Workshop: Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies Before Colonialism

Key information

9:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Brunei Gallery

About this event

Multiple Speakers

This workshop seeks to map pre-colonial histories of local and transregional multilingualism in the Maghreb, north India, and Ethiopia. In the Maghreb this will include Berber in the North and the South, classical Arabic, French, Spanish and Judeo-Moroccan; in north India: Persian, Hindavi, Arabic and Sanskrit; in Ethiopia Geez and any traces of oral and written traditions in the other languages present in the region. In the medieval period Ethiopian culture was well connected with religious centres of learning in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

  • What were the dynamics of these “multilingual locals”—did people read and write in more than one language, or read and write in one but also participate in others? Did they keep literary tastes in the different languages separate or did they mix them?
  • Were languages understood to be in hierarchical relationships or to fulfill different functions in different domains?
  • What genres were considered crucial to each language’s/region’s literary culture? Were they translated from one language to another? Did the same genres occupy comparable positions in the different language traditions (e.g. ghazal, masnavi, qasida?)
  • Which works and genres travelled furthest in a language? Thanks to which human and material networks?
  • What significant traditions of orature existed, who embodied/carried them and in which spaces?
  • What were the “significant geographies” in each region and each language—did they map onto one other or did they diverge?

The workshop programme is below. Registration is open (£5; free for students) until 3 June.
For more information, contact the Project Administrator Dr David Lunn .

Jump to:


Thursday 16 June
09.30 Registration
09.45 Welcome and opening remarks
10.00–11.15 Panel 1: Setting the stage: Significant geographies and multilingual locals

Francesca Orsini, Between qasbas and the city: literary multilingualism in Nawabi Awadh

Ronit Ricci, Reading between the lines: considering the multi-lingual through interlinear translation

11.15–11.30 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)

Panel 2: Mapping precolonial multilingualism in the horn of Africa

Denis Nosnitsin, Hierarchy of languages and traditions: Ethiopian highlands up to the 19th century

Selamawit Mecca, Mapping the circulation of Gǝ’ǝz literature

Ghirmai Negash, Pre-Colonial Writings from the Horn of Africa: The Case of Tigrinya
13.00–14.00 Lunch (provided for speakers/chairs; own arrangements for attendees)

Panel 3: Religion & Multilingual Circulation

Alessandro Gori, Language and Genre in the Islamic Literature of Ethiopia: preliminary reflections from an ongoing research project

Vermondo Brugnatelli, Religious literature in North Africa in Berber-speaking areas

María Ángeles Gallego, The Judeo-Arabic literary tradition of the Jews of Morocco

15.30–16.00 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)

Panel 4: Transregional Trajectories

Thibaut d’Hubert, Diversity in Unity: The multilingual locals of the reception of Jāmī’s works, ca. 15th–19th century AD

James Caron, Shadows of the Hindu Kush over the Pashto archive

17.00 End of day
Friday 17 June
09.30 Registration

Panel 5: Across the Mediterranean

Konrad Hirschler, The Circulation of Latin and Old French Texts in the Arabic Middle East during the Crusading Period

Karla Malette, Significant geographies, definite places: Languages in manuscripts, song and printed books in Venice, ca. 1350–1550

Stefano Pellò, Shiraz on the Adriatic: The Place(s) of Persian in Multilingual Balkans

11.30–12.00 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)

Panel 6: North Indian Multilingual Locals

Simon Leese, Reading Bānat Suʿād through Arabic, Persian, and Urdu in early 19th-century India

Nathan Tabor, Linguistic crossings at a graveside salon: Persian and Urdu lyric circulations in 18th-century Delhi

13.00–14.00 Lunch (provided for speakers/chairs; own arrangements for attendees)

Panel 7: Performance as a Lens on Multilingualism in the Horn of Africa

Getie Gelaye, Amharic poems and songs documented by Aläqa Täklä Iyyäsus Waqjira in his “Yä-Ityopǝya Tarik - A History of Ethiopia” written in the late 19th–early 20th century

Martin Orwin, Is there any Arabic influence on metre in Somali religious poetry?
15.00–15.30 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)

Panel 8: Real and Imagined Significant Geographies of Travel

Wen-chin Ouyang, Ayse Kara, and Firuz Akhtar Bohari, The Maghreb in Moroccan Travel Literature (13th through the 19th centuries): dynastic geographies, generic cartographies, and cosmopolitan localities

16.30–17.00 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)

Panel 9: Co-constitution and the circulation of Genres

Marle Hammond, The Uneasy Circulation of the European Fairy-tale Genre in North Africa and the Levant

Claire Gallien, A Passage to England: Early-Modern Reconfigurations in the Eastern Literary Canon


End of day

Saturday 18 June

Panel 10: Music as a Lens: The Intermedial Aesthetic before Colonialism

Richard David Williams, Reflecting in the Vernacular: Translation and Transmission of the Brajbhasha Mirror of Music

Katherine Butler Schofield, Genealogy, geography, and gharānā: Indian musicians’ networks in the time of Shah ‘Alam II (1759–1806)
11.00–11.30 Break (coffee/tea/biscuits provided)
11.30–13.00 Final Roundtable
13.00 Close

List of Speakers

Firuz Akhtar Bohari (SOAS University of London)
Vermondo Brugnatelli ( Università degli Studi di Milano-Bicocca)
James Caron (SOAS University of London)
Thibaut d'Hubert (University of Chicago)
María Ángeles Gallego ( Spanish High Council for Scientific Research, Madrid)
Claire Gallien (UPV Montpellier)
Getie Gelaye (University of Hamburg)
Alessandro Gori (University of Copenhagen)
Marle Hammond (SOAS University of London)
Konrad Hirschler (SOAS University of London)
Ayse Kara (SOAS University of London)
Simon Leese (SOAS University of London)
Karla Mallette (University of Michigan)
Selamawit Mecca (Addis Ababa University)
Ghirmai Negash (University of Ohio)
Denis Nosnitsin (University of Hamburg)
Francesca Orsini (SOAS University of London)
Martin Orwin (SOAS University of London)
Wen-chin Ouyang (SOAS University of London)
Stefano Pellò (Universiti Ca Foscari)
Ronit Ricci (Hebrew University, Jerusalem)
Katherine Butler Schofield (King's College London)
Nathan Tabor (Western Michigan University)
Richard David Williams (Oxford University)

Paper Abstracts

Vermondo Brugnatelli, Università di Milano-Bicocca
Religious literature in North Africa in Berber-speaking areas

The North African religious literature in pre-colonial times was mostly characterised by bilingualism.

As far as written literature is concerned, given that the Islamic religion requires some knowledge of Arabic, above all when dealing with written text, even monolingual Berber populations had to cope with this language, and the religious teaching was confronted with the need for translation and /or adaptation of Arabic texts. Most of the ancient documents written for local uses in the North African domain contain translations or commentaries in Berber of Arabic works. For instance, in the Eastern domain, one of the most important Ibadi texts, the Mudawwana of Abu Ghanim, was explained and commented in Berber in a long text, recently re-discovered, of more than 1000 pages. The various catechisms of this branch of Islam, still used in some Berber-speaking areas, were originally composed in Berber. Later on, the expansion of Arabic in the Eastern area lead to a marginalisation of Berber, the written compositions in this language came to an end and almost all of the religious texts, including the catechisms, were translated into Arabic (but oral teaching in Berber in rural areas still continued until recent times, as proven by some nineteenth-century religious poems from Tunisia and Libya: Brugnatelli 2016). In the Western part of North Africa, on the contrary, where the Berber language is still widespread, the practice of composing written texts in Berber never ceased and a vast literature is still existing, embracing multiple fields, not only in the religious domain (Van den Boogert 1997).

In the field of oral literature, the contact with Arabic culture was mediated through different actors. On the basis of a preliminary analysis of the data available, it seems that the marabouts , being the custodians of the written records, have played a role, especially in the first phase of composition and distribution of texts, probably starting from Arabic written sources, while the world of the sufi brotherhoods took over the role of elaboration of themes and texts, with a vitality that did not exclude the creation of “new” material, drawn from local hagiographic legends. This could explain the existence of a “classic” repository of widely circulated texts, along with local repertoires limited to single groups (Brugnatelli 2009).

James Caron, South Asian Languages and Cultures, SOAS, University of London

Shadows of the Hindu Kush over the Pashto archive

Certain cultural unities mark the upland fringes in the Hindu Kush between Afghanistan and Kashmir as a salient upland zone in itself. While languages and cultures in this region are extremely heterogeneous and particularistic, everyday and cosmological resonances recur across highland cultures. These unities are often separated from each other with Pashto in between. But how did this geography emerge? There are at least two ways to view the relationship of Pashto culture with its upland neighbours in the Hindu Kush.

Traditional narratives assume that "Afghanization" accompanied the outward expansion of Pashtun warrior-agriculturalist tribes from their heartland. This fragmented an already heterogeneous, yet unified, ‘Dardic’ cultural ecosystem in dozens of languages, and drove it to the high valleys. There is evidence for this trajectory in Mughal-era narratives, and a few modern highland activists have embarked on nationalist projects to reconstruct "Dardistan", "Biloristan", and other political manifestations of an upland geography now fragmented.

On the other hand, these political projects rarely understand or translate easily to each other. Building on revisitations of Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928) and the thinking it has influenced, might attempts to reconstruct a unified history of "Dardistan" be inappropriately guided by state-centric logic? Early-modern imperial chronicles rarely reflect upland vantage points. Instead, what if Pashto operated as rhizomic connective space rather than a force of fragmentation? In this scenario, Pashto expanded into upland cultural space not just as Afghan tribes spread, but also as existing upland cultures travelled down into a newly-burgeoning interregional arena connected by Afghans—transforming themselves in the process but leaving traces across today’s Pashto-sphere and paradoxically giving upland worlds a greater unity now, in their colonization by Pashto, than they possessed earlier. This scenario would also imply that what we now know as "Pashto" culture was constituted by its mountain margins, even as it colonized them.

How would we research this, though? The area is so decentralized and sparsely documented that a traditional archive does not, and probably cannot, exist. Instead of proposing definitive answers, then, this paper sets up the issue with key examples of local materials as a work-in-progress and discusses methodology. First, it asks how digital humanities might help advance such research. Second, using Andrade’s project as a lens highlights how all methods for exploring precolonial significant geographies are inherently political; and so it tentatively explores ethical and political ramifications of carrying out this kind of research.

Thibaut d'Hubert, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago
Diversity in unity: the multilingual locals of the reception of Jāmī’s works, c. fifteenth–nineteenth centuries AD

This paper presents the outcome on the project: A Worldwide Literature: Jāmī in the Dār al-Islām and Beyond that gathered a team of about twenty scholars who looked at the reception of the Persian poet ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī's (d. 1492) works in various regional contexts. After a general overview of the project, I will turn to the specific topic of the reception of Jāmī’s works beyond elite intellectual milieux, in the curriculum of maktab s and madrasa s throughout the Muslim World. I will then look at various aspects of the regional responses to this “new classic author” in South Asia. How did Jāmī’s Persian and Arabic texts (poetry and prose, didactic and literary texts) stand in various curricula and intertextual landscapes? What role did the emerging vernacular languages play in conveying the meaning of his texts in didactic contexts? How did his persona as a scholar and a poet impact the career and modes of self-representation of vernacular intellectuals? Drawing from the results of this collective endeavor and on further observations from my own domain of specialization, I will present this project as a case study providing a wide range of material to discuss the topic of multilingual locals. (Forthcoming volume based on this project: Thibaut d’Hubert & Alexandre Papas, eds. Jāmī and the Intellectual History of the Muslim World: The Trans-Regional Reception of ʿAbd Al-Raḥmān Jāmī’s Works, C. 9th/15th-14th/20th . Handbuch der Orientalistik. Leiden: Brill, (scheduled for 2016))

Claire Gallien, Paul Valéry Montpellier 3 University/CNRS
A passage to England: early-modern reconfigurations in the eastern literary canon

Early-modern orientalists collected from their travels to the Middle East and to India or from the networks of local scholars they mobilized there unprecedented quantities of manuscripts later to be included in private collections or in the Oriental collections of the libraries of Oxford, Cambridge, and the British Museum and Royal Society in London.

Some of the manuscripts were left to rest on the shelves of these libraries; some were worked on as reference sources to be included in their own publications; and others, finally, were translated and later presented to English readers as works of great value and representative of a larger Eastern literary canon. I have written elsewhere quite extensively on the question of the different types of translation favoured and on the impact these choices had on the reception of the works.

What I am interested in here is to study the process of canon formation as one that not so much creates Eastern literatures as reconfigures them. The difference between Orientalism as creation and Orientalism as reconfiguration allows us to think beyond the Saidian top-to-bottom approach of an invention of the East by the West and to take into account the grounds, both material and ideological, on which Eastern literatures were sampled, classified into new generic categories, repurposed, and reoriented to have them comply with Western literary tastes.

This paper analyses the politics of reconfiguration in a selection of translated works from India and the Levant and it focuses on what is discarded and occluded in the process of moving literatures East to West. It argues that Eastern literatures and the Eastern literary canon as presented in early-modern Europe is not a complete invention of the West and that making such a claim actually simplifies a series of complex cultural, ideological, and political moves that should be brought to critical attention. Thus, it seeks to resituate the translated works in their multilingual contexts and literary traditions and to highlight the series of occlusions, reclassifications, and monolingual compartmentalization, entailed by the orientalist representational imperative.

María Ángeles Gallego, Institute of Languages and Cultures of the Mediterranean and the Near East, Spanish High Council for Scientific Research, Madrid

The Judeo-Arabic literary tradition of the Jews of Morocco

The literature of the Jewish communities of the Islamicate world underwent a change of direction from the fifteenth century CE onwards in linguistic and literary terms. Most of the literary production of the Jews of Arab lands, both in the Middle Ages and in the Modern Era, had had Judeo-Arabic as its main linguistic vehicle. The literary genres and linguistic registers employed by Arabic-speaking Jews, however, became significantly different after the fifteenth century. The language used by the Jews of the so-called classical period (10th -15th c.) was close to Classical Arabic whereas in later centuries it became increasingly influenced by dialectal Arabic which led in its turn to the development of a geographical differentiation of literary and linguistic traditions. As for the literary genres, we observe a clear predominance of folklore literature and a proliferation of translations of Hebrew religious texts in the modern era, as opposed to the grammatical, exegetical, philosophical and scientific texts produced in the Middle Ages by some of the foremost Jewish intellectuals of all times.

The social and historical circumstances of the Jewish communities and, more specifically, its gradual segregation from the Muslim environment, are generally considered as the main cause for this linguistic and literary evolution.  Very little is known of Judeo-Arabic literature of the modern era since, until the end of the 20th century, Judeo-Arabic language and literature of the modern period were considered of little interest by scholars of Jewish and Arabic studies. The fact that the language employed in writing was closer to the local dialects and that the cultivated genres fell into the general category of folklore or popular literature, elicited a general disregard of scholars for all aspects of Judeo-Arabic culture of the post-medieval/post-classical period.

In this paper I would like to explore the Judeo-Arabic literary tradition of the Jews of North Africa and, more specifically, Morocco, within the general picture of Jewish literary production in Arab lands. I will first present a map of the linguistic distribution and linguistic layers of the writings of the Jews from the view point of religious differentiation and in the context of Arabic diglossia. A general description of the types of Judeo-Arabic writings of the Jews of Morocco will follow, with a focus on the elements of continuity of the medieval Judeo-Islamic tradition and, very especially, the Sephardi tradition. The cultural prestige of the Jewish communities of Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus) first and, later, of the Jewish communities of Christian Iberia, can be traced in both literary and linguistic terms. The interaction due to the geographical proximity and, very especially, the settlement of Sephardi Jews after the Expulsion of Spain in 1492, can be traced in modern Judeo-Arabic literature in Morocco and in the North of Africa in general, as I hope to show in this paper.

Getie Gelaye, Asia-Africa Institute, Hamburg University

Amharic poems and songs documented by Aläqa Täklä Iyyäsus Waqjira in his “ Yä-Ityopǝya Tarik - A History of Ethiopia ” written in the late nineteenth–early twentieth century.

Ethiopian writers such as Aläqa Lämläm, Aläqa Gäbrä Egziabher Eliyas and Aläqa Täklä Iyyäsus Waqjira are known for their historical writings in Amharic and for using several poems and songs in their works. This paper examines a systematic survey, classification and analysis of Amharic poems and songs documented in the historical writing entitled Yä-Ityopǝya Tarik by Aläqa Täklä Iyyäsus Waqgira. The manuscript is also widely known as የጐጃም ዜና መዋዕል (the Gojjam Chronicle) written late nineteenth–early twentieth century. Scholarly studies indicate that Aläqa Täkle’s chronicle has various versions, which were/are kept in the churches of Däbrä Marqos, Entoto Maryam, at the Library of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies (Addis Ababa University) as well as in the possession of individuals (Girma Getahun 1991, 1999, 2011, 2014; Sirgew Gelaw, 2009, Molvaer 2007). Girma prepared an excellent edition and English translation of parts of the chronicle in 1991 and later published it in 2014. Aläqa Täkle’s valuable document contains important and rich historical, literary, folkloric, cultural and linguistic sources of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ethiopian history in general and that of Gojjam in particular. Compared to other Ethiopian writers, Aläqa Täkle is the only scholar who used and preserved so many Amharic poems and songs, which are part of the rich poetic tradition of the people of Gojjam. Aläqa Täkle wrote using the Gojjam dialect of Amharic; and documented 260 Amharic poems and songs.  In my paper, the poems, which may be called "folk poetry" or "folk songs", are categorized into 8 major genres. They are widely known as: የአዝማሪ ዘፈን (Azmari songs) ልቅሶ (dirges or funeral songs), የአልቃሽ ግጥም (mourner’s poetry), እንጉርጉሮ (lamentations), የበገና እንጉርጉሮ (lamentation accompanied by harp), ፍከራ (heroic recitals), ቀረርቶ (warriors’ chants or war songs), poetic dialogue of warning or insult used to convey important messages to an opponent ( የስድብ ምልልስ በግጥም ) as well as shepherds’ songs ( የአረቦን / የእረኛ ዘፈን ). Aläqa Täkle employs these important poems appropriately to supplement a number of historical, socio-cultural, political and religious discussions such as the rivals of regional lords, the reign and life of King Täklä Haymanot, and important historical happenings of Gojjam and the neighboring provinces.

Aläqa Täkle mentioned clearly who composed and recited these poems and songs by mentioning the name of the composer or the singer, and by describing the event or context using collective nouns, such as soldiers, peasants, Azmari (minstrel), Alqaš (mourner or dirge singer), Bägäna Därdari (harp player), etc. In addition to a thematic analysis of sample poems, the paper provides a detailed explanation for unfamiliar words and expressions, which are in common dialects of Gojjam as well as in personal and place names. Finally, a list of the Amharic poems and songs are presented classified under eight categories of poetic genres, followed by conclusion and a bibliography.

Alessandro Gori, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen

Language and genre in the Islamic literature of Ethiopia: preliminary reflections from an ongoing research project

The Islamic cultural landscape of Ethiopia is multifaceted and variegated and the literary production of the Muslims in the country mirrors the diversity characterizing the human communities which follow Islam as system of believe and practice. To a great extent neglected in the western academic milieu, Ethiopian Islamic literature has recently become the object of a more focused and careful research thanks to a five-year project financed by the European Research Council.

In Ethiopia Arabic has linguistically been dominating the scene of the written traditional Islamic literature since the beginning of the 18 th century (when the oldest manuscripts were copied) until the middle of the 1990s when production in local languages (Amharic, Oromo, Tigrinya, Silṭi, Harari and Somali) started to flourish and then rapidly boomed at the beginning of the new century. Ethiopian Islamic authors produced Arabic texts in almost all the well-established branches of Islamic learning (Arabic grammar, fiqh , theology, mysticism) taking advantage of the impressively wide circulation of classical Arabic works originally coming from abroad but recopied on local manuscripts.

Ethiopian languages (Amharic, Somali, Oromo, Tigrinya) have been appearing only sporadically in written literature: devotional and didactic poetry were the two genres in which ‘aǧamī (non-Arabic language written in Arabic script) texts were (and are) relatively common. The only relevant exception in this panorama is the city of Harar which has a long cultural history and shows a complex linguistic and literary phenomenology made up of both Arabic and Harari texts and of mixed texts where the two languages are used together.

As for orature, local languages are possibly the most widely used but it must be kept in mind that many Arabic texts are in fact conceived to be recited and even if they circulate in manuscripts are also learnt by heart especially by the devotees of the Sufi brotherhoods.

The sheer linguistic diversity of the Ethiopian region and the capillary diffusion of Arabic has prevented the formation of an Islamic learned dialect (as defined by Brenner and Last) and of a full-fledged Islamic language (as defined by Bausani and more recently in an African context by Zappa).

In my paper I would like to explore the relationships between language and genre in the literary production of the Ethiopian Muslims. I will analyze the most relevant materials (often contained in so far unstudied or understudied manuscripts and printed books) to assess whether it is possible to establish a constant connection between the linguistic and the literary practice. The description of the distribution of the languages among the different genres will also allow the detection of a possible linguistic and literary hierarchy whose existence has been often discussed in many other areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Marle Hammond, SOAS University of London

The uneasy circulation of the European fairy-tale genre in North Africa and the Levant

Sometimes genres from disparate cultures merge seamlessly in a process of fusion; at other times the products of this interpenetration appear more like arbitrary superimpositions.  However unwieldy texts of the latter category may be, they have a lot to teach us about literary history and the relative flexibility of cultural parameters.  This contribution will examine one such awkward fit: a late eighteenth-century legendary narrative, namely the sira of Barraq b. Rawhan and Layla al-'Afifa, has a plot line that echoes the western fairly tale of the knight-in-shining-armour rescuing a damsel-in-distress, but its language and structure mimic the popular Arabic epic, with its song cycles and patterns of repetition.  Drawing on Yuri Lotman's notion of the "boundary" between cultures as the site of intra-cultural innovation, this presentation will consider the ways in which European literary genres and paradigms are translated into and adapted by this fictional oral form of the epic in a hybrid narrative that served as a precursor to the modern Arabic novel at the same time that it was received as literary history.  Special attention will be paid to ethnic identities projected by Levantine and Egyptian versions of the tale and the pan-Arab ethos that permeates the text on several levels, as if it is self-consciously claiming to be a foundational text for an emerging Arabic literary canon.  Last but not least, the "feminist" impulse of the legend, located in periodic utterances about women's rights, will be contrasted with the diminution of the female protagonist, from the warrior-woman typical of the popular Arabic epic to the figure of the helpless maiden borrowed from the European fairy tale.

Konrad Hirschler, SOAS University of London

The Circulation of Latin and Old French Texts in the Arabic Middle East during the Crusading Period

While knowledge of Arabic in the Frankish lordships of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is well attested, little work has so far been done on the knowledge of Latin and Old French in the neighbouring Muslim-governed regions. This disinterest in multilingualism within the Arabic-speaking societies is intrinsically linked to the dated paradigm that these societies had little or no interest in Latin European regions and the texts they produced. This paper discusses a newly identified corpus of manuscripts in Latin and Old French, the Qubbat al-khazna texts, which circulated in Damascus. The Geniza-style Qubba opens new perspectives for reflecting upon local multilingualism and the meanings ascribed to "Western-language"-texts. The paper will focus in particular on the profile of this corpus and the possible users of its texts.

Simon Leese, Centre for Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies, SOAS University of London

Reading Bānat Suʿād through Arabic, Persian, and Urdu in early 19th century India

Bānat Suʿād (Suʿād has departed), a 7th century Arabic poem by Kaʿb b. Zuhayr, has long been a culturally significant text for Muslim communities. Revered because the poet presented it to the Prophet upon his conversion to Islam, it has a long history of being recited, commented upon, reinterpreted, and translated. This paper will consider a particularly rich commentary by Ilāhī Bakhsh, a student of the Delhi intellectual Shāh ʿAbdulazīz , son of the famous Shāh Walīullāh It was written in 1788 in Kandhala, the qasba where Ilāhī Bakhsh lived and taught. Alongside glosses in Persian and an Arabic commentary, the work includes versified translations in Persian, Hindi (Urdu), and an unusual "translation" into Arabic that substitutes alternative Arabic words for the those in the original poem while preserving the same rhyme and metre. The latter sometimes employs words that are more obscure than the original, and as such the alternative poem is given further Arabic commentary.

I will consider how this commentary textualises multilingual conversations about Bānat Suʿād. This multilingualism interprets the difficult and sometimes obscure Arabic of the poem, but it translates through expansion of meaning, particularly by drawing on the language of Sufism. When we examine the textualised multilingualism of Ilāhī Bakhsh's Persian and Urdu translations, we can start to think about the implications of multilingualism on hermeneutics, when the conversation is widened to incorporate ideas outside "pure" Arabic poetics. This is particularly interesting when examining how the archetypal beloved (named as Suʿād in the original poem) is translated from the Arabic into Persian and Urdu, and how the places and departures of the early Islamic Arabic poem are reimagined in eighteenth-century North India.

Karla Mallette, University of Michigan

Significant geographies, definite places: languages in manuscripts, song and printed books in Venice, ca. 1350–1550

The national language system proposes territory as a vast and efficient sorting mechanism. The territorial nation-state dictates the language that the writing and speaking subject will use as author, in public discourse and in daily life; like law or currency, the national language possesses sovereignty from border to border of the nation. But the reality on the ground has always been messier than that. Language choice is typically defined by a variety of factors, including intended public, literary ambition, and religious and ethnic affiliations and aspirations. In this talk, I will test a theory: In some situations—though not all—the language of literary life in the pre-modern world was not dictated by territory but rather was a matter of choice, and was therefore understood in light of ethics rather than geography. My test cases will include an early translation of the Homeric epics, early Renaissance songs in the Venetian dialect, the first Qur’an printed with moveable type, and bilingual Hebrew-Italian riddles. I will use a narrow geographical focus—a single “definite place”, the city of Venice. But I will concentrate less on site than on the people who created linkages between languages (“significant geographies”) within Venice and between Venice and the eastern Mediterranean.

Selamawit Mecca, Addis Ababa University

Mapping the circulation of Gǝ’ǝz literature

Writing in Gǝ’ǝz dates back to the introduction of Christianity in the fourth Century. The literature is distinguished by a large body of Christological texts such as Qerilos (Cyril), Fisalgos (Physiologus), panegyrics, homily, miracles, hagiographical literature and a long tradition of secular history writing in the form of numerous royal chronicles, which are together such a valuable source for literary, religious and historical study. Examining these texts is likely to reveal something about medieval culture, its power relations, its discourse and its ideology. As with any text, what at first sight might appear to be a stable, fixed entity and might also be a place where meanings are contested. Research shows that these types of literary genres flourished in line with the growth in religious, political, social and cultural life of the country and were influenced by Copto-Arabic and Greek traditions of the early Christian church. The texts not only empowered Christianity as the main religion but also strengthened the country’s cultural, social and most importantly its literary record. The earliest Ethiopic manuscripts were translated from Greek in the Aksumite period. Later many of them were translated from Arabic. While doctrinal and liturgical works are mostly translated texts circulated in the early period, the vita and miracles became dominant genres since the fourteenth century. These sources are found in about 600 monasteries and 20,000 churches, some of which date back to the late twelfth century (Nosnitsin, 2005).

In this paper I discuss the nature of these classical literary genres particularly hagiography of saints in terms of its functions and purposes since it remains the most abundant body of documents transmitted easily to many geographical locations. I also focus on the role of the scribes in the transmission of Gǝ’ǝz manuscripts from Syriac and Arabic. In addition, I explain the influence of the texts and the missionary activities of Christian saints in different monasteries of Ethiopia. I argue that the mobility of saints across geographic and cultural boundaries prompted not merely the transfer of motifs, but resistance to or demarcation, adoption, transformation of ideals and conflicts within the tales in each new context. The texts contribute to the creation of “new myths” in a radically changed global social, cultural and political environment. This shows the universality of cultures in terms of motifs and theme-selection (privileging), those motifs and themes that may be particular or specific to Ethiopian classical texts. The main contributions of this paper are how Ethiopians themselves defined their own nation through their literary culture and a discussion of how this identity was refined in the discourse surrounding the emergence of new literary tradition.  This view makes us see the source from the bottom up.

Ghirmai Negash, University of Ohio

Pre-colonial writings from the Horn of Africa: the case of Tigrinya

The advent of colonial modernity has been used as a landmark and point of departure for studying and historicizing African postcolonial literatures written in European languages. Although the beginnings of modern African literatures can generally be traced back to the late nineteenth century with colonial administrators, travelers and missionaries laying the foundations for printing in European and indigenous languages in and about the continent, writing in Ethiopia and Eritrea has a long history that dates back to the first century A.D. The present geographical boundaries of Ethiopia and Eritrea share the Ge'ez language and script, and there is a huge corpus of religious, historical and literary writing produced in Ge'ez, and in several modern literary languages of the two countries, especially in Amharic and Tigrinya.

This paper attempts to explore the different historical contexts, locations and intended audiences of the different textual genres produced in the Tigrinya language in Eritrea and Ethiopia before the arrival of European conquest in the region, roughly covering the span of time from the first century to the 1890s. Its three main goals are: 1) to identify and map out the nature, scope, and type of the various texts existing in written or documented form; 2) to offer commentary on the often complex multilingual context in which the texts in question came into being; and 3) to explore the possible intertextual influences, including European and Arabic languages and texts, by which the Tigrinya texts might have been impacted in their form and content. Given that no language evolves and thrives in isolation, the discussion will be premised on the recognition of the interconnections of languages and the development of Tigrinya as a language of writing and literature viewed as taking place within polyglossic space.

Denis Nosnitsin, Hiob Ludolf Centre for Ethiopian Studies, University of Hamburg

Hierarchy of languages and traditions: Ethiopian Highlands up to the nineteenth century

The presentation will focus on the language, literacy and cultural conditions existing in the Ethiopian Highlands in the pre-modern period and underlying the development of the local literary traditions. After the decline of the antique state of Aksum, a new political entity known as the Christian Kingdom of Ethiopia emerged in the Ethiopian Highlands as early as the late thirteenth century. A number of languages were in use in the Ethiopian Highlands, reflecting the complex and fluid ethno-political situation of the region. The language situation was marked by multilingualism, but the languages and respective literary traditions did not share the same status. The central position was held by the language of the royal court (Amharic) and the language of the holy scripts and liturgy (Ge’ez, or Ethiopic). Ge’ez, extinct since the fourteenth century at the latest, was the medium of the religious literature and the only written language over centuries; it was mastered mostly by ecclesiastic, the only group which embraced literacy. Amharic, spoken by the major ethnic group of Amhara, played the role of lingua franca . It was increasingly used for writing starting from the seventeenth century. It flourished as the main language of the so-called Gondärine period and of the principality of Shäwa, and became in the late nineteenth–early twentieth centuries the official language of modern state of Ethiopia and the (first) language of modern Ethiopian literature.

Francesca Orsini, Languages and Cultures of South Asia, SOAS University of London

Between qasbas and the city: literary multilingualism in Nawabi Awadh

The eighteenth century in Awadh was marked politically by the establishment of independent rule by Nawabs in Faizabad and then Lucknow, and of local courts by small Rajas, zamindars and chieftains who had served the Mughal commanders and now began to patronise Brajbhasha courtly poetry (e.g. Pratapgarh, Amethi, Asothar). The literary culture of Nawabi Lucknow has been largely viewed as shaped by the poets of Persian and the new poetic idiom of Rekhta/Urdu, who fled the sacks of Delhi, and by the Nawabs’ Iranian Shi‘a culture. But what about the local service groups and intellectuals who grew up in the many qasbas which dotted the region, where Sufis and Bhaktas, merchants, soldiers, and local administrators cultivated Persian and Hindavi? Did they find employment and develop new literary tastes and practices in the Nawabi capitals? Did they embrace the new poetic idiom of Rekhta? By focusing on two multilingual figures—the Persian and Brajbhasha soldier-poet Sayyid Ghulam Nabi ‘Raslin’ of Bilgram, who served in the army Safdarjang of Awadh and was killed in the resistance against the Rohillas in 1750, and Raja Tikait Rai, who rose from clerk to minister of Nawab Asaf ud-Daula and patronised Brajbhasha, Persian and Urdu poets as well as qasba Sufis—this paper will attempt to connect the different kinds of poetic tastes and practices that circulated in the “multilingual local” of eighteenth-century Awadh.

Martin Orwin, Department of African Languages and Cultures, SOAS University of London

Is there any Arabic influence on metre in Somali religious poetry?

There has been speculation in the past as to whether or not Somali poetry has been influenced by Arabic (see for example Andrzejewski, 'Is there Arabic influence in Somali poetry', 1968, unpubl. [reprinted in Journal of African Cultural Studies , 23/1: 59–72]). The consensus is that this is not the case: rhyme does not feature in Somali poetry (alliteration dominates) and the metrical patterns are clearly distinct from the Arabic ones. However, I noticed some time ago that in one religious poem in Somali there are hints there may be some influence from Arabic metrical patterning. What is more, the poet and scholar Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac "Gaarriye", with whom I worked closely until his death in 2012, mentioned on a couple of occasions what he called soo-galeyti ("something which has entered") metres but didn't expand on these comments and sadly is no longer able to share his thoughts.

There is Sufi (particularly Qaadiri) poetry in Arabic composed by Somalis, known as qasiido (pl. qasiidooyin ) (an obvious Arabic loan), some of which has been published, for example the poems of Sheekh Cabdiraxmaan Axmed az-Zaylici and Sheekh Uweys al-Baraawi. Such poems were and continue to be recited (though less so these days) during Qaadiri Sufi religious gatherings in various contexts. This and the fact that some of the fundamentals of phonology and metrical patterning in the two languages are similar suggest metrical influence is possible, but whether it has occurred or not has never properly been investigated. In this paper, I shall begin to consider this matter by looking at some Sufi poetry composed in Somali with the aim of determining whether or not there are any hints of Arabic influence on the metrical patterning.

Wen-chin Ouyang, Ayse Kara, and Firuz Akhtar Bohari, SOAS University of London

The Maghreb in Moroccan travel literature (thirteenth–nineteenth centuries): dynastic geographies, generic cartographies, and cosmopolitan localities

The three "travelogues" by Muhammad b. ‘Uthman al-Miknasi (d. after 1799), Al-iksir fi fikak al-asir (1779; The Elixir for the Ransom of Captives [in al-Andalus]), Al-badr al-safir fi iftikak al-asara min yad al-‘aduw al-kafir (1782; Ransoming the Captives from the Hands of the Infidels as Revealed by the Full Moon [in Malta and Italy]), and Ihraz al-mu‘alla wa al-raqib fi bayt al-Haram (1985–88; The Attainment of Loftiness and the Guardianship of the Pilgrimage to the Sacred House [in Istanbul]), encapsulate the diverse purposes, divergent trajectories, and the thick texture of Arabic travel writing. They combine discovery and attendant description, search for knowledge and relevant accounts of scholars the itinerant meets on his way, pilgrimage to Islamic holy lands, and diplomatic missions to friends and foes abroad. More importantly, they reveal a cosmopolitan Maghreb that situates itself centrally in the Mediterranean world. This three-part collaborative presentation explores the pre-modern Maghrebi cosmopolitanism through the lens of Moroccan travel writers, with particular focus on al-Miknasi, and examines the ways in which changing dynastic geographies, as necessitated by the vicissitudes of the region’s political fortune, have informed the itineraries of travel, and the development of various forms of multilingualism inherent in the Arabic language used in Moroccan travel literature. Ayse Kara traces the historical contexts of Moroccan travel writing, follows the itineraries of the travellers and maps the varying geographies of Maghrebi dynasties. Firuz Akhtar Bohari tracks the confluence of multiple purposes, itineraries, and languages of Moroccan travel writing and explores the ways in which it situates the Maghreb in the world. And Wen-chin Ouyang discusses the multilingual and multicultural texture of Moroccan travel writing, tracing this to successive, divergent waves of migration and travel, and considers pre-modern forms of cosmopolitanism and its underpinning worldliness and multilingualism.

Stefano Pellò, Università di Venezia – Ca’ Foscari

Shiraz on the Adriatic: the place(s) of Persian in multilingual Balkans

The Balkanic region is easily one of the least studied geographical contexts as far as the world of Persian is concerned.

Especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, several local intellectuals hailing from Bosnian, Herzegovinian and Albanian villages and towns, tried their hands at Persian poetry and literary prose, with a pronounced multilingual approach and in a dynamic regime of mobility. Starting from the analysis of works such as the Bulbulistan by Fevzi Mostarac, I will explore the place and places of Persian in Ottoman Europe, reconstructing the local projections of the transregional geographies of Persian literary culture (including Iran and India), on the background of a polyglossic milieu including Ottoman Turkish, Southern Slav varieties, Greek, Arabic, Italian, and Venetian.

Ronit Ricci, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Reading between the lines: considering the multi-lingual through interlinear translation

Interlinear translations from Arabic into Malay and Javanese have been produced in Southeast Asia since at least the sixteenth century. Such translations included an Arabic original with its lines spaced out on the page and a word for word translation appearing between the lines, attempting to replicate the Arabic down to the smallest detail. This paper considers what a methodology of studying interlinear translations can teach us about multilingual locals and significant geographies in South and Southeast Asia. In addition to exploring such translations as microcosms of bilingual relations that encompassed intent and priorities, transfers of meaning, grammar and syntax in translation, choices and omissions, and the links between Arabic and local languages, an analysis of alternative terms to the commonly used “interlinear translation” sheds light on how relationships between languages were constructed and understood.

Katherine Butler Schofield, King's College London
Genealogy, geography, and gharānā : Indian musicians’ networks in the time of Shah ‘Alam II (1759–1806)

The reign of the Mughal emperor Shah ‘Alam II (r.1759–1806) was one of the most decisive periods of Indian history. The half-century to his death witnessed the transfer of geopolitical power from the Mughal empire to the East India Company, from the first major British military victory over Bengal in 1757 to their eventual conquest of the Mughal capital, Delhi, in 1803. But it was also a period that saw local elite artistic production, from painting to song to poetry and dance, flourish and transform right across India under the patronage of a welter of newly wealthy potentates of eclectic variety and differing tastes. The upheaval at the Mughal centre in the late eighteenth century caused by multiple invasions, coupled with declining Mughal finances, led to a partial exodus of the scions of Delhi court musicians to the new centres of patronage. There they acted as arbiters and preservers of older elite forms, as well as innovating in the service of newer tastes. The genealogical and geographical networks of these houses of hereditary musicians ( gharānā s) can be traced through a remarkable set of sources that were new to the musical field in the late eighteenth century – multilingual song collections and tazkira s (compendia of biographical notices). By and large written by hereditary musicians and aristocratic amateurs who were their disciples, these sources were themselves a key byproduct of musicians’ increased mobility in Shah ‘Alam’s reign. In this paper I will trace and analyse the geographical, literary, and human networks and nodes revealed in these sources to consider the changing relationship between the local and the pan-regional in the Hindustani musical field during this pivotal period, and what these networks tell us about wider cultural, economic, and political transformation at the micro level across late Mughal North India.

Nathan Tabor, Department of Comparative Religion, Western Michigan University

Linguistic crossings at a graveside salon: Persian and Urdu lyric circulations in eighteenth-century Delhi

The graveside salon of ʿAbd al-Qadir Bedil (d. 1720) served as a bilingual hub for a network of poets, patrons, and consumers who exchanged literary knowledge through decorous behavior and hierarchical companionship. As one of the most well-documented poetry gatherings of mid-eighteenth-century Delhi, this yearly event held from 1721 to roughly 1761 in posthumous memory of a Persian language poet was an important socio-literary space for both Urdu and Persian language writers seeking to make social connections across late Mughal India and accrue aesthetic legitimation for their circulating compositions. The unique socio-linguistic space of the mushāʿirah or poetry gathering demonstrates how personal cultivation and poetic ability were viewed in the same analytical register of sociability ( sohbat ), an affective quality documented in period compendia or tazkirāt chronicling the wider literary community of late Mughal-era India in addition to the annual event at focus here. One’s nature ( tabaʿ ) could be balanced, harmonious, or appropriate ( mawzūn ), just as one’s verses ( shiʿr ) could posses balance or symmetry ( mawzunīyat ). As an institution for propagating this affiliative and aesthetically driven social formation, the early modern salon housed poetic debates about the legitimacy of developing and deploying “modern” poetic themes in the complex tāzah-goʾī or “fresh speaking” style of which Bedil is held as a final exemplar. Yet some Persian-educated classes devoted to Bedil and other writers with similar approaches also viewed the Mughal vernacular rekhtah— whattoday we call Urdu—as an engaging register for further exploring unbounded themes ( mazmūn-hā-i nā-bastah ) and enacting literary sociability. Several verses recited in Bedil’s posthumous salon and documented by period compendium writers attest, on one hand, to the ways in which recited poetry, and macaronic verse in particular, ambivalently embraced language hierarchies and playfully construed Persianate conventions. This context also brings to light the affiliative abilities of Persian-educated literati, revealing how collectively assessed qualities such as wit, prosodic ability, and delight served as specific affectual registers amongst a group of poets. Given Urdu and Hindi speakers’ continual propagation of the poetry gathering, understanding the context-centered complexity of a multilingual gathering in eighteenth-century Delhi helps us to better appreciate a particular pre-colonial inheritance whose conventions may still inform conceptions of linguistic heterogeneity, publicness, and sociability in contemporary vernacular literary spheres.

Richard David Williams, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Oxford University

Reflecting in the vernacular: translation and transmission of the Brajbhasha Mirror of Music

In seventeenth- and eighteenth-century north India knowledge systems were developed simultaneously in multiple "classical" and "vernacular" languages. When ideas from one language were translated into another, the resulting text was shaped by the cultural resonances and aesthetic interests of the target language’s literary heritage. This paper examines this process of multilingual knowledge transmission through an analysis of a Brajbhasha (Old Hindi) music treatise, the Saṅgītadarpana ("Mirror of Music") of Harivallabha (c.1653). Harivallabha was translating a fairly recent Sanskrit work of the same name from Vijayanagar, an old-fashioned treatise that nonetheless proved extremely influential in Persian and other Sanskrit works. Harivallabha’s translation is distinctive, in that the work was textured by Brajbhasha poetry, which at the time was also being cultivated as a discrete aesthetic discipline, in conversation with the more established Sanskrit poetics. This paper will examine the implications of the vernacular rendering of the Saṅgītadarpana and Harivallabha’s seminal influence on the musicology that followed in his wake, but will also consider the limits of Brajbhasha’s circulation, with reference to musicological arenas in Khari Boli, Maithili, and Bengali. Finally, by taking into account the different forms of musical literature—treatises, song collections, and poetic iconographies—this paper will consider the wider implications of using a vernacular language for reading, listening, visual, and performance practices.


Registration is now open: please register here . Please note that the deadline is 3 June . Cost is £5 (free for students). Tea/coffee and biscuits will be provided in the indicated breaks for all attendees; lunch is not provided (there are a number of local options).

Contact email: dl24@soas.ac.uk

Sponsor: European Research Council