Thursday, July 26, 2012

Obsessed with the Kharja Controversy

My poem "Burnt Lyric," published in the Summer 2012 issue of Goblin Fruit, grew out of my recent obsession with the kharja controversy.

In this post I will try to answer three questions (very briefly): 1) What is a kharja? 2) What is the kharja controversy? and 3) Why am I obsessed with it? There will also be an explanation of why I chose this image of Doktor Schnabel--"Dr. Beak"--to accompany the post.

1. What is a kharja?
A kharja (also written kharjah) is a refrain. It comes at the end of a type of lyric poem called a muwashshah. I so apologize for the spelling of that word--there's no getting around it, it's got a double "sh" in the middle. Anyway, the muwashshah flourished during the medieval period, in al-Andalus, or the Islamic Iberian Peninsula (sometimes called "Moorish Spain"). The muwashshah was written in Classical Arabic or Hebrew. The kharja, however, was often written in a colloquial Arabic dialect, or, in some cases, in Ibero-Romance, a Romance language.

A genre shared by different languages--Arabic, Hebrew, Romance. A poem with different languages inside it. A poem with different genders inside it--because often the speaker of the lyric verses was a male speaking Arabic or Hebrew, and the kharja that concluded the poem was in the voice of a woman speaking a dialect of Romance. Plenty of material for a controversy.

2. What is the kharja controversy?
The controversy centered on the Romance kharjas, which were interpreted in 1948 by Samuel Stern, then a student at Oxford. Before Stern, scholars thought the kharjas were gibberish. Stern, who studied the muwashshah in Hebrew, had also studied Spanish as an undergraduate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Hey, he thought, these poems were composed on the Iberian peninsula--why would they end with gibberish? Why not with a dialect of Romance?

And now we get to the controversy, because who owns these lyrics? Which tradition gets to claim them? As it turns out, the Romance kharjas, with examples going back to the 11th century, are among the oldest extant lyrics in any Romance language, and certainly the oldest in Ibero-Romance. For scholars, this made the stakes higher. Were the kharjas part of a distinct Romance tradition that was incorporated into Arabic and Hebrew poems? Or was this essentially an Arabic tradition, adopted into Hebrew, which gave birth to Romance lyric poetry?

People got tense about this stuff. VERY TENSE. One of the most colorful characters from the controversy is Emilio García Gómez, a founding editor of the journal Al-Andalus. García Gómez wrote lots of articles as himself; he also wrote some under a pseudonym, in which he quoted the articles he had written under his own name. A particularly nasty pseudonymous article claimed that Samuel Stern, "a Palestinian Jew living in England," was unable to keep up with kharja studies because he wasn't a Romance philologist, and because he was hampered by a "racial complex." Message: this is Romance turf. Keep Off.

3. Why am I obsessed with this?
The kharja controversy has largely died down. Scholars began to call for an end to the squabbling over territorial rights, and for more collaborative work among people from different areas, and this reasonable approach seems to have prevailed. All the same, the kharjas remain a reminder of what our academic institutional structures are not good at. Somebody with an interest in the subject, like me, has to run around to different parts of the library to get the books. Our libraries are the legacy of a tradition of classification and organization--a tradition that really doesn't know what to do with a mixed genre. For that tradition, the period that produced the kharjas was the "Dark Ages." As an academic, I find it fascinating how completely freaked out my people were by the kharjas, which, having arisen in an earlier period, and in an oral rather than a written tradition, refused (and still refuse) to fit into any of the boxes.

I am also interested in Samuel Stern, who never published his Corpus Muwashshaharum, and whose papers were only collected and published after his death. In the introduction to the collection, L.P. Harvey writes of the "stories, current among members of [Stern's] family, of the young student wandering bemusedly through the streets of the Holy City, bumping into lamp-posts and quite unaware of his surroundings as he evolved his first hypotheses with regard to the interpretation of these enigmatic lines."

There is also, of course, a fascination with the kharja, and the muwashshah in general, as the product of a freer, happier time, when, as the subtitle of María Rosa Menocal's book The Ornament of the World puts it, "Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain." And there is a zone of discomfort, too, because the desire for a culture of tolerance can airbrush out the less attractive parts of that history, such as what life might actually have been like for a professional "singing girl" in Al-Andalus. This uncomfortable space is the space of "Burnt Lyric."

As for Doktor Schnabel--he appears on the Wikipedia entry for "macaronic language," another form of linguistic mixing. I couldn't resist including him here, since Eric Basso's "The Beak Doctor" is one of my favorite pieces from The Weird. The engraving is accompanied by a satirical macaronic poem: "Vos Creditis, als eine Fabel, / quod scribitur vom Doktor Schnabel." Translation?


Alex said...

So interesting! Thank you for sharing this.

Chip Rossetti said...

Great piece on the unpleasant kharja controversy, Sofia! A good case of poetry raising a lot of cultural/historical/nationalist hackles. You've probably read that JAL article by Alan Jones that eviscerates Garcia Gomez' work on the muwashshahat. Jones basically accuses Gomez of academic malfeasance for (underhandedly) altering the texts to fit the Romance meter he claims they have. In any case, it's always a pleasure to read your essays here!

Sofia said...

Thanks, Chip & Alex! This is the sort of obsession that's very hard to squash down to the size of a blog post.

Haven't read the Jones essay, Chip--I got turned off by Karla Mallette, who makes Jones sound as much of a rabid Arabist as García Gómez was a Hispanist. At the same time, it's not hard to believe that some "academic malfeasance" might have been going on, because dude, the pseudonym thing is outrageous. Mallette says García Gómez's pseudonymous articles as a whole "would seem to merit the attention of the psychoanalyst as much as the philologist."

selidor said...

I really liked the poem - and then you added all this fascinating extra context. Thank you!
I love seeing folk write poetry that grows out of their academic specialities: so many nuances emerge.

Rose L said...

I am fascinated by the Golden Age in Spain and the poetry of that period. Loved your poem obvs.

We should think about collaborating perhaps; I can supply the Hebrew.

Sofia said...

Thanks so much!

Sofia said...

Rose. I would LOVE THAT.

We should think about it. AND THEN WE SHOULD DO IT.

Rose L said...

We need to find someone for the Spanish, or else decide that English would be our vernacular?

Sofia said...

Emailing you, girl. Emailing.

Christie said...

So, that poem haunted me, and I followed it here. There is a touch of crossover between this subject and mine (Arthurian literature, in the romances that spread from Spain, to France, and then to England). I love languages and their traditions, though my knowledge of them is limited, and can't help but think the mystery of this unique interplay between them is what makes them what they are.

I can see a parellel in this controversy also in my subject. The Japanese are very prolific studiers of Arthurian literature. I think they value it because of their own samurai tradition, but for them, it would be rude to study that as literature, since it is considered a historical subject.

Fascinating stuff. Thank you!

Sofia said...

Thanks for stopping by, Christie! I'd guess there's quite a bit of crossover between these subjects--both medieval lyrics and medieval romances traveled by troubadour, after all.

Lucky you, studying Arthurian lit.!

prezzey said...

I wondered what inspired your poem and now I know! Such a fascinating post.

Just read your story in Clarkesworld - I liked it a lot -, my review will go live tomorrow.

Sofia said...

Thank you so much!

& thanks for your work at Expanded Horizons--a great zine, & one I'm glad to be a part of.