In her stunning new book The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant
(Stanford University Press, 2012), Dana Sajdi
, Associate Professor of History at Boston College, presents a riveting narrative of the intersection of literature, religion, and history in early modern Muslim societies. She does so by focusing on the chronicle of a common Barber in 18th-century Damascus Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Budayr. Through a close reading of the intellectual and political conditions that gave rise to such forms of nouveau literature and by carefully interrogating the themes, tensions, and reception of this text, Sajdis analysis provides a fascinating window into the complexity and diversity of knowledge traditions in the early modern context. Most importantly, this book serves the immensely important task of bringing into central view non-Ulama archives and imaginaries of history and history writing. In our conversation we discussed the key themes of this book such as the concept of nouveau literacy, the literary and political disorders in 18th century Damascus, Ibn Budayr's biography and intellectual milieu, the emergence of non-'ulama' chronicle writers, and the later reception and reworking of Ibn Budayr's chronicle. This nicely paced book should work very well in undergraduate and graduate courses on Muslim intellectual history, historiography, early modern Islam, and in surveys of Middle Eastern history.
SherAli Tareen is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. His research focuses on Muslim intellectual traditions and debates in early modern and modern South Asia. His academic publications are available here. He can be reached at (firstname.lastname@example.org). Listener feedback is most welcome.