Race in the Archives (Talk by Rachel Schine)
Indexing the Racial World of Arabic Epics
When reading an Arabic popular epic (sīra sha‘biyya), one is immediately struck by its “epic” temporal and spatial scale; journeys across vast spaces are improbably short, people live eerily long, and a mere month can consume hundreds of pages. As their generations progress, the heroes of the sīras—many of whom have hybrid and subaltern identities—adapt to how race is made and used in new temporalities and guide their fellow characters to do likewise. Using the longest epic in the Arabic language, Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma, I show how techniques of racialization change across narrative time in a single work, particularly in the transition between the pre-Islamic period and the coming of Islam to the communities in the text. The arc of the epic tells a story of “racial uplift,” in which the previously disenfranchised Black Africans living in the Arabian Peninsula, under the tutelage of the text’s elite Black-Arab hero, are able to use the institutions of Islamic law to attain greater rank and station. Through analyzing the progression of racialized time in popular epic, we see how emergent legal and social systems that crystallized in Islam’s early period (7th-12th centuries) are used in Arabic storytelling to construct race.
Rachel Schine holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago. She is presently a postdoctoral associate and instructor of Arabic literature and culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations. Her current book project, Black Knights: Arabic Epic and the Making of Medieval Race, explores the origins, literary functions, and social histories of black protagonists in Arabic popular literature, and particularly in the language’s longest epic, Sīrat al-Amīra Dhāt al-Himma. She has published on topics relating to racialization and kinship in Arabic storytelling in, among others, the Journal of Arabic Literature and al-‘Usūr al-Wustā: The Journal of Middle East Medievalists.