Dueling Divas and Celebrity Fandoms in Medieval Samarra

By Cait Stevenson

In the 850s, ‘Arib of Samarra had a problem, and her name was Shariya. Shariya likewise had a problem, and her name was ‘Arib.

It’s no anachronism to say that by 850, ‘Arib and Shariya were the divas of Samarra. Both were singers, poets, and composers with “cover bands” (enslaved women who performed their songs) and, most importantly, with massive fandoms that hated each other. Or, as the tenth-century music encyclopedia Book of Songs (Kitab al-aghani) puts it: “The supporters of one party did not use to visit those of the other one.”


‘Arib and Shariya were both former qaynabs, a type of highly educated, enslaved courtesan in the medieval Islamic world who served to illustrate the splendor of their enslavers at court–whatever that entailed. (You might still see the term “singing girl” in modern scholarship sometimes, but that’s a derisive nickname borrowed from an anti-qaynab satire.) By the 840s, however, both ‘Arib and the much younger Shariya had been freed, had tabloid-worthy rumors about them swirling around Samarra, and were constantly dueling for the position of top star. And one day, according to the Kitab al-aghani, they faced off directly against each other.

On that (undated) day, ‘Arib and Shariya—apparently not as antagonistic as their fanbases—were part of a brunch gathering with some of Samarra’s elite. Perhaps to entertain and definitely to show off ‘Arib’s skills, her own qaynab, Bid’a began to sing one of her songs. Her audience ate it up.


Perhaps Irfan, Shariya’s qaynab, jumped in on her own; perhaps Shariya ordered it. One way or the other, she too offered one of her owner’s songs:

“And if my heart wants my beloved to separate, there are two advocates

Pleading her cause deep in my heart: her braids”

Bid’a and Irfan went back and forth, performing songs by ‘Arib and Shariya, winning equal applause for their own skill and for the music itself. Only afterward, over a round of wine, did ‘Arib spring her trap. She asked Shariya who had composed the music to her lyrics; Shariya launched into a long explanation that boiled down to: me, and everybody loved me for it.

‘Arib turned to one of the male diners and asked him to perform the song she had previously requested that he learn. The other guest did—and very quickly discovered he was singing the same melody as Irfan. Shariya might have a good voice and she might have lyrical skill, but when it counted the most, her best songs were direct rip-offs.

Even Shariya’s fans lost social stature over that one. So here’s a take-home message: don’t mess with a medieval diva—and don’t mess with her fandom.


Cait Stevenson earned her PhD in medieval history from the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of How to Slay a Dragon: A Fantasy Hero’s Guide to the Real Middle Ages. You can follow Cait on Twitter @sunagainstgold

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Top Image: Photo by David Stanley / Flickr


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