Flashback: When Baghdad Was a Party City

The 11th century, Islamic Golden Age of science, medicine, math, and partying.

Image
G. Eric and Edith Matson Photo Collection

From the 8th to 13th centuries, Baghdad was the seat of the powerful Abbasid Caliphate, the scene of remarkable advances in science, medicine, engineering and mathematics, inventions and discoveries that would not reach Western Europe for centuries.

It was also, apparently, a town full of party-crashers.

"Did I say you could come?" a host asks angrily. "Did you say I couldn't come?" retorts the party-crasher.

The sheer prevalence of party-crashing is only the first lesson of Emily Selove's Selections from the Art of Party Crashing in Medieval Iraq, the first English translation of al-Khatib al-Baghdadi's 11th century manual on being the best uninvited guest you can be. Selove, a graduate student at UCLA, has been translating Al-Baghdadi's Book of Party Crashing since she was a senior at Cornell in 2006.

Al-Baghdadi is known as the era's premier historian of Baghdad and a scholar of the hadith (the words of Mohammed), but he also took some time to gather all the remarks and anecdotes he could find on being a tufayli. His findings, along with Selove's whimsical illustrations, will be released from Syracuse University Press this month.

"Perhaps there were more suitable topics with which I could have occupied my mind," al-Baghdadi notes. But every scholar, he concluded, needs a diversion -- and besides, the book was a favor for a friend.

In chapters with titles like, "Those Who Engage in Very Subtle Acts of Party-Crashing," and "Those Who Cast Aspersions on Party-Crashing and Its Practitioners and Satirize and Denounce Them," Al-Baghdadi weighs the widely variant opinions on the subject.

Most of them are funny, like this darkly amusing anecdote culled from Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Jallab:

A party-crasher went out on a trip with a group of people. They'd decided that each would contribute something to the fare. "I came with such and such," they each said, one by one. But when they got to the party-crasher, he simply said, "I came," and fell silent.
"What did you come with?" they asked him.
"God's curse on my head!" he said.
They all laughed at that, and excused him from contributing to the fare. They took him along on their trip.
 

Ungenerous scholars weighed in against party-crashing, offering a different taste of 11th century Baghdadi humor:

The people who most deserve to be slapped are those who come to eat without being invited, and the people who most deserve to be slapped twice are those who, when the host of the party says, “Sit here,” reply, “No! I’m going to sit over there!” And the people who most deserve to be slapped three times are those who, when invited to eat, say to the owner of the house, “Call your wife in here to eat with us!”

But al-Baghdadi seems decidedly more sympathetic, urging generosity -- and citing examples of the prophet Mohammed's own practice of bringing uninvited guests. In the chapter entitled, "Those Who Praise, Make Excuses for, or Speak Well of Party-Crashing," Baghdadi quotes a stanza that seems to sum up his overall opinion:

"A party-crasher’s dear to me,
as dear as my own friends,
he comes without an invite,
and a new friendship begins.
For all the people, near and far,
my table’s always set . . .
I may neglect to call them all,
but crashers don’t forget!

"Though it's light and really quite an enjoyable read, there are serious messages too," Selove told Discovery Magazine, "You do not turn people away if they are hungry."

Image courtesy of Syracuse University Press.

Top image: Baghdad, 1932.  G. Eric and Edith Matson Photo Collection, Library of Congress, via Creative Commons.

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.