Sunday, July 29, 2007

Resurecting the past, or retrieving forgotten knowledge?

Reorganising my dad’s books I came across this arresting title, Alfiya mukarrara fi al-amrath al-nafsiya almu3tabara( ‘the thousand’ Alfiya repeated on important psychological disorders) a book-length poem which combines the many talents of Dr. Salim 3amar:
the first professor of Psychiatry in the newly independent Tunisia’s national university, he has published over 300 research papers and won a prize for his book on schizophrenia; but his interests are not limited to the strictly scientific - he is a prominent member of the International Society for the History of Medicine, has written extensively on Arab and Islamic Medicine, and has a passion for poetry.

As the introduction, by a former Tunisian culture minister states, ” is there anything stranger than the case of this ‘Alfiya’ which appears even in it’s name to be a rare example of an attachment to heritage and a desire to revitalise it with the spirit that created it in the past”?
Indeed a modern Arab book with a rhyming title in the medieval fashion is a novelty in itself, but this one is also more specifically placing itself in relation to Ibn Sina’s Alarjuza Fi Al-6ib ( alarjuza - from rajz, one of the seas of poetry- on medicine; often called the Alfiya because it has 1000 odd lines). In fact Dr. Salim 3amar proclaims his poem an Alfiya Mukarrara, as it has 3500 lines.

Writing a poem, even if not great in the aesthetic sense and regardless of the topic, of such length is an achievement; and as this one conveys detailed information on psychiatry for a lay audience in an uncomplicated way it is is a doubly impressive one…but I wonder if it is worth the effort?

However there seems to be no reason why a book on psychiatry printed in 1992 should be a poem, and the limitation of the rhythm must have adversely affected Dr. Salim Amar’s treatment of his material, and is offset by no positive practical benefit.

The book seems to ‘degenerate’ into a mere curio, even in the fulsome praise of the minister of culture who ends by declaring “this Alfiya is thus given a unique character, and becomes a wondrous treasure [tuhfa 3ajiba]…so the reader should enjoy it’s manner as well as it’s matter, as every person of taste enjoys everything that is rare and precious”.

Printed on glossy paper with patterned borders, the two column layout of traditional arabic poetry reinforces the ‘gimmicky’ effect of the rhymed chapter and subtitles, the cover illustration from a medival manuscript, and the title which echoes the descriptive rhyme of the inumerable Alfiyat across the centuries on everything from grammar to theology.

In short, Dr. Salim 3amar’s Alfiya mukarrara fi al-amrath al-nafsiya almu3tabara ends up being just the sort of book people only buy as gifts, ending up looking good and gathering dust on a shelf.

A different approach is taken Dr. Sami Mahmoud, who supervised a recent edition of Tadhkirat Uli Al-albab wa Al-jame3 li Al-3ajab Al-3ujab (The memorandum for the intelligent, and the compendium of the wondrously strange) by Dawud ibn 3amr Alan6aki, and says he found his original intention to publish a full or even abridged version impractical.

Instead of seeking to slavishly duplicate what was produced to fulfil the needs of a different era, Dr. Mahmoud used the Tadhkira as a basis for a book he calls Tadhkirat Dawud Lil-3ilaj Bil A3shab wa Al-wasa2il Al-6abe3ia (Dawud’s memorandum on on herbal and natural treatments), the title says it all really- no rhyme, and he uses the phraseology natural to him as the writer of an earlier best-selling book on herbal medicine. Unlike Dr. Salim 3amar he sees no need to twist his expertise into an unatural form to revive the past, instead he goes back to it to take what is useful in a contemporary context.

The original Tadhkira is a massive three volume book - the first volume gives the properties of over 3000 medicinal plants and herbs arranged in alphabetical order, the other two deal with the diagnosis and treatment of alphabetically arranged illnesses and diseases; but it also contains detailed sections on topics such as veterinary science, farming and geography. The language is difficult, and at times obscure, and as the publisher says in his introduction, some of the elements required for the compounds are almost impossible to obtain, and others are unkown even to an expert.

This edition edits content and language, and after each entry on a plant or illness from the Tadhkirah adds the explanation in terms of modern science. As an active researcher in the field of herbal medicine, Dr Mahmoud provides additional uses for plants and treatments for diseases from other medieval texts, and from folk remedies.

Such an approach is actually much more in line with that of doctors and 3ulama like Ibn Sina and Dawud ibn 3amr, the latter says in a quote which serves as an epigraph to Dr. Sami Mahmoud’s book:
"We have chosen medicines that are easily available and inexpensive, to comply with the needs of the seeker, who if he agrees accepts, and if so his acceptance is an honour, and if not let him cover what faults he sees with the tail of forgiveness, for it is the ever-blessed (God) who is free from all deficiency and mistakes…and let my prize for this [work] be a prayer from him; God is the one who guides us to the right, and to him is the return and in his hands my fate, there is no power but God the high and great, he is the one I depend on, the most perfect sustainer"

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