No city’s worth the name without barbers in it. And the citied societies of pre-nineteenth century Islamic civilization had them in plenty. But, as in pre-modern Europe, these barbers did more than cut hair. They also played medical roles. Islamic medical traditions were based on Arabic translations of the works of the ancient Greek physician Galen (d. 200 C.E.). They inherited from him their humoral physiology and an understanding of health as humoral balance. Cure lay in restoring lost humoral balance by draining the body of its excess humor. While learned philosophers and physicians composed medical treatises and qualified surgeons attended to the rich, people of more modest means typically resorted to barbers for everyday surgical operations like cupping, phlebotomy, circumcision, and cauterization.
They often did so at the hammāms or steam-baths that Islamic urban culture inherited in its earliest phases from Byzantium, baths that almost always featured barbers among their staff. Regarded as facilitating God’s will that everyone be clean, steam-baths were considered vital to bodily discipline, health and ethical culture. Their attendant barbers consequently took on a simultaneously aesthetic and ethical-political role as divinely mandated beautifiers and doctors of bodies. This is the context for the constellation of images and associations Ghanī Kashmīrī invokes in his “A Masnavī Satirizing a Barber.”*
The masnavī in rhymed couplets was the most prestigious pre-novelistic genre for narrative literature in the Persianate world. Ghanī gives the first 17 of his 28 couplets to a series of descriptions apparently extolling a certain barber for his simultaneously erotic, political, and medical powers. These 17 couplets ingeniously describe the barber’s implements of trade in terms associated with the ghazal beloved: for instance, couplet 8 declares he never wets hairs on heads because hairs themselves melt from shame at his erotically narrow waist, here described as finer than a hair by conventional hyperbole; and couplet 9 metaphorizes the holes and curves of his scissors, respectively, as the beloved’s eyes and brows.
Ghanī devotes the remaining 10 couplets to describing his relations with the barber. These couplets play on the barber’s dual role as hair-cutter and surgeon, ironically aestheticizing his grotesquely painful cupping and surgical operations as if they were the archetypal beloved’s cruelty towards the lover.
Finally, a note on what is lost in translation: Ghanī excelled at īhām, the generation of poetic ambiguity. Couplet 10 that speaks of scissor-handles as “competition for the eyebrow” uses the word ham-chishmī, meaning “competition” but also containing the word chishm or “eye.” Such linguistic play is as much a delight to the reader of the Persian original as it is the despair of the translator. Nevertheless, to convey the jogging rhythm of the original I have translated Ghanī’s masnavī into rhymed English couplets, almost all in iambic pentameter.
* “Masnavī-i avval dar hajv-i hajjām,” in Mullā Muhammad Tāhir Ghanī Kashmīrī, Dīvān-i ghanī (Srinagar: Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Arts, Culture and Literature, 1984), 244-245.
– Prashant Keshavmurthy
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