Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashi: Concluding Remarks

The month of February 2018, all my blog posts were concerned with Mubārak whom we by now all know. If you are like huh, please refer to the posts one, two, and three.

In fact, this time I do not want to talk about Mubārak all that much anymore. Rather, I’d like to write some more things about Black History Month. I really do not understand those voices that ask “why do they get their own month“. That is, I do not understand it from an academic point of view. I do get their politics. But still, it is just a dumb reaction to someone offering you knowledge you had not possessed before. Without this yearly celebration which by now is takn up far beyond the borders of the US, I would have been unaware of this little fact:

Isn’t it intriguing seeing him all confident in the foreground with the Ottomans in their Tarbush hats peeping up behind him? The Ottoman air force has intrigued me somewhat about two years ago and my friend @tillgrallert was forthcoming and enthusiastic enough to search through the newspapers in his database. Ahmet Ali Effendi did not come up, unfortunately, and I do not know more than what the tweet says. But there is an interesting story there, I am so certain…

And now I do have to come back to Mubārak after all. What I discovered myself in this month is that, not only is his story entertaining and engaging (to me at least), but it also made me see the sources in a new light. Why would he be the one who offered himself up for purchase by a slaver, even if this anecdote might have been a fabrication? Why would it be believable that he did? I can only think of his skin color as an obvious explanation. Even while Mubārak himself was a bad ass, and accepted as such, this anecdote points to a normative perspective about Africans in 16th-century Damascus. It was completely plausible that one encountered them as slaves.

In turn that made me wonder about the peculiarities in the hagiographic parts of his biographies. Physical strength certainly reminds one of later WENA slavers’ opinions about Africans. The prowess in hunting, swimming or singing is certainly more difficult to get my head around but before this year’s February, I must admit I have not seriously thought about these questions. And how can we neglect them, when we work on multi-ethnic societies such as those of Mamluk or Ottoman Bilād al-Shām? While configurations were far from identical with modern-day racism, we know there were racial stereotypes and prejudices with their own literary genres to perpetuate them. Yet, as far as I am aware there has been more work done on how Arabs saw the Turks than about perceptions on Africans and African slaves in particular. Mostly, we focus only on the exceptional like the Prophet’s banner man Bilāl or… yes, also Mubārak.

This whole month is about finding those stories that official history leaves out but which allow us to tell much more engaging and exciting stories than “that old white man met another old white man and then they fought – on horses (or tanks or The Apprentice”. It is about finding new questions and looking behind the curtains of documents or personal accounts alike. Black History Month is one good opportunity to learn more and get excited, also about history more generally. So I’ll leave it with this following quote.

**I would very much appreciate any suggestions for what to read on slavery, blackness, etc.**

Cite this article as: Torsten Wollina, "Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashi: Concluding Remarks", in Damascus Anecdotes, February 28, 2018,

5 Replies to “Mubārak al-Qābūnī al-Ḥabashi: Concluding Remarks”

  1. It concerns a mole on the cheek of a white turk, referred to as Indian, a romance, a little eastwards, and an offer. Saadi 13th c Shiraz. Mentioned by Schimmel.

    اگر آن ترک شیرازی بدست آرد دل ما را
    به خال هندوش بخشم سمرقند و بخارا را

    If that Shirazi Turk takes in hand mine heart
    For (to be) the Indian mole I would give away Samarqand & Bukhara.

    Colour still colours attitudes today.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It feels though like something of the comment might be missing? What does concern the mole? The poem? How does it relate to the notion of blackness?

  2. Hi Torsten, Robin here (from the IFAO). I really enjoyed reading about this little known and fascinating figure of Mubarak al-Habashi. There is now a quite extensive literature about blackness, slavery in the Islamic world and I can send you a list of useful references if you need. By the way, have you heard about the ERC project Horneast (dir. J. Loiseau) which started some weeks ago and deals with the connections between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East during the Middle Ages ?
    You should perhaps have a look (if you haven’t seen it already) to G. Cecere’s work on another sufi shaykh originating from Ethiopia but based in Alexandria (Yaqut al-Habashi) ? One of his article can be downloaded on the project’s blog.

    All best


    1. Dear Robin,

      thank you. I would love to read more on this even though it is not in the center of my research interest. I’ll check out the Horneast today. Soon, the article with the accounts on the clash between Mubārak and the Mamluks should be published. I guess, in a month, the book should be out.


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