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Popeye and Curly: 120 Days in Medieval Baghdad.

Dr Emily Selove, Senior Lecturer in Medieval Arabic Literature at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies has written & illustrated a comic book to bring to life the subject matter of classical Islamic civilisation and the ‘golden age’ of Abbasid Bhagdad.

Popeye and Curly is a cartoon strip inspired by the characters of al-Jāhiz (died circa 868 of the Common Era, well into his nineties) and Abū Nuwās (d. c. 814)). Al-Jāhiz (Popeye) is known today as the "Father of Arabic Prose," and he wrote on every subject imaginable, from the lofty and philosophical to the downright filthy and obscene. Abū Nuwās (Curly) was one of the most famous poets in the history of Arabic literature. His preferred topics were the pleasures of wine drinking, and love poetry about attractive boys, but he also excelled in many other genres, including praise poetry, satire, elegy, hunting poetry, and ascetic or pious verse.

In this cartoon strip, the character Popeye stands in not only for al-Jāhiz but a wide range of medieval Arabic prose writers, philosophers, book-lovers, and linguists. Meanwhile Curly represents Abū Nuwās, but also the fun-loving tricksters, party-crashers, fools, and hedonists of this famed party city. They are accompanied by a caliph (representing all the Abbasid caliphs), Coral (“Marjān,” a singing slave woman), and a host of other characters, each illustrating an important feature of life in Baghdad during this time. Each cartoon is accompanied with facts and further reading about this city, whose cultural flowering in the Middle Ages had a profound and lasting influence on both "Western" and "Eastern" culture. Despite the fact that both al-Jāhiz and Abū Nuwās lived in the 9th century, these scenes are inspired by events that occurred during the entire duration of the Abbasid empire, which lasted from 750 to 1258 of the Common Era. This book is meant as an accompaniment to Baghdad at the Centre of a World, 8th-13th Century: An Introductory Textbook, which is likewise intended to introduce readers to a criminally underacknowledged empire. Medieval Baghdad ought to be studied in schools around the world for much the same reason that ancient Rome and Athens are. It was a city that changed the world.

I chose al-Jāhiz and Abū Nuwās as the protagonists not only for their easily cartoonified names, but because they are, in my opinion, the most important authors of prose and poetry in medieval Baghdad. Their writing continued to influence Arabic authors for centuries to come, which is why their characters are so adaptable when portraying this long historical timespan. And like so many medieval Arabic authors, they are both hilarious in their own way; it is endlessly fun to imagine what would have happened if their paths crossed. The influence and centrality of the work of these two strikingly unorthodox personalities proves a point about medieval Arabic literature that I have found to be true over and over again: that the topics and voices that you would, in ignorance, expect to find marginalised were, on the contrary, firmly in the spotlight and influencing everything else. I think that is what made Abbasid Baghdad such a creative, tumultuous, fun, and important place and time’

Date: 24 February 2022