View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
What the barber saw
A historian’s lucky encounter with an 18-century Damascan
This book arises from a footnote . . . upon which I chanced more than a decade and a half ago.” So begins assistant professor of history Dana Sajdi’s The Barber of Damascus (2013), a warm, learned social and cultural study rooted in the 18th-century Ottoman Levant, shortly before the Arab Renaissance.
When she stumbled on that fateful footnote, Sajdi had been searching for the voices of ordinary Middle Easterners from a different time—the medieval era—for texts comparable to the handful of writings produced by ordinary Europeans of the day. The footnote, in an academic tome spanning 800 years of Arab historical thought, mentioned the existence of a chronicle covering the years 1741–62 by a barber named Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Budayr, who tended to customers in a tony section of his thriving city. Sajdi learned of others who authored chronicles in this era: a farmer in South Lebanon, two soldiers, a court clerk, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Greek Catholic priest, a Samaritan scribe, and a merchant. These individuals feature in her book, but her focus is the barber, with his record of events in Damascus and environs, of food prices, natural disasters, and street battles, and, he would complain, breakdowns in the moral order. Whether his news is about “a prostitute walking down the street being drunk, or . . . about sexual scandals,” Sajdi says, “it’s really a community gossip report.”
For a time, as Sajdi worked, the only known version of the barber’s chronicle was a bowdlerized edition prepared by a 19th-century scholar, published in 1959. Then, around 1999, Sajdi was poring over catalogue entries at Jordan University with Shahab Ahmed, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Harvard, when Ahmed came across a listing for the barber’s original chronicle under “miscellany.” The manuscript, it turned out, was housed at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. Sajdi could now work from two documents—the unadorned Arabic on faded yellow paper, penned by the barber himself, a professed man of “the small people”; and the later version, “refined” (as its editor put it) through a 19th-century, upper-class sensibility. Among Levant scholars, the 19th century, with its modernizing press, forays into constitutionalism, and stirrings of nationalism, is considered more interesting than the less-studied 18th. Sajdi used both versions to delve deeply into 18th–century life and link the two periods.
What strikes Sajdi most about Ibn Budayr, she says, is his “audacity,” not only in voicing anger toward the ruling al-‘Azm dynasty and its agents, but in “the simple and remarkable fact of his authorship“—of his self-authorship.
A conservative man by social and religious measures, the barber frequently denounced the government’s disregard of people’s suffering: “The unruly soldiers of Damascus have committed excesses, cursing of religion has increased, the commoners have been oppressed and no one listens to what they say,” he recorded.
Yet a reader can hear his heart breaking as his 14-year-old son takes sick and dies: “He was snatched away within two days—Oh, my brothers!—as if he never was!”
Sajdi coins the term “nouveau literacy” to describe the emergence of 18th-century Ottoman chronicles by humble commoners. (Her book is subtitled “Nouveau Literacy in the 18th-Century Ottoman Levant.”) Traditionally, the recording of news was reserved to the `ulama’ (“people who know”), i.e., scholars and clerics. It does not appear that the barber’s account was published in his time. But given its epic form and rhymed prose, Sajdi hypothesizes that the text may have been read aloud or performed in popular gathering places such as cafés. Nouveau literates such as Ibn Budayr, she suggests, presaged the rise of print journalism in the 19th century.
Sajdi, who grew up in the Palestinian occupied territories, Jordan, and Egypt, hopes chronicles by the barber and his peers will serve to flesh out today’s limited views of the Middle East with “voices of real people . . . navigating their environment and responding with all their humanity to changing times.”
Jeri Zeder is a writer based in the Boston area.
Read more by Jeri Zeder