The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market-Place: Rereading the Curious Tale of the Mamluk Era
By Paulina B. Lewicka
Studia Arabistyczne i Islamistyczne, Volume 13, 2007
Introduction: At some point in XV century, or in the decadent period of the Circassian Mamluk era, certain Ahmad Ibn Yahya Ibn Hasan al-Haggar, apparently a resident of Cairo, composed a curious narrative titled Kitab al-harb alma suq bayna lahm ad-da’n wa-hawadir as-suq. In 1932-4 the work was partly translated, under the title The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market-Place, by Joshua Finkel who also provided the translation with the summary of the text and extensive comments.
Since that date the tale was summarized a number of times in contemporary studies and there is no need to retell its story once again. In the context of the present study it probably suffices to say that Delectable War features a conflict between two camps, each of which is represented by a significant number of personified edible goods. In other words, various meats, animal fats and meat dishes, led by the mutton—called here King Mutton—fight the camp of meat-free foods that is led by King Honey. The cause is not always clear but, according to the most obvious understanding, the prominence over all the foodstuffs is at stake, both of those in the bazaar and those on the table.
For the historical food studies, one of the most evident merits of this work is that its author used the war game stylistics as a pretext to mention all the food articles’ names which he knew. And he knew many of them. In effect, the text is so intensively saturated with edibles of every possible kind that it at times resembles an index to a cookery book interwoven with a complete list of food products available in the Near Eastern markets.
But the countless names of foodstuffs are not all that the text of the Delectable War can be valued for. All the scholars who hitherto discussed the bizarre work noticed the unquestionable importance of the social context hidden in its message. However, since their analysis of this context have introduced a degree of confusion into the problem, some of the points require clarification.