English translation of Ibn Butlan novella is a bitter pill to make you laugh

An English translation of an Arabic novella brings satirical surprise, writes Anna Zacharias

Tacuinum Sanitatis, Medieval Health Handbook, dated before 1400, based on observations of medical order detailing the most important aspects of food, beverages and clothing, Ibn Butlan (Elbochasim de Baldach) (d, 1038) with two pupils, Miniature, Folio 4r. (Photo by Prisma/UIG/Getty Images)

It is a tale as old as time, the tiresome host and a dinner party gone wrong.

It all starts so well. Two doctors meet at a market. The elder, eloquent and inquisitive, is full of praise for the young man. Learning that the youth has a sore stomach and a reduced appetite, he invites him for dinner. But from there, relations go downhill.

The Doctors' Dinner Party is a little-known satirical fiction by Ibn Butlan, a Nestorian Christian from Baghdad who died in 1066. 

Philip Kennedy, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Comparative Literature at New York University Abu Dhabi and the general editor of the Library of Arabic Literature, is preparing the first English translation of the novella. He will read selections at a talk on Saturday as part of the Literaturhaus series at Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. It will be the first time English translations from the novella are made public and will provide a rare glimpse into the medieval world of quackery, party crashing and feasting without food.

Ibn Butlan was a respected doctor of his time and known for his technical writing. He travelled to Cairo around 1040 to study under Ibn Ridwan, a self-made man of poor origins who monopolized the study of medicine.

In this period, being a doctor was not just about one's medical and scientific knowledge but also about being a man of philosophy and the arts. The two men did not see eye to eye.


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"Ibn Ridwan considered himself widely read but it was very book-based learning, whereas Ibn Butlan was more inclined to empirical observation," says Kennedy. "But the fact is they were both obviously very difficult men and they didn't get on."

Their vitriolic debates were recorded, numbering no less than 90 pages and covering all matters. One debate was whether or not a chicken was warmer than a young bird.

The two accused each other of bad practice and eventually Ibn Ridwan used his influence to get Ibn Butlan driven from Cairo. He moved to Constantinople where he penned his sardonic novella. The Doctors' Dinner Party may be fictional but it reflects the disdain Ibn Butlan no doubt harboured towards his former mentor. It draws on both the romantic, lyrical poetry of its age and popular medical literature, written at a time when quackery was rife and books were written on how to tell an honest practitioner from a charlatan. It also draws on another theme of its age: a dinner of words, devoid of food. 

Back at the elder's house, each time the young guest reaches for a dish, the old doctor advises against it, reminding him of his delicate condition. "Don't you have the intention of following a sick man's regimen?", he asks. When the young man protests the only thing he cannot stomach is wine, the food is taken away, wine is served and four other doctors join the banquet.

Ibn Butlan likely wrote this book after reading Athenaeus' The Deipnosophists, which tells of a guest who is invited to dinner but instead of eating, there is only talk about etiquette and about Homer. The discussion is all about food but no food is touched. "It's a trope that structures quite a lot of Arabic literature," says Kennedy. It also ties into another common conceit of its age, the miser and the party crasher. 

Among the many books on Kennedy's desk at NYUAD is a famous work from Ibn Butlan's contemporary, Al Khatib Al Baghdadi's The Art of Party Crashing in Medieval Iraq. Much was written at the time in defence of party crashing. "There are many amusing anecdotes on the etiquette and advantages of having a party crasher who is the life and soul of the party," says Kennedy.

In this case, the young guest may well have wished he had not been invited. Hungry and frustrated as his companions enjoy their wine, he reaches for an appetizer. When he is rebuked for his choice, he asks, well, what appetizer is appropriate? The older man says the answer and solution is found in the poetry of Abu Nuwas – a kiss is the best appetizer of all. 

"'True,' I replied, 'but Jibril said this to al-Mutawakkil when there were 12,000 servant girls in his palaces. Am I supposed to be satisfied with the likes of Abu Ayyoub the Oculist and Abu Salem the surgeon'?"

At this, the guest is asked a series of riddles by his hosts.

The translation is just one example of literary gems that remain undiscovered or forgotten. Kennedy is a general editor of the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute's Library of Arabic Literature, a collaboration among dozens of translators, writers and scholars to translate little-known Arabic works into English. The Doctors' Dinner Party is his own contribution to the series.

Philip Kennedy will speak at Literaturhaus at Nadi Al Quoz, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, on Saturday at 4pm. To register email: rsvp@alserkalavenue.ae


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