“I never saw a more beautiful or refined woman than ‘Arib,” one authority on music opined, “nor one who sang, played music, wrote poetry or played chess so well.”


Part Elizabeth Taylor, part Amy Winehouse, ‘Arib al-Ma'muniyya was the most famous (and infamous) of the qiyan, female slave performers of the urban elite of Iraq. Muslim societies produced many elite women, who sometimes held very public positions, most notably the queens of 17th-century Aceh. Yet none confounded the social and gender categories typically ascribed to Islamic civilisation more than ‘Arib.

‘Arib’s birth date is usually given as 797, during the reign of the great Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (reigned 786–809). She claimed high birth, but it’s not clear if she was born to a legal union; certainly, she was sold into slavery early in life. In most Middle Eastern societies, slavery typically involved domestic service to urban households, rather than agricultural labour on rural estates or the like.

For ‘Arib, it entailed service for the social and economic elite, and her education was tailored for this market. It began in Baghdad, at the time rapidly becoming one of the world’s most prosperous cities, and continued in Basra, southern Iraq.

Not only was ‘Arib literate at a time when few could read and write, she also acquired the arcane knowledge and skills of courtly life: she could ride, compose poetry and prose, sing, and play several instruments, along with backgammon and chess. Such skills made her attractive in the most rarefied circles, and increased the value of her services to her owner – and, with her eventual manumission, to herself.

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News of her talents reached Baghdad while she was in her teens, and by about 810 she was connected with the caliph, al-Amin. His successor, al-Ma’mun (r813–33), paid 50,000 dirhams for ‘Arib. That sum was remarkable: in the ninth century, a skilled labourer would earn no more than 20 dirhams per month. Slave-singers had become a popular feature in the permissive culture of Baghdad’s elite, exemplifying the libertinism sheltered from public view by palace walls. Hidden in plain sight, these women moved in and out of private spaces, attracting as much fascination as opprobrium.

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Al-Ma’mun was the second of a string of caliphs who enjoyed ‘Arib’s company and talents; one, al-Mutawakkil (reigned 847–61), paid 100,000 dirhams for her. Female slaves, especially those hired for entertainment, were “badges of conspicuous consumption”, as Julia Bray, scholar of Arabic literature, put it.

By her own account, ‘Arib had sexual relations with eight caliphs, and narrated episodes of her sexual history; to those listening in Baghdad and Samarra, she was as coarse as she was refined. Several accounts portray ‘Arib as a master of musical traditions and styles, and an arbiter of taste. She is credited with writing some 1,000 songs.

A public figure in the private realm of elite households and ruling courts, as quick-witted as she was erudite, ‘Arib frequented salons and performances, and oscillated between paramours and partners, leaving the pathetic entreaties of spurned lovers in her wake. Her writings reflect her tumultuous love life:

“As for the lover he went away

In spite of and against my will.

I erred in being separated from one

For whom I have found no substitute.

Because of his absence from my sight.

I have become tired of life."

[Translated by Fuad Caswell]

Abu Nuwas (died 814), the leading poet of the day, was both an observer of and participant in this elite culture, and his verses about another slave girl capture something of its ambivalence:

“She demonstrates piety outwardly to God’s people

Then meets me with coquetry and a smile.

I went to her heart to complain [about her]

But wasn’t alone – there was a queue for a mile.“

[Translated by Philip Kennedy]

When ‘Arib died, apparently in her nineties, she was a woman of considerable wealth who had much earlier secured free status. Both her career and her life had been a performance, balancing elite culture with middlebrow entertainment, and a story of vertiginous social mobility realised through education, talent and insouciant ambition. By definition, celebrities belong to the public; because she belonged to high society as a whole, she belonged to no one but herself. Born a slave, she found a freedom enjoyed by few men or women of her time.

Chase F Robinson is distinguished professor of history at the City University of New York, and author of Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years (Thames & Hudson, 2016)


This article was taken from issue 12 of BBC World Histories magazine