Catherine Ambler

Catherine Ambler is a PhD student at Columbia University, working on intertextuality and exchange in Persian and Arabic, with a focus on Timurid and Shaybanid circles. She is interested in ways in which texts assert, define, and transform their predecessors, particularly in connection with Sufism.

Bracketing History Within Adab: The Contested Past in al-Zaynī Barakāt

In Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī’s al-Zaynī Barakāt (1971) multiple networks of authority support, contend with, and interpenetrate each other in late Mamluk Cairo (1507-1517). Their dynamic relationships are conveyed, in part, through the proclamations, letters, reports, and other documents that the text sets alongside sections that narrate the lives of various characters. This structure recalls the propensity of Mamluk historiography to quote documents and tell history through biographies. However, the adab of al-Zaynī Barakāt supplants historiography as the matrix of the cited texts; a Mamluk history is, in fact, one of the texts that it brackets within itself. Al-Zaynī Barakāt draws from the resources of pre-modern adab not only in the use of forms of discourse of a high register, but also in the visibility that it gives to the circumstances of the production of discourse. At the same time, rather than limiting itself to pre-modern definitions of adab, al-Zaynī Barakāt incorporates traditions that are normally excluded from such definitions, especially Sufism. Rendered through this encompassing adab, Sufis, and Shaykh Abū al-Su‘ūd in particular, enter the narrative as bearers of their own conception of truth, rather than operating as characters among others in a monophonic frame. This truth makes itself felt on the historical record, but is incommensurable with it. As such, it has political force, suggesting that the historical moment is neither fully known nor controlled by those who assert mastery over it.