By Peter Konieczny
Today few people would know the name ʿArīb al-Ma’mūnīya. But during her lifetime, she may have been the most famous person in the world.
As the ninth century dawned, it could be argued that the centre of the world was Baghdad. It was still a young city, just about fifty years old, but as the capital of the Abbasid Empire, it became enormously wealthy. With its wealth came scholars, writers, artists, and entertainers, all looking to make their careers. By all accounts, Baghdad was a vibrant city during this time.
One of those to arrive was a girl by the name of ʿArīb. It is better to say that she returned to Baghdad, as she was born here around the year 797. According to ʿArīb’s version, which may or may not be true, her father was a member of an important household, while her mother was a concubine. She was only a few years old when that family was purged and destroyed by the caliph, a victim of politics. In the chaos of this event, ʿArīb was taken and sold into slavery.
Eventually she was sent to the nearby city of Basra, where ʿArīb was taught to be one of the qiyan – a kind of courtesan. She was trained in singing, poetry and etiquette. Her life was to be an entertainer of sorts – really, more of a plaything – one who would perform for the elites of Abbasid society, particularly in Baghdad. Al-Jahiz, a famous writer of the time, gives this explanation of what the qiyan really were :
A caliph, or someone else in a comparable position of power and influence, used never to be without a slave-girl standing behind him to wave fly-whisk and fan, and another to hand him things, in a public audience in the presence of other men.
As slaves, qiyan did not have control over their own bodies – it was their owners who did, including forcing them to have sex. To be a signing girl probably meant a short career, where you could find yourself discarded if you did not look, sing or act the right way, or if your beauty was no longer in style.
It seemed that ‘Arib was doomed to be just another of these women, but she was determined to make use of her skills to regain her freedom. She even bristled at the notion that she was a slave. Once she returned to Baghdad, ʿArīb soon gained a reputation for her performances and her beauty. She was in demand from the highest levels of society, even attracting the attention of the caliph. She would be sold to the Abbasid ruler for the staggering amount of 100,000 dinars.
The story of ʿArīb is largely told by a tenth-century writer named Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani in his The Book of Songs. It’s a massive collection (10,000 pages long) of music, poetry, anecdotes and stories about the music scene in Baghdad and the Arab world, and ʿArīb is one of the main figures in the work. Here is how al-Isfahani introduces her:
‘Arib was a singer of great skill and a poetess of rarefied taste. She was a fine calligrapher, an engaging conversationalist and a woman of supreme comeliness, beauty and grace; she cut a striking figure and played the oud with brilliance. She displayed excellence in performance, in her knowledge of modes and strings, and in the narration of poems and stories. None of her peers could hold a candle to her.
Today, ‘Arib might be regarded as a ‘Diva’. She was a prolific musician, with her notebooks containing over a thousand songs she wrote. But beyond that she was known for her wit and public persona, and even for her rivalries with other female singers. She was also known for her use of sexuality. According to her own account, she counted eight caliphs among her many lovers. Al-Isfahani’s book is filled with tales and anecdotes about her love life, such as the one where one admirer was visiting ‘Arib and shyly asked her what she looked for in a lover. Her response:
My conditions: a penis of steel and nice body odor. If in addition, he has loveliness and beauty, then he will be more worthy to me. But the first two are a must.
ʿArīb would eventually gain her freedom through one of her caliph-lovers. But she continued on from there, becoming a focal point of Baghdad’s social world. As one historian remarked, “She was a proficient networker, and no one who was anybody was a stranger to her.” It would seem as if the entire city knew her, and her fame surely spread throughout the empire.
The music ‘Arib sang tended to be more of the traditional kind, not the newer and trendier songs, and there were those who criticized her for it. One man complained that ‘Arib wrote the same song a thousand times, but many others leapt to her defence.
Fame also meant ‘Arib had her share of jealous rivals and those who wanted to be the next ‘Arib. A memorable singing contest took place in the year 850 when another entertainer named Shariya tried to upstage her. ‘Arib would win that one.
With this fame and network, ʿArīb would also become immensely wealthy, and would develop her own entourage of singing-girls and slaves, some of whom would become famous as well. All this happened during a time when Baghdad and the Abbasids would see their share of conflict, court intrigues and even civil war. ‘Arīb would live into her nineties, passing away around the year 891.
Even if half the stories about ʿArīb are true, it would seem she lived a remarkable life. As one of ‘Arib’s fans said of her:
She is the sun and the other women are stars
If she appears, they set and become invisible.
Here are a few of the songs / poems written by ʿArīb. The first one is on the vicissitudes of life:
He who befriends Time cannot laud unquestionably what its conduct brings about
for Time possesses things sweet and bitter
And everything no matter how long it lasts
is inevitably cut short when its end comes
Here is one she wrote at a party:
Answered the heavy downpour
and ‘drowning’ cried the daffodil
And [there’s] Banān who sang to us
‘eyelids laden with sleeplessness’
Bring forth the cup brimful
with beaded bubbles winking at the rim
Here is one about a lover who has been sent away from Baghdad:
As for the lover he went away
in spite of and against my will
I erred in being separated from one
for whom I have found no substitute
Because of his absence from my sight
I have become tired of life
One that ‘Arib composed for the wedding of Caliph al-Ma’mūn and his bride Būrān in 836:
Prosper – may the vicissitudes of ruins pass you by –
by the closeness of Būrān for ever and ever
A pearl of the boudoir whose star
shall ever go hand in hand with that of al-Ma’mūn
Until the majesty shall settle in her lap
blessed be such a lap
Fuad Matthew Caswell, The Slave Girls of Baghdad: The Qiyān in the Early Abbasid Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
Matthew S. Gordon, “The Place of Competition: The Careers of ʿArīb al-Ma’mūnīya and ‘Ulayya bint Al-Mahdi, Sisters in Song,” Abbasid Studies, ed. James E. Montgomery (Leuven, 2004) pp. 63-79
Lisa Nielson, Music and Musicians in the Medieval Islamicate World: A Social History (I.B. Tauris, 2021)
George Dimitri Sawa, Erotica, Love and Humor in Arabia: Spicy Stories from the Book of Songs by Al-Isfahani (McFarland and Co., 2015)
A version of this article was published in Medieval World: Culture & Conflict.