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Why I Wrote a Book of Cartoons about Medieval Baghdad

By Emily Selove

Can you keep a secret? I wrote a book of cartoons about Medieval Baghdad! And according to the 9th-century essaying al-Jahiz, the fastest way to spread news is to claim that it’s a secret! 

The idea for Popeye and Curly: 120 Days in Medieval Baghdad, started with the name “Popeye and Curly” itself. “Popeye” is a translation of “al-Jāhiz,” a scholar whose prominent eyeballs, the result of an ocular deformity, earned him this nickname. He was a prolific prose writer best known for his rambling multi-volume work The Book of the Animal (Kitāb al-Hayawān). “Curly” is a (loose) English translation of the name Abū Nuwās (“one with a dangling/curly lock of hair”). He is among the most famous poets in the history of Arabic literature, best known for his odes to wine and love poems to the attractive boys who served it.

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Both authors lived in 9th-century (CE) Baghdad, and both were endowed with the kind of playful, genre-breaking genius that is apt to change the course of world literature, which is exactly what they did. But the idea for a book of cartoons about Medieval Baghdad, the seat of the incalculably influential Abbasid Empire, came to me randomly in the shower, in the form of the simple revelation that “Popeye and Curly” would make a great name for a comic strip.

This happy thought was followed by an idea for one scene (now episode 33), in which Curly visits a monastery to drink wine and flirt with Christian boys—a popular pastime among some Muslim residents of Abbasid Baghdad. But I quickly dismissed the notion of a comic strip, lacking faith in my own ability to draw or to think of enough jokes. If the world had not been on its first Covid lockdown at the time, the idea might have died then forever.

There were strange psychic energies then flowing through the collective unconscious, driving many of us to social media in desperate acts of virtual community building (I watched Sir Patrick Stewart read a Shakespeare sonnet-a-day on Instagram, for example). This same energy gripped me and dragged me to the internet, where on a sudden impulse, with no further plans than those described above, I announced my intention to draw a comic strip called Popeye and Curly. Many of my Facebook friends (on my “work” account) are Arabists who got the joke right away. The positive response was immediate, and came with all the associated dopamine-inducing feelings of social media “likes.” I sat down then and drew three strips one after another. Still, in the grip of sublime artistic inspiration (and addicted to the “likes”) I went on to draw a new strip almost every day for several months. The “120 days” in Medieval Baghdad, with its twin echoes of the Marquis de Sade and the 1001 Nights, were in reality 120 days in Covid lockdown.

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This experience bolstered my faith in the humans of social media, who were unflaggingly kind, supportive, and fun to virtually be around. I felt like my “friends” were friends without the scare quotes. I also felt like I was doing important work. So much of the Western world, lacking a personal connection to Arabo-Islamic civilizations, know them only through the news, where “if it bleeds it leads.” The resulting Islamophobia, also a monstrous and deliberate creation of European colonialism, hurts every single one of us. Western education carefully preserves the contributions of Greece and Rome to modern culture, while equally carefully forgetting those of medieval Baghdad.

When modern people talk about the medieval world, we are often trying to make a point about our own modern reality. Chauvinists and extremists paint the medieval world in a hateful way to suit their hateful agendas. I have my own agenda, and to me, Abbasid Baghdad was a multi-cultural party-town with a kind of motley hilarity to it, without whose creativity so much of what we love about the modern West—its philosophy, art, science, literature, and music, simply would not exist in the forms that they do today. Obviously the city had its problems, and these are not entirely effaced in this book of cartoons, where tricksters and thieves roam the streets, a singing girl is obliged to smack a misogynist in the head with her slipper, and war with the Byzantines is (in the case of Popeye and Curly, somewhat absurdly) waged.

But almost as important to me personally is the fact that I laugh so often when I read Medieval Arabic literature, and a joke is never complete unless you can share it with someone else. Conveying medieval humour requires a lot of translation, and I found the familiarity of the cartoon format, the facial expressions and postures of the characters delivering lines that are often just reworked medieval Arabic texts, hugely helpful in expressing the humour of these scenes. So I was no longer laughing alone. The accompanying “facts” sections all began as Facebook posts, so this must be a new modern genre of writing—the social media rant turned book. Theran Press, whose stated mission is to “liberate intellectuals from the confines of traditional academic publishing,” and to “encourage new models for generating and distributing art, science, and knowledge” could not have been more suited to this project or more supportive of my efforts.

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I could not allow myself, however, to stray too far from the primary sources and secondary scholarship in the creation of these scenes. I wanted to draw a scene based, for example, on the popular narrative about the origins of coffee— that it was discovered by a shepherd who watched his goats eat coffee plants and perk right up. But I could not find a genuine medieval text to verify the provenance of this tale, so that idea got axed. Since the libraries were closed, I mostly relied on PDFs, digitized collections, and whatever I happened to have at home for my research. The drawings themselves are inspired by al-Wāsitī’s 13th-century illustration of al-Harīrī’s 12th-century work of famous trickster stories known as the Maqāmāt.

Bibliothèque nationale de France MS Arabe 5847 fol. 86r

I am happy to imagine that some of my readers might enjoy this book just as a book of cartoons, dipping in here and there when they feel the urge, enjoying a laugh or two, and moving on with their day. But I hope that some readers, drawn in by the facts section, the bibliography, or maybe even the Arabic language quotations that I sometimes provide, will go on to become scholars, professional or casual, of medieval Baghdad and classical Arabic literature, which deserves a hundred and twenty times more attention than it currently gets.

Emily Selove is a senior lecturer in Medieval Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Exeter. You can follow her on Academia.edu.

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You can buy Popeye and Curly: 120 Days in Medieval Baghdad through Amazon.com or through Bookshop.org

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