives. As in many ballets—Giselle, Les Sylphides, and Swan Lake—they are no longer of this world, but apparitions, and they will be choosing, between the waters of forgetting and the waters of good mind, what they wish to retain from their stories and their deeds to pass on to us.
The word for a ballet libretto in French is argument; examples of Léon Bakst’s libretti were on display in an exhibition about his work at the Opéra in Paris earlier this year. They are notes that cover barely a page—sketchy thoughts and a few diagrams and designs for costumes and settings. I am writing mine more like a film script, to bring up pictures in the mind’s eye of Kim Brandstrup and Joanna MacGregor, so that when we begin working together again this summer at the Dartington Summer School, we will all three be steeped in the sweet waters of the same story.