Suzanne Stetkevych

Suzanne Stetkevych (Sultan Qaboos bin Said professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies, Georgetown University) is a specialist in classical Arabic literature. She holds an AB from Wellesley College and PhD from The University of Chicago. Her research, which has been supported by Fulbright, NEH, SSRC, ACOR and ARCE, focuses primarily on myth, ritual, ceremony and performance in the Arabic ode and ranges from the pre-Islamic through the neo-classical period. Her books include Abu Tammam and the Poetics of the Abbasid Age; The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual; The Poetics of Islamic Legitimacy: Myth, Gender and Ceremony in the Classical Arabic Ode; and The Mantle Odes: Praise Poems to the Prophet Muḥammad in the Arabic Tradition. She is currently working on a book on: Authority and Authenticity: The Two Poetry Diwans of Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī: Saqṭ al-Zand and Al-Luzumiyyat.


From Umayyad History to Abbasid Biography: Variation, Invention, and the Archeology of an Adab Text

The base text for this study is an account of the Umayyad excavations for the construction of the Great Mosque of Damascus, which tells of the unearthing of an ancient temple with a mysterious inscription from its long-lost builder. The paper proposes to explore the genesis and interpretation of this adab text as it migrates from one literary context to another, from a biographical notice on a celebrated poet and linguist, al-Maʿarrī, to a historical-geographical entry on a famous city, Damascus.

This account first occurs in a notice (tarjamah) on the renowned Abbasid poet, literature and linguist, Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī (d. 973/1058) in Jalāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Qifṭī’s (d. 646/1248) biographical dictionary of grammarians, Inbāh al-Ruwāh ʿalā Anbāh al-Nuḥāh. There, the account of the Umayyad excavations is recounted in the presence of the blind skeptic, al-Maʿarrī, from whom it elicits an apparently spontaneous and highly ironic poetic response. A virtually identical account—but lacking any reference to al-Maʿarrī--appears in Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s (d. 626/1229) geographical compendium, Muʿjam al-Buldān, where it is attributed solely to Ibn al-Qifṭī. It occurs in the Dimashq (Damascus) entry, after the more familiar and historically attested account of al-Walīd’s building the Umayyad Mosque on the site of the Church of John the Baptist.

The study then turns to earlier, cognate and variant historical accounts, from early histories up through Mamluk-era literary compendia. It concludes by extracting and addressing issues essential to our understanding of adab in the Arabic literary tradition. What is the origin of these texts—are they grounded in actual historical events? How are we to explain the blatant anachronisms? The striking repetition of identical motifs or topoi in different historical settings? The cooptation of accounts originally conceived of as “historical” to serve political, ideological or literary critical purposes? How should we categorize, both aesthetically and conceptually, these texts that clearly do not fit under our altogether inadequate categories of “fact” and “fiction”?